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Essays

My Threesome With An Eating Disorder

Dating is hard. Dating while trying to keep your anorexia in check is even harder.

First date jitters are normal. But when you’ve spent your life wrestling with an eating disorder, those jitters can quickly overpower you.

On my first date after a long hiatus, I was consumed with anxiety, not about my date, but about the menu. Instead of worrying about witty banter, or getting to know my date, I spent all my time trying to figure out the calorie content of each dish. Would I go over my calorie limit if I ordered a cocktail? If I asked him to split an entrée, would he think I was cheap? Would it be weird if I ordered something off the kid’s menu?

Fighting against the tidal wave of neurotic thoughts, I finally managed to order a salad.

My date immediately scoffed. “Oh, you’re one of those girls.”

Is it too late to swipe left?

How To Tell Your Date About Your Eating Disorder?

Telling potential love interests about my illness is something I’m never ready for, never quite know how to do. When’s the “right time” and how should it be done? If they ask me to dinner, should I say I’d rather go to the park? If I have to cancel my date because my body dysmorphia suddenly renders me incapable of leaving the room, should I explain why, or risk seeming unreliable? Would it be better just to put it on my dating profile and be done with it:  Hi, I’m a Virgo, my Hogwarts House is Hufflepuff, and I’m battling anorexia.

I’m not ashamed of my illness—I’m managing it as best I can, and actively working to be healthier. But when you tell someone you have anorexia, it changes their opinion of you: suddenly, instead of being the woman who can quote from every line from Moonstruck, you’re now the woman with a mental illness. Both things are true about me, but I feel like I have to choose between the two—to appear normal, or to appear ill.

You can tell someone what an eating disorder is, but they’ll never be prepared until they experience it.

And that never necessarily goes away. You can tell someone what an eating disorder is, but they’ll never be prepared until they experience it.

In my last relationship, I met my significant other at a conference where I led a panel my first-hand experience with anorexia. Afterwards, I was deeply touched when he came up to me after and told me how powerful my presentation was. But two years later, at the bitter end of our relationship, he cited my eating disorder as a reason. “You knew what you were getting when you met me!” I shouted at him.

He shrugged: “I thought you were over it.”

Meet Edna

I gave the violent being inside me leeching off my body the name Edna.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. I am one of them. My severe eating disorder affects my both my physical wellbeing and my emotional health, and spills into every aspect of my life, including dating.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate than any mental illness, yet I am still called one of those girls for ordering a salad.

I’ve had an eating disorder since I was fourteen years old. It started as bulimia, then turned into anorexia by the time I was 18. No one ever told me about eating disorders, so I didn’t know I had one: I only knew that something was wrong with me, a deeply-rooted internal wound I could not reach. To describe what was wrong with me,  I gave the violent being inside me leeching off my body the name Edna. It was a coping mechanism of sorts: these thoughts are so intrusive, so never-ending, it’s like they’re coming from another source, so giving it a name helped me deal.

Author Ellen Ricks.

An Uncomfortable Love Triangle

Edna was, and still is to this day, a constant voice in my head. She tells me what to do, what to eat, and how much to weigh. She calls me names: fat, lazy, unlovable. When I cave to her wishes, she holds my hair back while I throw up, telling me what a good job I’m doing. And when I’m in a relationship with someone… well, like it or not, they’re in a relationship with Edna too.

When I’m in a relationship with someone… well, like it or not, they’re in a relationship with Edna too.

So when I date, what my partner might want me to do is the exact opposite of what Edna wants. If they want me to eat, Edna wants me to lie. If my partner tells me I’m beautiful and sexy, Edna tells me I’m hideous. It’s a constant tug-of-war between a boyfriend who wants to save me, and the illness that wants to consume me. And both of my partners are powerfully jealous of one another.

So I suppose it’s no surprise when the men who tell me I’m beautiful and brave eventually call me suffocating and a burden. I imagine it must have been hard to watch me slowly kill myself by loving an illness over them. But Edna doesn’t want to share me.

Dumping Edna

A few months ago, I was talking with an ex of mine when he said something insightful about my illness. “You’re like a junkie,” he told me. “It’s difficult to be in your life.”

