Guest Blogger Ainsley Drew takes on the much discussed connection (or lack thereof) between eating disorders and veganism – from personal experience;
In freshman year our Western Civ teacher with the dishwater hair and lateral lisp took all of the girls into the auditorium and spoke to us about healthy eating. Although it was disguised as “learning about nutrition,” I could hear some of the other girls whispering that it was because they didn’t want us puking up the crappy cafeteria cooking. High school was supposedly a hotbed for eating disorders, but I didn’t see it that way. Anorexia seemed to be reserved for those five senior girls who smoked cigarettes behind the fieldhouse and were really popular with the captain of the cross-country team. I had one friend who threw up regularly after lunch, but she didn’t look skinny, so I just figured it was her thing, kind of like mine was refusing to eat meat. Eating disorders were something I read about in fashion magazines, reserved for girls far prettier than I was, girls who actually bought, like, nice clothes and stuff to make their hair blond. If you listened to L7 and poked a safety pin through any available bit of cartilage, then you were safe. Besides, I ate anything I wanted, almost without thinking. Playing sports and fighting with my parents burned a lot of calories.
It was only as an adult, a fully-formed human far removed from the Greek drama of high school, that I had to face the facts. A year ago I weighed 82 pounds and hadn’t had my period in a year. My clothes didn’t fit anymore. Friends who hadn’t seen me in a while would ask me if I was okay instead of how I was doing. My boyfriend couldn’t fool around with me without a look of absolute concern all over his face. (Not a turn on.) Although I was still a punk-rock-loving, vegan, tattooed, bisexual badass who was more Kathleen Hanna than Kate Moss, I was anorexic. I needed to get help.
Fortunately, I took the right steps. While dealing with a family crisis that required strength of both body and mind, I researched how to get over an eating disorder. Recovery isn’t easy, and, if you don’t have health insurance, it isn’t cheap. The recovery for my particular disorder, anorexia, doesn’t come with such great stats on the back of its baseball card either. 5-10% of anorexics die within ten years of the onset of their disease. There is only a fifty percent cure rate, and, without treatment, 20% of anorexics die. Even with treatment, 2-3% of those who are suffering die. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Only one out of every ten people with an eating disorder ever receive treatment for it.
But I got a therapist, called up my physician and explained the situation, and attempted to get the recommended third superhero, a nutritionist. That’s where I ran into a snag. Being one of the lucky few who boasts health insurance, I figured that a nutritionist, when used in tandem with a GP and a therapist, would be covered, especially for a condition with such a frightening number of fatalities like anorexia. Not in the eyes of the insurance companies. Their mentality is, if it isn’t diabetes, it isn’t covered. I look at this as a modern spin on the saying “Let them eat cake.” Consider yourself lucky if you happen to be a diabetic anorexic looking for help, but for the rest of us, tough luck. Unless you have several hundred extra dollars to blow on consulting a nutritionist every few weeks, it’s very difficult to afford a psychologist, physician, and nutritionist, even with health insurance lending a hand when it comes to the first two.
My therapist tried to figure out what had led me to forgo my previous pasta-packed diet for steamed broccoli with a side of air as my sole meal for the day. My mother was anorexic as well, and she remained plagued by the disorder, even as she died of pancreatic cancer, remarking that she “shouldn’t indulge” when I offered her a chocolate following chemo. Statistically, if a relative has an eating disorder, you are eight times more likely to develop one yourself. There’s a belief that genetics can play a role in eating disorders, nearly as much as brain chemistry. But I was the opposite of my mother. Where she was conservative, I was outspoken. While she touted Ralph Lauren and Chanel, I wore ripped jeans and Converse. We couldn’t have been more different. But there I was, depriving myself of that same chocolate, only my irrational mind wasn’t recoiling with a fear of indulgence. It was simply about control.
