Phoebe Wright Weighs In On Eating Disorder Awareness

In light of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 21-27), professional runner Phoebe Wright published her thoughts on the issue as it pertains to the track and field community. Wright's blog was originally published last Friday on Stop Phe.  

By Phoebe Wright (@Phe800)

Let’s bring up the elephant in the room for a second: EATING DISORDERS SUCK AND ARE SUPER PREVALENT AND NEED TO BE TALKED ABOUT. And most of us are scared to talk about it. I personally am scared because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and I feel like I don’t have the authority to talk about it, and I honestly don’t know how to even talk about it. 

But we need to talk about it. Because an eating disorder inherently protect itself by hiding. So the only way to productively handle this beast is to expose it. And this beast is everywhere in the running world. So let’s talk about it! 

This is going to be a 3-part blog: 

1. How eating disorders attack a person. Most people say “she developed an eating disorder.” But I don’t like how that is framed. No one wants an eating disorder. No one consciously chooses to develop an eating disorder. 

“Develop” has too much of a good connotation to be used with “eating disorder.” Instead, I like to think that an eating disorder attacks a person—our friend or teammate. Learning how it attacks a person is important so we can learn how to recognize it and not be scared to address it. 

2. The Stories. All the stories are remarkably similar. The fact that so many wonderful athletes fall into the same trap says something about how poorly we all handle the problem. The solution: share the stories. Look for patterns. See what helps and what doesn’t help and what we could do differently. 

3. How to be a good teammate--Both before AND after the eating disorder is addressed. Addressing an eating disorder is only a small part of the recovery process. The recovery process is long and emotionally draining, and a lot of times, the person is abandoned. Well, as teammates, it is our job to never abandon another teammate. 


PART 1: HOW EATING DISORDERS ATTACK

Eating disorders are sneaky things. They infiltrate a person’s mind and slowly take over without anyone really noticing. They are contagious. They provide almost instant (and addictive) results. And they are dangerous. Compared to other addictions, an eating disorder might be the trickiest to navigate. It’s like it has a super stealthy arsenal to attack a person from the inside out. 

Weapons of eating disorders: 

1. It’s stealthy

It breaks in without anyone noticing. It’s not like people wake up one day and think, “Oh heck! I have an eating disorder now!” It is much more stealthy than that.  In fact, it poses as a good thing at first. It starts off as a nutrition goal. It makes the person feel good. It provides immediate results, and it is easy to correlate these results to the food. It hooks them in by appearing to be beneficial. 

2. It hides

After it gets in, it slowly grows from “nutrition conscious” to “nutrition obsessive” to “full blown addiction.” Day by day, it slowly shifts the person’s idea of “normal” farther to the extreme. There is a metaphor called the boiling frog problem: If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out. If you put a frog in a pot of warm water and slowly heat it up, it will boil to death because it doesn't perceive danger. The onset is too gradual for the frog to notice a problem. An eating disorder is a boiling frog problem. (obesity, global warming, and most other catastrophic problems are usually boiling frog problems). 

It is easy for it to hide—there’s no evidence until there are symptoms.  You can't take a blood test and it come back positive. There's no needles or pipes or pills, there's no casino. There's not really a noticeable trigger. Nothing. The evidence is literally nothing—eating nothing. Once there are symptoms, the disorder is too big for the person to control. I think of it like termites. You don’t notice termites until they’ve done so much damage that the structural integrity of the house is unstable. 

This is an insensitive analogy, but in a microbiology class one time we were talking about "successful" viruses—viruses that are most prolific. The most successful are the ones that 1. Hide from the host and 2. Don’t kill the host. There it can go undetected while it spreads. So Ebola is an in-your-face virus. You know if you are infected. It is apparent there is a problem. You can quarantine and try to fix yourself. If there were a mass outbreak, eventually everyone would die and thus would the virus. HIV on the other hand, is sneaky. You don’t know when you get it. There aren’t noticeable symptoms. It spreads without you knowing, and by the time you know you have a problem, game over. 

Eating disorders are the master chess players like HIV. That's exactly what this thing does. It hides and slowly takes over the person without the person noticing. It manages to do just enough. 

3. It protects itself with the person's identity. 

As the eating disorder becomes a bigger problem, it becomes harder to hide. But it has a defense mechanism for this: it protects itself with the person’s identity. It takes over the person’s thoughts. The disorder dictates what they eat, when they eat, if they can eat out, how much anxiety they have, who their friends are, what their body looks like. It becomes the loudest voice. It is hard to separate the person’s voice and identity from the identity of the eating disorder. 

The disorder makes the person feel shame. Shame is powerful. It makes the person submit to the voice of the disorder. The disorder has one mission: protect itself. It doesn’t care about relationships or friends or being happy. It only cares about not getting exposed. It will burn relationships in a heartbeat to keep itself a secret. HOT DAMN THIS THING IS A BASTARD.This is why a lot of times the person struggling isolates themselves from the group. Being around others feels vulnerable, and feeling vulnerable means feeling shame. 

This is why no one wants to attack thing. Attacking the thing almost feels like attacking the person.  It gets intertwined in the identity of the person affected by it--not only does it affect the mind, it affects the body--that's kind of a whole being. It's hard to separate the person from the disorder. This protects it. Because to expose it puts the person's identity in a vulnerable position. 

4. It becomes the identity of the person. 

Sometimes the eating disorder becomes such a huge part of the person, that there isn’t much left of the person at all. It reminds me of Star Wars. Anakin Skywalker was attracted to the dark side of the force because it made him feel powerful. This power was an illusion. Anakin never had the power. The power overtook Anakin. Darth Vader became the loudest voice in Anakin’s head. Anakin Skywalker was essentially dead. And (SPOILER ALERT!) it took A WHOLE LOTTA LOVE to get Anakin to wake up! YEAH! LOVE! 

So those are the weapons of the disorder: It breaks in with no evidence. It hides. It takes over. It protects itself with the identity of the person. It becomes the identity of the person.

This addiction in a lot of ways is harder to address than a heroin or drug addiction. Think about a heroin addiction: There's evidence. Something concrete where I can say, "I don't like that needle going into your body. I don't like how it makes you act for the following hours." But with a food issue, there is no equivalent. I can't be all, "Hey Teammate. I don't like how you act all the time." There's nothing external to demonize to be the fall guy.

We've got to expose the weapons and make people aware that there is a difference between an eating disorder and a person. And then we have to love the ever living heck out of the person and help them be strong enough to fight the disorder.

Follow Phoebe Wright’s professional running journey on her blog Stop Phe.

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