Anorexia nervosa is defined as the never-ending chase for thinness by self-induced starvation despite progressive damage to almost every organ in the body which could result in death.
It is the most life-threatening of all mental disorders, with one in five either dying from complications associated with starvation such as damage to the heart, brain and other organs, or from suicide.
Anorexics often have a distorted body image of themselves and are gripped by a demonic fear of putting on weight. Even if they are abnormally weak or dangerously underweight, it is still not quite enough.
They desperately cling to the ideal of unattainable thinness as the all-consuming source of self-esteem and the purpose of their existence.
They would, therefore, resort to any means not to gain weight if not to lose even more by fanatically limiting the amount of food they eat; eating very small quantities of only certain foods; purging with self-induced vomiting, laxatives and/or diuretics; and exercising frenetically.
Like an addict – and anorexia nervosa has often been likened to an addiction – there is often deception, dissembling and evasion on the part of the anorexic in the face of mounting alarm, concern and vigilance on the part of family members, and the inevitable angry and exhausting confrontations and recriminations.
Anorexia nervosa is not an exclusively female affliction: The gender ratio in adults is 1:8, with more females affected. The lifetime rate for anorexia nervosa among women was estimated at 0.9% compared with 0.3% among men; and while it typically appears in early-to-mid-adolescence, it can emerge at any age.
To this day, we still don’t know what causes anorexia nervosa. The common consensus among researchers and clinicians is that it arises from various influences interacting with each other in a rather complex way.
The main aim of treatment of anorexia nervosa is to ensure that the patients eat more normally. However, intervention for adults with anorexia is more limited and the disorder can go on for many years with little respite. This could be because adults have been ill for a longer period, causing more profound and intractable physiological changes in the body and the brain. Moreover, a long and vacillating illness can also wear down, frustrate and alienate friends and family who are the very people needed to support the patient through the treatment.
This blogpost is based on an adaptation of a news article report entitled “Consumed by the fear of eating” by The Straits Times on 24 February 2018.