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Defying the thin ideal and nourishing hope: Ashley’s journey in overcoming an eating disorder

"I wish someone would have told me it was okay to ask for help if I thought I had a problem."

Written story

What kind of stigma did you experience/observe?

When I tell people I am in recovery from an eating disorder, they give me a puzzled look like I must be crazy. I have had many people judge me and act like I did not go through a real struggle that almost ended my life.

Stigma story

Food had turned into my enemy and my fear. I cannot say how, why, or exactly when, but an eating disorder had taken over my life and I needed help.

Due to so little awareness as well as my own fear and shame, I never thought I had a problem. Like so many, I thought an eating disorder meant consuming no food at all and one simply had to eat something in order to overcome it. In a culture that idolizes and praises thinness, I thought restricting my food intake was a positive thing. I never thought losing too much weight would lead to a state of despair and sickness. I suffered for years, far too long, before I finally realized I was sick and asked for help. Failing to nourish my body and mind had taken its toll. Physically, I was weak, tired, and sick all of the time. Mentally, depression and hopelessness had taken over. By the time I finally received help, I was so underweight I had to be hospitalized in an inpatient eating disorder treatment facility. From the starting point of treatment it took years of hard work to recover from my eating disorder, but I am proud to say that I did and my life completely changed for the better. Instead of being consumed by thoughts of food, fat, and exercise, I can now focus on daily life and the things I love.

The only way I was able to truly overcome my eating disorder was through intensive treatment and therapy. Through doing inpatient treatment, my health and well-being was monitored 24/7 which is what I needed at the time. I was too sick to function and get healthy on my own. I needed people to support me and tell me what to eat in order to get better. My body and mind no longer knew what I needed because I had deprived my body for so long. Eating disorders are not just about food but require a holistic approach where one sees a therapist, dietician, doctor, and psychiatrist and attends a variety of therapy groups. I felt cared for and I knew the staff wanted to see me be able to truly live my life.

Living life means not being controlled by an eating disorder, and not thinking about food, calories, body image, etc. all day, every day. It means being free to hang out with friends, go out to eat, do normal activities, and be joyful.

Today I volunteer I can encourage those who suffer from eating disorders and give them hope. I have spoken in the community and in recovery groups about eating disorders and my personal story. I tell others that there is hope. I want people to know that life without an eating disorder does exist and is so much better. When I was struggling, I never met someone who was on the other side of an eating disorder, so I often thought recovery was impossible.

What could someone have said/done to make it ok?

When I was struggling and not nourishing myself, people were too afraid to say anything. They did not want to offend me. I wish someone would have told me it was okay to ask for help if I thought I had a problem. I also wish I would have been given knowledge about eating disorders. Take the risk. If you think your friend or family member might be struggling with an eating disorder approach them about it. They will probably get mad at you, but it is about saving their life. The NEDA website offers good advice on how to approach someone. The need for help and treatment of eating disorders is very real and most people do not realize this.