Eating Disorders and Self-Harm
Trigger Warning: This piece discusses types of self harm behavior. Please use discretion and pause and take care of yourself
A Personal Journey
I was sitting around a campfire the other day, in the forests of Colombia, my dark gray hoodie pulled over my head and hand halfway in a bag of Colombian knock-off Doritos, when a guy sitting across from me asked what I do for work. Wiping my cheesy, orange fingers on a leaf, I quipped, “Are you sure you want to know?” He gave me a confused look. I’d either intrigued or scared him. I never know which when I give this kind of answer.
And I get it. It’s a common question, right? A standard, run-of-the-mill convo starter. What does one do in their career? Often when people meet me and I tell them about the van, the moving to Colombia with a cat, the general vagabond existence I currently choose to lead, I’m met with some version of this question. This dude wasn’t thinking twice about it. And he certainly didn’t expect some girl smacking her lips of leftover knock-off-Dorito cheese crumbles to respond with something so vague.
But in these innocuous moments, I brace myself for the inevitable balance beaming of trying to delicately share about my eating disorder history while also explaining how the eating disorder led to my current career. A weighty response to a simple “what do you do for work?” it always is. But after 8 years, I like to think I have my little spiel down.
“Had an eating disorder that started when I was 16 . . . went to rehab when I was 24 . . . got better, started a blog back when blogging was still cool (to which I almost always let in a “does that age me?” joke) . . . I did well for a while, got a lot of media stuff and awards, now I’m here. Writing and advocating on behalf of people with eating disorders.”
There it is boiled down to one paragraph. How, why, and what I do for work, told in a nonchalant bravado, a smooth confidence of sorts (or so goes my narrative). And the truth is, despite the occasional human who is flustered by my candor about a past mental health crisis and leaves me hanging with an “oh wow,” I’m proud of my little spiel. And proud to share about it in the Colombian woods with a stranger.
Such revelation almost always invites deeper conversation because I find typically once you expose yourself, once you remove the smoke-and-mirror image you try so desperately hard to create for others, the others feel free to do the same. “Oh wow, you’re human. So am I. Must we continue to pretend we’re Mother Teresa reincarnated then?” And if they aren’t ready to do that, hey, no harm no foul. People exist in their own process. Who am I to demand someone reveal themselves to me just because I’ve revealed something about myself to them?
Anyway, there I go on one of my philosophical rabbit holes. But it took me a long time to grasp that my candor doesn’t entitle me to receive candor back. The point is, I have no problem sharing about the darkness of the eating disorder decade and how it led to what it is I do in this world that allows me the advantages of moving to foreign countries, slacklining in the forest on weekends, and, most importantly, bonding with others.
People get it. Eating disorders are wildly rampant across cultures. Those of us who have had one know they’re glamorized in culture too, with this bravado around the people who suffer. They have a friend or a sibling or a parent with one. They themselves had or have one. They saw that “To the Bone” movie on Netflix or they generally grasp the “concept” of what leads someone to an eating disorder in a diet-crazed world.
Eating disorders, for all intents and purposes, are a socially acceptable mental illness.
Eating Disorders as a Form of Self-Harm
However, if eating disorders are a socially acceptable mental illness, self-harm most definitely is not, and I often choose to remove that specific history from my spiel.
Anyway, regarding self-harm (and yes, for what it’s worth, I acknowledge that eating disorders arguably fall into that broad bucket), I am referring to the kind of self-harm that the television series “13 Reasons Why” removed from its series.
Sometimes, memories of my former actions and behaviors keeps me up at night, wondering how my 11-year-old self found self-harm as a solution, how my 14-year-old self continued to find it a solution, and how my 21-year-old self was once caught in an act of self-harm by an ex-boyfriend who kicked open my bathroom door. That was the last time, mind you, that experience when I was 21. But even as I sit here writing “that was the last time,” I know on some level I am writing it to justify or defend that it happened. In other words, I’m still so full of shame about the whole thing that I feel the need to say, “But I swear that was the last time.” And I know I’m not alone in this, which leads to further musings.
