Disorders, People and Societies

Orthorexia nervosa, a new disorder emerging in psychology, is an example of why I walked away from the world of counseling. It’s a condition whereby someone is obsessed with eating healthy, to the point that it takes up an inordinate amount of time and attention in your life, it can lead you to feel guilt and self-loathing if you deviate from your food plan, and it can cause you to avoid other issues going on in your life besides your eating habits. (For more, see this website.) Sound like anyone you know? It sounds like several people I know, including myself to varying degrees. It sounds like something that’s natural to experience, given our culture’s lack of consensus around what healthy eating looks like. Is healthy eating a diet that is vegan? Gluten free? Raw? Paleo? The list goes on and on (and on!) and changes rapidly, depending on the current fads. Even in the medical field, the ideas of what’s healthy and what’s not changes regularly, depending on the latest studies. Caffeine, wine, chocolate, and other food’s healthy or unhealthy status can shift overnight. If you’re like me, and trying to eat healthfully, it’s enough to drive you insane. Which is why there’s now a fancy new condition just for you, the lucky 1st-world consumer who has been inundated with constantly-shifting ideas on what’s healthy, coupled with a manic urgency that if you are not healthy (or thin, a clean-eater, proactive about your eating, etc), there is something seriously wrong with you. So, now there definitely IS something wrong with you! It’s your fault. It’s not at all the culture’s fault for setting you up for failure and then labeling you to give you a muddy idea that you now have clarity about why you act the way you do. With your new label, you can have a sense of purpose—it’s your job to wrestle with your new issue. And maybe someday soon there will be a shiny new pill for you to swallow, thanks to one of the many pharmaceutical companies happy to jump on this opportunity – err, I mean, condition – and create a “solution.”  The side effects of these “solutions” oftentimes seem to me far worse than the cure they offer for the presenting condition. But I digress.

I woke up this morning to find an email about this new condition in my inbox, and something clicked in my brain—this is one of the main reasons I left the counseling profession. It is one of the major agendas of the field of psychology to identify conditions, issues, and disorders plaguing people, to describe these conditions, and to attempt to cure people of them. Makes sense, right? It’s along the same lines of medical science—research and understand the symptoms in order to properly diagnose individuals and create treatments for the diseases.  The most common, if not best, solutions in psychology are talk therapy and pharmaceutical drugs. I’ve already tipped my hand as to my opinion about the latter. Let’s look at the former—at talk therapy. Here we have the popular method of listening actively to another human being and giving them advice or ideas for working with a problem. It’s pretty basic, really. It’s about connection. It’s about non-judgement. It’s about trying to address the core issues in order to come up with solutions that will stick. In medical science, if someone comes in with a stomachache, and you give them an antacid and send them home, and it turns out they had appendicitis and you didn’t assess them fully to see if that was their problem, then you’re liable—because you as their doctor didn’t seek out the core problem. But how do we get to the true core issues in psychology? Someone comes in saying they are trying to eat healthy and it’s gotten to the point where it’s impacting their lives negatively. The root cause of their obsession—is it something internal, something in their brain making them act this way?

Psychology keeps adding to the list of problems and not addressing the root causes of them.  Anorexia. Bulemia. Binge-eating Disorder. Orthorexia. They’re all in the same group – they’re all a part of our culture’s obsession with being thin, with a food system that inundates us with too much junk ‘food’, and points the blame on the individual.   I am of the belief that the root cause of orthorexia nervosa, depression, anxiety, and so many other disorders that the psychology profession is happy to “treat” with a lifetime supply of drugs and therapy is not, at the root of the problem, caused solely by the person who has the condition. It’s not an inherent part of the human condition to have so many issues around eating–otherwise we would see these problems in every culture in the world and in the history of the world, and we don’t see that at all.

Let’s return to the example of the person who visits the doctor with a stomachache. Let’s say now that’s it not indigestion or appendicitis, and this is a competent doctor who is thorough in her investigation of the patient. She eventually gets out the ultrasound machine and finds that the patient’s stomach is full of tiny pieces of glass. “That patient is crazy,” you very well might say, and you’d be justified thinking that—what sane person would eat glass?! But if the patient has been eating food that their family, their community, their state and country has prepared for them that is secretly laced with tiny bits of glass, then it’s not about their mental state—the root cause is the patient’s crazy culture. I believe that’s what we’re dealing with in America.

So, psychology?  It would be great if you would stop simply listing the conditions we find ourselves grappling with, and tackle our society’s role in creating these conditions.  And the sooner, the better…we’re pretty sick here.


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