TRIGGER WARNING: This content deals with the topic of eating disorders and may be triggering to some people.
When the Amherst Student published an article about rape in October, the article included a disclaimer at the top, “Trigger Warning: This content deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.” While trigger warnings have been a topic of controversy in the journalism and blogging world—do they serve to help the readership, or just work to call attention to a certain post?—I personally would have appreciated a similar trigger warning at the top of a recent article in Tablet Magazine, Orthodox and Anorexic.
I am Orthodox and I, too, was once anorexic. I was also bulimic, and a fun blend of both at various points in my life. So I wholeheartedly support the effort to bring attention to the prevalence of eating disorders in the Orthodox community. However, what anyone who has never suffered from an eating disorder does not know is how carefully this must be done, and why.
When I had my eating disorder, from the age of 14 until I was hospitalized at 20 (I celebrated my 21st birthday still in outpatient treatment), I lived in a confusing world of denial and cognitive dissonance. I knew, of course, that what I was doing wasn’t healthy; I would spend time on Wikipedia and medical sites reading up on the dangerous and life-threatening side effects of eating disorders. I knew my heart could stop at any moment. Yet at the same time, I would hear of someone with an eating disorder and think, “Nebach. That poor person. Don’t they know they’re hurting themselves?” If my school brought in someone to speak about her former eating disorder, as they did about once a year, part of me would feel sorry for her while another part of my brain was busy squirreling away tips for unhealthy weight loss. I wouldn’t relate to them personally; I saw them as troubled, whereas I, I suppose, figured I could really stop what I was doing at any point and thus didn’t really have an eating disorder.
These delusions continued until I hit rock bottom in my second semester of college. I checked myself into an eating disorder hospital and received treatment, and have not acted on eating disorder symptoms since. I am in remission.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t experience thoughts that make me occasionally want to return to my earlier ways. When I read articles like the one the Tablet published, even though they are admirable attempts to tell a true story that hopefully will help others with eating disorders, I come closer to those negative thoughts. The article was full of triggering numbers and details: the subject’s weight at various points in her life, how much she exercised, how she would trick doctors. In the hospital we were instructed never to use details or numbers of those sorts when telling our stories. Even though everyone in the room had an eating disorder and thought about numbers and details like those every day for years, hearing them from others would inevitably trigger (hence the word) eating disorder thoughts. If someone mentioned they’d weighed X amount, another would think, “Why couldn’t I get myself down to that weight?” Bad thoughts lead to bad actions.
The same is true of an article that includes those details. Anyone struggling to recover from an eating disorder will likely find an article of that sort a mixture of encouraging and hurtful: while the subject’s story was one of success in overcoming the disease, most of the article focused on the details of her illness. Someone reading it would think, “Oh, she drank X amount of water to trick the scale into showing more weight? Next time I’ll try that.” It could hurt far more than it could help.
Now think of someone who has never sought treatment for his or her eating disorder. Like myself, they are likely mostly in denial that they need help. They think they can overcome it themselves, or what they’re doing is okay, or they’re not really that bad. This may seem absurd to someone who’s never had an eating disorder, but for patients, it’s completely normal to have those delusional thoughts. To these men and women, and girls and boys, reading an article with all those details is simply inspiring. It gives them ideas on how to beat the system. It gives them new goals of weights to reach. It does not, as I’m sure the author intended to do, help them feel like they can get help, nor does it make them feel less alone.
I do think the Orthodox community needs to be more aware of eating disorders, and of the possibility of someone they know suffering from one. I do think doctors and educators need to be more attentive to possible cases in their patients and students. But I don’t think writing articles with triggering information is the way to go about doing that. And if someone believes an article will truly help others, a trigger warning should be placed above the article so people like myself, who fight daily to eat healthy meals and live healthy lives, can be aware of the pitfalls that may lie below.
Simi Lichtman can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SimiLichtman