A Punch Overdue: Ableism in the Eating Disorder Community

I owe my doctor a punch in the face.

No, really. He said so.

It was my freshman year of college and I was seeing Dr. M on a weekly basis. I’d arrive at student health services, pee in a cup, change into a gown, and be weighed backward. You know the drill.

I was being treated for an eating disorder that had my life on the line. It was January 22nd, the day Dr. M scared me into recovery. He said I had to change my ways or I would die. Fair enough. He also said once I started eating I would feel so much better.

I’d been having joint pain. Fatigue. Dizziness. Orthostatic intolerance. It all made sense. The eating disorder can cause all of those. But my joint pain had been present since before the eating disorder began. I’d been checked out for everything under the sun but the only thing that fit was hypermobility syndrome that they said I’d grow out of.

None of it really mattered to Dr. M compared to my inability to eat. “You’ll feel better,” he said, “If you don’t, you can come back and punch me in the face.”

So I ate. And I ate. And I ate. I shoved grilled cheese sandwiches down my dry throat and washed them down with ice cream. I did it as an amateur, guided only by a nutritionist who didn’t really seem to care but whom I was obligated to see since I had weaseled my way out of treatment months earlier.

I ate and I didn’t feel better. The sprains and strains still came while I was walking to class. I still ached at night and felt dizzy when I stood up. When eating and classwork became too much to handle at once, I chose medical leave instead of my sophomore year.

During that year I reached a “healthy” weight but didn’t feel better. I ran the gauntlet of medical tests again and was diagnosed with Joint Hypermobility Disorder, a collagen disorder that makes my body too stretchy. I went to occupational therapy where I learned tricks and tips for avoiding pain during daily tasks. I got on stronger medication and learned exercises to stabilize my joints.

I went back to school the following year but didn’t give Dr. M the punch he deserved. Even now, I seek to defend him. He couldn’t have known. But if he’d taken my pain seriously, maybe…maybe what? Maybe I would’ve come to the soul-crushing realization that my body wasn’t ever going to be ‘normal’ or even ‘healthy’ ever again months in advance. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the false hope for months that things would be different, that I would be okay.

But maybe he spared me the difficulty of juggling eating, school, and the realization that mobility aids were in my future all at once. It’s not worth thinking more about. It is what it is. And it is ableism.

Ableism is rampant in the eating disorder community. Recovery propaganda is all about what the body can do. It’s about what you can do once you recover. You can eat what you want and you can exercise and travel and have fun. It sounds great. It sounds like a beautiful, happy, normal life.

But what if you can’t do those things? What if you’re in a wheelchair? What if you have IBS? What if you have chronic pain? What if you have POTS? What’s your motivation to recover then?

Disabled persons are no less likely to have an eating disorder. In fact, in some cases, they go hand-in-hand.

My disability is far less severe than many others, but it still limits my life. I have daily, chronic pain that is more or less managed with medication and limited activity levels. I use mobility aids as necessary. I am still learning to eat (again) but my ability to exercise, travel, and have action-oriented “fun” is limited because I need an opportunity to sit wherever I go.

What are we, the disabled, supposed to recover for, then? Freedom, of course, and life, but one that looks different than the majority’s.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating what you can do in recovery and sharing your personal motivations. But when all of the imagery is ‘and now I can do this and this and this’ and you can do none of those things, it hurts. And when doctors, therapists, and nutritionists buy into it, it becomes dangerous.

What if I had had a terminal condition instead of a chronic one that Dr. M chose not to look into because of my eating disorder? It took me nearly ten years to be diagnosed with JHS after my pain began because my doctors kept insisting I would grow out of it. And then I had an eating disorder that doctors attributed all of my symptoms to.

I am fine, but what if the situation had been more serious? Would they have missed something that cost me my life because of the ‘eat and feel better’ rhetoric?

This rhetoric, this assumption needs to go. By all means, celebrate what recovery has given you. We cheer for you too. But please don’t assume that everyone who recovers will be able to do the same. Be inclusive in recovery rhetoric just like in all other spaces. We won’t have a ‘normal’ life after recovery, but we need just as much inspiration and support for recovering too.


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