Control. It’s one of those abstract concepts that everyone wants a piece of. It’s an especially hot topic when it comes to fitness and dieting: control your appetite, your sweet tooth, your emotional eating, your impulses, your cravings, your exercise regimen…When you think about it, a great deal of the marketing involved in the health and fitness industry centers around control, how to get it, and how to keep it. The idea is that if we can control our bodies, we can control the universe. We’re supposed to believe that our bodies are the enemy, and that everything about them–from our thighs to our cravings for potato chips or chocolate–is designed to work against us and undo all our hard effort. And from this notion we take the belief one step further: we should be engaged in a constant struggle. It is us versus our bodies.
I’ve mentioned before that when you’re suffering from an eating disorder, your experience with it is simultaneously unique to you and similar to that of other sufferers. One factor that always seems to be shared is a desire for control; what differs are the reasons why getting control seems so essential. In my case, my ED was triggered by being bullied at work and feeling helpless. When your boss is picking on you and making your life miserable for reasons you can’t figure out, and when the people who should be able to help you are turning a blind eye, it’s very easy to feel like you have no control over anything that’s going on in your life. In cases like this, taking control of what you put in your body, or how you deal with it once it’s there, becomes incredibly appealing. And the more helpless and out of control you feel, the more profoundly you immerse yourself in starving yourself, or bingeing, or purging. It’s an incredibly easy equation, and when you’re suffering from an eating disorder, it’s incredibly appealing.
Unsurprisingly, there is a high percentage of comorbidity between eating disorders and depression (according to one study, the rate is 94%). What I find interesting about this is how similar (and at the same time different) the issue of control in depression is to control in EDs. In the case of depression, control can both trigger and aggravate the person suffering. One of the most difficult things I dealt with when I was experiencing the worst of my depression was the feeling that every situation I encountered was outside my control; that there was some force greater than I was that was actively working against me, and over which I had no control whatsoever; and that there was absolutely no way I’d ever be able to turn things around. It’s easy to see how this sort of thinking can both lead to and perpetuate a depressive episode.
In both eating disorders and depression, control becomes an obsession, and when you’re dealing with both at the same time, you feel caught in a never-ending battle in which you’re constantly fighting to get what you feel you will never, ever have.
One of the most central aspects of my recovery, and one of the things I have to work hard on every single day, is the idea that no matter what, I will never be able to take control over everything and that this fact does not make me helpless or put me at a disadvantage; indeed, it makes me normal. Having complete control is an illusion, and so is the idea that whoever or whatever does have control is operating against you. But because our society makes such a big deal of it, we get very easily caught up in its trappings, and control becomes something that the ED voice uses to draw you in, while the depressive voice uses it to hold you under.
The reality is this: there are things we can control. Examples: the food we buy at the grocery store; whether we exercise or not on any given day; whether we take the bus or the train to get to work; whether we do something nice for ourselves. There are also things we can’t control. Examples: the weather; the decisions of others; whether the bus comes on time or not. Gaining control is not the key to success nor is it the key to happiness; however, realizing and internalizing that fact just may be.
- Anorexic Women Targeted by “Super-Skinny” Porn Websites (guardian.co.uk)