A loose definition of anorexia is a measure of body weight – anyone who weighs fifteen percent less than their ideal bodyweight can be said to be anorexic. However, the word is most commonly used to describe sufferers of anorexia nervosa, a life-threatening mental condition in which the sufferer has a distorted perception of their weight, feeling overweight even when they are skeletally thin. Patients eat an extremely limited diet, not enough to survive and flourish on, and often medical intervention is needed to tackle both the physical effects of such a poor diet and also to help with the patient's self-image and work on the issues that allowed the disease to take hold.
Often anorexia strikes at puberty, when the body, especially the female body, goes through quite dramatic changes. Sufferers are often excellent students, being perfectionists and overachievers. The trigger can be something as nondescript as a passing remark made by a peer, or it can be caused by a traumatic event, like the passing away of a family member. Whatever the causes, once anorexia has taken a hold it can be a struggle to vanquish the condition, a struggle that can test all but the closest families.
Anorexics tend to hide their disease, even from those closest to them, so it can be very hard to notice that the condition has taken hold until it is well-established. Things to watch out for can mimic the signs of incipient depression – such as mood swings and irritable behaviour from a person who is usually sunny and cheerful. However, if the person is obsessed with food, watching cooking shows, buying vast amounts of recipe and cookery books and even creating sumptuous feasts for friends and family members but eating little to nothing of them; alongside a fresh, frenetic exercise regime, it is perhaps time to take notice. Pay close attention to what they wear, as anorexics often bundle on many layers, even in warm weather, to hide their thinness. Anorexics can also spend ages over a meal in which they eat very little of what they put on their plate, pushing it around and playing with it. Be aware that refusing meals under the excuse of having eaten a 'big lunch' or had a snack at a friend's house is very common with anorexics. Some anorexics grow soft downy hair on their limbs as the body tries to compensate for the lack of body fat – without which many sufferers are cold all the time.
If you suspect a family member or friend has anorexia, try to talk to them. Do not be judgemental and use phrases like 'just eat' or 'snap out of it'. Rather, let them know that you are there for them, ready to support their return to full mental health, when they are ready. Reassure them that they look good, and praise them when they do manage to eat well.
Treatment for anorexia has made great strides since the condition was first noted. These days it takes a two-fold approach. The first involves restoring the body to health, sometimes with the use of naso-gastric tubes which are fed through the nose into the stomach. As the patient begins to recover, she or he will be allowed to eat, although always under the watchful eye of a trained nurse who will look for food being removed from the mouth and disposed of in clothing or dustbins. The other side of the treatment tends to be therapy with a psychiatrist, during which the patient's condition, potential triggers and his or her understanding of the harm the condition can cause.
- Anorexics need medical treatment in order to recover; they may be desperate for help, but unsure of how to handle symptoms and negative feelings.
- Anorexia is not a disease solely found in girls – ten to fifteen percent of all anorexics are male
- The physical signs of anorexia, apart from being underweight, are: dry brittle hair, pale skin, lack of energy, being constantly cold