By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS
I’m going to bitch and moan for second because I need to vent. The world is crumbling and I’m losing it.
Isolation sucks. I feel isolated every day thanks to COVID-19. While I’m grateful to have my wife and son with me for human connection, I have not seen my friends, family, and colleagues for many months (except via Zoom). Human physical contact is something I desperately want and miss. I had to go to the doctor to get an x-ray on my wrist last month and practically melted when the x-ray tech put her latex glove-covered hand on mine to position it just right for the scan.
Civil unrest sucks. I grieve for our country and how terribly lost it is. The violence is everywhere in the news, social media, and daily chatter at the grocery store or Starbucks (the only two places I venture to still). The demonstrators were out in force either to open back up from COVID, in protest of ungodly treatment of black and brown skinned people by police, and each with counter protests captured by countless cell phone videos often with hate and division distilled into the worst 30 seconds of the exchange. The clashes of ideology affect everyone and only further erode our chances of really hearing each other. Mistrust and violence ensue. It hurts my soul.
Death sucks. COVID has taken over half a million lives to date worldwide. Casual murder has taken so many more from our communities from George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery to the six children killed by random gun violence this past July 4 from San Francisco to Chicago to D.C. Some of my favorite musicians and celebrities passed away such as musicians Charlie Daniels, Ennio Morricone, Bonnie Pointer, Little Richard, John Prine, Neil Peart, Bill Withers, Kenny Rogers (talk about knowing when to fold ‘em), actors Carl Reiner, Ian Holm, Fred Willard, James Lipton, Jerry Stiller, Irrfan Kahn, Brian Dennehy, Kirk Douglas, activists and social leaders Lorena Borjas, Katherine Johnson, and sports icons like Al Kaline and Kobe Bryant.
Unemployment, homelessness, and global temperatures are up. Social safety nets, common sense, and decency are down. And our sense of hope is reportedly lost on a global scale. We have been straight-up beatdown the first half of 2020.
And it shows in the rates of mental health treatment requests we have seen at Body Image. At the start of the pandemic, we were getting about 25% of the calls we normally do. In June we had more calls than we ever have. Eating disorders thrive in environments like this. The most common triggers for eating disorders are:
- Brain biology
- Hormonal changes
- Significant life upheaval
- Family discord
- Trauma, grief, and loss
All of these triggers generate anxiety and depression through a combination of biology, psychology, and environment. What we have now is a perfect storm. I’ve seen a number of adolescent kids brought in by their parents after their child descended into anorexic and compulsive exercise behaviors to manage their sense of loss of control of their lives. Routines and gone, along with friends, missed opportunities for normal adolescent life milestones, and a deep need to be productive at something. I’ve seen adults who developed binge and/or purge behaviors to self-soothe. For others, anxiety has led to loss of appetite and the restriction simply caught hold and they can’t return to normal eating. Some have become fixated on being as healthy as they can to avoid complications from COVID only to see their weight plummet and their bodies deteriorate. Still others reported they are suffering from horrible abusive relationships they can’t escape due to quarantining and turn to their only outlet which is their eating disorder behaviors. For as many cases as you can imagine, there are that many nuanced stories of loss, grief, anxiety, depression, and trauma that led someone down the path of returning to their eating disorder behaviors or picking them up for the first time.
What I’m trying to share here is that this world is in turmoil, and if you have slid back into your eating disorder behaviors, you’re not alone. You don’t have to be in limbo with the disease. You can fight back. If you want to join in healing this broken world right now, you must think about this as being on an airplane when the oxygen masks drop down. You need put yours on first so you can help the person next to you.
I come from a Jewish background, and I always loved the phrase tikkun olam. It’s a call to heal and repair the world from the framework of social justice. But it also can mean doing the inner and spiritual work of healing. As a therapist, social worker, and recovered individual from an eating disorder, this means everything to me because I believe a well-lived life requires me to do both. I hope you will fight your eating disorder, reach out for help if you need it, and then help heal this world. It may be crumbling, but it’s not irreparably broken. Neither are you. And yes, even now, it’s okay to ask for help.