Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the military and eating disorders


some people become outraged when they learn that the military is not quick to accept those with eating disorders. past or present. They say it's unfair discrimination. I say it's wise and protective, probably in majority of the cases - and the military is a machine that runs on time... it would take TOO much time to make exceptions for those rare cases so I fully agree with the blanket exclusion.

Before you get angry. Hear me out.

I may not be a health professional (though technically I was one for awhile, but I'll get to that part later) let alone a mental health professional (my mental health knowledge doesn't extend very far beyond a couple of psychology courses and trauma studies courses), but I am something a lot of those that are outraged are not... I am a former member of the military who has an eating disorder.

I don't talk about this very often... especially not in detail. I don't think very many people have ever heard me speak more than just a skirted conversation about basic training and my time in the military. I usually just say it was a poor decision with slight elaboration and then move on.

I keep on starting and stopping writing this, because I want to make sure that I fully explain the military that I experienced.

To give a little background, I engaged in eating disorder behaviors prior to joining. Since I had not been officially diagnosed (though I came close to it in college) and was in denial, I was able to join the Air Force.

I was slightly underweight upon entry and when I shipped off to basic training I was put on an eating waiver... As it was explained to me by my MTI (Military Training Instructor --- aka the boot camp leader) "basically what this little waiver means is that it's my job to make you fat. So eat up little piggy - we'll work it off later"

Let's evaluate this statement.

Let's take the first part: "it's my job to make you fat."

okay... translation for an eating disorder mind (and actually a mathematical mind as well... really): you're supposed to gain weight... gaining weight = making you fat.

Let's take that second part "So eat up little piggy - we'll work it off later"
eating disorder translation: "you're eating. you're a pig. you need to burn it off."

 Where was this said to me?

At a special table in the center of the dining facility. A special little table that was monitored closely (for food intake) by MTIs. They would bring you more food if they felt you hadn't gotten enough to eat... and you were given extra time to eat. Both of those latter things would make the "regular" trainees grow disdain towards you as they were only given about 7ish minutes to eat (no joke).

When I did a four month stint in IOP, eating at a table with other people with similar eating habits didn't really phase me, because it brought me back to basic training... just like eating with the eating waiver kids again. Hahaha.

Anyways I digress (in case you haven't noticed... I tend to do that)

I got done with basic training went off to tech school. Felt a pressure to do well... had personal stuff crop up involving the reason why I left college... and felt the need to get the weight off.

I wound up in the hospital a couple of times for dehydration and once for ipecac. I became underweight again and yet people were still pushing me to exercise more and to perform academically and physically.

It strained me. I wound up admitting I had a problem after my second stint in the hospital for dehydration, but before my venture with ipecac that I thought was going to kill me (I don't think I've ever been that ill in my life. let alone for that period of time... almost a week)

They had me see a therapist, but I was still being pushed to do all these things. I was put in charge of sports day every weekend. By the time I was to depart Wichita Falls, TX I was told I needed to enter a treatment program. The people at Scott AFB (which was to be my new base) wouldn't permit me to go immediately into an intensive patient program upon arrival, rather just an intensive outpatient program. I was given the phone number for mental health at Scott and sent on my way.

I arrived on Scott and was told how much I was needed there, that they were short handed... and I never made that call. Mental health (who was expecting me to call) never called me either. I found out later that my doctor KNEW I was supposed to go into treatment upon arrival. She told me that she wanted to let me form my own consequences. Whatever that means...

I wound up in a career field dominated by men. The female that was there when I got there was on her way out - her replacement was extremely pregnant and we only overlapped for a month or so before she gave birth and a couple of months after.

There was competition, high standards (I was the only person under a tech sergeant at one point when I was the only female back there) because they were used to people higher ranking with more experience... I was given an extremely large work load for an airman, and I caught the running bug.

The running bug was fueled by the military. The guys in my work (I worked in the medical field in dental) wouldn't let me take leave unless I was running -- because they deemed that a "legit" reason.

They would comment and critique my run times.

I felt like I was under a microscope 24/7 as I lived on base.

I would be grocery shopping and people I know would see me and comment on what was in my basket (I switched to a basket after one of the guys at my work commented on my use of a cart... asking me if I really needed one for just one person). I would be at the gas station and would run into people.

It was horrible.

I wouldn't go into the dining facility for that reason (I quit going in tech school actually) - the only exceptions being when I was asked to go to the Commander's lunch there and when I was a cadre for JROTC --- both times I noted and used the scale that was inside the dining facility.

One might wonder why a scale would find a home in a place dedicated to feeding others... well, my answer to that this was an Air Force Base meaning part of which dictates your next rank IS your weight... your physical fitness. In tech school I remember hearing an instructor discuss using laxatives to make his weight.

