Tag Archives: awareness

Young person looking at their phone

Can a film about eating disorders be made “responsibly”?

Recently, while in conversation about the good, the bad and the ugly of mental health portrayal in film, I said, “although it divided the eating disorder (ED) community, I thought , To The Bone was a good movie”. The person I was speaking to responded saying that they didn’t think it had been made responsibly because it showed eating disordered behaviours. “Fair enough”, I thought, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Read my thoughts on To The Bone here.

To The Bone character Ellen looking concerned at weighing scales

I’ve been reflecting on this and I’m wondering why ED’s are treated differently to other mental illnesses when it comes to portraying behaviours in the media.

There seems to be a fear that ED behaviours can be caught and that if the media gives hits and tips, a “how to…” develop an ED, maybe there’ll be an epidemic. No one thinks that a portrayal of a psychotic episode with someone experiencing a delusion they can fly will lead to an epidemic of teens jumping out of windows, pretending they have bipolar disorder!

I’ll spell it out, if you show someone doing sit-ups, running, counting calories or carrying out food rituals, you’re not going to give anyone ideas about how to get anorexia. If someone is predisposed to anorexia, they will be able to come up with these weight loss schemes all by themselves!

Board of sliced food

I’m not naive though, I know young people can be influenced by what they see. We are seeing a concerning rise in self harming and we need to consider whether talking openly about these things is making such behaviours seem more acceptable. We’re in a precarious position in trying to raise awareness of all mental illnesses. While we want to normalise discussion of mental illness, it’s important that mental ill health does not become normal!

Of course, there needs to be careful consideration when depicting any illness; there needs to be sensitivity given we’re making other people’s pain into, let’s face it, entertainment.

It is important to recognise these imagines may be triggering for people who are already suffering but there comes a point where it’s your responsibility to decide if you can manage this. The media company can put a warning at the beginning of the content, they can do no more. If someone is in the mood to trigger themselves, there’s plenty of content available.

Of course, care has to be taken when showing particular behaviours to show the reality and not to glamourise it. Anorexia isn’t about getting thin, then getting care and attention. Doing sit ups with a boney spine, you will get painful bruises. I even started to get pressure sores on my buttocks. Also, there’s the everso attractive lanugo – excess hair to keep your body warm. Nothing about eating disorders is pleasant. To The Bone showed the ugly side to eating disorders, the guilt, the shame, the grief, the physical and emotional turmoil, it was not pretty.

Young lady liking sadly at a small slice of bread and glass of water

If someone has a genetic susceptibility and environmental factors lead to them being on the cusp of an eating disorder, they will not need hits and tips. I, for example, had no media input to my eating disorder, I naturally knew how to lose weight, I cut food out of my diet and I moved more. Food rituals develop as a way to reconcile external pressures with internal turmoil – if I absolutely had to eat in front of someone, if I cut my food into factors of 3, it was more manageable (for example).

If I’d watched a film depicting eating disorders accurately when I was struggling as a teen, I think I would have felt less alone and might have felt able to seek help sooner.

We’re relying in mainstream media to bring the unmentionable and the unexplainable into the open. If they don’t show behaviours, if they gloss over them with clever edits and subtle hints, they’re not giving an accurate portrayal and this would be unhelpful and they’d be criticised. It’s never going to be easy and it’s going to divide opinion but at least we’re talking about it!

The power of silence – part 2 – when silence is not ok!

In my last blog I explained that silence can be pleasant, relaxing and even therapeutic. There does not have to be anything awkward about silence between 2 people who are comfortable with each other, it can deepen their relationship.

However…

I’m sure there are many people (men in particular) who have sensed there’s something wrong with someone (perhaps a girlfriend or wife) so they’ve asked “what’s wrong?” and this person has barked “nothing!” with such venom you’re glad you were out of spitting distance! What they actually mean is “there is something wrong but…” either, “I’m not sure what it is” or “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I’m not ready to talk about it” or “I don’t know how to put it into words” or “I wish you could mind-read, then you’d know what was wrong”. There are numerous reasons why they choose to say “nothing” at this point but it’s certainly not because nothing’s wrong!

What then proceeds is a period of silence, some (women) can keep it up for hours… during this period, the power lies with the silent party as the other wonders what they’ve done, maybe trying to “make up” for their unknown misdeed.

