Near Life Experiences: Death vs. Recovery

How many of us with eating disorders have had a near death experience?

According to a lot of the statistics, it’s more than you’d think. These are some of the numbers I found:

* Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness
* A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 – 10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease; 18-20% of anorexics will be dead after 20 years and only 30 – 40% ever fully recover
* The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15 – 24 years old.
* 20% of people suffering from eating disorders will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems

The thing we forget about statistics a lot of the time is that each one of those numbers represents a person; in this case, a person who is in alone, sick, and in pain. And when we’re in our eating disorders it’s very easy to forget the reality of these statistics entirely, to forget their implications. We forget how close a relationship we have with Death; how it follows us like a shadow, is draped about us like a cloak, holds us just slightly separate from everything else in our lives. Every day that we live with an eating disorder, whatever type of eating disorder it is, is a day when we walk the line between Life and Death. And far too many of us live in that state until sooner or later, Death ups its game.

I dodged this more times than I care to remember. I went for sixteen years, ignoring everything from stomach ulcers to heart arrhythmias. Only twice do I remember specifically being scared enough to actually go symptom free for a while. The first time, I was seventeen, in one of my worst periods of anorexia. I developed an electrolyte imbalance severe enough to cause a heart attack. Still in the hospital two days later, I had to go through hyperalimentation because my anemia had gotten so bad that my blood couldn’t carry oxygen anymore. When I got home, I stopped all behaviors for about a month. Unfortunately, as my discomfort went up, so did my denial. I went back to my eating disorder.

The second time, I was actually in treatment. I had been inpatient for two months when my severe reflux (from years of bulimia) caused aspiration pneumonia. I ended up having to have part of my lung removed, was in a coma for two days, and in the hospital for a month. My heart stopped in surgery and I was clinically dead for over a minute.

Even that did not inspire me to recover.

This is the insanity of eating disorders. That you can literally die, be given a second chance, and still go back to the behaviors that nearly ended your life for good. I suppose by the time you get to the point that I had though, Death just isn’t all that scary anymore. In fact, for a lot of people, it can seem like a good escape from a life of pain. I know that’s what led to my continual relapse, my suicide attempts, and what leads to many others’.

The problem with that idea is that if you decide on that escape plan, whether on the form of suicide or continuing in your eating disorder, you’ll never know what life feels like when it isn’t painful. You’ll never get to experience all the things that are possible when you reach the other side; the beauty, the love, the freedom, the peace. Death, as many have said to me, is a permanent solution to temporary problems. I was fortunate enough to be given enough chances to come to that conclusion. However, we never know when our time is up. We must treat each day as an opportunity for change, a new chance to make new choices. Because as long as we’re still breathing, anything is possible.

© Sarah Henderson 2010

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About writingforrecovery

Sarah is a writer and poet who speaks out about issues that make people uncomfortable. Sarah advocates for causes such a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and mental illness, and often speaks openly about her own experiences. She is determined to abolish the stigma associated with these issues and believes that it starts with people telling their stories, so she started a blog called Writing for Recovery where people can do just that. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and is currently at work on her fourth. She is convinced that there's a novel somewhere in her, and occasionally picks at the chapters so far. View all posts by writingforrecovery

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