Probably the most baffling things about my disorder was the fact that it really didn’t have to do with being fat. I was never overweight, having been athletic for most of my childhood. I suffered the freshman fifteen, but they melted away the following year when I shunned white sugar and tried to quit drinking. I didn’t become anorexic because I wanted to fit into skinny jeans, at my height I was already a size 0 before I got sick. It wasn’t as if I stopped eating because the girl I was trying to sleep with ditched me for a skinnier lady, or because some elderly relative made a comment about my hips. Somewhere in the chaos of moving across the country, of getting sober and moving in with my boyfriend, eating became my only haven. There was some quiet, disconnected part of me that felt relief when I didn’t finish the food on my plate, or started reducing the amount of cereal I ate with the help of a measuring cup. Although I was the first person to scoff at the waif of a woman at the gym who wore sweatpants in August and seemed cemented to the elliptical, I was right there next to her. I would make comments about celebrities who looked like lollipops with their enormous heads, and I would mutter, “Eat a donut” when I passed any woman with a visible sternum. On the outside I was exhibiting a more aggressive version of my usual balls-out bravado, but on the inside I was jealous. And very, very hungry.
I became obsessed with food and ashamed of my obsession. At night, while my boyfriend would read a novel, I would pore over cookbooks, looking for meat-free, dairy-free, fat-free recipes that I could maybe one day make. I was chasing tofu-covered windmills. Worst of all, the majority of my brain knew what I was doing was ridiculous and hypocritical, but I couldn’t stop. It didn’t seem like a big deal, though. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my normal self, unchanged. Even when my father, never a man prone to drama or emotional displays, sat me down and tearfully told me that I had no idea how terrible I looked, I didn’t see it. Not until I went to the gynecologist to try to figure out where my period disappeared to did it become clear. 82 pounds was beyond underweight for my height, it was dangerous. Regardless of what the mirror was trying to convince me, I couldn’t argue with numbers.
One of the worst parts about being just another starving statistic, is that many people who knew me blamed it on my veganism. They looked at it as part and parcel of my disorder, when, in my mind, it clearly wasn’t. I had been a vegetarian in high-school, and becoming a vegan in adulthood was a choice born from liking animals and hating cancer. To those individuals who challenged my veganism as just an other example of being fucked up, I could argue that I started starving in Portland, Oregon, mecca for vegans. It wasn’t as if I was sitting down to a meal at Denny’s and saying, “I can’t eat anything here, I’m vegan.” I was refusing mock-meatball subs and biscuits with almond gravy, plates of animal-free greasy goodness that would have kept me full, happy, healthy, and adhering to my ideals. Instead my family begged me to eat hamburgers and mac n’ cheese, speaking to me as though my refusal – though certainly still rooted in a deep fear of food – had nothing to do with my previous, and still upheld, conviction that I didn’t want to eat something that once had a face. If I ate anything at all.
As angry as I was at those around me for failing to separate two seriously different things, I could understand it. The American Dietetic Association has reported that vegetarian teenagers are more likely to adopt patterns of disordered eating than their omnivorous counterparts. It’s easier to blame a food allergy or ethical diet for the omission of a meal, rather than simply saying that you’re afraid of gaining weight, or that you see a phantom belly roll in the mirror. Vegetarian and vegan diets can be convenient Trojan horses for crafty people who think that those around them will be more likely to overlook the underlying mental illness if there is a seemingly well-thought-out cause. But the truth is that a balanced vegan diet is far from dangerous, it’s delicious and beneficial for your health. Anorexia and other eating disorders are just another label for suicide, while veganism is the opposite. I admit that the attention, weight loss, and opportunity to skip out on certain meals that came with veganism appealed to that mentally sick part of me, though. So it’s understandable how those well-minding meat eaters in my inner circle could easily see my refusal to give up an aversion to certain foods as a failure to truly get well. And to this day attempting to convince them of otherwise burns more calories than it’s worth.
Recovery is weird. I liken it to a video game where you never know when you’re either going to level up or have to fight some completely new assailant with three horns that breathes fire. It sucks. It requires more work than owning a puppy and, if you’re the type of person who prides themselves on their intelligence, it makes you feel dumber than a bag of rocks. Which is frustrating. I’m the kind of girl who likes being able to debate current events, who plays word games and watches Jeopardy!. I own a bookshelf, for Chrissakes. Feeding myself shouldn’t be such an insurmountable task. But it is.
Even writing this makes me feel a little bit like an actor recording a “Say No To Drugs” PSA and then doing a speedball in the bathroom of a club. I still struggle with it every day, and it wins more often than I’d like to admit. My shame doesn’t stop me from speaking out, though. And so long as I keep running my mouth and shoving food into it, I think I’m doing okay.