When New York City went on lockdown nearly a year ago to stem the spread of COVID-19, Stephanie Parker thought she might not survive. Her primary concern wasn't contracting the coronavirus, but that her decades-long eating disorder might finally kill her.
Parker would hoard food in her apartment, but rarely ate. She'd clean obsessively and only allow herself food when she felt the space was pristine. Even then, she'd find reasons to deprive herself.
"I was worried things weren't clean enough to actually eat off of. My plates weren't clean enough, my hands weren't clean enough," said Parker, who also found the pandemic triggering obsessive compulsive behaviors. "I was locked in my apartment, and I was living in hell. I just felt so out of control. ... I knew I was going to die from it."
In the United States, 30 million people will be affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and the pandemic has created profound challenges for people living with them or recovering from them, including disrupted routines and increased isolation. For people of color like Parker, there were also additional stressors this past year related to racial trauma.
Since March of 2020, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline has seen a 40% increase in volume compared to the year before.
"I felt so alone, and I also felt like I was never going to get out," Parker said. "It was unbearable."
'I didn't match the picture of what it looked like'
Parker, 34, said her earliest memory of her eating disorder was at age 6, when her mother would applaud her for skipping breakfast before school. Abstaining from food and even water would earn her mother's praise.
"I didn't know what it was. I didn't really understand what was going on," she said. "To be honest, I think I only really understood what an eating disorder was, and that it was something that really impacted my life, a year and a half ago."
Part of the reason it took so long to come to terms with it was because as a Black woman, Parker said she never felt she fit the stereotype of a person with an eating disorder — she was neither white nor extremely thin.
"I didn't match the picture of what it looked like, and what I've known it to look like," she said.
Eating disorders can afflict people of any age, ethnicity, race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, or weight, experts say. Research shows people of color are less likely to receive help for eating disorders.
"The diagnostic criteria for anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder is pretty specific. A lot of people ... live outside of those distinctions," said Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager at NEDA. "But it doesn't mean that their problems aren't considered eating disorders or aren't just as serious."
Eating disorders thrive in isolation
Parker is an only child, and both her parents are deceased. During the pandemic, she hasn't had a family home to escape to. She's been teleworking. She stopped going to yoga and coffee dates. Her world contracted.
"It felt like my whole life just disappeared in a week," she said.
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Eating disorders thrive in isolation. Studies show isolation increases anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that are commonly associated with eating disorders. Isolation can also make it easier for people with disordered eating to engage in behaviors they would otherwise avoid in public.
During the pandemic, people have also exchanged in-person interactions for increased time on social media, which experts say is filled with triggering content, such as memes about not wanting to gain the the "quarantine 15."
During lockdown, an escalation in symptoms
Just before the pandemic, Parker admitted she had a serious problem. But she initially believed self-awareness was enough, that she could manage it on her own.
When her symptoms escalated during lockdown, Parker knew she needed to get professional help. She began individual therapy and found an eating disorders support group specifically for people of color.
"I've lived in a world my whole life where I'm considered the other and I'm treated as the other. And sometimes it felt like the only thing I've ever been able to really control is my body," she said.
Parker said her group gives her space to talk about how racism impacts her eating disorder, which was particularly helpful this summer after the death of George Floyd.
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"We could all share a common bond of how racism impacted our life, how racism has impacted our family's lives and how disordered eating is looked at and talked about differently in our specific communities," she said.
Therapy and peer support lead to healing and recovery
The most acute phase of the pandemic may be over, but Kronengold said the crisis still presents challenges.
"Even though there isn't as much uncertainty or this sense of urgency like there was at the beginning of the pandemic, there's still this sense of hopelessness about the state of the world, and that can trickle into someone's eating disorder recovery journey," she said.
Parker said the hardest part of the past year for her lasted from the lockdown until May. But the pandemic, for all its pain, also brought her to recovery.
"For most of my life, I've never been able to really feel happiness or enjoy everyday pleasures. Like this great song, I just could never feel it. I would just feel ... numbness," she said. "Now I feel liberated. I feel happy."
At the height of the pandemic, disconnection from the wider world crippled Parker. As she healed, renewed connection has been the gift.
"I've had a couple of friends say to me, 'Before, I always felt like there was a wall between us.' And I didn't feel that way, but I'm going to take their word for it, because we're so much closer than we've ever been," she said. "I'm actually able to let people in. I'm no longer hiding."
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association's toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text "NEDA" to 741-741.
In addition to helpline services, the National Eating Disorders Association has put together a list of free or low-cost COVID-19 resources.
February 22nd - 28th is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Learn more and get involved at nedawareness.org, and follow along on social media using the campaign hashtag: #NEDAwareness.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 pandemic complicates healing for those with eating disorders