Let’s Not Ignore Pain, Let’s Confront It

Through a strenuous journey, one out of a billion sperm cells swam to a single egg. Out of all people in this entire world, your parents collided at a particular time and space when this journey took place. As every sperm and egg is different(1), theYou who you are today was only made possible because of this very exact event. Statistically, the probability of your birth is about one in 10 to the power of 2,685,000 (10 with 2,685,000 zeros after it!) so the odds of you being alive are basically zero(2). Your miraculous life was given for you to simply live because life is a gift itself.

Sometimes we’re unable to appreciate the phenomenality of life alone. We become dissatisfied with what we already have and end up wanting more, as our world is inflamed with the pressure of wanting to be the ‘best’ at life. This pressure then causes the normalization of extreme behaviors. For example, I used to admire those who constantly lost sleep to keep working, when they instead needed to take care of themselves. I also used to think that having an endless stream of thoughts made us ‘wired’ when we instead need periods of not thinking at all to serve as peace in our lives. As society continued to praise these behaviors, I became hallucinated by the idea of a great life needing to have extreme productivity.

This lifestyle seemed to be a convenient distraction from some harsh realities of my life. I had a toxic relationship with my mother who I love unconditionally. We lived through years of ongoing conflict, mainly due to our inability to emotionally coping with her husband’s death. The man who committed to supporting the best lives he possibly could for his children. My devoted father. Since I couldn’t admit that my mother’s declining mental health throughout my teenage years was breaking me, I refused to believe that our relationship was suffering. Not only did she have the extremely difficult role of being a widowed mother, but she also struggled to adapt to a Western society that operated in complete contrast to her rural upbringing in China. Our opposing values born from different environments constantly clashed and made everyday life distressing.

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I thought, imagine what people would think of me if I told them that my relationship with my mother was a deep source of my pain? No one would understand me, I assumed, as everyone around me seemed to be best friends with their parents. I had also faced immense grief when those who misunderstood my life saw me as the reason for my mother’s pain. I felt like I couldn’t open up to anyone for 10 years, including myself. As my feelings became trapped and deafening, it became my subconscious desire to avoid confronting this pain. This led to the development of my eating disorder. Eating disorders are often a symptom of deeper suffering.

This is indicated by the large association of eating disorders with other mental illnesses. Almost all hospitalized individuals with eating disorders have been found to have other mental illnesses (97%), including major depression (94%). It is also estimated that one in four eating disorder sufferers have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)(3). As many mental illnesses stem from trauma, it can be seen as a root cause of eating disorders.

“Unresolved trauma maintains eating disorders as it makes affected people much more susceptible to stress and pain”(4).

I was unable to realize and admit I had an eating disorder for so long because I hadn’t confronted my struggles. I also didn’t want an eating disorder to become my identity. It eventually became clear to me that I couldn’t be labeled by it because people aren’t their illnesses. I believe that eating disorders are the brain’s way of escaping a pain that is even greater than the disorder itself. This may mean that we temporarily find comfort in having control and derive satisfaction from unnatural, disorderly thoughts. Our minds sometimes use these painful coping mechanisms to avoid confronting our hurt and trauma. However, you need to be brave. You need to determine why you may have your illnesses, whether they present as an eating disorder, depression, or anxiety. Although it may seem that these illnesses are the sources of your pain, they are actually symptoms of a deeper root cause of your suffering. What also made recognizing that I had an eating disorder so difficult was the lack of society’s discussion about disorders other than anorexia and bulimia.

“I didn’t know I had orthorexia until I spoke to several friends who also suffered from this illness. With the intensity that today’s diet culture shapes our behaviors today, almost everyone has suffered from disorderly eating at some point whether you have been aware of it or not. It’s vital that we recognize these behaviors and address them so that we can help ourselves and others heal.”

We must not normalize disorderly eating because this is how everyone becomes susceptible to them. If it wasn’t for one of my best friends expressing her concerns for me when I was ill, I wouldn’t have realized the severity of my orthorexic behaviors.

What is Orthorexia?

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Orthorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with healthy food(5). This excessive fixation on proper nutrition aims to enhance one’s health and well-being but drives the avoidance of foods that are believed to be unhealthy. This self-induced loss of freedom can severely impair one’s quality of life. A sufferer could be malnourished and socially isolate themselves to maintain their eating habits when alone, as they may have anxiety when eating foods prepared by others(6).

Orthorexia is seen often by clinicians but receives little attention as it hasn’t been officially recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis yet(4). This shows that you don’t have to be diagnosed to know that you’re suffering and have an eating disorder, whether it is orthorexia or an unlabeled illness. I know that my reliance on a clinical diagnosis to determine my mental state detracted from the point that I was not okay because I never got one.

