A Personal and Correlative Experience Between Disordered Eating and Ego-Death
What’s the result of excessive deprivation and discipline for long periods of time to attain what you perceive as the true form of yourself?
It’s different for everyone. For me, the result is in the title.
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb. 21–28) in 2021 just passed, and it feels like the right time to tell my story.
You already know there are two big elephants in the room. Breaking down each one is important to realize how these two different-looking jigsaw pieces can slot together.
Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders
“Wait, there’s a difference?” some of you may be asking.
In an age where different diets (CICO, keto, paleo, etc.) seem to come and go as quickly as birds at a feeder, what differentiates disordered eating from something with a medical diagnosis?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines eating disorders as “…actually serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. Preoccupation with food, body weight, and shape may also signal an eating disorder.”
Specific eating disorder diagnoses include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. However, it is possible for an individual to harbor disordered eating habits without being diagnosed with an eating disorder.
“Oftentimes, those struggling report that their eating disorder began as disordered eating,” Temimah Zucker, LMSW, a primary therapist at a treatment center told the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) in this article. “This by no means indicates that all who engage in disordered eating will have an eating disorder. Rather, it is a reminder to practice reflection and support for those around us about whom we have any type of concern.”
While individuals with a healthy relationship with food might be mindful of their calorie intake and participate in athletic activities, those habits are often accentuated for those who suffer from disordered eating or eating disorders to the point where they become obsessive and can even intrude on daily life.
“It can be normal to think about food when hungry or what one might have for the next meal,” Zucker goes on to say in that same article. “For those struggling with an eating disorder, however, the thoughts are generally all-consuming; the individual thinks about calories, taste, food avoidance, or where to buy food, etc. This level of obsession can impair focus, the ability to stay present, and sleep, among other things.”
All this to say the eating disorders can distract people from reality. Strict regiments can cause one so much stress and anxiety in the real world that one falls into a trance-like state. Yes to this food, no to that one. This mirror is safe, you think.
This can be seen as sadly ironic since, according to multiple studies, a commonly cited reason for individuals lapsing into disordered eating tendencies is a psychological need to seize control over some faction of one’s life.
The 2016 study “Dimensions of control and their relation to disordered eating behaviours and obsessive-compulsive symptoms” by Franzisca V. Froreich, corresponding author Lenny R. Vartanian, Jessica R. Grisham, and Stephen W. Touyz found that, “ineffectiveness and fear of losing self-control are two dimensions that are important to consider in maintenance and treatment models of disordered eating behaviours. Treatment approaches that solely focus on stringent behavioural goals (i.e., reduce control over eating, weight, and shape) may fail to address the deeper problem underlying and often maintaining these symptoms.”
It’s rarely as simple as changing one's own body. It’s the human desire for control, or to transcend the self that one has deemed ‘unsatisfactory.’ It’s a desire to begin anew; to restart life in a new body, or for some, to actually begin their real life.
That’s what I was told by my doctor as well.
Ego-death. Self-forgetting. A loss of subjective self-identity.
Whatever you call it, ego-death is not a new concept. It has its roots in multiple beliefs and cultures. Buddhists have referred to it as enlightenment; Muslim Sufis refer to it as fana (‘annihilation’); psychologist Carl Jung coined the definition “psychic death,” stating that this state is described as “…a shift back to the existential position of the natural self.” Ego- death is also the second phase of Joseph Campbell’s story template for The Hero’s Journey, which includes a phase of separation/transition. It’s fitting considering that Campbell cites Jungian psychology as an influence in his works.
In the non-spiritual context, most discussions about ego-death tend to be accompanied by the discussion of psychedelics like DMT, MDMA, LSD, mushrooms, and others. Ketamine (“falling into a k-hole”) and nitrous oxide have also been mentioned in the conversation. The reason behind the connection between psychedelics and ego-death has more to do with brain chemistry than anything else.
