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Why New Year’s Is Toxic When You Have An Eating Disorder

In 2018, make a resolution to think and talk differently about food and fitness. You might just save someone's life.

January 1st is traditionally a day of starting new diets and exercise regimes. It’s a time of year when you can’t even line up in the grocery store, or open your Instagram feed, without being blasted with ads for a flatter stomach, a tighter butt, or a more ripping bod. And it’s a time when most people feel refreshed, as if we have been let free from the unreasonable expectations of the previous year, and can set up new health patterns for ourselves.

If you have an eating disorder, like I do, though, the New Year is fraught. While the whole world is screaming about diets and weight loss, my New Year Resolution–as someone recovering from anorexia, the world’s most fatal psychiatric disease–is to do the opposite: move less, and eat more. Health, for me, means eating all the chocolate, and boycotting winter walks, because I desperately need to build up my fat reserves. And at this time of year, more than ever, I need to constantly remind myself that what’s right for other people isn’t what’s right for me.

If you have an eating disorder, like I do, the New Year is fraught.

Recovering from an eating disorder is really tough at any time. But it’s particularly hard in January. With the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, only 45% of all people with anorexia recover. Complex physical and psychological diseases, anorexia lasts on average for eight years, and bulimia five, but other eating disorders last even longer. But there’s no such thing as a ‘no big deal’ eating disorder: no matter what, they impact a sufferer’s physical, mental, social, and emotional life. They hurt, a lot. And getting through them is hard enough without the entire world seemingly screaming at you to give into your inner voices, and get skinnier in 2018 than you did in 2017.

‘New Year, New You’ say the headlines. They recommend extreme behavior, like ‘5am ice baths and a strict vegan diet’. They ask us how we should redeem ourselves after the sins of Christmas,  as if eating some Christmas cake is a moral failing. And they incessantly promote the latest health fads: for example, to count time, not calories in 2018.

These articles and headlines are troubling even if you don’t have an eating disorder. They promote a conformist notion of an ‘ideal’ health and body type that is as chauvinistic as it is unscientific. We all know that healthy people come in all shapes and sizes; that a person with a flat tummy isn’t necessarily happier or healthier than a person with a round one. Yet every New Year, we buy into this self-destructive cycle of body thinking anyway… chasing ideals that aren’t realistic, and which moreover set us up to fail.

But when you have anorexia, the New Year’s health kick is even more troubling. Eating disorders thrive on the idea that the old you is just not good enough. That something has to change. And that thing is related to food and your body.  So while for most people cutting back on food in January might be a lifestyle choice, for people with anorexia, it represents something far darker: the renewal of a hellish pact with a tormenting, constrictive disease that wants to infiltrate every single moment of your waking life.

Eating disorders thrive on the idea that the old you is just not good enough.

Even without the headlines, though, the entire way we talk about our New Year’s Resolutions is often troubling. ‘I’m being good and going to the gym,’ or ‘I was bad over Christmas and ate too much,’ or ‘I’m being naughty and having a chocolate’: chances are, you’ve said something like this. In doing so, you’ve bought into the idea that there’s a moral superiority associated with your food intake or activity level. You might just be being flip, but for those of us with eating disorders, these casual comments just reinforce our disease, and make it harder for us to fight. Because there is no moral superiority that comes from being thin, but even though everyone knows that, the whole world still talks as if there is.

Things are harder now than ever before. At least once it was clear what all the food and body talk was about – losing weight. Now, these same ideas are disguised by words like ‘clean eating’ and ‘empowerment’. Months such as Dry January and Veganuary may not be intended as weight loss tools, but many people use them as such, and so they become traps that those suffering from restrictive eating disorders easily fall into. In fact, many people in recovery from eating disorders dabble in clean eating, vegetarianism, gluten-free or other kinds of diets as a socially acceptable way to keep restricting and controlling themselves.

There is no moral superiority that comes from being thin, but even though everyone knows that, the whole world still talks as if there is.

That’s why January is such a dangerous month. While eating disorders are considered shameful or something to hide, the New Year promotes all of the most dangerous urgings of this disease. While we struggle to eat healthily, society celebrates crash diets and extreme detoxes. While we try to eat enough calories and keep them down, our Instagram feeds promote kale smoothies and avocado toast for every meal. And while we try to teach our bodies to return to their natural programming, the media instead insists that we should ‘hack’ our metabolisms, filling our diets with so-called superfoods instead of the human foods that we need to do more than survive, but live.

New year, new you? How about New Year, new attitude towards you? It’s true: everyone should recognize food and health as an important part of their life. But these things aren’t one-size-fits-all. How you eat, what dress size you wear, whether your stomach is flat: these aren’t moral issues, nor social issues, but personal ones. There’s nothing that says that every January, you have to buy into the myths of the health and fitness world all over anew.

