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MATT WETSEL is an eating disorder and body image writer and advocate. After suffering from anorexia as an undergraduate in college, Matt got involved with the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) doing volunteer lobby work and is now a member of the EDC Junior Board. Matt launched the blog, Until Eating Disorders Are No More in 2011 and remains a consistently well-informed and responsible voice in the recovery community. We’re honored to feature some of Matt’s personal insights about recovery in the post below and at the upcoming event Recovery in Real Life. You can read Matt Wetsel’s full bio here.
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Q & A featuring Matt Wetsel
Q: What is one fact about eating disorders that you think is most important for people to know and understand?
MW: We say it all the time but it’s always worth repeating, eating disorders are serious and must be taken seriously. Especially in America, we live in such a toxic culture that values thinness, promotes dieting, equates weight loss with health without exception, and encourages people to want to ‘improve’ their bodies as if they aren’t good enough already. All of these factors contribute to the trivializing of eating disorders, in popular culture but also within the medical establishment and especially the insurance industry.
It’s so expected of people to diet, to lose weight, etc. that it’s easy to slip into disordered eating behaviors that are actually quite unhealthy and, for some people, pave the way to an eating disorder. These behaviors are so normalized that the warning signs aren’t usually seen as such, but instead are rewarded by the culture and encouraged.
Q: What are some day-to-day differences between life with an eating disorder and living life in recovery/recovered from an eating disorder?
MW: I recall some studies that reported someone with an eating disorder spends maybe 90% of their waking hours thinking about food, weight, etc. When I was sick that was definitely true. It takes up so much of your time and energy that it starts to feel like it’s a part of you. When I would think about recovery, I was honestly terrified of what would be left of me if the eating disorder wasn’t a part of my life. I’d plan my social life, my free time, everything around food. I’d check the scale multiple times per day. I’d avoid friends and family just to avoid potentially having meals with them.
Now, meals are a central part of time I spend with people. I love to cook for friends, go to potlucks, things like that. I eat when I’m hungry, I stop when I’m full. I don’t remember the last time I felt anxious about eating, because it’s been years and years. Even when other hardships in my life have occurred (and there have been a few), I have healthy mechanisms for dealing with grief, depression, anxiety, etc. when life gets challenging. I don’t know what I weigh, and I don’t care.
Q: What feedback would you give to the support people – friends and family – of individuals struggling with eating disorders? How can they best help to aid in the recovery process?
MW: This is a tough but important question. I’m always afraid to be too specific because good advice for one situation could be terrible advice for the next, depending on circumstances. That said, I think it’s very important to not let the person you’re trying to help or support be the sole source of information on eating disorders. Take time to educate yourself on the subject through other outlets. Make time for yourself and find ways to let go once in a while. If you have to, see a therapist of your own. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be less capable of supporting someone else. It’s like on an airplane, you always put your own oxygen mask on first. That’s hard advice to take when you’re watching someone struggle, but it’s true.
Q: Everyone defines recovery differently. What does recovery mean to you?
MW: Much like the previous question about day-to-day differences, recovery, in a word, means freedom. When you spend so much of your time and energy worrying about food, it’s difficult to be productive in other aspects of your life. All of my relationships suffered while I was anorexic. My GPA tanked. I was in pretty constant physical discomfort.
In contrast, I’ve made lifelong friendships doing advocacy work. I ran a half marathon in 2011 that would have been impossible if I hadn’t recovered. I’m free to figure out who I am and what I want to do with my life without anorexia calling every shot, and that’s a really beautiful thing.
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On February 22, 2015, Matt Wetsel will co-facilitate a free workshop with Benjamin O’Keefe entitled, Eating Disorders: Creating a More Inclusive Recovery Culture. The workshop will examine how cultural experiences affect treatment, the experience of the body and the eating disorder recovery process.