When people hear about children or young adults developing a serious, potentially chronic and even fatal medical condition, the responses are fairly predictable. Often an adult will feel sadness at the thought of someone early in life struggling, of a life derailed by illness, something most people are fortunate enough to associate with old age. Someone might focus on the unfairness of getting sick young or the loss accompanied with being unwell in the formative years. Many will feel powerful sympathy and even the deep desire to be able to heal a sick child.
However, these are not the responses to a child or young adult diagnosed with an eating disorder. These reactions are also predictable but much less helpful. An adult often is perplexed at the idea that a child is not eating when food is plentiful. People often get frustrated and angry at the one who is ill. Someone who might sympathize with a sick child instead sees the eating disorder as a personal flaw and consequently only feels sympathy for the parents.
Unlike other childhood illnesses which elicit support and love, eating disorders lead to confusion and frustration. A child or young adult in pain and suffering with an eating disorder needs care, love and kindness to find a path to recovery. Instead, the child is more often ostracized by the adults most likely to help.
The rise in the incidence of eating disorders was quickly followed by two phenomena that could bind together people with eating disorders against the universal lack of comprehension of these illnesses: the rise of eating disorder treatment programs and the birth and spread of the internet. These two events allowed isolated, scared children and young adults to find others who were sick and understood what they felt and experienced each day. As much as the growth of community has had negative consequences by allowing the birth of the pro-Ana and pro-Mia websites, the connection also created the opportunity to feel understood.
The concept of "getting it" fundamentally reflects the powerful desire for people with eating disorders to feel understood. From the start, family, friends and clinicians treat them like pariahs, strange, confused and potentially threatening. The power of knowing that someone understands them, their behaviors, emotions and desires, is undeniable. In fact, just the experience of being understood often opens a door to imagining recovery more than any part of treatment.
When I think back to my first experiences as a therapist in the outpatient program at UCLA, I realize that somehow I really did understand the internal struggle one has with an eating disorder very quickly. There was a level of communication around these illnesses that struck me personally and allowed me to deeply learn and understand. The group caught onto that piece of me and, desperate to feel understood and cared for, capitalized on it during my time in the program.
In fact, they seemed to indirectly ask me not to abandon them by pursuing other avenues in my career. The message was clear: "Since you get it, we need you to help us. Please understand that not many people can make sense of the struggle and suffering of an eating disorder so use your knowledge to make this your career path. Please don't abandon us."
I got the message loud and clear and have diligently followed that path. It isn't perhaps until now that I understood the message I received years ago, but I have felt the strong urge to make treating people with eating disorders my calling.
My very late reply to that entreaty from years ago is simple: I will do just that. Thank you.