Why Eating Disorder-Related Crises Spike After The Weekend

I hear the front door click shut. My roommate has left to spend her Friday night with friends. They’re the kind of college students who can laugh, drink, and socialize without thinking about how many calories are in the jungle juice. You know, the normal kind. People who aren’t like me. People who don’t spend their weekends in the sole company of an eating disorder.

I go down to the kitchen. For me, excitement is steaming carrots instead of eating them raw. Emboldened, I even season them with a pinch of salt. With the reduced inhibitions of a person who has the place to herself, I turn on The Food Network in the living room instead of hurrying back to my bedroom. It’s the homework-free night I have been eagerly anticipating all week. But now that it’s here, some anxiety seems to spill into the unoccupied time. Why am I doing this instead of spending time with people? Do I even still have friends?

I try to tamp the thoughts down by watching Ina Garten host another impeccable dinner party. These days, I like to distract myself by thinking about how I can put a “healthy” spin on recipes. I bet the cookie Ina made would taste pretty good with butter and sugar substitutes.

On Saturday morning, my alarm goes off at 7, just as it does every other day. I heard keeping the internal clock on a consistent schedule is best for the body. That may be, but really I just like the expected. I can tell my roommate made it home based on the shoes kicked off and purse tossed aside near the entryway. Looks like a fun night, I sneer to myself, justifying my evening of devouring T.V. episodes about food I’ll never eat.

Feeling the heat of envy building in my chest, I find some solace in a bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter. It’s the meal I tell people will change their lives. The words “you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten oatmeal with peanut butter” have truly crossed my lips more than once. Clearly, I’m very attuned to what is fascinating to others.

Fueled by 200 calories, I take off for a long run followed by a morning of skimming the latest nutrition articles. As I’m reading a compelling take-down of gluten, I hear my roommate shuffle downstairs. It’s almost noon. My stomach has been rumbling for hours, but I don’t eat until the clock strikes 12. That’s another one of my arbitrary rules that came from some piece of advice in some article, just like my refusal to have a snack before 4 p.m. or start making dinner until 7 p.m. The rules reassure me, You have amazing willpower. You are doing something right.

I go to the kitchen to find my roommate eating a bowl of cereal, which I judge to be void of any nutritional integrity. We talk about Friday, even though my recap of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives doesn’t match her story about real life in the world outside our front door. School is the better topic. Food would be best of all, but she doesn’t seem interested in my latest hummus recipe.

I’ve come to dread these interactions, not because of my roommate, but because of what she represents: the happy version of me that no longer exists. The year before, conversations were so natural between us. We were the best of friends, one always willing to be there for the other when she needed a partner on Dairy Queen’s two-for-the-price-of-one Blizzard deal. Our friendship was my lifeline when so much else — the pressure of doing well in school, how awkward I felt around most people — felt outside my control.

Then we went our separate ways during the summer and I needed something else to hold onto. I found that by focusing on my diet, I could thrive on having some solid control over at least one aspect of life. I liked losing weight.

When my friend and I reunited at the end of the summer at our new apartment, Dairy Queen was no longer in my diet — and I would be happy to tell you why if you asked. Probably even if you didn’t. My new passion in life was nutrition and being as perfect at it as possible. It was much easier to focus on calories and fat than my concerns about school and the new people I was meeting. I paid the price by having less and less space in my life for much else, especially a friendship that revolved around going out to eat and drinking.

She attempted to reach out, to reconnect. I didn’t. It felt easier for me to act like a ghost, sweeping through the house without interaction. But I’m the one who is haunted: In unoccupied moments, my anxiety is still there, strong as ever. Except now it has new fuel from my guilt of failing that one meaningful human relationship.

That’s what got me where I am today, worn down on the Sunday after a weekend of deafening solitude. Through the week, booked solid with classes, work and studying, distraction is my best friend. But when I stayed in on Friday night, the volume of the negative voices in my head went up one notch. As I sat down with my carrots for an intimate evening with The Food Network, they were turned up slightly louder.

With my Saturday wake-up call, coupled with a morning of demanding articles and an uncomfortable interaction with someone who was a close friend not long ago, the voices grew louder still. And by Sunday, they’re screaming. You are alone. You don’t fit in with normal people. And, worst of all, You can’t run away.

Ironically, these are just the voices I wanted to avoid by focusing on my diet. Not only did it fail to ease my anxiety, it made me feel worse off than before. The added exhaustion and unrelenting hunger don’t help. If I can just hold out until Monday, when my commitments pick back up and my thoughts go elsewhere, I know I will be fine. But, as the weeks go on, my weight drops lower and my life feels increasingly meaningless. Feeling “fine” feels nearly impossible.

This was my typical weekend six years ago, when I was in the midst of a yet-undiagnosed eating disorder. At the time, my truth was this: It was a lot easier to be in denial about using disordered eating to mask anxiety during the week, when your days are full of commitments. But there’s less room to escape the crushing causes and effects of eating disorders on the weekends. That’s why it was no surprise to me when I learned there is a spike in eating disorder-related communications with the Crisis Text Line on Sundays.

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Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW, and a therapist specializing in eating disorders, tells me the findings are consistent with the experiences of her patients, who often also struggle with anxiety. “Having more time to ruminate on unhealthy thoughts over the weekend might lead to them trying to get back on track or hitting a bottom,” she says, explaining people with anxiety generally perform best with structure. Structure that is frequently void from weekends.

Add to that the stress of thinking about what is to come in the new week and Sundays are the perfect storm for an an upsurge in crises, says Alexis Conason, Psy.D. She explains, “For those who isolate themselves on the weekends, you need to prepare to face the world again Monday morning and all the anxiety that may arise with that.”

Despite the logic of the Sunday spike, resources such as counselors and traditional hotlines are often only available during business hours — when people like me may be coping just fine. But with 24/7 service, Crisis Text Line is available anytime, anywhere and for any of the 57 million Americans currently struggling with mental health issues. Bob Filbin, Crisis Text Line’s chief data scientist, says it is that accessibility that sets their service apart — and makes it especially appealing to young people in crisis. “Texting is silent and it’s private,” he tells me. “We have some texters texting us from the school cafeteria. It looks like they’re texting with a friend, but they’re actually texting with a crisis counselor.”

Within the 17 million messages sent on Crisis Text Line, Filbin said some notable trends have begun to emerge: Beyond the Sunday spike in eating disorder-related crises, they also know more physical abuse incidents are reported from people in Wyoming, conversations about substance abuse issues peak at 4 a.m. nationwide and much more. Filbin explains that the dream is for researchers to connect the dots between that kind of data dispensed by “Crisis Trends” and the various reasons driving both the data and behavior-driven anomalies and insights. Experts can begin to glean insight and aid the project by applying for access to Crisis Trends’ enclave data.

The hope is that the benefits of this service will eventually come full-circle: Researchers working from the what — such as a rise in eating disorder communications on Sundays — can start to derive the why. Then counselors like those with Crisis Text Line can learn how to address this suffering more effectively. As Filbin put it, “The data itself can move people out of crisis and save lives.”

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Lead Image: flickr/Darren Tunnicliff

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