Aren’t eating disorders about control? I’ve lost count of the times people have said this to me, in the most well intentioned, if smugly certain, tone of voice. They’re not asking the question but telling me what they believe, such as:
- · You have to be a control freak to have an ED.
- · You have to have self-control to have an ED.
- · If you have an ED you’ll try to control everyone around you.
Sometimes what they believe dovetails with what they think they’ve observed in their own families or friends. Sometimes it’s based on tabloid stories of anorexic or bulimic celebrities. Regardless, the remark always makes my blood boil.
Of course, EDs are about control, but the force that’s in control is the disorder, not the individual. It’s like saying diabetes, or cancer, or tuberculosis is all about control! The illness controls your life, not the other way around. But that’s never what the uninitiated mean when they say EDs are “all about control.”
What makes EDs so insidious is that they turn the sufferer into a slave puppet, acting out the pathology of the illness in ways that make it appear as if the puppet is choosing to exert hyper control over every morsel of food, every second of exercise, every calorie, every drop, every ounce in her universe. Worse, they convince the sufferer – at least initially – that she is in control. And she seizes on that illusion because, in truth, she feels utterly powerless, lost, even paralyzed.
Consider the people most likely to develop EDs. The genetic vulnerability for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating often coincides with a genetic tendency toward anxiety disorders. Victims of trauma – especially childhood trauma – frequently develop EDs. And EDs often accompany other serious psychological illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Yet no one ever says that these conditions are “about control.” In fact, it’s widely understood that when a person is severely depressed or suffering a panic attack or post-traumatic stress disorder, personal control is profoundly absent. So how can a person who has no control be controlling?
This is the paradox that defines eating disorders. The individual suffering from an eating disorder is as fragile and vulnerable as the little man pretending to be the Wizard of Oz -- and just as fearful of being exposed. So she hides behind her behavior. She encourages others to think that her “problem” is too much control. She lies to herself that her ED is a sign of great inner discipline and willpower. Anything to avoid being revealed as the mute, frightened, uncertain, and needy human being she knows herself to be. Anything to avoid being outed as an ordinary mortal with hungers, weaknesses, and flaws -- because one of ED’s lies is that these normal vulnerabilities are somehow shameful.
In truth, eating disorders aren’t about control any more than they are about eating. What they are about is the flailing of lonely souls undone by feelings of helplessness, longing, and terror.
Self-discipline is a masquerade as impressive and misleading as the Wizard’s pretense of control over Oz. Unfortunately, it takes more than the clicking of heels for people in the throes of EDs to get back home to their true selves, but the first step for them and those who love them is to understand that control is neither the problem nor the solution. It is a door that must be opened so the person hiding inside can at last emerge, announce herself, and come fully into her own unruly life.