New year, new you? How about New Year, new attitude towards you?

Instead, no matter who you are, focus on something more important: a fuller well-being, that includes mind, body, and soul. You’ll probably be happier. And you will be helping break the New Year’s cycle of harmful dieting and negative body talk, making life a bit better for us all.

Creative Commons photo by track24.

Q&As

Shelter Dogs Helped This Woman Battle Bulimia

Shannon Kopp loved dogs. Over time, they helped her learn to love herself

Around the time her father’s alcoholism spiraled out of control, Shannon Kopp, then 17, started binging and purging food. Despite several attempts at recovery, her bulimia persisted for years, until she began working at the San Diego Humane Society. Kopp found that the shelter dogs’ love and resilience in the face of their own struggles gave her the motivation to overcome her own demons. Her experiences inspired her new book, Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life.

Folks recently chatted with Kopp about what she did to regain her sense of self, how shelter dogs fit her into her recovery and why she feels people misunderstand eating disorders.  The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Kopp and pup.

Your struggle with bulimia began when you were 17 and continued into your twenties. What treatments had you tried before you started working with rescue dogs?

I do think therapy was helpful. I would recommend therapy for anyone struggling with an eating disorder, but that alone didn’t seem to really change my behavior. I was in therapy for a total of 14 years.

I tried going to a residential treatment center and that seemed to temporarily help, but inevitably I relapsed again and went back to the eating disorder. I tried yoga, diets. I tried to make promises. I carried around a picture of my younger sister with me in my back pocket hoping I would pull that out and look at it and remember not to binge.

Especially towards the end of my eight-year struggle, I was willing to try anything because it was getting to the point where I was becoming suicidal. It was really not until I started spending a lot of time with shelter dogs that I began to finally see changes in my thinking and reacting.

How did you come to work at the San Diego Humane Society? Was that something that you thought might help?

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Shelter dogs helped save Shannon Kopp’s life.

As a child before the eating disorder, I loved animals. I was always rescuing them and even tried to start my own little nonprofit. It really was my greatest passion as a kid. As the eating disorder became more and more a dominant part of my life, I became disconnected from who I really was. I became almost mesmerized by this voice in my head telling me to binge or purge or lose weight.

It wasn’t until I went to residential treatment at the age of 23 where I experienced equine therapy and that woke something up in me. I remembered, “Oh, my god, I love animals.” Unfortunately, my insurance cut out and I would not be able to go to treatment for the time I needed. When my insurance cut out I was really scared, but I just had this feeling that I might be OK if I found a way to work with animals.

When did you start to feel like yourself again?

I went that first year at the humane society without binging or purging. I was still going to therapy, but I hadn’t really learned how to handle my emotions yet. I relapsed after a year. It was just devastating to me that I went back to those behaviors after almost a year free from them.

The only reason I even got out of bed anymore, because I was binging and purging 20 times a night, was because my job was to promote these shelter dogs and to help them find a home. I didn’t love myself at the time, but I loved them. My love would get me out of bed and get me to the humane society.

I didn’t love myself at the time, but I loved them.

I’m pregnant right now so it’s actually the first time that I’m not volunteering or working at a shelter, but I still have my own shelter dog and animals are still the most vital part of my recovery. Therapy has certainly been helpful. Medication has been helpful, but those things alone never helped me until the animals became a really big part of my life.

There is something really powerful for me, someone who was too ashamed of her eating and was trying to hide it from the world. There was something very liberating about being with a dog who also had a traumatic past, but was still herself, and was still reaching out and asking for help.

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A kennel full of shelter puppies greet Shannon with wet noses.

Is there anything you want other people to know about eating disorders?

Yes, I misunderstood bulimia. I had this lingering sense of shame that I was choosing to do this. I was choosing to hurt all these people. We’re getting more and more proof and data that eating disorder of all kinds, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder are mental disorders that are biologically influenced. They have to do with genetics. They have to do with brain chemistry. They’re very complex mental disorders and just like PTSD, or depression, or even cancer, these are illnesses that are not choices. There’s never a choice to become a bulimic, to become an anorexic. It has nothing to do with vanity.

There’s never a choice to become a bulimic, to become an anorexic. It has nothing to do with vanity.

Usually, eating disorders are marked by trauma. My trauma had to do with my alcoholic father, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became bulimic around the time that he lost complete control to alcohol. What people often say in the field is that genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger. It’s a very complex illness that I think if I had recognized that, perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so embarrassed and ashamed.

Perhaps I would have asked for more help sooner, or I would have been more honest about my struggles and everything. Eating disorders are often seen as a young, white girl disease. The truth is, they impact a huge cross-section of our country. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all races, all genders struggle with eating disorders.