Thursday, May 7, 2009

High-functioning, still eating disordered

There is an interesting piece in the NY Times called "High-functioning, but still alcoholics." In it, Sarah Allen Benton, author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, says,

"
high-functioning alcoholics are able to maintain respectable, even high-profile lives, usually with a home, family, job and friends. That balancing act continues until something dreadful happens that reveals the truth — to themselves or to others — and forces the person to enter a treatment program or lose everything that means anything."

This description reminded me of the similarities of what I've always called the "high-functioning" eating disordered person. These are the individuals who continue to excel in academics, careers, sports, hobbies, motherhood, etc. despite actively engaging in their eating disorders. It's actually quite a paradox, as one would think the opposite--that these individuals could not function.

The problem with this success (for however long that might be) is that it provides a sense of illusion that there really isn't a problem. Because again, the logic would be the eating disorder would not allow them to function, so how is it they are still functioning? As Peter Hamill, author of A Drinking Life, says
"If I was able to function, to get the work done, there was no reason to worry about drinking. It was part of living, one of the rewards."

Or as Benton says, "Having outside accomplishments led me and others to excuse my drinking and avoid categorizing me as an alcoholic. My success was the mask that disguised the underlying demon and fed my denial."


I guess I bring up this whole point of the "high-functioning" eating disordered person, because I think a lot of us fall or have fallen into this trap at one time or another. We may not completely flat and out deny we have a problem, but there is still the idea we can somehow be both. While it is true, this can work for awhile, eventually our bodies and minds will catch up to the deprivation. And by that time, sometimes it becomes too late to fix the existing damage.

The take home message is to not be fooled by "high-functioning." Because in the end, it's still an eating disorder. Or as Benton says, "
It’s not the number of drinks that defines an alcoholic. It's what happens to you when you’re drinking." In this case, it would be, "it's not the number of calories (or weight) that defines an eating disorder, but rather what happens you when actively engaged in your eating disorder."

Note--*For further reading about the "functional alcoholic," Caroline Knapp's Drinking: a love story is excellent. I actually found myself significantly relating to this book more than other eating disorders ones.

14 comments:

Charlynn said...

This was me in the course of my eating disorder. I worked full-time, went to school full-time, took care of everything for which I was responsible. And I did not always look sick, so people (including family) did not understand why I felt like I was falling apart on the inside. It constantly made me wonder if anything really was wrong with me.

Anonymous said...

I'm there now :-( I don't even know how one would go about asking for help and it feels like I would have so much to lose if I did. Thanks for the article, it is helpful to have someone else put that feeling into words.

Blogking said...

Alcoholism is the new death wish…..so go ahead and take another sip. we need to offer a hand to those in need of help. Help by helping, not by avoiding…come on people

http://www.recoveryconnection.org/?utm_source=blog&utm_medium=pv&utm_content=zs&utm_campaign=home

Cammy said...

You have hit on the dominant theme of the last nine or ten years of my life. I don't think it's possible to emphasize this point enough. Achieving and being successful and functional does not mean that it's OK for someone to abuse themselves in other ways, as long as they're able to perform. Major, major trap.

I have read all of Knapp's other books besides that one, I wasn't sure if I'd find as much to relate to, but I will have to pick it up soon. Have you read A Pack of Two? That one definitely made me think of you, with the dog-lover theme. :)

Kim said...

You have described me perfectly. This is one thing that has kept me stuck for so long. I may have to blog about this... I have always been very highly-functioning. Yes, I went to a treatment center, but it was in summer, after graduating from college. It was a "responsible" exit from life. Otherwise, when in school, I went to all my classes and got straight A's. In the working world, I've always held a job and not missed days of work. I guess this is how I've rationalized that I don't really have a big problem. Yes, I'm thin, but I'm not scary thin. I have a great way to convince myself that I'm "fine." Interestingly, my husband used to be a very highly-functioning alcoholic. It took both of us a long time to realize he had a problem. He's been sober for a long time now, but it's still interesting that we both have these personality traits. I may steal this idea for a post, if you don't mind. I'll credit you :)

Kathleen said...

I also read this article yesterday and immediately related it to my ED. I related most to the "signs of addiction". It makes sense because they are both behavioral issues that have a certain negative stigma in our society.

Homeopath said...

very interesting, keep up the great posts!

Tiptoe said...

I had a feeling there would be quite a few of us who could relate to the "high-functioning" existence, unfortunately.

Charlynnn, very true, part of the problem is that then we begin to question whether our illnesses are really real.

Anon, I hope you try to reach out. Do you have someone you can trust--friend, doctor, other professional? You may feel like you would be losing everything, but just think how much you have already lost from the ED.

Cammy, so true. It becomes one gigantic trap and continues a vicious cycle which just becomes harder and harder to come out of, especially when there is outside reinforcement.

I think you'll find Drinking interesting. Yes, I read Pack of Two awhile back. It was a good book overall.

Kim, go right ahead. :-) I think it is easy for us to describe everything as "fine" when it is far from it. Interesting about your husband.

Kathleen, yes, I think there is a correlation with EDs and addictions. We still have a lot to learn.

Homeopath, glad you enjoyed.

Bekah said...

excellent post. i so relate to alcoholics and would still be going to AA meetings if i just hadn't felt awkward because i wasn't an alcoholic. i definitely am an addict, maybe not a substance, but definitely a process addict. powerless, unmanageable, on and on...

Gaining Back My Life said...

Why do we continue to lie to ourselves? I kid myself thinking I am in recovery. This article hit close to home.

Kara said...

Thanks for this post. I've known several high-functioning "EDers" and even though they are very high functioning they are in very dangerous places in terms of health. Thanks for shedding light on this issue.

PTC said...

I think this is why I believe i don't really have an ED. I played 2 division 1 sports in college with an ED and no one ever knew. (Okay, my coach sort of knew but I still broke all kinds of records and wasn't in danger to myself).

Tiptoe said...

PTC, EDs are sly and cunning in this way. Even with success, there is still a problem.

Tiff Grady said...

I just stumbled across this. I have a mother-in-law who admits to being anorexic but seems to definitely be high-functioning. I get so angry at her because I can see she is so sick, and her family is in denial. I have talked to her and encouraged her to get help. I was sympathetic, not threatening and tried to help her see that I was only watching out for her health. She agreed and said she would get help. that was four years ago. She was just here for a weekend trip and she is still struggling. She is obsessed with food - talking about it constantly, she pushes it around her plate, sipped on the same diet pepsi all weekend, but eats just enough to make you wonder if she doesn' have a problem. I know she does and I feel like there is nothing I can do, and find myself getting so angry with her for pretending like nothing is wrong. She mentioned that she is bigger than me this weekend and I almost went for her throat because she is barely bones. But I know that is part of her disorder and that she really believes she is fat. I guess I just feel guilty for getting so angry with her, but I also am a little angry that she won't get help. She now has a beautiful grandson but I can't imagine she can live much longer like this. At the same time, she has lived with this disease and "functioned" for at least 30 years. I am so frustrated and just needed to vent. Thank you for this blog post. I found it interesting. Can you recommend any support books or websites for my husband and I? We are struggling with this disease......