For as long as I can recall I have struggled to understand why I got an eating disorder and no-one else I knew did. When I was at school there were girls....they were all girls as I went to an all girls school, who had a much tougher time than I did. Some grew up in abusive homes, some struggled with their sexuality, some were abused by family friends and others were burdened with unrealistic academic expectations. It would be understandable if those girls found a way of coping with their unbearable situation by disassociating body and mind. While I am not suggesting they did not find other ways of coping, ways that may have been detrimental to their health, I still battle with the idea that I, one of the lucky ones, developed an eating disorder so severe I would have died for it. It is an odd combination of guilt, shame and utter confusion.
There have been arguments about ones genetic pre-disposition to eating disorders and we know that environmental aspects can play a role but, there appears to be no hard and fast rule except gender. Women and girls are 75% more likely to develop and eating disorder than men and boys, mostly ED emerges in teenagers. While 10% of the 1.25-3.4 million sufferers of ED in the uk will have anorexia, 40% will have bulimia. This means that binge eating disorder (BED) and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED) make up the other 50%. BED is on the increase, especially in men, so while for now, ED affects mostly females, the demographics are changing. So there you have the statistics, yet we still don't know WHY?
I came across an article recently about highly sensitive people and for the first time everything seemed to make sense. I am only speaking for myself here, but there are certainly traits I have identified in clients suffering ED. Highly sensitive people tend to avoid violent movies and TV shows, they can be deeply moved by art or music, or anything they consider to be beautiful, they can feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, they crave downtime and have deep feelings, thoughts and sensations. While some of these traits appear similar to those of the autistic spectrum, it's the deep emotional intelligence which sets them apart. Highly sensitive people are deeply empathetic. I find it particularly interesting that many of my clients are women working in caring professions. I have served 17 years as a public servant. I have taken on additional roles such as caring for those who have lost a loved one through crime and talking to people in crisis. When I reflect on my career it is these roles that I am most proud of but they have also taken the most toll. I often feel like my gift of connecting with other humans is a blessing and a curse. It drives me to serve and leaves me depleted in equal measures. These feelings go back as far as I can remember. When I was in primary school I would raise money for WWF, I would lay awake at night preying for world peace and when I was admonished for bad behaviour I would feel terrible. It felt, at times, like it was my job in life to take on the emotional burden of others.
It is no wonder that I found a means to switch off, to disconnect, to disassociate from the constant barrage of thoughts, feelings and emotions, especially during that very difficult phase we all know as puberty. It's one thing to be a highly sensitive adult, it's an entirely different thing to be a highly sensitive confused teenager who's brain is flooded with unrelenting, unruly hormones. I think this goes some way to explain why ED may effect more females than males. I am not suggesting that males are insensitive, on the contrary, the suicide statistics around the globe suggest men and boys feel the same array of emotions as women and girls but sadly aren’t always given the language or the freedom to express themselves as children. This is something that must change. However, what I am speaking about is the emotional intelligence and I believe the females do tend to be more emotionally intelligent.....feel free to get upset by this assertion...I am only expressing my opinion, but evolution does kind of back me up here. While men had the strength to fight it out, women's survival relied on their ability to read people and placate hostile members of the tribe. They were also responsible for nurturing the young, which meant tuning into the needs of the most vulnerable members of the tribe. In short, the survival of homo sapiens relied on highly sensitive people. It is innate in many of us, particularly females.
So there it is. After 25 years of wondering why I was afflicted with this god awful illness, I have come to realise it is because I am human, I am highly sensitive, emotionally intelligent and perceptive to the needs of others. Am I sad, bitter or resentful? God no. I have learnt so much about me and the world around me. I have used my skills to serve others. I get to experience the world as those who are less attuned will never experience it. It is exhausting, overwhelming and challenging, but I wouldn't change it.