Was I destined to have an eating disorder?

Last year, I started writing about eating disorders. My goal is to educate parents about their childrens’ eating disorders in a loving, supportive way.

Almost as soon as I started writing, a few eating disorder activists contacted me. Their goal, from my perspective, was to make sure that I towed the line on their preferred messaging about what eating disorders are, and what they are not.

Their messaging is pretty simple: eating disorders are brain-based diseases, and parents are not to blame for the development of eating disorders.

I understand this message completely. Not too long ago, therapists had very little experience with eating disorders, and they almost always focused on the idea that the development of an eating disorder was due to a dysfunctional home life. Parents were left frustrated and devastated with the idea that they did something that led to their child’s disorder. And they were cruelly left out of treatment.

I understand that parents who had kids with eating disorders banded together and they changed these assumptions, decreasing the blame placed on parents and increasing the involvement of parents in eating disorder treatment. They also began demanding more evidence-based research in the field of eating disorders. This has been a very positive thing in the eating disorder community. But I am uncomfortable with the party line because it ignores the huge impact of environment, including parents, on eating disorder development and severity. Also, I don’t believe that eating disorders are unavoidable diseases of the brain.

I don’t agree with the disease perspective on my mental disorder, because it ignores the powerful environmental conditions that supported to my eating disorder development. While I may have been born with a sensitive temperament, numerous environmental conditions came together to build my eating disorder.

My body was different

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think that my body size was a problem. I was chubbier and rounder than my playmates. Being born in a larger body means that I was subject to comments, at first adoring, because chubby little girls are cute, but then critical, because fat girls are unacceptable. By first grade I was being teased by my peers and adults were making suggestions about ‘holding back’ on eating.

This sense of judgement and of being different and less-than my peers was deeply upsetting. To hate one’s body at a young age is very, very sad, and it is not a reflection of my biology or my body — it is a reflection of the culture in which we live. We live in a society that thinks fat is bad. Our society wants to make fat people get smaller. Our society is toxic to those of us who naturally carry more weight.

The irony is that I’m pretty sure that if I’d never dieted, and never developed my eating disorder, I would be a lot thinner than I am today. It has been conclusively proven that every diet leads to several additional pounds above your starting weight, and I have had many, many starting weights.

Trauma changed my brain

I was born sensitive, but it was a series of traumatic events that drove me to develop my eating disorder as a coping mechanism. Those events also drove me to attempt suicide, shoplift, drink, have promiscuous sex, and cut myself.

My eating disorder is just one of many tactics I used to soothe myself when I developed PTSD following sexual abuse. Up to 50% of us who have/had eating disorders have suffered sexual abuse. Most of us who have/had eating disorders, especially bulimia, also suffer from self-harm, substance abuse, and other numbing behaviors that are a symptom of PTSD, not something that was born in or predestined.

My parents’ emotional worldview

My parents did not grow up in an emotionally accessible world. They did not develop an emotional language, and were deeply uncomfortable with my highly emotional temperament. To try and help me prepare for the world, they avoided coddling me. They told me to develop a thicker skin, to tone down my expressive nature, and to lower my emotional expectations. They didn’t do this because they are monsters — they love me deeply, and we have a wonderful relationship. But they had no experience with or skills for handling my emotional needs.

My parents’ discomfort with emotional expression means that they were not able to help me develop skills to manage my sensitive nature. When depression and anxiety came in around puberty, they did not recognize the signs. They did not have any skills to interpret or interrupt my PTSD and the resulting maladaptive coping behaviors. They had no idea what was happening, let alone why it was happening or how to help.

How I think parents can help prevent or lessen the severity of eating disorders in kids

I believe that parents have tremendous power over the development of an eating disorder. This belief is based not only on my own recovery journey, but the hundreds of hours I’ve spent researching eating disorders and associated mental health issues and interviewing many eating disorder experts and people who have/had eating disorders.

I don’t believe that eating disorders are purely due to genetics or pre-existing brain conditions. They are characterized by disordered thoughts and behaviors. They are also preventable and fully treatable. Parents are never to blame for an eating disorder, but they do play a critical role in preventing, lessening the severity and supporting full recovery. I believe that all of us parents must learn emotional processing skills, and we must teach them to our children to help our kids avoid and lessen the severity of not just eating disorders, but all sorts of mental disorders that impact our ability to live a full, healthy life.