EDs: The Myth of: “You Chose To Be Like This”.

| 47 Comments

When I was in recovery from anorexia, I’m pretty sure that was the most hurtful, most unfair thing I heard throughout the entire process. It wasn’t said to my face, mind you, but I caught wind of it. It was a comment that someone I was friends with made to the guy I was dating at the time.

“But she chose to be like that.” – referring to my apparent ‘choice’ to have an eating disorder. She was assuming that I had chosen to put my mind, my body, and my family through hell as my body (and seemingly, my sanity) wasted away.

Keep Calm

There’s a lot of stereotypes that surround eating disorders (only white girls get EDs; only teenagers and young adults; they’re’ solely driven by an impulse to be skinny…you catch my drift), but this one bothers me the most. I think that most people who suffer from an ED would kill for a chance at having a normal relationship with food. If this wasn’t the case, why would we bother putting everything we have into recovery in the first place?

No – nobody would ‘choose’ to have that sort of relationship with something that we need to survive. When I started recovery, all I wanted was to be able to look at food the same way everyone else seemed to: eat when I was hungry, stop when I was full, and eat whatever I felt like eating at that point in time. I didn’t want thoughts of food to consume my life anymore and was willing to put up the hardest fight of my life to recover. Yea, it’s safe to say that I certainly did not choose to put myself through that.

Actually Matter

With that in mind, this article caught my attention the other day. We hear about how our upbringing, our personalities, stressful life changes, and largely, the media can contribute to EDs. As much as these things can contribute, it doesn’t really explain why some people develop slightly disordered  habits, while others end up with a life-threatening mental illness. 

The article discusses how new research suggests that the anorexic brain is wired differently than other peoples’. When looking at the brain activity concerning self control, neuropsychologists have discovered that for people with anorexia, when thinking about traditionally high-calorie foods the areas of the brain that deal with stamping out primitive urges immediately lit up. Basically, an anorexic brain is wired to ignore primitive needs. When testing memory, they found that anorexics tended to score higher than other people and proved to have more focus on the tasks given – possibly helping to explain how anorexics with mantras concerning food (“I will only eat salad at lunch” “I will not eat sugar”) end up with these ‘rules’ weighing so heavily on their daily behaviours.

The research also suggested that anorexics have a different reaction to dopamine (which releases energy and euphoria) when it’s released in the brain – for most people it’s enjoyable, but anorexics described it as being overstimulating and anxiety-inducing. So, normally while eating cake people feel a surge of pleasure, but an anorexic is likely to feel a surge of anxiety. The article suggests that in treatment, cognitive remediation therapy (which focuses on memory, attention, and other neurological issues) combined with therapy and dietary modification is beneficial in avoiding relapse.

Refuse to Be Defined

I feel a little weird about this research, to be honest – it’s weird for me to think that my brain might be wired differently than how it’s supposed to. But at the same point, it’s a relief. Although I knew I couldn’t just ‘recover’ instantaneously, part of me was always mad at myself whenever I would fall off the bandwagon in my recovery – I had trouble understanding why  I couldn’t just make myself see food the way everyone else seemed to. Well, now I have a bit of an answer – it’s in my brain.

I don’t think this is the be-all, end-all of understanding why ED’s occur, but it’s definitely another piece of the puzzle. This is especially true when looking at how EDs tend to run in families, and why people with similar situations/exposure have different experience with EDs (i.e. why someone can escape it entirely, while others don’t). Of course, any research into the subject and understanding how best to treat ED’s makes me happy.

And, it’s a relief to know that what happened to me and other sufferers is likely not our fault – it’s just the way we were wired. Hopefully, research like this continues to bust stereotypes and assumptions related to EDs, and allows people to focus on the most important thing – these people need help, and fast.

Takes Up Space

<— Thoughts?

<— Anyone else have any issues dealing with ED stereotypes in recovery?

47 Comments

  1. Very interesting post Sam!
    I’ve always been said that women who are intelligent and overambitious would get anorexia. I am not sure if I am that intelligent :-) but I used to be pretty ambitious and I was pressured by my father too, so that might have influenced my need to have control. Not sure though.
    I heard a lot of hurtful things too, especially when I was bulimic, like:’ well, if you’re not hungry anymore, why don’t you just stop eating? What you do is foodwaste.’ Yeah, I get it. I guess people who weren’t there just really have no chance to understand the hell of an ED.

