At least 30 million people of all genders suffer from eating disorders in the United States. Someone dies from eating disorder-related complications every 62 minutes — it has the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness. There are many different eating disorders but the two most common are anorexia and bulimia. The former is all about restrictive eating to the point of starving oneself, and the latter involves binging and purging.
The desire to talk about this on the podcast came from my want and need to explore taboos. I have always been conscious of my appearance, but have tried to fight against the strong narrative that women need to be thin to be worthy. I believe that eating disorders are universal. Whether you’re a man, woman, American, European, binary, nonbinary — you name it — these disorders live under the surface of many humans. And, as Elizabeth Carlisle, an actress in Los Angeles, a friend, and someone who has dealt with anorexia, mentioned during our conversation, it has nothing to do with food.
I am on a constant journey of self-love and acceptance. I think that no matter what kind of trauma we may have, this needs to be the goal and focus for all of us. I hope this conversation will help others be transparent with themselves and with others, as that is the first step toward healing.
I sat down with Elizabeth to gain some insight. We discuss the relationship between eating disorders and trauma, why this type of mental illness is so difficult to heal from, and the tools she uses to cope.
The relationship between eating disorders and trauma
Elizabeth was a ballet dancer from a young age. When she was twelve years old, she enrolled in a competitive ballet school and was soon hospitalized for anorexia.
Elizabeth was hospitalized four times throughout her adolescence. When asked where her eating disorder stemmed from, she says that it’s something that she has thought about a lot. She believes that ballet was the trigger, although she recognizes that it stemmed from a need to be seen, heard, respected, and in control.
These feelings may have developed due to the fact that she is the youngest of three siblings and there is a large age gap between herself and her brother and sister. She felt like she was babied throughout her life and that it could be a contributing factor to her disorder. A buildup of many separate events could have constituted a trauma, and her anorexia was her way of coping with it.
This, on top of the fact that there is pressure to be thin in the world of ballet, resulted in her disorder. She also believes that eating disorders are very similar to addictions. If she had not been in ballet, she may be an alcoholic or a drug addict. In the same way that addicts use substances to escape from their trauma, Elizabeth used food restriction to escape as well as gain control.
Eating disorders are difficult to heal from
When asked if her hospitalizations encouraged her to heal, she says no. She did everything she had to so that she could go home, but by the time the treatment was over she was scared to go back to her regular life — and regular eating patterns.
She says that she didn’t want to get well as that would mean gaining weight. She did everything she could to keep herself out of the hospital, but she was still mentally dealing with her disorder and everything that came along with it. She still struggles today, especially with feelings of shame and guilt.
Today, Elizabeth sees a therapist but affirms that her eating disorder is still very present in her mind. She still restricts her food and is very hard on herself in terms of her appearance. She has a fear that if she does get well, she will let herself go and eat food that she considers to be “off limits.” She’s afraid of weight gain and says that unfortunately, much of her self-worth is based on her appearance.
She affirms that it’s something that she is working through and believes that she can manage it, but it is also something that she may have to cope with her entire life. Thanks to the work that she has done with her therapist, she has tools that she uses to make sure that it doesn’t completely control her life. It’s a battle, but one that she hasn’t given up on.
Tools to cope with an eating disorder
One of the ways that Elizabeth works towards combating her disorder is through self-awareness and self-compassion. When she finds herself restricting, she tries to take a moment to ask herself, “what’s really upsetting me right now?” She knows that she has a tendency to use her eating disorder as a crutch, and she tries to get to the bottom of her negative self-talk which results in restriction. It’s not easy, but she says that it helps her put things into perspective.
Being honest and setting boundaries is also key. When she is honest with people about her boundaries, she feels a lot better about herself. She also tries her best to talk back to what she refers to as her “eating disorder voice.” She knows that it’s irrational and she stands her ground. As a young girl — like many other women — she was raised to be nice and not hurt anyone’s feelings, even if it meant putting herself second. Fighting against this societal norm has helped her in a myriad of ways.
Another unfortunate societal norm is to base our value on our appearance. This is even more true in the world of ballet as well as in Hollywood, both places where Elizabeth has spent a lot of time. It isn’t surprising, then, that coupled with trauma, she turned to restrictive eating to gain some resemblance of control.
It’s time to reject those societal norms and come up with our own. Opening up about insecurities and pressures is just one way to do so. Having conversations and dialogues can allow people to feel seen and heard. When you speak your truth and someone listens without judgment, it can make all the difference, and potentially, save someone’s life.
To learn more about Elizabeth’s experiences, tune in here to listen to our conversation in depth.