I posted a fairly restrained status update on Facebook last night in response to reading jokey comments about Amy Winehouse:
“I’ve had several friends die or come close to death due to mental health problems and addictions. They are complex illnesses just as real as any physical disease, and they do not make a person a waste of space or deserving of the consequences. I’m looking for an atheistic equivalent to “there but for the grace of God”…”
What I wanted to say was, if I had either committed suicide or died due to my eating disorder, would you have been more charitable or just considered my death a bit of a relief for the taxpayer, supporting me on the NHS and through welfare benefits? After all, there are many links between eating disorders and addictions. I don’t think that eating disorders ARE addictions (not anorexia at least – the jury is still out on food or sugar addiction), but similarities exist. They both involve the use of behaviours or substances to dampen anxiety, control mood or cope with distressing memories. People appear to need both a predisposition and a trigger to develop an addiction. Genetics have been implicated quite heavily in alcoholism. There is a high concordance rate between addiction and pre-existing anxiety disorders. One person can experiment with XYZ and be fine, the next can experiment and find it flicks a switch, and from then on battle urges to use to excess. People with perfectly normal and happy childhood experiences can develop addictions, but traumatic histories complicate matters. All of these things are also true for eating disorders.
Most strikingly, both conditions appear on the surface to be within the control of the person affected. People struggling with these sorts of problems face a lot of stigma and misunderstanding. They are called selfish, childish, weak, attention seeking. One of the most ignorant and callous comments I ever came across was on an article about the death of a British girl who suffered from binge/purge subtype anorexia. She had just been given a place at Cambridge University for the following year, and this particular commenter stated that a girl so vain and shallow as to kill herself in her quest for thinness would never have fit in at such an academic establishment. To the uninitiated, people with eating disorders are vapid and stupid and addicts are selfishly seeking pleasure at all costs. But both conditions are a thousand times more complicated than that. For the AGM talk last week I decided to focus on what I saw as some of the reasons recovery was so difficult and elusive, and half way through I borrowed this quote from one of my own posts:
“Because nobody holds a gun to your head and tells you that you must not eat, it can feel as if this is something you are choosing and so any pain you cause yourself or your family and friends is your own fault. But that’s just not true. If the alternative is so terrifying that you can’t imagine choosing to eat even to save your life, that’s not a choice. Your genes, brain chemistry and personal history can hold you captive just as efficiently as another person could.”
Recovery is not just a case of abstaining from behaviours and working on your physical health. It entails changing your fundamental approaches to life and to yourself, giving up your most depended upon coping mechanisms, challenging your core beliefs, rearranging your personality, looking closely at your relationships and making changes where necessary, finding your voice and becoming assertive enough to use it, learning how to spend your free time if not trying to lose weight/get high, and dealing with anything which has been covered up. For me it meant facing the crippling, lifelong anxiety disorder which had derailed my life for well over a decade, as well as the PTSD from being raped which had led to me becoming suicidal in 2007. I used to think that dying would be preferable to having to live my life without the comfort and distraction of restriction. I didn’t think I would ever cope without some sort of barrier between me and my experience of the world.
You could have called me a coward, but I would have liked you to have gone through the same terror I felt before judging me. You could have called me selfish for attempting suicide, but I honestly believed my family and friends would be better off without me. You could have told me to pull myself together and see sense, but you wouldn’t have been able to understand unless you had experienced the near psychosis induced by starvation. For goodness sake, I used to be too scared to drink an extra cup of herbal tea a day because it had 2 calories per 100ml. You think I was rational and capable of making a logical decision about my future?
Sometimes I think people judge those with mental health problems as a way to distance themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them. If you tell yourself that Amy Winehouse was a silly little brat who had everything and threw it away, it means that neither you nor any of your very intelligent and sensible family members could ever possibly find themselves in such a situation. But unlike the general public, addictions and other similar mental health problems don’t discriminate. They affect all sorts of people regardless of gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, background, financial or marital status. No group of people are safe. And people don’t instantly transform from villain to superhero if they do make it into recovery either. They are – myself included – just the lucky ones.
I know that a million tragedies occur in the world every day, and that the press disproportionately focus on those affecting rich, famous, white people. I also have no idea what caused Amy Winehouse to become an addict or fail to respond to treatment. What I do know is that I feel for her and her family and I can’t stand to look at any more harsh and judgemental comments. She didn’t deserve this. No one does.