When I was ill, I silently browsed on the internet to learn about others with eating disorders so that I could compare myself to them. I would convince myself I wasn’t suffering to their extent since I hadn’t been diagnosed. I lost sight that everyone suffers differently as I was trying so hard to cope with my own behaviors and normalize them. Comparing myself to others was pointless because I was ill regardless of how ill others were. What mattered was that I was so far away from a healthier mindset that I needed to have.  

Orthorexia also tends to be a frequent disorder among nutrition and dietetics students, as their daily confrontation with nutrition can elicit greater tendencies to obsess with healthy food(5). It’s human to become more conscious of the health impacts of our diet. However, when our health-improving behaviors become obsessive, they can negatively affect our lives. As I study nutrition and dietetics, I can see how my eating disorder was always meant to happen to me. It was the most alarming sign that I needed to confront the pain that always sat deep in me, waiting to emerge.

Common reasons for why someone would develop orthorexic tendencies include the need for control and safety. These may include wanting to improve our physical or mental health or to cope with emotional distress(5). My orthorexia developed when I was avoiding my failing relationship with my mother while enduring intense loneliness living by myself in Australia after leaving my home country of New Zealand. I used the satisfaction that I gained from my orthorexic behaviors to compensate for the lack of loving, human connection in my life. Although I had amazing friends back in New Zealand, it was extremely difficult for me without their physical presence. I found myself compensating for my loneliness in forceful ways. I pushed myself to meet more people even when I was uncomfortable. I relied on my academic productivity to tell myself that feeling alone was worth it. I went to beaches and everywhere else by myself, only to be reminded how much I wished a friend was beside me to share the beauty with. The satisfaction I gained was manufactured happiness, not natural joy. I had to become aware that I felt this way before I could make steps towards recovery.

Confronting Pain Builds Awareness and Resilience

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My recovery kickstarted when I started focusing on what I loved in life outside of food and nutrition. I realized that feeling love through friendship and human connection was missing in my life, so I knew I could experience true joy once I received this. My disorderly behaviors dissipated as I developed new strong friendships, reunited with my best friends, and strengthened my relationship with my mother.

“There was no longer any need for forced satisfaction when I felt whole with special people in my life. I surrounded myself with people who inspired love and brought out the best in me.”

Today, I’m fully recovered, and I thank my eating disorder for raising awareness of my deeper sources of pain. It allowed me to confront my suffering and realize how wonderful life itself is when it is free from unprocessed trauma and society’s pressure of productivity. I have gotten to know my Dad through my Mum’s lens which has helped to revive his existence and heal my relationship with my mother. I only eat foods that I enjoy while still taking care of myself. I’m working on not feeling anxious if my productivity is lower than usual. My life isn’t perfect, but that’s what makes it so wonderful. It’s not supposed to be, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Processing my pain hasn’t erased my past, but it has prepared me to face future difficulties with resilience and appreciation. I’ve learned to not let my nutrition expertise as a dietetics student define me so that I can approach food and health with love and not with obsession. I’ve learned that you don’t need to distract yourself with a million activities, be the next CEO of a hip start-up, or be a Noble Prize-winning neuroscientist to be happy. While those may be the best lives for others, they aren’t necessarily the best life for you.

Life is not something to get through, it is something to be lived. You don’t need to strive for anything to be your best self, you just need to be. This is how you feel true enjoyment.  


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: STEPH TAN

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Steph is currently a Nutritionist (BS in Nutrition and Metabolism, The University of Sydney) and Senior Dietetics Student at Cornell University. She is a prospective Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Eating Disorders RD.

Prior to pursuing dietetics in the United States, Steph lived in her birthplace of New Zealand before moving to Australia to study for a few years. She also completed community work in Cambodia for a month where she aimed to alleviate food insecurity.

Steph hopes to empower all people in building healthier relationships with food and themselves through nutrition and compassion. In Steph’s free time, she loves exploring the natural world and spending time with loved ones. If you want to share your thoughts or to learn more about her, you can email her at ht458@cornell.edu.

References

  1. Stanford University Medical Center (2012). Entire genetic sequence of individual human sperm determined. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 16, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120719132855.htm

  2. Spector D (2012). The Odds Of You Being Alive Are Incredibly Small. [online] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/infographic-the-odds-of-being-alive-2012-6 [Accessed 17 Jun. 2019].

  3. Tagay S, Schlottbohm E, Reyes-Rodriguez ML, Repic N & Senf W (2014). Eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, and psychosocial resources. Eating disorders, 22(1), 33-49.

  4. Brewerton TD & Dennis AB (2015). Perpetuating factors in severe and enduring anorexia nervosa. In S. Touyz, P. Hay, D. Le Grange, & J. H. Lacey (Eds.), Managing Severe and Enduring Anorexia Nervosa: A Clinician's Handbook. New York: Routledge.

  5. Kinzl JF, Hauer K, Traweger C, Kiefer I (2006). Orthorexia nervosa in dieticians. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics. 75(6):395.

  6. Koven NS, Abry AW (2015). The clinical basis of orthorexia nervosa: emerging perspectives. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 11:385.