By Ari Morris
Art by Olivia Gresham
TW: disordered eating, avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder, anorexia, bulimia
Growing up with an eating disorder is a sensation few can relate to. Although I have dealt with disordered eating for as long as I can remember, I only recently started talking about it to my closest friends and family. I have a rare eating disorder called Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) which involves severely restricting the types of food, not for fear of weight gain, but for any other reason[s]. Some people restrict food because of texture, color, smell, or negative past experiences with the food. For me, I can’t pinpoint exactly why I can eat some foods but not others.
Although my ARFID differs from more commonly known eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, there are overlaps in the general experience. Many with an eating disorder can relate to the anxiety surrounding going out to eat with friends. Googling the menu of a restaurant to choose your order beforehand is a common occurrence. Many people with an eating disorder have specific “safe foods” and a hierarchy of “fear foods,” including myself. I remember being 10 years old sobbing at the kitchen table because my parents decided I couldn’t go to bed until I tried soup — one of my fear foods.
Although my eating disorder involves an extreme limitation of what foods I can eat, it is not life threatening. As a result, the majority of the stress resulting from my disorder arises from social situations involving food. Even getting food at Foco can induce stress.
Being at Dartmouth has presented new challenges surrounding my eating disorder. If there is no food that I can eat, I won’t eat at all. In college, I committed to work on my eating habits for the first time in my life. I decided to reach out to Dick’s House counseling. It was the first time I had ever gotten professional help for a disorder I’ve had since childhood. I went through the typical intake appointment, and they referred me to a nutritionist who focuses on eating disorders. I was shocked by how inadequate the treatments for eating disorders are at Dartmouth; during my intake appointment, they told me that although I “deny having body image issues that cause my eating disorder,” I couldn’t be sure that I don’t have anorexia.
I continued for a few sessions with a Dick’s House nutritionist before giving up. Throughout those appointments, they told me that the foods I could eat were very bland and that I should just eat my fear foods to get over my disorder. Imagine that you are at the doctor because you broke your ankle and they tell you it’s disappointing that you can’t just walk. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. After receiving unsatisfactory help from Dick’s House, I decided to give up altogether. Sadly, I know my experience with Dick’s House counseling is not unusual.
It is often shocking to people that I had an eating disorder for almost two decades before receiving treatment. But to me, it makes complete sense. Since my eating disorder wasn’t causing life-threatening issues, I saw no reason to change my eating habits. Before college, I was able to hide my eating disorder by avoiding eating with friends, claiming I wasn’t hungry, and eating later. However, at college, this isn’t an option; Foco with friends is a part of social life at Dartmouth. I was also scared of putting significant effort into getting help, only to be met with negative experiences with mental health professionals like I did at Dick’s House.
Upon reflection, I realize that another big reason I never got help was that I was too ashamed to talk about it. The amount of stigma surrounding eating disorders in particular makes it so difficult to reach out for help. Even as I write this, I feel anxious about talking about my eating disorder since I have kept it a secret for so many years. Eating disorders can feel so isolating; feeling ashamed to admit you have a problem only makes you feel more alone. I know that an eating disorder is not something I should feel ashamed of. However, it is still so difficult to feel even neutral about my eating disorder after years of being taught that mental illness is not something that should be spoken about openly.
I wish I could write about how I was able to overcome my eating disorder after so many years, but that is not the case. Like many people with eating disorders, I have and will always continue to struggle with food. This reality is worsened by the inadequate social systems of care (this goes beyond Dick’s House!) that fail to address eating disorders comprehensively. There is no point where someone “gets rid of” their eating disorder.
I can’t help other people work through their eating disorders because I have neither the experience nor the training to do so. But what I can do is share my story. My hope is that this article speaks to someone and helps them feel less alone.