I had a small waist (considering how much I was running - incredibly small for a female) and after my PT test I had my supervisor's supervisor come up to me and tell me that he was right, that I didn't have the smallest waist in the clinic - that X did by half an inch. It became fodder, everyone I worked with knew my weight and here this male in my chain of command was informing me I did not have the smallest waist in the dental clinic - as if that were some prized position to hold (btw: dental clinics are loaded with females -- albeit not in the dental lab -- so it's not even like I had the second smallest of three people) or that I was close to the danger zone. Danger zone?? Yes. Danger zone... you waist too is a factor in your PT test score... which is part of what is used for your performance report which is a factor in promotions which is a factor in $$$

Anyways, to make this shorter than what it's looking like it could be. The military placed a lot of stress on me. Emphasized weight and being in shape. Got me into running in a hardcore way... and what resulted?

The eating disorder got way way way out of control.

I said something to my supervisor once and he told me to be careful what I said because it could jeopardize HIS career if people thought he wasn't looking out for his troop. I kept my mouth shut.

Things got progressively worse to the point of eating with the purpose of having something to throw up... and to the point of needing additional work done on my shoulder when it came time for the second surgery.

Basically I had surgery one done by an Air Force doctor... he didn't repair my labrum correctly... it was bad. Military told me I could still continue running even when it started dislocating again (I asked specifically)... so I did... and not only wound up with the retorn labrum (from the faulty surgery) but also damaged my rotator cuff and enlarged the capsule to TWICE the size (the latter the doctor said was due to the excessive running).

I was running from something, clearly.

Eventually it got to the point where I couldn't handle it anymore... that's when I saw a therapist that was very unhelpful to the point of pulling out a picture of a friend she had and asking me if I thought her friend was overweight...

it was until I went in there and did a tell all shake/sweat/sob fest whilst smelling like vomit that anything happened... I was in an IOP program by the end of the week.

It was that break from the military that I truly think saved my life.

In the military there isn't compassion. You're not even a last name... or a number... you're the last four digits of a number... your social security number that is.

They want perfection. If you're not perfect you're unacceptable to them.

Even though it's been over a year since I entered treatment.. I wouldn't even want to go back to the military for week... oh wait, I didn't mention that... I got medically discharged from the military - the paperwork started right around the time of me entering treatment. I admitted that it was pre-existing. The people in Texas admitted that they severely aggravated the disorder.

I feel like with jobs there's a few combinations possible...
1) You can love your job, not the like the people
2) You can love the people, but not like the job

Both of those make working a job tolerable

You can also love your job and love the people which makes your job amazing
or you can hate your job and dislike the people which makes your job miserable.

When you're in the military and live on the base your job can quickly become your life (I remember getting recalled --- that's when they call you up and you HAVE to go into work immediately --- at 4am the day after my 21st birthday) so when it's that last possibility your life becomes miserable.

I feel like the military life promotes eating disorders and attracts those with eating disorders or personality traits that make people inclined to develop them.

Statistics would back that up, eating disorders are a LOT more common in the military than in the civilian sector.

I cannot imagine very many people with a history of an eating disorder or predisposition towards one faring well mentally in the military. At all. As someone working in the dental clinic my job itself should not have been stressful - but in the military you're taught that everything is crucial - every mistake could cost lives. I would hate to imagine what it would have been like had I been put in a career field that COULD have truly or directly cost lives.

Sorry this was so jumbled, but it was a lot harder and more draining to write than one might think.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. thanks for posting this Kat, i know so little about the military, it is interesting to read a real perspective. being in the police made my ED reach its worst

  3. I can so relate to this! Except I was in the army and got sent home from a deployment to Kuwait with my national guard unit b/c my ED went crazy overseas. I too, was medically discharged; they were so unhelpful and almost mean about it. there was a navy medical base in our camp and a therapist i sought out there was very helpful in trying to get me home to get treatment, but my captain pretty much laughed when i told him and said, well we all have our vices don't we... needless to say i never talked to him about it again.
    i'm sorry you went through a similar horrible experience. I tried re-enlisting in the reserves a couple years ago and i don't think they will ever let me back in with any type of mental health history, which is sad b/c i'm going to grad school for nursing this fall and would make an excellent army Nurse Pracitioner... Their loss i suppose...
    thanks for sharing!

  4. I really liked this post. I had a period of very disordered eating when I was in the Army, I think because of a combination of stress, general unhappiness and being around a lot of people who were very focused on weight and fitness. A lot of people inadvertently contributed, including my female drill instructor, who praised me publicly and frequently for being so thin. "I wish I was thin like you," she said at one weigh in. I was chaptered out early (honorable discharge) not specifically for an eating disorder but that certainly contributed. Oddly enough, despite how miserable I know I was, the whole thing is more of a good memory than a bad one.

  5. I'm having the same problem now.
    how long did you have to wait before they sent you home after being medically discharged?

