Clinic Director Colin McDonnell speaks to Irish Country Magazine about Orthoexia, and eating disorders
- How does one develop an eating disorder?
There are as many possibilities to cause an eating disorder as there ever will be people on the planet. To put it a different way; the development of these issues are always singular.
There are some universal traits or characteristics in their cause. Ultimately the symptom is an attempt to deal with others. Eating in specific ways can give people predictability in a world that is anything but that.
- What are the symptoms of orthorexia nervosa?
I think it’s important to speak about what we call symptoms.
We can speak of the universality of symptoms, which we often see in diagnostic manuals, or we can speak of singularity of symptoms.
While universal aspects of a symptom can help people to find comfort and some connection with others,I think it’s important for people to discover and work on what’s unique about their symptoms.
The overarching trait of orthorexia tends to be an obsession with eating ‘healthily.” In psychoanalytic jargon it would refer to what is called the “the death drive.” This is often confused in popular media as a drive for death. It isn’t that. The death drive is a wish to master life, death & destruction.
For example, an addict who takes themselves to the brink of dying with their drug use. Or on the other side, a relationship with food that moves someone towards the limits of what can be achieved. Both extremities can be viewed as attempts to hold life and death in a person’s hands.
The other common trait within orthorexia is an avoidance of the social bond and others. If a person is obsessing over their food intake it leaves less room for others. The symptom itself can be a very lonely one; where a person, their food, and their body are alone.
- How common is orthorexia?
The drive and tendency underneath orthorexia exists everywhere in society. There is a huge tendency in all walks of society to find solutions, to master life and death, and to avoid the social bond.
- Can it stem from another eating disorder? How can you tell it apart from other eating disorders?
Each symptom that a person suffers from is inherently linked to many, many aspects of their life, and other symptoms that they suffer from. Symptoms never occur in isolation, and are inseparable from the material of a person’s life. Categorising these experiences, and compartmentalising them, can produce a lot of frustration, and a lot of emptiness.
- Who is most likely to be affected by the condition? Is it more common in males or females? What age group is most likely to be affected?
With each generation that passes there is a growing tendency towards suffering like orthorexia. People who have found others overwhelming or difficult to deal with in the past are most likely to be affected by this condition I think.
- What kind of resources are available to someone struggling with orthorexia in Ireland?
I’d recommend that people seek out psychoanalytic psychotherapy or get in touch with BodyWhys. I’d encourage people identifying with this issue not to reach for books, or read too many articles. While they can be enjoyable and sometimes comforting, ultimately there won’t be answers there about themselves.
- Is there a difference between male and female eating disorder symptoms?
Very loosely there are some vague gender differences. Male suffering tends to be more about structure, limitations and order. For instance, that there is a painful enjoyment in the rules they impose on themselves.
Female structure tends to be more so about what’s beyond the limitations they place on themselves. For example, a greater part of the symptom may have to do with everything they do not allow themselves to eat.
Again, I have to stress that these are generalisations, and are very vague.
- In terms of men, where do you think pressure about body image come from?
Social media tends to be the greatest source of imagery and ideals for people, but it’s important to mention that influences are always case-by-case.
- Do you think social media and gym culture have led to a rise in eating disorders? Why?
Yes, I think social media has had a big effect on this increase, and also gym culture.
Social media, and a tendency towards screens, naturally leads people to interact face-to-face with other living breathing people to a lesser extent. One consequence of this is that people are less accustomed to dealing with other speaking beings, and can become overwhelmed, anxious, and upset in social situations to a greater extent than before.
As a result of this, within the wider populations there is a tendency towards symptoms that circumvent the social bond. People are increasingly isolated in their symptoms. It’s them and their food. Them and their bodies. In this it’s important to remember that symptoms function. As strange as it can sound, something about them works. Food related symptoms can typically involve keeping others at arm’s length.
On Gym Culture:
Gym culture can be problematic, but mainly as a symptom of a much larger issue.
People believe far less in organised religion, in government and in community. In spite of their shortcomings, they were very useful sources of ideals. They provided a groundwork of rules for people to follow that was mainly all about the social bond. People, and how to treat people, were the ideals basically. Consider the ten commandments. That went through detail on how to treat our neighbours, strangers and even our neighbour’s wife.
Without these pillars of law and order, society has rushed to fill the void with all sorts of standards and ‘thou shalt nots.’ Social media is rife with guides on how to do things well, how to be the best, what is right, what is wrong. One example being gym culture. Having a certain body is held up as an ideal to aspire to. On the face of it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course, but the outcome can be problematic for some. Modern ideals are often no longer about other people, and are instead about the self. People and their own bodies. The outcome can be isolating, and more difficult to influence by language and other people.
- What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might be struggling with an eating disorder?
I’d encourage people to be curious about themselves. To suspend their search for truth and knowledge from elsewhere. I think it’s extremely important that people find a place to articulate what it is that they experience, and to find a way of working through it. Psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is often a very useful place for that.