Scared into gaining weight?

On my last post about my upcoming series on the biology of EDs, Susie asked this:

i'd certainly be interested in medical complications. you never know, i may read something that shocks/scares me into gaining weight.

To be honest (and bluntness is a character fault of mine, so I do apologize if I sound harsh), there are two answers to your question. The short answer and the long answer.

The short answer? Nothing will scare you into gaining weight.

The long answer? Unfortunately, the more you read, the more convinced you become that you can escape the consequences. Or, for me, the longer I was sick, the more I began to experience these medical consequences. And so where I was originally faced with a list of problems A through F that could arise from my ED behaviors, I found that A, B, and C had happened and I had lived to tell the tale. Ergo, I wasn't that sick. So D, E, and F really couldn't be that big of a deal. Then D, E, and F happened and I was still sick and unable to see that I was sick and then I learned about G and H.

You get the drift.

The fact that you have an eating disorder prevents you from understanding the full extent of your illness. It's called anosognosia- a lack of insight into illness. It's not a character flaw, it's just the way starvation monkeys with the brain.

Furthermore, fear doesn't change behavior. It just doesn't. Lasting behavior change really needs positive reinforcement, not negative. Because if fear worked, there would be a lot fewer smokers in the world. And the obesity hysteria certainly has people all worked up over the possible dangers of fat- yet most people tend to weigh about the same. Heroin addicts shoot up despite risks of HIV and Hepatitis C. People gamble knowing they could lose their house.

There are many positive reasons to get into recovery. But your brain needs to heal from malnutrition first, before you can really focus on that. Right now, when you're underweight, you're like a heroin addict, high as a freaking kite. You need to detox (ie, gain back to a healthy weight), and then you can try to find positive ways to stay healthy.

Find someone to help coach you back to a healthy weight. Reading about the medical complications that can happen if you don't probably won't help, though.


Standing in the Rain said...

I agree. I have irreversible heart damage that greatly impacts my ability to live life and when I tell others with ED's about it, they are always like, "wow I wish I had known." But my response is that you probably wouldn't have changed anyhow, I know I wouldn't have believed it if someone had told me what would happen to me. You just never think you are "that sick".

The harsh truth is that medical complications can happen to anyone, at any weight. And the even worse truth is that they may now go away as your behaviors do.

Susie said...

Thank you for that Carrie. I certainly knew the short answer and can certainly recognise and identify with the long answer.


Cammy said...

My first reaction was to disagree with you, Carrie. I have had several major diagnoses/incidents (heart problems, bad bone scans, passing out and hitting my head in the shower, tooth problems, etc) that scared me shitless and inspired me to improve my eating and try to get the ED under control. Fear is a powerful motivator, and the thought of how all of this will affect me in years to come is never far from my mind.

But although I would like to disagree with you, I have to admit, the initial shock and resolution to improve matters would inevitably fade with time, like you said, I'd have a problem, get over it, and subconsciously see that as justification for not resisting the slow slide backward. Repeat that cycle for nine years, and here I am. So much for the fear factor.

I do have to say that one of the biggest motivators in my recovery was Lauren Greenfield's book (moreso than the film) Thin, the interviews with the older women at the treatment center were incredibly sad for me, I don't want to become those cases, but I'm not sure if that really counts as fear?

Carrie Arnold said...

Hmmm- my response went into the ether! Sigh.


I think fear can produce temporary, short-lived behavior change, but not long term change. And your comment really points to that.

I do think positive motivation (I want to do X) is more effective than negative motivation (I don't want X to happen), but behavior is such a complicated beast that both are going to be a part of motivation. Janet Treasure has done some interesting studies with motivational interviewing to help people with EDs.

Anonymous said...

I think if you are ready to change (as ready as you can be when not fully comprehending your illness) a shock can be a good catalyst. For me it was an eye ulcer and coming pretty close to losing an eye.

That said, I think the vicinity of the shock is important. Reading just wasn't a threat for me, not violent. Finding the ulcer was first hand damage. And then the change still has to be carried forward, usually like crowd surfing, people can try and haul you through it.

Lola x

Emily said...

I so agree -- my doctor told me over and over that I was putting myself at risk for osteoporosis by being underweight, but I didn't actually get "scared" into gaining weight until I broke some ribs and found that I did indeed have osteoporosis -- at age 29!

sarah said...

For the sake of argument, if it were possible to get "scared into gaining weight," after I spent a week in the ICU after having heart problems in the spring of 95, the following fall, I probably wouldn't have been committed to a psych unit weighing considerably less the following fall.

For that matter, things probably wouldn't have gone the way that they did when I decided that I really, really like stimulants about nine years after that...

The simple core of the matter is that fear does work - for about a week - until something else kicks in. Hearing about something and knowing on a cognitive level is completely different from knowing it in your gut and the whole of your being and deciding that the only way to stop is to focus on getting enough nourishment to work through all the scary under the surface stuff.

Carrie Arnold said...


I think you nailed it: the fear of a potential (or real) medical consequence will battle with the fear of gaining weight (or quitting exercise or stopping purging or whatever). And the ED fears usually win. Because if it were that easy, you wouldn't see as many treatment centers.

That being said, I think it's great if those consequences are enough to help you get better. I have/had osteoporosis, broke the ankle, and it did diddly squat to motivate me. Not wanting to repeat that process helps me a bit NOW, but when I'm in the throes of an ED-related struggle, ankle be damned!

Gaining Back My Life said...

Um, I may disagree, to a point. I was scared into gaining weight (OK, not a while lot, but enough to keep me out of death's reach for now) after I passed out and lacerated my face in multiple places to the bone. The plastic Surgeon said I almost lost an eye.

Two months later, ugh. I'm struggling with restricting again But I haven't lost weight.

So there is some truth to it, be told.

Bron said...

Hi everyone

Sadly, I also agree with Carrie that at the time I was very underweight I knew that I was risking (and suffering) all kinds of side effects but that didn't help, except in occasionally making me feel even more trapped.

The only thing that did help (and still helps) is that once you start to eat a little more and gradually get to something approaching a healthy weight, you feel soooo much better. I couldn't believe how much genuine (rather than nervous) energy I had. Life really does feel worth living again, and it's something I hope everyone else can recover and enjoy experiencing.

komal said...
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john said...

Nice article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Looking forward for the next blog.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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