I flinched. The comment hurt, but he was right. I am very difficult to be with because I love Edna more than anything else in my life. I’m stuck in my own abusive relationship: I keep coming back to Edna, even though I know she could one day kill me. And when I do so, I did not choose my mental illness, but I made a choice to not get better.

I feel like I’m finally ready to ditch the third wheel and swiping right on a healthier me.

After many years of failed romantic relationships, forging a healthy relationship with myself felt nearly impossible. But I think I’ve finally learned that being well is like learning a language or playing an instrument: it’s a skill.  It takes a lot of practice, and you have to practice every day. I started out being terrible at stability, but with years of practice, I’m slightly less bad. And I hope that means something.

After years of falling for the unwell voice, I feel like I’m finally ready to ditch the third wheel and swiping right on a healthier me.

Q&As

The Disappearing Man

Anorexia doesn't happen only to women. Men need support for eating disorders too. Ask Ken Capobianco, who denied himself food for 28 years.

When you hear the term anorexia, you’re likely to picture bone-thin women and waif-like young girls. But a surprising number of men also struggle with this debilitating behavior. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, one out of every four individuals diagnosed with anorexia is male.

Ken Capobianco knows first-hand about living in the shadows with this problem. An award-winning journalist, the 58-year-old battled anorexia for most of his adult life. While covering the music and arts scene in Boston, his daily consumption of calories often consisted of Diet Coke and a handful of cookies. This self-destructive pattern nearly killed him and led to a long series of hospitalizations and interventions.

Today, his anorexia is under control. He is happily married and lives steps away from the ocean in California. He has just published a novel drawn from his experiences, Call Me Anorexic: The Ballad of a Thin Man. We spoke with him to discover the true story behind the fictionalized tale.

When were you first diagnosed and what was the diagnosis?

I had wanted to lose weight my entire life. I started running around 18. The pounds just kept coming off and I found it very difficult to stop. By 21, I had moved to Boston to get my master’s at Tufts University. After I graduated, I went to the doctor and she said, “Ken, you’re anorexic.” I said I don’t think so. I was in complete denial.

The cover of Call Me Anorexic: The Ballad of a Thin Man.

Do you know what triggered the desire to keep getting skinnier?

I was never fat, [but] I was never comfortable in my skin. I always wanted to be lean, like either a rock star or a runner, and I wasn’t. At that time, I was running eight to 10 miles a day. It became an addiction. Every girl I met during this time kept telling me to stop, but I said no.

It’s funny that girls were telling you to stop. They’re usually more weight conscious than guys. But it had to take a toll, right?

Yeah. I’ll give you an example. I was 20 or 21 and went to a late-night movie. I hadn’t eaten all day. All of a sudden, I started shaking uncontrollably. My body was giving out. I got taken to the hospital and the guy said: you’ve got to eat something. The doctors were telling me and my body was telling me. For the first time, I got this shock of recognition that something was wrong.

You once said that there was nobility and beauty in being thin. Where did that idea come from?

I felt as if there was something not only pure in losing weight but powerful. Everybody else was weak. They were eating pizza and hamburgers and I didn’t need to. That may derive from the fact that I’d gotten my master’s degree at a very young age and I was doing nothing. I was working in a bookstore during the early Reagan Recession. Parts of my life that I thought I’d be succeeding at, I wasn’t. I derived a sense of power and strength that I was not eating and the rest of the world was. It’s an odd distortion because you’re getting weaker, but I felt I was getting stronger.

“I derived a sense of power and strength that I was not eating and the rest of the world was. It’s an odd distortion because you’re getting weaker, but I felt I was getting stronger.”

You were in and out of hospitals. Doctors were warning you to take it seriously, but you didn’t. What happened?

When I was 35, about 15 years into my anorexia, I got double pneumonia. It was such a bad case that the doctors told my brother I wasn’t going to live. I spent three months in the hospital. They not only had to treat the pneumonia, but they also tried to get me to eat more. I got into therapy with a psychiatrist. Once I got out, everybody said: you’ve got to change your ways. And, of course, I changed my ways for about two or three months and then lost weight again. I had to go back to the psychiatrist once a month and the physician once a week.

What was a typical day like, if there was such a thing?

