“I don’t know what to believe anymore. The doctors have classified it as anorexia. I
don’t see it, don’t believe it, but the doctors also say that denial is one of the symptoms.
People with anorexia don’t think they have it… A normal illness would be easier because at
least the person who has it would be trying to get rid of it… They’d want to get rid of it,
want to get better. They would be working with the doctors and their loved ones trying to
keep them alive, not against them… With anorexia, it’s not you and the doctors against the disease. Youand the disease are a team and your enemy is everyone else in the world.”
– excerpt from Paper Thin
From an outside perspective, I think one of the most perplexing things about eating disorders (and many other mental health diagnoses) is the person’s inability to acknowledge that there is a problem. I often hear the word denial, but I don’t think that this is entirely accurate. Denial suggests that the person is aware that there is a problem but won’t admit it. The truth is a lot more complicated. An unfortunate characteristic of many mental illnesses is a warped view of reality. The person dealing with the mental illness is unable to view themselves or their situation as it really is. Instead they see it as if looking through a carnival mirror – the image looks real to them but is actually a distorted version of the truth. And even the distortions aren’t consistent. One day they might see one image, and the next it is something else entirely.
When I was at the lowest point of my eating disorder, I was completely unable to see myself as I actually was. My friends and family cried when they hugged me. They said I was nothing but bones. And yet when I looked into the mirror I either saw what I thought looked like a normal weight or, more often, I saw myself as fat. This made the jump from me adamantly refusing to acknowledge the problem to actively participating in my treatment extremely difficult because I was essentially doing it blind. I had to trust that my parents and the doctors were being truthful and had my best interest at heart even when I couldn’t see that there was anything wrong.
It may sound simple on paper, but at the time I was terrified. There is one particular memory I have that I think sums up the struggle well. I was already a good way into treatment and was gradually making progress toward being a healthy weight but I was still quite thin. I had just gotten out of the shower in my parents’ bathroom. I was wearing shorts and a tank top and using their big bathroom mirror to get ready for the day. As I looked into the mirror, for a split second my perception changed and I was able to see myself as I really was. I looked terrible. My cheeks were sunken and my arms were rail thin. Then abruptly the image switched back to how I normally saw myself. My mom found me sobbing on the bathroom floor. I was so confused and afraid.
I don’t know why I had this moment of clarity, but it was not the norm for me. I was not usually able to see myself as I really was. I was only able to discern the truth from what I was told by the people around me who loved me. For this reason I want to encourage you—if you know someone who is struggling with mental illness but is unable to see their situation clearly don’t be afraid to be their mirror. Don’t fall into the trap of letting it go because they don’t seem concerned by it. If you see something is wrong speak up. Maybe the first time they blow you off. Maybe the second time they blow you off. But maybe, if you or enough people in their lives that they know and trust bring it up, they will take a second look at themselves and start to question what they perceive as truth. That moment when they realize that they can’t trust their own view of reality may be terrifying, but it can also be a motivator for change. This is especially true if it is paired with the support of loved ones alongside them who are willing to offer their own strength and guidance as they take those first baby steps into the difficult journey of recovery.