Battling against an eating disorder

Ahead of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Fierna Kennedy who specialises in the area tells why it’s important to recognise the pressures, attitudes and behaviours that shape these conditions.

Ahead of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Fierna Kennedy who specialises in the area tells why it’s important to recognise the pressures, attitudes and behaviours that shape these conditions.

Eating Disorder Awareness week runs from next Monday, February 11 to Sunday, February 17 with the aim of bringing greater awareness and education to people about eating disorders and to challenge the stereotypes and stigmas that exist.

Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses - not choices - and it’s important to recognise the pressures, attitudes and behaviours that shape these conditions. These illnesses manifest in a variety of unhealthy eating and weight control behaviours that become obsessive, compulsive, and/or impulsive in nature. In medical terms, there are three categories of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), such as binge eating disorder, orthorexia and night eating syndrome.

Anorexia nervosa is characterised by an attempt to maintain a weight far below normal for the person’s age and height. To prevent weight gain, individuals severely restrict food. There is an extreme fear of gaining any weight even when necessary to maintain life.

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by recurrent inappropriate behaviours to prevent weight gain after binging or overeating. Behaviours include self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretics use, fasting and over exercising. Initially behaviours are used as a weight control measure but can become a means to regulate mood.

EDNOS refers to a condition where a person engages in a range of behaviours from across the spectrum of specifically defined eating disorders, but may not fit exactly into either one. The commonality in all these conditions is the serious emotional and psychological suffering and/or serious problems in areas of work, education or relationships.

It is difficult for someone who has never experienced an eating disorder to understand the complexities of these conditions. Often EDs are viewed as being solely about food and weight. However, they generally stem from issues beyond food and body size and signify an attempt to control something of substance in a person’s life.

In ‘Life without ED’ Jenni Schaefer writes: “from the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it”. This quote epitomises how difficult it is for sufferers to relate the nature of their illness and for carers to understand it. The mistaken belief that EDs are about food, compels loved ones to encourage individuals to ‘eat or stop eating’, however, these illnesses are far more complex.

Many people with EDs feel alone in their illness and may believe that they are unique in their behaviours. In my professional experience, a common question asked is “have you ever met anyone like me”. This is usually accompanied by a fearful expectation that indeed I have not. Sadly, with this belief comes a sense of hopelessness and despair, a feeling of abnormality and hence, incurability. Although different behaviours are associated with different types of eating disorders, it is clear that these conditions arise from a need to deal with painful situations and/or uncomfortable feelings. There is a crisis in coping and a person begins to use food for emotional rather than physical reasons.

Eating disorders do not discriminate - anyone can be affected irrespective of gender, age, cultural background or any other demographic variable. Unfortunately, there appears to be a stigma attached to eating disorders being commonly viewed as a ‘female issue’. This can make it particularly difficult for males affected by food, body or weight issues to seek help. Traditional masculine ideals are associated with negative attitudes toward getting treatment. The belief that EDs only affect females needs to be challenged so that professional help becomes more accessible to all.

In most cases people living with an eating disorder will want to recover without seeking professional help. That was certainly my experience with the illness. At the end of each day, I would promise myself that tomorrow would be different. When that didn’t happen it was going to be Monday or January 1. What I needed to learn was Monday is just the name of another day, January 1 the date on another calendar. Today is all we have!

Research indicates that without professional intervention, the rate of recovery among ED sufferers is greatly reduced. It may feel terrifying to get help but it will aid you on your journey to recovery. Through encouragement, guidance and support, a counsellor will assist you to identify the underlying issues that are perpetuating the disorder. The road to recovery is one of awareness and action. All eating disorders involve physical, psychological, behavioural, emotional and spiritual aspects. As such, treatment needs to address all these areas in some way. Above all, it is important to remember people can, and do, recover.

Carers, parents and friends play a significant role in supporting loved ones with eating disorders. Learn as much as you can about the illness. Talk openly and honestly about your concerns.

Initially, the person may deny or defend their illness and it is important not to get into an argument. Equip yourself with knowledge and let the person know you are there when they are ready to talk. Furthermore, get support for yourself. Eating disorders are a family illness and often impact on the entire family unit. A carer will not be in a position to help their loved one if they do not ensure they have enough support for themselves!

Fierna Kennedy specialises in eating disorder counselling. Her practice is in Limerick and offers service to both local community, surrounding counties and nationally. Individual and family counselling, support groups and workshops are among the services provided. Fierna adopts a holistic approach when addressing the needs of each individual. Through her past experience of living with an eating disorder and her extensive training, she endeavours to provide a non-judgmental, confidential and friendly service to all those who seek recovery from the struggle of life with eating distress.

For more information and advice, contact Fierna Kennedy on 0876677228 or