  6. Between what time and what time? Between when the MEB first was initiated (that's not a guarantee that you will be discharged) and when I was discharged.. or from when the decision came down and I was discharged?

    If you meant the former, then February 2010 was when the ball first started rolling... I didn't discharge until late August the same year.

    The decision itself was officially made in June (including severance pay and all that jazz). I was in for over 3 years though.

  7. My best friend joined the Navy Reserves. She already had body image problems, and she had full blown, dangerous anorexia in no time flat. The military has done next to nothing to help her. We got her into residential treatment only to have Tricare boot her out too soon. They've been sent letters by her (off base) doctor explaining that she is incapable of physical exertion and mentally incapable of making decisions. They only thing that has happened is that she is currently relieved from PT. Her heart rate is in the 40s, her weight is well under 100lbs, and she refuses to go to the hospital, and has been alienating everyone. None of us have any energy left to do anything anymore. You were luckier than her. She's going to die without them admitting anything.

    1. Depends on what you consider lucky I suppose... Being kicked out had definite emotional repercussions and I had to re-enter treatment (only had to pay a VERY LARGE chunk out of pocket -- we're talking roughly $10k). I'm still having to see therapists and dietitians and psychiatrists.

      Lucky I got out of the military? Yes.

      Lucky I got out of the eating disorder? No, because I haven't. My time in the military just further deepened my belief that I'm worthless.

      If you want your friend to have her ties cut with the military, you could talk to her commander and suggest a medical boarding (MEB). It might help. Eventually they won't keep her around, I assure.

      and Tricare blows. They mainly will only pay for inpatient treatment (it's different than residential -- and maybe try Rogers Memorial!!) and IOP.

  8. I'm 18 and just signed up to be in the national guard. I go in for training one weekend a month and starting next sumemr i do my 10 week army training. I too have an eating disorder and reading this article, though it was long ago, interested me but also worried me... is there any advice anyone can give for support or about what to expect during my experience?

  9. I just saw this... Not sure what sort of advice you'd like. No who you are. If you can see a therapist along the way. Find ways to have a life outside the military. Etc


  10. I had issues with handling negative emotions at the age of 17. I don't see why an adolescent coping mechanism I went to out of desperation 6 years ago should have any bearing on my professional opportunities years later where I am entirely recovered, healthy and capable, have been to therapy and the whole thing, and I am working towards the credentials to be both a social worker and psychotherapist. I understand the depths of the issue. Full recovery is exceedingly possible. Being barred for life is a ridiculous, and unforgiving, joke.

    1. The fact that you desire to become a therapist but throw out someone who also suffered with an eating disorder's point of view is frightening. Compassion and empathy for someone's experience go a long way. Note it even said in the beginning of the article that there could be exceptions to the negative impact...

      Going on an article such as this when you have no experience (I imagine you would have stated it if so) having been enlisted in the military implies you think you know more about a population of people than they know about themselves.

  11. I had an eating disorder and am now applying for an ROTC scholarship. I was awarded the scholarship pending medical qualification, which I was disqualified however I am now applying for a waiver. I understand why they disqualify those with an eating disorder but I don't believe that one mistake as a teenager should dictate my entire life? I am writing my request letter but have only found blogs online which talk about how it is impossible to get a waiver for an eating disorder - do you know of anyone who has accomplished this? For something that I am extremely passionate about, I really hope they review my letter and grant me a waiver. Thank you so much, your article was extremely helpful and interesting.

  12. I am a high school student who has been thinking about applying to West Point and the Naval Academy. I have the grades, test scores, sports, and extra things that make me an optimal candidate. Unfortunately I have struggled with an undiagnosed eating disorder for the last two years. I worry that if I seek help and am diagnosed with an eating disorder, I will be disqualified from a military career. If I do not seek help I could lose any chance I have or even end up in the hospital before then. Should I give up my dream of being in the military?

    1. I would focus on getting yourself healthy. If they figure out you have an eating disorder the repercussions of that can be devastating. Every situation is unique though. You have to truly think about whether or not it will make the problem better or worse... and if you can emotionally and financially handle it if it is uncovered you have an eating disorder and you're kicked out.

  13. So I don't imagine anyone will see this, but every story I have read is about someone with an active ED or close to it.
    I'm looking into the National Guard- I live in Moore, OK and helped out with the 2013 tornado relief and fell in love with disaster relief work. In fact, back in 2013 was about six months into my recovery, and I haven't looked back since. I don't take any meds, no therapy, no dietitian. But back at 15-16 I was inpatient.

    I feel like now I would see any sort of slip and nip it before it was any problem. I have faced three family deaths, gotten a black belt, and graduated with honors since then.... but would it be worth the risk?
    And even if it was worth the risk, could it be negotiated?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...