Susanne Carlson: Eating disorders are, quite simply, nothing more nor less than mental illnesses

As a society, we avoid the uncomfortable. But sometimes being uncomfortable is a sign of growth and positive change. Eating disorders are not a comfortable subject but they thrive in silence. As a survivor, I will not stay silent.

We are often told that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, that they are caused by the media and vanity, or that they are a diet gone wrong. The truth is that eating disorders are mental illnesses that claim victims through many different avenues. Most often, people who suffer from eating disorders hold deep beliefs that they are just not enough.

Society minimizes what the true implications of an eating disorder are. The impact on a person’s life can vary, according to duration and severity of the illness. But the fact remains that five per cent to 20 per cent of those with eating disorders will die as a result.

There are existing clinical categories for eating disorders and I have been through treatment with individuals who have been diagnosed across the board. I will tell you something. The diagnosis means absolutely nothing when it comes to helping someone. Place them in a box and you condemn them to sub-par treatment and recovery that will leave them prone to relapse.

Every person has their own story and that story does not fit within the boxes of diagnosis. Each story needs to be heard and worked through. Each person needs to feel acknowledged, believed and validated that their experience means something — that they aren’t inherently mentally unstable or a lost cause.

For some, the cause is a trauma or a difficult experience that has not been dealt with. For others their condition is lined to anxiety, stress, or depression. For some, it is from being bullied in childhood, for others the roots are difficult to trace.

Eating disorders can happen to anyone but that does not mean that everyone will develop an eating disorder under the same circumstances. Eating disorders are genetic in nature. A person who can develop an eating disorder has a slightly different brain structure and genetic makeup than those who cannot.

It is said the genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.

According to Dr. Walter Kaye, “We know biology and genetics are highly relevant in terms of cause and can also play a role in how people respond to treatment. Understanding the genetics behind these conditions is important, because it could eventually help us tailor treatment based on the person’s genetic makeup, with the goal of more personalized and effective treatments.”

I could write an entire book about the painful memories of my eating disorder. The symptoms I used in public and behind closed doors, the secret life I lived, the painful knowledge that I was dying and hurting those around me.

I could share the “shock value” of those details, but they are not relevant because every experience is valid, no matter the severity of symptoms. If you are hurting and living within the confines of an eating disorder, no matter what the symptoms are, you need and deserve help.

An eating disorder is not a display or lack of will power. It is entrapment within the cages of your own brain. It is realizing that your entire sense of worth is wrapped up in illogical madness. There comes a realization that you will never be enough for it, that you will one day have to rip yourself free to survive and feel the pain of disobeying it.

Recovery has been the most painful experience of my life. It has tested all of my limits, shown me the extent of strength in my personhood. It has broken me down into crying heaps on the floor and raised me up to simple joys such as laughing with my husband over dinner.

It has shown me my vulnerability and made me appreciate the world in a new way. It is a rejoining of the world from which I disappeared.

I am still haunted daily by my eating disorder, but I fight to hold onto the fulfilling life I have worked to give myself after years of feeling hopeless. I work hard to untangle myself from the web of my illness more and more each day.

Sometimes I get stuck, sometimes I get wrapped up tighter again but I am always making progress. An eating disorder changes everything. Recovery has the power to change it all again for the better.


Susanne Carlson is a Douglas College therapeutic recreation student from the Coquitlam area. She is a survivor of a 10 year long battle with an eating disorder.