    • Well, I like the idea that I’m overambitious and intelligent (and would like to agree with that). ;-) And it’s so frustrating, but hopefully comments like those will become a thing of the past as people start understanding EDs better.

  2. I’m really enjoying these ED-awareness posts, Sam! I know you’re helping a lot of people who have/had EDs understand themselves & even people like me on the other end of the spectrum who want to learn more about it.

  3. Interesting article!! the dopamine reaction is especially interesting, and i think that explains a lot right there. feeling happiness as anxiety makes complete sense. during my disordered times, i always thought that if i could refocus the time, energy, and focus i put towards food I’d be really successful in whatever else i focused it on. its a tricky disease.

    • Definitely agree with you there – it’s a little sad to think about where I could be now if I didn’t put all that energy towards restricting and exercising.

  4. Really interesting article! And I think it totally makes sense – eating disorders are a mental illness, so it seems logical that it originates from different brain activities than someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder.

    I don’t think I really had anyone make comments like that to my face, but I definitely got the impression from my friends/family that they thought my behaviour was a choice, not a compulsion.

    • I got the same impression from a lot of people – most people choose not to say anything, but you could tell those sorts of judgements were there.

  5. This was a very interesting post Sam. I’ve never experienced an ED myself, but I think it’s just horrible that someone said that about you behind your back! That just makes my blood boil!!!! It’s such a shame that EDs have such a stereotype, especially, when I’m guessing, most people don’t know a whole lot about them, but they choose to make judgments anyway.

    • I’m sure it’s like that with any mental illness – hopefully, those stereotypes and judgments will become less common as people start to learn more about what causes those illnesses.

  6. Yes yes yes!! This is something i heard in treatment at wpic (benefit of being in be upmc family…huge research hospital system here), and it made me feel better and made a ton of sense to me. I can’t think about certain things a different, more normal way (for lack of a better word) because my brain just works differently. Even now, how many years into recovery, I still see things a lot differently than most people, which is ok as long as i keep that in mind and accept other points of view. I have a much better memory for the most random things (not day to day stuff mind, like what i need at the grocery store or call/email so and so before i go to bed….but specific events and moments), and my focus on projects and goals is ridiculous. Ocd was another thing i heard mentioned as a description for part of the food rituals and mantras (not sure if that’s ever been cross referenced in the dsm though). Crazy to see how far things have come in the last 10 years especially…and how far we still have to go with thinking like “you chose to be this way”
    Caitlin recently posted..La Dolce VitaMy Profile

    • Yes on the memory thing – mine’s the same way. And I never would have thought to connect it to an ED, but it makes sense in a weird way. I’ve heard the OCD connection before, and I think it’s a definite possibility when it comes to compulsive ED behaviours.

  7. I love when you write these more thought-provoking posts! I guess I’m lucky in that I never felt like people thought I was choosing to have an eating disorder. A lot of my friends had siblings go through it so while they avoided me, they knew it wasn’t intentional. My parents would get frustrated with me but they also understood it was deeper than food. I think it is a really common misconception though and there’s more to it than “just eating another burger”.
    Pickyrunner recently posted..How to…Be a BoaterMy Profile

    • I’m glad you never had to experience that sort of reaction – it was annoying to deal with, to say the least. I definitely got threatened with “I’m going to stuff you full of donuts” more than once (and people seriously said that to me. Ridiculous).

  8. Very interesting article and research – thanks for the post!

  9. I hate that people would assume that anorexics chose to be that way. In the beginning, I chose that I wanted to lose weight, but I did not choose to let it take over my life. I would kill to have a normal relationship with food and my body. If I could have 20 extra lbs in exchange for eating exactly how I wanted to and feeling confident in my body, I would trade in a second. I do think that people with EDs are wired differently; I think there is a certain kind of discipline and determination that we had to use to starve ourselves to nothing, so hopefully we can use that same determination in recovery.
    Devon @ Health in Equilibrium recently posted..Love-Filled WeekendMy Profile

    • I was the same way – I made the conscious decision that I wanted to lose weight, but I certainly didn’t choose to have it take over my life for years. And definitely agree on the discipline and determination – I don’t think everyone is wired to resist something as vital to existence as food.

  10. That kind of logic makes sense to me. That phrase “you chose to be like this” also makes me think of those struggling with depression. I hate the phrase “Happiness is a choice” simply because so many people confuse being unhappy with being depressed. They’re two completely different things, and people don’t “choose” to be depressed. Makes sense that anorexia would follow the same kind of pattern.

