The Shapes and Sizes of Eating Disorders

Anorexia. Bulimia. Binge-Eating Disorder. Orthorexia. Over-Exercising. Abusing laxatives. Restriction. Excessive portion control. No portion control at all. And so much more. Some people who identify themselves as sufferers of eating disorders have experience with all of these conditions and behaviours, while others seem to stay in one area of the spectrum.

For every sufferer who has only ever experienced anorexic tendencies, there is another who swings wildly between binging, purging and starvation. There are as many different specific behaviour patterns as there are people with eating disorders. And there are as many people as there are causes of the disorders in the first place.

Different Kinds of the Same

All told, people who are afflicted eating disorders are a pretty diverse group. And for a lot of individuals who are first beginning their journey into recovery, this can be a really frightening thought. Here’s the thing though – there are actually a lot more commonalities than differences between those who have been diagnosed with one specific eating disorder or another.

When you spend any length of time speaking to other people who are fighting for their own recovery and dealing with their particular issues, these similarities are pretty easy to spot. The need to control not only themselves but the entire situation around them. The need to keep everyone at a distance with which they are comfortable, and to show only what they really want to show the world. A sense that if they could just reach a certain size, all of their problems would be solved.

If this sounds like you and you lean towards anorexia, know this well: your orthorexic, bulimic, over-eating compatriots feel the same. And they are your compatriots. Eating disorders have many causes, they might be the primary issue or a secondary result of another mental illness, and they have many manifestations, behaviours which look completely different on the surface – isn’t starving yourself the opposite of binging? – but the ties that bind are strong.

Universal Resonance with Other ED Sufferers

Everyone who is dealing with any kind of eating disorder, and is ready to acknowledge that fact, knows that whatever disordered behaviours they are engaging in are (very maladaptive) coping strategies. That’s what unites sufferers, that distorted way of thinking and of responding to the world around them.

Once you’ve discussed this with someone and found that they struggle with the same issues, you’ll feel an affinity with them, whatever the specifics are of each of your individual eating disorders. You’ll know you are from the same place, just as people who are travelling in foreign lands resonate when they meet anyone from home.

People who have been in support groups and treatment centres report the same thing. And it’s incredibly helpful when individuals are feeling isolated, or even superior to others in their eating disorders, to realise that in fact the people who seem the most different to us can actually be the most similar, and struggling with emotions and situations that are the most like ours.

Every Shape – and Every Size

Drug addicts who use stimulants and depressants don’t go to different fellowships, and neither do alcoholics who experience different effects from drinking. The commonalities that keep these groups together are stronger than the differences that might break them apart, and everyone benefits from this important truth. So it is with eating disorders. While still respecting the things that make them different, sufferers need to stand together in one community and use that as a bedrock on which to start building or rebuilding their lives.

One of the things that have made it difficult for people to access treatment, and has fostered this sense of difference among sufferers who deal with different disordered eating behaviours, is that in certain countries it is virtually impossible to be admitted to a treatment facility unless you are severely enough underweight. Anyone else, no matter what their mental agony, is left to go it alone to a large extent.

However, to borrow a phrase from another 12-step fellowship, we cannot afford to be confused about this. Eating disorders are dangerous, and no matter how they manifest everyone who suffers deserves recovery and can learn from each other. For those who swing between the different types and sides of the ED coin, this knowledge is especially important. The disease of hating yourself and your life so much that you seek to somehow control your food intake does not discriminate – and neither should we.