May 29, 2024
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“But Were You in Pain?”

Last week I gave a presentation on body image and eating disorder awareness at a Jewish day school in Maryland. I was speaking to a group of middle school students when one raised her hand and asked a question that I’d never been asked before. “Were you in pain when you had your eating disorder?” I asked her to clarify, physical pain or emotional pain. “Both,” she replied.

My goals when speaking to students, young adults or adults, is to create awareness regarding eating disorders as well as to help them understand body esteem and self-esteem. I discuss my personal battle with anorexia in an effort to explain, with firsthand experience, what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder and mental illness, and to instill hope that full recovery is possible.

Oftentimes when people hear that an individual is struggling with an eating disorder the first reaction is filled with fear, confusion, worry and perhaps even bewilderment. The questions asked may include “Since when?” or “Is s/he receiving treatment?” What these questions ignore and what was brought to mind by the inquiring student was how the person feels.

There are many supporters and individuals who immediately ask “How is s/he doing?” And yet many do not think to ask the question, “Is s/he is pain?” When we hear about what we might consider “issues” or “problems” we generally go into the “fix-it” mode. What can I do? How can we solve this? With mental illness we must remind ourselves to take a step back and remember this important component: the fact that the individual is in pain.

When an individual suffers from an eating disorder or is battling through any other mental illness, s/he is experiencing difficulty. This is why it is described as suffering or struggling. There are some people who battle these difficulties while still functioning or maintaining a semblance of life. However, for most people with whom I work, and in my own experience, mental illness robs the individual of so many experiences and aspects of life. I compare my existence at that time to that of a shadow while I was suffering from an eating disorder and depression. Even in moments of pleasure I was not myself, not completely present. I felt as if there was something else meddling with my ability to live freely and with joy. It took years of therapy, challenges, supports and faith to restore my ability to live my life with passion. While it was a journey, recovery was possible and has allowed me to live my life with a renewed sense of purpose and understanding.

For those in recovery or perhaps even the beginning stages of admitting that there is a problem, we must acknowledge their emotional state. These types of situations cannot simply be “fixed.” Someone can’t just “be happier” or “eat normally” with the flick of a switch, though we wish help were that easy. Rather, it is a process of insight, understanding the emotions and finding healthier ways to cope and approach life. This is all easier said than done.

Therefore, to foster comfort and support, we must acknowledge the complex emotional piece. Although we may not understand what the person is going through, we must understand that s/he is struggling and may be experiencing fear, denial, pain, confusion—among a host of emotions.

Though there may be an effort to think logically surrounding these difficult issues, this will only get an individual so far in understanding these complicated illnesses. And so instead, the following steps are helpful in providing understanding:

1. Acknowledge the fact that you may not understand rationally what the person is experiencing. This acknowledgment may even include admitting this to the person.

2. Explain that you are there to act as a support and do whatever you can to help. This may be letting the person know that you’re a phone call away. It may be helping them to achieve a goal. It might even be sitting with them during a tough time. Above all, the reminder that you’re there for them is important and should be repeated. When the person is then ready, s/he will know you’re there.

3. Do your research. While a mental illness may not be easy to understand, do what you can to understand the experience. This may include reading about/hearing about what it is like to go through something similar.

4. Remember that each person is unique and pain is manifested and expressed differently; no matter what, there is emotional difficulty and this must be at the forefront, no matter the symptom that expresses this difficulty.

5. You cannot fix this, but you can be an aid in recovery. Ask the person what you can do to help. Try to stay patient and know that both you and your loved one are experiencing a range of emotions. Be gentle with him/her and be gentle with yourself.

6. Find an outlet for yourself to express your own emotional experience.

My answer to that young woman was yes, I had experienced tremendous emotional and physical pain during my battle with anorexia. But with many avenues to provide help and with hard work I was able to overcome my eating disorder. It is now time for all of us, as a community, to promote awareness and understanding of this pain to be able to aid those who are currently struggling.

By Temimah Zucker, MSW

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