Clinical psychologist and professor Jordan Peterson explained in a 2017 lecture that ego-death also can be attained voluntarily or involuntarily. Voluntarily, an individual can attain this state by consensually opening themselves to a flood of information and “letting go” of an older state of self. This can occur through the intentional use of psychedelic to attain trips of a certain intensity, or through mindful meditation practices where the goal of the journey is a sense of ego-dissolution.
For others, ego-death is a descent into chaos. This involuntary transformation comes about through intense states of psychic panic, or in more mundane terms, a mental breakdown.
It is here where I feel these topics converge for me personally.
The Intersecting Point
I did not find ego-death experience through psychedelics, although I take no issue with that approach.
I hit rock bottom and was forced to reflect.
I had no identity beyond my trance-like state of avoiding certain foods and certain mirrors. I went about these rituals without much thought for anything else. Plans with people were forgotten. Interaction online was non-existent. I went to work, starved, worked out, slept, and repeated this cycle for a year. I walked 10 miles a day for months. I only ate when I was close to collapsing. My limbs eventually turned purple. I lost my period for half a year. My hairstylist said, “Oh, you’re a shedder … ” because of how much hair would fall out every time I went to get it done.
I locked myself in my room. I stopped working on my hobbies. My work suffered. My family suffered. My friendships shuddered. I lost some people along the way because I neglected them.
In many ways, I ceased to exist.
Finally, after a year and a half, my body and brain woke me up.
I began to binge food to overcompensate. I gained (gulp) 40 lbs. Remember, I was so thin that I actually stopped menstruating. However, 40lbs is a big difference, no matter how you divide it up. On a 5-foot body, it’s a big difference.
I can say this information publically because I have come a long way. Telling you guys that number a month ago would have caused me intense distress.
My relationship with food also was toxic until very recently. It has only started to improve since I’ve confided in a doctor. I’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. I’ve been prescribed fluoxetine, otherwise known as Prozac. Counseling has also been recommended.
Remember the from earlier about eating disorders and how the habits can parallel a fear regarding the loss of control in one’s own life?
That study’s conclusion also stated, “Helping the individual re-established adaptive mechanisms of personal control and effectiveness may reduce their need to rely on weight/shape control. Similarly, individuals vulnerable to OCD may benefit from psychotherapeutic interventions that challenge worries of losing control over one’s impulses, desires and emotional behaviours (i.e., self-control).”
While fluoxetine is used for depression, it has been known to treat other conditions. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bulimia nervosa, and panic disorder.
My recovery is ongoing, but the pieces fit together too perfectly for me to not be excited.
In the past weeks, I finally feel human again.
I feel reborn.
I’m leaving my house (safely) and eating breakfast about four days a week. I’m on a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet. I eat when I am hungry, and don’t feel the need to starve or purge afterward (I even removed my trashcan from my bedroom to help me resist the urge behind the comfort of closed doors). I’ve also stopped binging at night and have transitioned to a WFPB/vegetarian/vegan lifestyle.
The (Ongoing) Aftermath
I remember when my descent into disordered eating began. I saw posts from people in ED communities on Tumblr and Twitter telling me to, “ … get out now before it’s too late.”
“You think you’ll be able to stop whenever you want, but that’s not true.”
“If you are not recovering, you are dying.”
At the time, I rolled my eyes.
After walking through the most hellish period of my life, I can only tell you that those voices were right all along.
If you are reading this and thinking that “ego-death” is the solution to your mindset and you feel tempted to sink any lower to wake up from whatever funk has seeped into your mind, there’s a reason that sinking lower is usually not cited as a top-tier solution for any situation. It’s the opposite of being productive. It only forces you into a harsher, more belated epiphany. It delays the inevitable for no reason.
The scars from hitting rock bottom will linger forever. I lost years of my life waiting in the pain of darkness for my body to heal enough to move forward.
However, I feel fortunate that I found the strength to walk again. I outgrew my old shell and found a new home.
Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but I think that counts for something.
If you are struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating, a screening test and hotline information can be found by visiting nationaleatingdisorders.org.