I can understand, when emotions are overwhelming it can feel impossible to put anything into words. For years, I didn’t have words to express emotions, I didn’t know what emotions were, I struggled to find words to describe what was going on inside my world. If this happens to you, if you can manage “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t know what the words are” that’s better than saying “nothing” and pretending you’ve not shrouded everything in a black cloud! I find, if I manage to say something, anything(!) this gets the conversation going and I manage to explain a bit more, even if it’s just a few words, this helps the other person understand and at least I’m trying! If after 20 minutes (how long emotional chemicals last if you don’t perpetuate them with thoughts and behaviours) I felt I could verbalise a bit more, I could start where I’d left off previously.

Something else that helps me is writing things down. If I can’t say the words out loud, often, I am able to find the words to write, maybe it’s to do with slowing down the process or using a different part of my brain or breaking down the process. Whatever it was, even when very distressed (snot, tears, the works…), unable to verbalise anything, put a pen and paper in my hands and I could start writing, explaining all sorts of things that were going on in my head. There were periods of therapy where I would struggle to speak in sessions but could write reams in emails straight after the session! Fortunately, I had a understanding therapist!

At the other end of the spectrum – some people deliberately give someone “the cold shoulder” because they’ve annoyed them or “send them to Coventry” because they’ve wronged them in some way. In this way, they feel powerful for choosing to cut this person out of the loop. Going silent on someone is an unhelpful passive-aggressive trait that some people will be aware they use while others may not. In this instance, a bit of assertiveness never hurt anyone – it’s far more helpful to think through what’s going on, what the different perspectives are, what you want from the situation, how you could get this, how you could compromise and approach the other person with a level head.

If something needs to be said, don’t hope it will go away, say it – what’s the worst that could happen? If the other person gets annoyed or angry, that can be managed but if no-one is talking about anything, nothing will ever change!

Why are numbers unhelpful when talking about eating disorders?

I was recently interviewed on BBC Radio Berkshire, I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to raise awareness of eating disorders and the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. However, as part of telling my story, I was asked how much weight I had lost. In no way do I want to attack the presenter, I’m actually grateful that he’s raised an important issue that’s not really spoken about except within the recovery community.

Talking about numbers is a key factor that’s different between pro-Ana/Mia websites and the recovery community. If you come across a forum claiming to support people with their eating disorders, and people have l.w., h.w. or g.w. etc in their signature, alarm bells should ring. (Lowest weight, highest weight and goal weight)

Just imagine, you have an illness that tells you “you’re too fat/heavy”; you need medical treatment but you don’t think you deserve it, you don’t think you’re ill enough.

You look online for some support and you see people who are aiming for lower weights and not seeking treatment. What are you going to think? Your illness tells you, you need to lose more weight!

My weight, when ill, was low enough to fit the diagnostic criteria for diagnosis, therefore, what would me sharing the specifics of my weight/weight loss add to my story? If it was a shocking amount, would my story have more gravity? Would people be more likely to listen? If it wasn’t a shocking amount, would people question my story? Would people think I hadn’t really been ill? Weight loss was just one symptom of my illness. People with other (just as dangerous) eating disorders may be a healthy weight.

In my interview I wanted to share that important early diagnosis and treatment are vital, delaying treatment means delaying recovery, however, I also wanted to offer hope, if you’ve been ill for a long time, recovery is possible. My message would have lost its profundity if people were distracted by the numbers.

Being embroiled in an eating disorder, for some people, is all about numbers:

  • Weight
  • Weight loss/gain
  • Calories consumed
  • Calories expended
  • Weight of food
  • Nutritional breakdown
  • Number of steps
  • Waist/thigh/arm etc measurements

The list is endless!

When I was ill, if it was possible to count it, my brain seems to do it whether I wanted it to or not! When I was recovering, one of the last things I stopped doing was having to cut my food into a specific number of pieces. Even now, I sometimes fall into the habit of counting, just because those neural pathways are well worn and it takes more effort not to follow familiar patterns.

I knew people with eating disorders would be listening to the radio, I did not want to trigger people into thinking about numbers, nor did I want to feed into people’s beliefs that to have an eating disorder you should be a certain weight or have lost a certain amount.

If you’re supporting someone recovering from an eating disorder, it’s helpful to avoid number talk, it’s triggering and unnecessary. Of course, some number talk will be necessary between dietitian/psychiatrist etc and patient, and a diet plan may involve some numbers but keeping it to a minimum is important.

Supportive forums will have a ban on numbers being mentioned. They’re not important, discussing how you feel or what you think is far more beneficial. A vital part of recovery is turning your back on the numbers, it is possible to be free from the grip of numbers.