I stopped running at 36 or 37. I was either a freelance writer or a teacher or working at the Boston TAB. I would drink Diet Coke all day. I was a critic, so I would go to movies or to a club. I was wired on caffeine. I’d go home around 1:30 and eat, say, a blueberry muffin or some Oreos. Seriously—that would be my complete intake all day. I did not eat anything during the day for over 28 years. Nothing.

Didn’t you get hungry?

Never. When you train your body not to eat, you’re shutting your appetite down. You’re shutting down your food appetite, your sexual appetite. You’re also shutting all your emotions down. I just felt numb.

“When you train your body not to eat, you’re shutting your appetites down: food, sex, emotion. I just felt numb.”

The arts were a central part of your life. When you listened to a favorite album or saw a favorite movie, didn’t that make your emotions jump?

Yes! Exactly! And you’re tapping into how I survived. Because the music thrilled me and brought joy into my life. But I also became over sensitive. I would cry at a lot of movies and hide in the back of the theater because all the emotions would come out. When I did feel something, I felt it profoundly because everything had been bottled up.

Although he is a healthy weight today, Ken Capobianco struggled with anorexia for decades, at one point weighing only 69 pounds.

It’s hard to believe, but your weight dropped to 69 pounds. How?

In my 40s, my mom was dying of cancer. I left Boston to help her. I was in my old house [with] all the demons—I saw little fat Ken—and I stopped eating. One night I pulled into a Burger King oddly enough to get something for her and I had a stroke. They took me to the hospital. I couldn’t feel anything on the left side of my body. They weighed me and said, “Do you realize you weigh 69 pounds?” I got to tell you: that was beyond devastating. My life was unraveling. I didn’t know what I was doing. It seems unfathomable that a human being—let alone a man—could be that thin, but I was.

What effect did the stroke have?

I was in the hospital for two or three months. I had to relearn how to walk, how to use my left hand. I’m lucky to be alive because it didn’t affect my brain function. It didn’t affect my thinking, but I can’t run. There’s still some kind of nerve damage. It’s been 13 years and I’m functional, but I still know there are things I can’t do.

What was the turning point in your life?

I moved to California to start over. It’s not that easy. You don’t just flip a switch. But once I came out here, I said I’m going to try to meet women and people. I moved to an apartment complex by the water where everybody’s out. I decided to spend time with them. I had spent my entire life either alone or in clubs. But out here, there are all these people and I’m making these human connections.

After going out to eat with women, you’d still berate yourself. How did you handle that?

A lot of the stuff I learned in therapy was: try to calm down and recognize the things bringing you down and try to make an accommodation and see how you feel afterwards. I’d say: okay, you’re not going to die because you have food in you. After 29 years, I was so tired of saying no, I’ve got to deny. The extraordinary length of the denial and the anorexia allowed me to say it’s time to let that person go. That’s really what happened. I decided I’ll make it through the day feeling uncomfortable with food in me and see how I feel tomorrow, and I felt okay. Ultimately, I met my wife and things like that and things improved.

“After 29 years, I was so tired of saying no, I’ve got to deny… I decided I’ll make it through the day feeling uncomfortable with food in me and see how I feel tomorrow, and I felt okay.”

Do you struggle with anorexia today?

I do eat every day basically like a normal person, but there are limitations. I won’t eat an eight-course meal. I’ll eat what I want and that’s it. I can’t escape mirrors. Not only do I look to see if I’m gaining weight, which is less now, but also if I look thinner. The one thing I don’t want to be is gaunt. That’s the healthy change.

What was the emotional experience for you of writing the book?

Hard. There was one time I started feeling chest pains and fatigue. I left and sat in my car and listened to music and came back. I put off doing this for so long because I was afraid to dig into and feel those things again.

What do you say to men who may be in denial about their anorexia?

Get into therapy immediately because you cannot do it by yourself. If it gets away from you, it will get worse and you’ll fall into a black hole you can’t get out of. The nature of the disorder is privacy and secrecy. Just allow yourself to say I’m ill. I need help. That’s the key thing. As with anything, to recognize you have a problem and go out and get somebody who’s going to help you get over it.

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.

Essays

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

In the coming year, 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 the comic year than you did this year.

‘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 the coming year.

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.