Back in December, I shared my story of recovery on Weightless. I asked Margarita if I could write another column, this time going a little deeper into part of my story that didn’t get full expression the first time around. During this week of Eating Disorder Awareness, there’s a lot of attention on treatment for those who struggle with EDs, which is awesome and hopefully the encouragement people need to seek or continue treatment and regain a life worth living.
Statistically, EDs develop during adolescence—that’s a fact. Ideally, EDs are caught early and there’s lots of support for the person receiving treatment. Besides having protocols for treatment, there are also other plans out there that help families get involved (such as Maudsley Parents), integrative teams that include not only medical professionals but also school counselors and teachers, and support groups with peers who are also fighting to get better. Not to mention several pro-recovery websites, too!
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
But that’s not the whole story. There are many, many exceptions to the rule, and in addition, while ED behaviors may develop during adolescence, a patient might not get the help needed until later in life. What then?
My ED blossomed when I was 20—a sophomore in college—but I didn’t enter individual therapy until I was a few weeks shy of my 28th birthday. The treatment needs I would have had as an undergraduate were very different from the needs I had when I did get help as a young adult.
When I began treatment, I was about as independent as one could get: I lived alone, I did not have a significant other, and my family lived several hours away. I had a job, a mortgage, pets, and other responsibilities that I couldn’t just hand off to someone else to focus solely on recovery. Other people at that age or older might also have a partner and/or children in their lives as well, which can make patients feel even guiltier about taking time to care for themselves. I also didn’t tell many people that I had a problem, let alone that I was now receiving treatment for it.
My first awakening to the fact that my needs were special came a few weeks after starting individual treatment, when I decided to try a support group as well. The group I attended was full of girls in their teens and early 20s—I was the oldest by far, and had very different life responsibilities that challenged my ability to focus on recovery. Cognitively, I was also in a different place from the younger women, and found it hard to relate to their struggles with family and school. After about six meetings, I gave up, frustrated. I felt like I was “too old” to have an ED and berated myself for struggling with an “adolescent” issue. Unfortunately, this also allowed me to deny the depth of my problems for a long time.
Another challenge older people with EDs face is that our issues may be more deeply embedded and have longer histories than someone who is younger. What I mean by that is the problems that are being masked by the ED—say, childhood abuse, a substance abuse issue, or low self-esteem—may have been going on for years without being addressed, and therefore, are harder to root out. We’ve lived these identities for far longer, and being able to conceptualize a life without this identity can be challenging. An older person has more opportunities to hide or deny the behaviors than an adolescent who is under parental care. That was definitely true in my case.
So what do we “non-traditional” people do?
Above all, getting appropriate professional help is key. If I can convince one person not to make the mistake I did of denying I had a problem because I was “too old,” then writing this was worth it. Whether you are 15 or 50, or somewhere beyond and in between, if you think you have an eating disorder, seek treatment from qualified providers. When it comes to getting help, the playing field is level for everyone.
However, when you do begin exploring your treatment options, one question to consider asking the provider is if he/she has experience working with people with eating disorders who are around your age. If it’s going to make you uncomfortable to sit in a waiting room that could be filled with teenagers, you need to know what to expect beforehand.
Also, find out from your treatment team what other support resources are available for people around your age so you don’t repeat the experience I had of sitting in a group with people you can’t relate to. Margarita’s list of resources is also full of amazing reads to give you more inspiration and stories from people of all ages who have overcome an ED.
Another key component is to choose your support people (beyond your professional team) wisely. Among adolescents, EDs can run in packs, meaning that friends sometimes encourage each other to engage in maladaptive behaviors. Since you are not in school and having to see certain people every day, whether you want to or not, it is easier to be discriminate. Hopefully, you can choose friends who are 100 percent supportive of positive behaviors and learn to recognize those who are not. One of the hardest things I did in my recovery was to walk away from a very close relationship I had for 15 years. This person had been my best friend…until I realized she was not. I’m not saying breaking “friendships” is easy, but ultimately, you have to be your own best friend and make choices about relationships that are right for you.
Consider this: Who is counting on you? Who are you a role model for? Don’t let ED turn those questions around to say, “Well, you can’t take care of yourself—you have to be [fill in the blank: mom, dad, partner, supervisor, coach, best friend] for this person, and that person…” No! Because these people are counting on you, you have to make good choices and put yourself first. Remember what they say on airplanes? “Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others.” You can’t help someone else if you are suffocating, and EDs are definitely capable of sucking everything out of you.
The last point I will bring up is related to our society’s focus on youthfulness, something the mediadoes a fantastic job of reinforcing. As we age (women especially), the pressure to achieve or maintain a certain look can be overwhelming, especially if our self-esteem isn’t strong enough to challenge those beliefs. An ED can be a strategy you’ve used to manage your weight, and perhaps seemingly “justifiable” because as we get older, it becomes harder to maintain the same weight range that we may have had as a younger adult, thanks to a naturally slowing metabolism. However, resorting to ED behaviors just so we can fit into this season’s “skinny jeans” marketed to the college students isn’t worth it. There are plenty of other ways to show off how beautiful you are, no matter what your age or size.
Though EDs are excellent at isolating people, you are not alone, no matter what your age. You deserve the best, so make sure you get it! It’s never too late.