    • Absolutely agree with you! Depression and EDs are both mental illnesses, and no one ‘chooses’ to have those. Just like no one chooses to be schizophrenic, or bipolar, or whathaveyou – they all fall under the same umbrella, in my opinion.

  11. When I used to counsel several students that was their biggest fear. They hated people stereotyping an ED that knew nothing about it. They wanted people to realize it wasn’t that they wanted to “be skinny” or that they thrived on losing weight but it had taken over their lives. Great post.

  12. Sam, it hurts me to think of you struggling with all of these emotions at one point in your life and that someone else could be so ignorant to think it was a choice.
    I have always had my insecurities with my body but I’ve never been driven to the point of an eating disorder so it is hard for me to relate…but I would never question if it was a choice for those that do suffer from it.
    I’m happy that you are offering a place for others with ED to come and find a friend that can hopefully help them on their journey to a healthy place of recovery!

    • Thanks so much for your support Sarah! One my goals with the blog is to educate everyone (both sufferers and non-sufferers) about EDs and treatment, so it makes me happy that I seem to be accomplishing that.

  13. Super interesting read, girl! I was particularly interested in the dopamine reaction, mostly because I can kind of see that sort of thing in myself… and not only with food, but with anything else pleasurable. I always attributed it to the fact that I seem to experience most emotions in intense ways, so it’s kind of strange to think that my brain might just be wired a little different… it makes sense, though. And oh man… I can’t even tell you how annoying the “choice” stereotype is. That goes along nicely with the “advice” people give to “just eat”… because it’s SO easy and I’m just choosing not to :mad:

    • I’m the same way – things that should make me excited tend to be a little overwhelming or anxiety-inducing for me. And I remember getting a lot of people threatening to march me down to McDonlads or Tim Hortons and feeding me burgers/donuts…because that’s really the solution I needed.

    • Totally agree about the experiencing things more intensely. It’s easy to become obsessive about anything you enjoy and want to have complete control over it.

      Really interesting read and I agree with so many of your opinions/thoughts about the stigmas behind ED.

      Something I still struggle with is listening to people joke about anorexia. I never know when to just drop it or say something.

      It’s cruel to people who are suffering and people who don’t and happen to have slimmer figures, not to mention all the people who suffer and look completely “normal” (if that’s even a thing) on the outside.

      Basically there’s just so much mixed (and mostly wrong) messages about EDs from the media but it’s great to have research showing that it’s not a choice.

      -Georgie

  14. This is a great post, Sam. I have always been very goal oriented and called an “overachiever” my entire life. When things started to become uncertain in my personal and work life after college – my bad habits began to develop. Every pound I lost and calorie I denied myself was a step closer to my goal. I also see the connection regarding the dopamine effect also – not just with food, but I get guilt induced anxiety when I buy clothes or treat myself to a pedicure. It sounds like my personality makes me a lot more likely to be susceptible to EDs. Thanks for sharing this research!

  15. I am like you, I am not sure how best to take on this article. I think it is hard to accept my brain was hard wired this way but I do know there were some childhood tendencies, way before my ED, that my mom always said worried her. I do agree with the whole dopamine thing though, something I actually did learn in college in a course on EDs. Thanks for sharing this, i think stereotypes around EDs are only getting worse

    • Yea, the dopamine thing makes sense to me too. And while it’s hard to accept that our brains have a different wiring, it does make sense to me.

  16. This is very interesting stuff–and I’ve heard similar about EDs before too. I do know that certain events can trigger persons who might have a predisposition to anorexia–and those events tend to be quite traumatizing. I personally believe it’s a combo of both (and for me, it def was)!

    Thanks for shedding light on it all, Sam! <3

    • Definitely agree that a traumatizing event can link it all into place – I had the same experience. Glad that you liked it Annette!

  17. I must admit though I’m kind of worried that when people suffering from anorexia read articles that suggest that the disorder is the consequence of different brain functioning, that they might think the disorder is somehow hardwired into the brain and there’s little hope in remedying the disorder.. I hope they (anorexic patients) also realize that it might be possible to rewire the neural pathways and that cure is not elusive!

    • I do like the article suggests that therapy that changes cognitive functioning can be used along with therapy and diet modification – it definitely makes it clear that healing is possible!

