People with eating disorders will often ask themselves, “Am I sick enough to deserve treatment?” There is something dangerous buried in this question—something that implies eating disorder behaviors are not serious or that people with eating disorders are not deserving of care until a certain point. It suggests that you need to be sicker than you are in order to “truly” have an eating disorder. None of this is true.
Unfortunately, this type of thinking comes easily in a society that is obsessed with dieting, weight, body shape, and size. It is common in a culture like ours, which encourages people to restrict food and view other eating disorder behaviors as “ok” or “not a big deal.” Moreover, if you do have an eating disorder, you likely have a high level of judgment about what you should and should not be doing related to food and body. These thoughts, combined with the pressures of our social reality, can make it easy to wonder whether you have an eating disorder and delay your decision to seek help.
The truth is this: If you think you have an eating disorder, the odds are likely that you do. And if you do, there isn’t a line at which you are “sick enough.”
There is, of course, a set of signs and symptoms used to diagnose eating disorders, and a professional can offer a diagnosis specific to you. But if you suspect that you may need help with your thoughts or behaviors around eating, you are likely correct.
Some people may believe they are not “sick enough” for treatment because they are functioning fine at work or school, or their lab results are normal. It is important to realize that these signs do not mean an eating disorder isn’t serious—or serious “enough”—to warrant care. So much eating disorder damage happens gradually and invisibly. If you are engaging in eating disorder behaviors, you may be experiencing damage you can’t yet see.
Please don’t worry if you’re “sick enough” for treatment. You don’t have to be sick “enough.” You just have to be sick. Anyone and everyone who is experiencing the tragic pain of an eating disorder deserves treatment—and the faster we can begin that treatment, the better the outcomes will be.
Eating disorders are insidious disorders that grow stronger every day they are left untreated. The longer we have one, the harder it is to treat, but the chance for recovery increases the earlier we recognize and treat it. We are getting better at recognizing eating disorders in all of their manifestations, and connecting people to the care they need and deserve.
If you are wondering whether you are “sick enough,” please stop waiting and reach out. Get assessed. Seek support.
The choice to reach out and get better can make the difference in having a wonderful life.
Mark Warren is the Chief Medical Officer of The Emily Program. He is also one of the original founders of the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, which became The Emily Program – Cleveland in 2014. A Cleveland native, he is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and completed his residency at Harvard Medical School. He served as Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Medical Director of University Hospital Health System’s Laurelwood Hospital. A past vice-chair for clinical affairs at the Case School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, he continues on the Clinical Faculty of the Medical School, teaching in both the Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics. He is currently a faculty member and former chair of the Board of Governors at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. Dr. Warren is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a two-time recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and a winner of the Woodruff Award. He leads the Males and Eating Disorders special interest group for the Academy of Eating Disorders.
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