Eating disorders as a response to Rape/Abuse

We all have our set of defense mechanisms that we use to cope with our problems. Some of these defense mechanisms are built consciously, piece by piece. Others are put up by the sub conscience. In the face of a traumatic event, for instance a metro/train accident, a person consciously might make extreme behavioral changes to avoid the triggers that set off memories of the accident. He/she might avoid taking the train altogether and opt for a longer, more tedious route instead, might avoid people who were directly or indirectly associated with the incident, might not even travel for a very long time. These are also known as ‘coping strategies’.

Sub conscience defense mechanisms come into play without the individual realizing it. In the above mentioned scenario, one of the first mechanisms to get activated would be denial. Denial enables to the person to reject the entire incident. One is able to convince himself that it couldn’t have happened to him. The aftermath and the avalanche of emotional upheaval  becomes much easier to deal with. Denial is a fairly common defense mechanism that helps people to deal with small issues like failing in class to big ones like alcoholism/drug abuse. Escapism may/can be considered a consequence of denial. Other mechanisms that might get activated at a later stage are repression, dissociation, compartmentalization etc.

But recently, I came across someone who developed an eating disorder as a response to the abuse she had experienced as a child. She developed anorexia in response to the hatred that she felt towards her own body as a consequence of rape/abuse. It left me wondering how the emotions one goes through during abuse, manifest themselves in so many different ways at a later stage. She seemed to be focusing all her energies on getting rid of anorexia, because it was interfering with her day to day life, but I realized that the root was the abuse. If she could resolve the repressed feelings related to her abuse, she could resolve her anorexia.

While this is a really disturbing example of how rape and physical abuse can wreck an individual’s life, it’s also fascinating to know the different ways in which our mind protects us from psychological damage. Because she could not channelize her anger towards her abuser, she redirected it towards herself, blaming herself for letting something heinous happen to her. In case of rape and abuse, it’s not just the body of the victim that is abused, far greater damage is inflicted upon the mind. An individual’s self-esteem,  dignity and most importantly the sense of ownership is ripped apart brutally. Every inch of your personal space, that no one but you has a claim upon, is accessed and abused. An incident like this, is bound to leave the victim feeling less than human. In the example mentioned, the victim must have felt like she was stuck in a foreign body. After having that personal claim snatched away from her, she could not love it the way she loved it before.

I always thought of anorexia as a developmental response to body image and social pressure. After having watched endless movies portraying dancers and gymnasts adopting anorexia as a ‘lifestyle’, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that only a niche category of people could develop anorexia. It’s true that people who are required to be thin are probably more prone to it, but it’s not exclusive to them. Believe it or not, overweight people can be anorexic or bulimic too. The struggle is very real.

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