Every 62 minutes, someone dies of an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Eating disorders can affect anyone, no matter their gender, ethnicity, and age. Yet, as a society, sometimes it’s hard for people struggling with an eating disorder to find help. Hailey MacDonald, a West Springfield High alumna of 2018 studying at Western New England University, recently spoke out about her story during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in late February.
MacDonald started to become aware of her eating disorder around August of 2019. “There were a lot of things happening in my life that stressed me out, like college and that lifestyle as a whole, and I had a lot of responsibilities on my plate. My eating disorder gave me the idea that I could control this one aspect of my life.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the cause of eating disorders isn’t fully understood. However, research suggests that they can develop because of genetic, psychological, and social factors.
If someone is under a lot of emotional distress, they are more at risk of developing one. According to ULifeline, eating disorders are rarely about food or trying to get skinny. People often use food and toxic behaviors like dieting, starving, purging, and binging to cope with their emotions during stressful situations. These behaviors can help people be relieved at the moment but can lead to serious health complications in the future. Psychological disorders like anxiety, OCD, and depression can lead to having an eating disorder. ULifetime also stated that low self-esteem, perfectionism, abuse, bullying, and feelings of hopelessness can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
MacDonald said, “They’re stigmatized. People think it’s all about what you hear about in health class or read in books. They don’t realize that they can come in all different shapes and sizes and that they aren’t as cut-and-dry as you are taught that they are in school.” Not everyone with anorexia nervosa is frail and skinny and not everyone with binge eating disorder is overweight. It’s almost impossible to diagnose someone with an eating disorder just by looking at them. Many people are unaware that they even have an eating disorder. According to MacDonald, there are sometimes good days, and sometimes worse days and eating disorders sometimes come in waves.
“On paper, I was diagnosed with Anorexia, but eating disorders are very difficult to classify,” she said. She explained that there are many branches of eating disorders, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which one you have. The three most well-known are anorexia nervosa, which is characterized by avoiding foods; bulimia nervosa, which is characterized by binging and purging; and binge eating disorder, which is characterized by eating large amounts of foods in short periods.
Eating disorders can tear apart a person’s mental health and physical health. Some symptoms of anorexia, which is what MacDonald was struggling with, are extreme weakness, weight loss, and excessive exercise, feelings of guilt, and embarrassment. “I couldn’t stand or walk for long periods of time. I didn’t have any energy. I had to quit the tennis team because I physically couldn’t work out. I was extremely depressed, too, and also had the ‘normal’ symptoms of depression where I didn’t want to do anything,” MacDonald explained.
Hailey MacDonald now is open about her story and struggle. She receives counseling and is following an eating plan, although it isn’t easy. “Get help. Talk to someone. Be honest with them, and be honest with yourself,” MacDonald stressed to those also dealing with eating disorders. When dealing with an eating disorder, it’s important to seek treatment early. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with eating disorders are at higher risk for medical complications and suicide. Treatments can include psychotherapy, medical care, monitoring, nutritional counseling, and medications.
If you have an eating disorder, don’t be afraid to talk to the school’s adjustment counselors and those you trust. MacDonald continued, “You know how bad you feel, and you know you don’t want to feel this way forever. I know it’s so hard to ask for help, but it’s the best thing you could possibly do.”