‘Is she just doing this for attention?’ I bet you have heard or even asked this question yourself. Be honest. I know I have! I have even wondered what was wrong with me, was I just looking for attention? I have had the thought pass my mind about others who have shown signs of disordered eating. So, I will skip the rant about how insensitive this question is and just how unhelpful it is at solving the problem at hand.
This article may surprise you because I am not going to tell you that I wasn’t doing it for attention. In fact I am going to admit that I did want attention. I wont ask you to like my answer, nor am I confessing for ‘all’ people who suffer from eating disorders; but I will ask you to consider why, as a society, we consider that those seeking attention somehow don’t qualify as sick. What is more sick than self-harm?
This ‘tell all’ may be hard to read because it gives you an insight into the crazy lies my eating disorder had me believe. You may be able to relate to some of the immature thoughts to some respect and this may be uncomfortable to read. Even if you don’t relate and have perfect mental health yourself, this may give you some perspective into the complexity behind ‘attention seeking’.
Attention seeking is unattractive yes, but it doesn’t disqualify a human from the care and love we extend to others. And remember that people grow and change and attention seeking is a behavior – not a label.
So here is my own reflections on this question and how it applied to my illness.
In the beginning it didn’t look so grim
I was 11 when I first flirted with an eating disorder. The idea of getting an eating disorder was attractive to me because I was 11 and didn’t understand what they really were. I only saw half the story. The stories I saw had happy endings.
We had soap opera’s like Home and Away and Neighbors from Australia which had teen storylines doing a round-robin. The overcoming-eating-disorder-storyline typically lasted only a few weeks. It seemed so short-term and there was always that happy ending. I had no idea just how this illness would not only harm me but harm those around me. I remember thinking that purging was a great idea when I first saw Isla Fischer’s character Shannon play the role of a girl with an eating disorder.
It wasn’t just the stories of eating disorders though. There is something to be misunderstood in practically every movie.
Try this. Watch ANY movie and ask yourself if the behavior you were shown of the protagonist would lead to the outcome we are shown if this were real life? I watched one last night called ‘This Means War’. Basically the leading lady was sleeping with two of the male leads and in the end she had them both fighting for her and she simply decided who she liked better. No bad feelings and all, despite them being best friends.
I wasn’t stupid, just vulnerable.
I watched teen movies knowing logically that real life wasn’t the same as movies. I am not a stupid person, but I wanted an alternative to my reality. I was vulnerable. However unrealistic, selfish or crazy the following may sound; I believed them subconsciously to be true or at least possible.
- If only I was thinner, I would be happy. To be thin like those girls in magazines I should would just eat how they described they ate until I was, then I could return to normal living. Simple. (NOT simple)
- If I lost weight then perhaps I would be more attractive and my latest crush would like me more. (Boys had just hit my radar)
- If I had an eating disorder, then my parents would sort their differences ‘for my sake’. This happened in the soaps I watched so why not in real life.
- If I had an eating disorder, then my brother would realize that he should be nicer to me.
It was all about control.
Hindsight is, as always, a great teacher. Looking back as an adult I can see this little girl desperately trying to control what life served her. She wanted what a lot of girls wanted; to be accepted by her friends, to be liked by boys, to look good in the latest fashions, to have a happy family, to be admired, to be loved. When life threw me lemons, I didn’t have the recipe for lemonade so I just sucked on them thinking of how one of these days someone would make lemonade for me.
It started with me setting short term goals (if I lose that much weight then I will be noticed and perhaps fancied, or if I lost more then perhaps I would be noticed more and treated better) These crazy happy endings were places I could escape to whenever I felt anything I disliked. After a while, I didn’t need the fantasies, I had formed started the deadly cycle.
- Feel sad, angry, lonely, pain, shame, guilt etc
- Think – ‘Food will fix it’, ‘if I was thinner I would be happy’
- Feel pain, disappointment, guilt, shame, self hate etc
Could it have been different?
Sure, with what I now know, I would NOT go down this path. But the sad truth is that we all experience ups and downs in life and when we do, common sense and awareness may abandon us. We become vulnerable.
What about the movies we watch? Should they have more realistic depictions of real life? In my opinion – Hell No! We all need escapes now and then. And we cannot control how young or vulnerable minds interpret stories. We can however, use the media tools we have such as the internet (You-Tube, websites etc) to share the dark side of eating disorders too and we can drop the judgement that comes with asking ‘is she just doing this for attention?’. It is ok to admit to attention seeking and to the sometime crazy internal thoughts that just come to mind. If we speak our truth out, we hear it for what it is and it can no longer control us.
We all need help sometimes. If you find that you are having a hard time facing life’s ups and downs then check out my top self-help tiptop self-help tips. You don’t have to have an eating disorder for many of these as they all contribute to better mental health. If you want to read more about practical ways to support a loved one crying out for help, check out my advice on supporting someone with an eating disorder here.