Content warning: eating disorders.
Mental health is a scary, personal topic. I've always been outspoken, but when it came to my eating disorder, it was hard to explain and even harder for others to understand. Throughout most of my life, I hid that part of myself, afraid to try and explain.
I don't suffer from anorexia or bulimia, but rather, a lesser-known eating disorder known as avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). It was only recently identified as a diagnosis, but it's been around long before being defined in 2013-- I've been showing symptoms as early as age 7. Unlike many other eating disorders, ARFID has nothing to do with body image. Instead, it's feelings of fear and anxiety relating to the food itself or the act of eating. It looks a lot like picky eating, but it goes far beyond just dinner table stubbornness. People with ARFID are restricted to certain "safe foods." Unsafe foods can be an impossible task because of texture, taste, smell, color, food group, and a wide variety of other factors. Even new brands and new recipes of familiar foods aren't automatically safe-- to someone with ARFID, anything new can be anxiety producing.
Learn more about ARFID from eatingdisorder.org, healthline.com, and yourtango.com.
My eating patterns were something that, for many years, I made excuses for when I was asked about them. I told people I was just not hungry or that I'd already eaten. Usually, if I told them the truth (I've never had that/I don't like that, and I'm afraid to try it), I opened myself up to further questions, teasing, or commentary that I didn't ask for. Even once I found out that ARFID was a diagnosis, telling them the truth would, again, just prompt more questions.
The first time I was asked if I had an eating disorder after I knew I had an eating disorder, I was waiting in a line during gym class. The girl behind me picked up my wrist, showed it to her friends, and said to them incredulously: "Whoa, look how small her wrist is!" Then, to me, she said: "Do you have an eating disorder?"
Yeah, one that nobody has really heard of. And if this person felt it was appropriate to grab another girl's arm without permission, chances are she wasn't going to be the easiest person to explain a weird disorder to. I gave her my usual answer, but with a twist:
"Do not touch me, I don't know you! And not that it's any of your business, but no, I don't have an eating disorder. I'm genetically small. But even if I did have an eating disorder, I certainly wouldn't be talking to you about it."
That's paraphrasing since this happened over five years ago, and from what I remember, she was only mildly taken aback that I called her out. I doubt she lost any sleep over it, but this small interaction and many others like it have stuck with me over the years. The person I was five years ago wasn't willing to go off on someone who was rude and ignorant. The person I was five years ago was silently upset, ranting to someone else about it later, but never able to tell the person what they'd done wrong. I don't remember when, but at some point, that changed.
By sophomore year of college, I was completely done with the judgment and rude comments from strangers. While ordering my usual "safe meal" in the dining hall, the server asked me a simple question to confirm what I wanted.
Yes, I told him. I thanked him and reached for my plate.
He laughed. "That's weird!"
Suddenly, I felt like there was a small fire in me. Who the heck is this guy? I certainly wasn't making his job any harder, and of course, I'd been polite-- why was this any of his business? Who actually says that to someone??
"Yeah," I said flatly. "It's the eating disorder."
(The look on his face was priceless.)
I've evolved. To this day, I wish I could turn back time and call out that girl with all the information I had.
I know more now, I have more strength, and 20-year-old me is a lot more eloquent than 15-year-old me. High School Me desperately wanted people to leave her alone. She wanted a diagnosis, she wanted to get better, and she wanted to feel less tired and sick all the time. Even after I read about ARFID, not enough people knew about it for me to get the help I needed-- so I didn't.
Now, I'm 20-year-old me, who can stand up for herself and show people the effects of their ignorance. I can't go back in time and make people know about ARFID well enough to help me recover. I can't turn back time and (continue to) tell my gym classmate how wrong she was. I can't go back and explain to her that yes, I do have an eating disorder, but here's a better way to talk about it.
You see, it's not anyone's business that I have an eating disorder. But until people know about ARFID, I have to make them aware that there's a disorder to be aware of. Though I definitely fault the girl from my gym class and the guy from the dining hall for being fairly rude, I don't fault them for not knowing about ARFID. That's nobody's fault. So I'm willing to be the person that makes everyone aware. I may not be able to eat like a normal person, but I can write, speak, and think-- and that's enough to educate and help a lot of people.
So now? You have no excuse. Remember ARFID. This is a real disorder, and shaming sufferers is not going to help them get better. It's up to me to spread the word so that my peers with ARFID have a chance of an easier time with ARFID than I did. This week, I get to stand on a stage at TedXTowsonU and speak about ARFID so that nobody else has to wait so long for treatment, and so that people can be aware of and understand ARFID in the same way that they know anxiety and depression.
I'm doing it for 15-year-old me.Watch me live on Wednesday, November 14, 5:30 p.m. EST