We all know the story of a painfully thin girl being hurled abuse at from a passing car, often being yelled at to ‘go eat a cheeseburger’. And even if this sentiment isn’t expressed in quite such a nasty way, most anorexia sufferers will experience this kind of misunderstanding (dare I say ignorance?) in some way. Often it is coming from a place of concern, masked behind love and care: a parent wishing you’d just eat a white-bread-and-butter cheese sandwich or a friend desperate to share a bag of sweets with you at the cinema. But no matter how well-intentioned, these comments hurt, because nobody wishes more than us that we could just eat. That cheeseburger, or cheese sandwich, those sweets, or birthday cake or prosecco brunch or valentine chocolate. More than anything in the world, we would love to be able to indulge in these treats with you: we feel the frustration too, maybe even more so, and the implication that we are merely choosing to starve, to exclude and isolate ourselves and hurt the feelings of our loved ones; that really really hurts.
Perhaps it is impossible for a healthy individual to understand the fear, anxiety and self-disgust that engulfs the brain of an eating disorder sufferer. Disordered behaviours become compulsive habits that eating a cheeseburger simply cannot cure (if only…). Restriction becomes a competition, a race to eat even less than the day before, to eliminate even more food groups from our diet than ever. Hunger and physical emptiness become addictive: some studies such as this one are beginning to recognise that for anorexia sufferers, starvation has a similar effect to the use of ecstasy. So no wonder the assumption that we should just eat a damn cheeseburger is infuriating: our disordered brains are misinterpreting food as a threat and the state of persistent hunger is consequently preferable, regardless of the devastatingly self-destructive effects that starvation is having upon us. We are not ignorant to that, either: we know the effects of starvation, we can feel our bodies suffering and gradually shutting down, but this isn’t particularly scary, not in comparison to picking up our forks and actually eating. Rather, it is confirmation that as far as our eating disorders are concerned, we are succeeding, and this is a far cry better than the unbearable self-loathing that would be unleashed if we dared to break these repressive rules.
But it is important – crucial, in fact – to remember that failing at anorexia means winning at life. Eating disorders are incompatible with an existence beyond misery, malnutrition and malaise, but they are fundamentally about so much more than just food, which means eating does not automatically equate to healing. Gaining weight will not make the illness go away unless therapy is simultaneously getting to the root of the disorder, helping a sufferer come to terms with past trauma or insecurities and teaching coping mechanisms that are neither maladaptive nor self-destructive. Therapy can be exhausting and emotional and extremely distressing and if a cheeseburger could save an individual from the countless hours behind the psychotherapist’s door, I guarantee that every single sufferer would choose to eat it.
But success is the sum of these small efforts, repeated day in, day out.
So keep eating. Keep fighting. Keep moving forwards.
And maybe, one day, eating a cheeseburger won’t seem so scary anymore.