The other day, I proposed a topic on my Instagram about exactly this: self-harm and eating disorders. Is there a correlation? If so, what is it? And how many of us found ourselves engaging in other forms of self-harm before ultimately sashaying around or heading directly to the eating disorder cycle?
Let me clarify that when I use the term “self-harm” in this context, I mean it as any form of purposeful self-injury. This would include cutting oneself, burning oneself, pulling out hair, or picking at wounds to prevent healing.
Answers to my question were overwhelming to the point where I still haven’t gotten through all my DMs. But I’ll summarize a great deal of them with this share from an anonymous Instagram follower:
“It’s interesting. I can now discuss my ED openly with my therapist and at least partially with my wife and close friends when I need to. But I can’t even form the words to talk about self-harm, which was something I did at a similar age to you, 15-plus years ago. I just feel . . . ashamed. Embarrassed. Glued together about it. Why is it so heavy?”
In short, it’s so heavy because it’s not glamorized in the same way eating disorders are. And there’s still a cultural barrier, as well as a stigma of “oh wow, you’re not just eating disorder self-harm, your self-harm-self-harm.” Like burning or cutting tips the scale of the self-harm barometer.
Yet it’s extremely common that people struggling with eating disorders have also engaged or will engage in self-harm.
Causes of Self-Harming Behavior
Hurting oneself—or thinking about hurting oneself—is a sign of emotional distress, which is what led many of us to the eating disorder cycle to begin with.
When I think back to how my eating disorder intensified over the years, it derived from overwhelming anger, frustration, pain, and grief at not feeling heard or seen or validated in anything but “you must be happy all the time” feelings. It was a form of attention. At the age of 12 I was mercilessly bullied for a few months, and I didn’t want to tell my parents because in my adolescent brain I was worried they’d believe the bullies and stop loving me. So, when I cut, it was an attempt to try and apologize or show them − and maybe the bullies too − that I was sorry I wasn’t good enough. Or that I wanted to be better. Or that I too hated who I saw in the mirror.
I still cringe writing that. I don’t know why. It’s just hard sometimes to think back at being 12 and going through that kind of emotional cycle. I don’t wish it on anyone. But when a person is not sure how to deal with emotions, or learned as a child to hide emotions, self-harm often feels like a bit of a release. Or, at the very least, an expression of pain.
Much like eating disorder behaviors, self-injury also stimulates the body’s endorphins or pain-killing hormones, thus raising the person’s mood for however brief amount of time. Or if a person doesn’t feel many emotions, drowned out as a defense mechanism, they might cause themselves pain in order to feel something “real” to replace emotional numbness.
Perhaps I was a mix of all at one point or another. The cutting went on intermittently until I was 21, with worse periods around monumental events such as my best friend dying at 18, or when I was arrested for drinking and driving.
It’s a weird cycle. Once a person injures themselves, they often experience shame and guilt, which I did every single time. The shame led to intense negative feelings, which led to me wanting to hurt myself again, especially when I saw the scars I left. But because of the stigma I think in some ways it felt even worse, like I had a narrative that somehow, I was even more messed up than the average person “just suffering with eating issues.” I felt like something insidious was inside of me. Perhaps it’s in the way we continue to stigmatize self-harm in media and in culture.
I do think in many ways my self-harm was like the eating disorder cycle but with different symptoms. And I do think all generally lead to the same conclusion and are an expression of pain gone inward.
It’s worth noting that self-harming isn’t the same as attempting suicide. However, it is a symptom of emotional pain that should be taken seriously. If someone is hurting themselves, they may be at an increased risk of feeling suicidal. It’s important to find treatment for the underlying emotions because at the end of the day that is what is really guiding the behaviors.
At the end of the day, and all these years later, I see the self-harming all so differently, sitting here in Colombian cabin writing this blog. I was young and in pain. I did what I could to survive it. It neither makes me darker, profoundly ‘screwed up’ or attention-seeking.
It was what I knew how to do to get through emotions I didn’t have coping skills for. And 8 years later, I’m thankful to feel on the other side of it – the urges no longer present in my life when things go haywire.
*Note: This content is reflective of our advocates’ lived experiences. It is intended for informational purposes only. These pieces do not provide medical advice, nor are they substitutes for professional medical diagnosis or treatment.