What is anorexia?
Anorexia is an eating disorder, obviously. It is not the only eating disorder, however, there are many different eating disorders out there. Some of anorexia’s well known siblings are bulimia and binge eating disorder. What all eating disorders have in common is that for the person who has it, eating isn’t a normal thing anymore, it is in fact disordered. It has a lot of facets and even though these interact, they can generally be divided into physical, psychological and social.
Anorexia is an eating disorder, obviously. It is not the only eating disorder, however, there are many different eating disorders out there. Some of anorexia's well known siblings are bulimia and binge eating disorder. What all eating disorders have in common is that for the person who has it, eating isn't a normal thing anymore, it is in fact disordered. It has a lot of facets and even though these interact, they can generally be divided into physical, psychological and social.
What most people come up with first, when asked what anorexia is, is weightloss. Being underweight, having lost up 15 to 20% of your normal weight, is in fact one of the official criteria for anorexia. However, weightloss doesn't say it all. If you were simply on a diet, you'd lose weight too, but that wouldn't automatically mean you had anorexia. Also -and this is my personal opinion- I think it's possible to have anorexia without being underweight, just as it is possible to be quite thin and not to have anorexia. I feel that, even though anorexics are usually underweight or close, that this doesn't have to be the case. For example, when you first develop anorexia, your weight isn't dramatically low right away, even though you do already have anorexia. Also, you could have anorexia, but just be not very good at losing weight. This means that, if you think that you or somebody you care about might have anorexia, you shouldn't dismiss the possibility right away because your or their weight isn't that low.
Another obvious thing about anorexia is that when you have anorexia, you eat less than would be considered normal: you diet. This 'diet' differs from normal diets in several ways. First of all there is no goal weight. When you're on a diet, you do so for a limited time and with a specific weight in mind. After this period of time, having reached (or not) that goal, you stop dieting and go back to a normal and hopefully healthy eating pattern. When you have anorexia, however, this isn't the case. Usually there is only a general goal: to lose 'some weight'. Because this goal isn't very specific, it's not clear when it has been reached, which is part of the reason that this diet is pretty much indefinite... Another difference between a normal diet and an anorexic diet is how rigorous it is. In a normal diet, there are standards and guidelines, which may be very strict. However, even though you eat less food and especially fewer snacks, breaking the rules isn't a big deal. You might feel a bit guilty when you have a cookie when you shouldn't have, but you chose to have it at that moment, and that's okay. If you have anorexia, breaking the rules is a huge deal, it's a crime, a personal failure. It makes you feel awful! An anorexic diet is usually more rigorous and strict than any conventional or sensible diet. In a normal diet, there are of course guidelines, some things you're allowed to eat and some things you're not, but it usually also gives you some idea as to what and how much you should eat. In an anorexic diet, more is less. There is only one real rule: eat as little as possible, and the less you eat, the better it is. The only way to follow this diet to the letter would be to eat absolutely nothing. There are a lot of extra rules as well, which might seem ridiculous to others and hard to explain, because they have no real reason or foundation. For example, you might want to eat only even numbered things, or always a third of everything, or chew every bite a certain number of times. Finally, a big difference between a normal diet and an anorexic diet is that in a normal diet, you can stop. Starting it was a conscious choice, and stopping it is a conscious choice as well. Anorexia isn't something you choose to do, it usually starts as a normal diet and then gets out of hand. Stopping isn't easy.
There are two subtypes of anorexia. Anorexics of the restricting type 'merely' restrict what they eat. The purging type is different in that anorexics of this type compensate when they do eat, for example by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics or exercising excessively.
Dieting and losing weight are the most obvious physical characteristics of this illness, and these come with physical complications. In general you could say that it weakens your body, and this is noticeable in many systems.
Psychologically and socially
Restricting what you eat and losing weight as a consequence, however, is only one part of anorexia. The other part is what goes on in your mind and the impact it has on your social life.
First of all it takes up a lot of time, a lot of 'thoughtspace'. There isn't time for anything else. Thinking about it, planning things and panicking about it can make you feel awful on itself. Also, because the anorexia comes first, you feel the need to plan your life around it. Because you're afraid of being forced to eat, you might start avoiding social occasions, make sure you're alone when it's time to eat, come up with excuses... You miss out on a lot of nice things. In addition to that, all the lying and scamming doesn't make you any nice to be with! All of this causes you to feel very lonely, which in turn makes you hold on to the anorexia even tighter...
Feeling lonely is only one of the emotions involved. There are a lot of negative emotions that might attack you: fear (of gaining weight, being forced to eat something, that somebody might find out), anger (for being forced to eat something extra, at yourself for not sticking to the diet, at others for butting in), panic (after having eaten something, at the thought of a social occasion where food is involved), sadness (because of feeling alone and misunderstood)... At the same time your emotions are numb when it comes to being happy and looking forward to things, or being intensely sad.
Because the anorexia affects your life so thoroughly, you can feel as if you don't have a life, and anorexia is all you have. It's very hard to see that what you want, to be happy, is not something anorexia can give you but instead what it took from you. Still it can make you feel like you have no reason to get better, no life to get back to... even though getting better is the way to get that life back!
When you have anorexia, you tend to see things differently than everybody else. You think of yourself as fat and truly feel that way, even though you're not. You might feel like you don't really have a problem and it's all under control, even when it's not, and that others are overreacting. You might not realize how serious this really is and how much danger you are actually in, even though everybody around you is really afraid for you. Or you might realize you are in trouble, but not think you can stop it.
When you have anorexia, you think in a different way, because your thoughts are preoccupied with losing weight. Gaining weight feels like the worst thing in the world, even if you are told you will die if you don't... it doesn't feel that way. This doesn't mean that when you have anorexia, you're crazy, unreasonable and should just be ignored. It does mean, however, that when you have anorexia, where food and weight are concerned, you are most likely wrong. The voice that tells you not to gain weight, not to eat more, is the voice of anorexia. You will have to trust the people that love you to tell you the truth, because they want the best for you and anorexia doesn't. This isn't an easy thing to do, however.