Eating disorders can affect people with disabilities


This week marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and this year’s theme is “Let’s Get Real”. Brookhaven is honoring this event by discussing how the widespread myths and misunderstanding about eating disorders harm vulnerable communities and prevent people living with a life-threatening disorder from ever seeking treatment.

Source: Micaela Evans

The idea that only young, able-bodied, white women struggle with eating disorders in their lives is more than just a benign stereotype. It affects who gets treated for these life-threatening disorders.

Micaela Evans, unfortunately, didn’t fit this narrow, stereotyped image of eating disorders. As a disabled woman with spinal muscular atrophy, doctors and specialists were unable to see past her disability to recognize the damage she was doing to her body by severely restricting her food intake.

“As a disabled woman, I didn’t fit the narrowly defined expectations of what someone’s body ‘should be like’ and it seemed to baffle doctors who were not accustomed to supporting individuals like me,” Evans wrote for TeenVogue. “Because of what I felt was a result of them not encountering my type of body with that type of disease, I did not receive treatment for my dangerous and sometimes fatal condition.”

Despite her unique physical disability, Michaela says her eating disorder developed like most others. As a 14-year-old, she was feeling overwhelmed by the typical teen issues like crushes, social drama, and her school performance. She was also still learning to cope with the reality of her disability.

She had been using an electric wheelchair since the age of 2, but the transitions to adulthood and advancing degeneration of her body were re-igniting old insecurities and feelings of lack of control.

In the face of feeling so out of control, Evans looked towards the few things she thought she could control – food and her physical appearance.

“It felt like my world was spinning out of control. I couldn’t grasp any aspect of it. Before I knew it, my mind tried to focus on what it could control — and that was my physical appearance, I thought,” wrote Evans. “I restricted my eating to dangerous levels. I became a shell of who I once was, and, while I thought it gave me control over things, it led to my physical health spiraling downwards as well.”

As her eating disorder progressed, it began to ravage her physical health and her appearance. She said, “it was clear by looking at me, if you knew me, that I wasn’t well.” The lack of nourishment was contributing to more severe side-effects from her disability and other health complications.

Once Evans admitted to herself that she had an eating disorder that was destroying her mental and physical health, she begun seeking treatment. She started looking for doctors seeking treatment “while also taking into account my physical disability as a large aspect of my life.”

The doctors Micaela Evans contacted were dismissive.

“In two separate instances, I wasn’t aided in my recovery,” Evans explained. “These doctors simply dismissed my symptoms as a facet of my disability. They left me without any assistance because my case presented uniquely.”

It seemed, to Micaela, that doctors weren’t able to recognize her condition because she didn’t match the stereotype.

“Because the medical professionals I met with had presumably not seen my body represented alongside those dealing with eating disorders previously, I was given neither options for treatment nor any encouragement for recovery. After these disheartening appointments, I felt as though my experience with my disorder wasn’t valid. As if something must be wrong in me, rather than the medical systems standing in opposition to my very real experience.”

For many, hitting such a wall could be the end of trying to seek treatment. People seeking help for eating disorders are in a vulnerable mental and physical state and deterrents can be enough to make them feel helpless or incapable of recovery. Thankfully, Micaela showed more resolve. She credits her “strong support of family and friends and a stubborn determination to move towards recovery” for getting her past these hurdles.

It is thanks to this support and determination that Evans says she is now fully in recovery from her eating disorder, even though she still faces difficult days. Because of her drive to recover and determination to overcome her disability, Evans is now finishing her final semester of university and living a largely independent life. Still, she recognizes that the trials she overcame to finally receive treatment can keep others from ever recovering.

“If you are disabled and have or had an eating disorder, please know you are not alone. In sharing my story, I’ve connected with others who have had similar experiences. We are out there, and we are not a strange oddity of disability and disorder despite what anyone might think. It is okay to struggle, and it is possible to get better, no matter what your body looks like or how it moves through this world.”

Read Micaela’s story in her words at TeenVogue.

If you or someone you love are living with an eating disorder, give Brookhaven a call at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and help find the best treatment plan for you.

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