  18. Excellent post, and very true! I never really thought about how easily I could go from suggesting to myself that I eat less of something to not touching that food for a year and a half, even when there was nothing else to eat! Overblown little rules totally do end up ruining our relationships with food and ourselves, and yet other people still congratulate anorexics on their “self control.” I know that when friends who don’t know I ever had an ED point out that I do such a good job of avoiding treats right in front of me, I feel intensely uncomfortable, though I would also feel worse if I ate something I didn’t want. Thanks for shedding light on this weirdness.

    P.S. You do a great job of writing about scientific stuff in a way that makes it totally readable. I wish more research on the subject were discussed like this; it might make recovery easier for some people. Now that I’m pretty much recovered I’m finding all the science and theories about EDs fascinating and important rather than hopelessly triggering, and these posts of yours are some of my favorites.

  19. I really love this post. The weird thing is a lot of people have no given me that treatment, but I have. When anyone in my family attempts to give me any kind of sympathy, I get very defensive and respond with a: “I only did this to myself”. Reading this was very helpful for me. Truly I do not look at other people with issues and blame them as I do myself, but I do have this feeling within me that this is all my fault.

    What I did find often from other people – namely those who did not know how I lost weight – was a lot of positive reinforcement and praise. As I said, they did not know, but that gave me this sense of ‘what I am doing is right and needed’. I am not upset at these people but it cause me (someone who was not thinking clearly) to almost feel good about what I was doing.

    Inspiring post :)

  20. As usual your posts are spot-on. I definitely have gotten the vibe from some people that they think I have chosen what I have been through or that I sometimes am acting the way I may act in high-anxiety food situations because I just want to be a diva or a brat. I am sure that some people think I am super vain and I know that the anorexia stereotype also is of a girl who looks in a mirror and is skeletal, but sees a huge fat person. That is not the case. I look in the mirror and see a skinny person, but I see a skinny person with flaws (a flab here, a roll there). I see a girl who could lose control at any moment and slowly gain weight. It isn’t about thinking I will eat ice cream and wake up the next day huge – that is not the way I think but people assume that it is. It’s the fear that I will start enjoying eating ice cream, eat it every night, and slowly gain weight without realizing it. Now I want to write my own post about these stereotypes! Thanks for the inspiration, Sam.

    • And that’s why we need to keep busting those stereotypes – there’s no one size fits all when it comes to EDs, or really to mental illness in general. People always assume things, but they don’t get the real story. I was the same way – I knew I was thin, but I thought that I needed to lose more weight to fix the ‘little issues’ I thought I still had. I’d love to see a post from you on the topic!

  21. It is so interesting you bring this up. In the teen recovery group I lead, we talked about stereotypes and stigmas the other day. This is so one of them. People do not always get it and it is hard. But you made it through! It is a true amazing feat. Meanwhile that is really interesting. thanks for sharing!

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  23. This is really, really interesting! I can totally see how this is a possibility because my reactions to food are always entirely different from those around me. I always say it’s like my brain is trained to think this way and, apparently, there’s a possibility this is true. When people tell me I choose to be like this, it is such a stab to the heart. Why would I choose to put my body in a unhealthy state and put myself into a life full of anxiety. It’s like telling someone who has a drug addiction they chose for their body to become addicted to the drug. It just happens without you realizing it and just becomes a way of living… It’s horrible but I know those who have never suffered will never completely understand.

    • That’s a good comparison – you would never tell a drug addict or an alcoholic that they chose to get addicted to that substance, so why on earth would that same logic not apply to EDs? Glad you liked the post!

  24. This was really interesting to read. The different brain wiring definitely makes sense in terms of behavior. Thanks for sharing!

  25. “I had trouble understanding why I couldn’t just make myself see food the way everyone else seemed to.” I can’t tell you HOW many times I’ve asked myself that same question. While I was never actually diagnosed with an ED, I think I came pretty damn close. I flirted with it for years with disordered thoughts on food that grew and grew the more I learned about nutrition labels and ingredients, but it wasn’t until I plunged myself into calorie counting that it really seemed to just take over my entire mind. I no longer felt like my true self…I would cry over something as simple as a disappointing meal…I would get all sweaty and anxious when dining out…I was honestly AFRAID of certain foods. For someone to actually think that another person would CHOOSE to live like that is absolutely ridiculous!

    Those study findings are very interesting. I’ve had multiple conversations with friends on the topic of why certain people seem to be more susceptible to disordered eating than others…even in the same family. This sort of helps expand the response of “oh well, some people are just ‘different’”. Thank you SO much for sharing this, Sam! I always love your heartfelt posts on recovery!

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