Posted by: VoiceinRecovery | August 12, 2010

Near Life Experiences: Death vs. Recovery

Near Life Experiences: Death vs. Recovery

Written by: Sarah Henderson

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


  1. I just posted a comment but it’s not showing up! Sorry if it ends up posting twice!

    What I wanted to say is that for people with eating disorders, death often feels like such an abstract concept, that the reality of it and the possibility of it occuring become extremely distorted. Mental health providers and concerned loved ones often try to “reason” with the person about their risk of death, but the problem is that the disorder may either prevent the person from being in touch with the reality of their experience, or death may seem like a welcome relief from all the pain. We need to be more creative in helping individuals change their life.

    • Your point is SO good. I know for me too I didnt see outside immediate rewards. I could not see outside the immediate. The future was such an abstract quality. We cant be reasoned with. I know how hard it was for my parents who tried everything and asked me constantly “what”????? I had no answer, other than I saw NO other way of handling my life other than through negative tools. Once I entered ambivalence, I then flip flopped. It is important to know if they are thoroughly in the disorder, or in ambivalence, or in hard core recovery to know how to approach the individual. I think recovery, and the broad spread of what that means, needs to be looked into with deeper research, to know how to best approach an individual to create individual treatment and support.

  2. I can really relate. I recently found from a CAT scan and an MRI that my brain has atrophied and has lost volume. I really freaked, fearing early senility. But then I read about this happening to anorexics and when you eat a proper diet these things reverse. I hope that will be the case for me.

    But even now, I am not trying to be anorexic. But I don’t eat right. For the first two days after I found out about my brain — brain damage!!! OMG!!! — I ate full meals. And then I stopped and went back to the way I had been eating. I planned on what I would eat — an immune system boosting anti-cancer diet — but I haven’t bought the food yet. I have been busy, but this is about my brain! And my health.

    What is wrong with me? I am not actively suffering (that I know of!) but I still can’t wrap my mind around anything related to anorexia or unhealthy eating. I don’t want to die or be an idiot. I am proud of my intelligence. But how smart can I be when — what is this BLOCK that prevents me from taking care of myself? I don’t know what it is.

    • Jill – do you have a support team? A therapist or psychiatrist to talk about eating disorders? Or maybe meet with a nutritionist/RD?? It could be helpful to talk to someone about meal plans, nutrition, and health. Hugs to you and I honestly feel for you. If you need any extra support, or resources please let ViR know!

      • When I re-read my post I wonder what I was thinking. My eating disorder is totally active. The way I eat is messed up and even though I buy the right foods, nutritious foods that I like, I end up not eating them. Right now I am going through a sugar phase. I don’t think I am thinking clearly. I am not getting the nutrients I need and I have had deficiencies in the past that have become severe. I think eating disorders do something to your brain where you r cognition suffers and slows way down.

        I have a new therapist who I can talk to and who talks back, a psychiatrist who doesn’t talk (she write scripts). I’ve had an excellent nutritionist in the past one time I was inpatient and I have been educated about nutrition, so I know what a whole meal is, I know how to balance protein, carbs, fats, veggies and fruits. I even have a selection of meal plans and meals I have written out. The nutritionists I have seen in the city have been no help. My insurance limits me severely to who I see. When I was underweight one nutritionist told me, well you have a small frame so I guess that is all right. (!)

        Why don’t I eat the healthy food that I buy? I don’t understand. I am ambivalent about maintaining my weight.
        But that isn’t the whole reason. I know it is up to me to maintain my health and I want to be healthy throughout my life. But this isn’t evident in the limited foods I choose to eat.

        I do need extra support. I live in New York City. I found a free support group, but it was highly triggering. My insurance doesn’t cover what little support is offered here.
        I feel as if I have given up, perhaps, and given in to whatever the ED morphs into. I think it might be different if I were not alone all the time. I tend to stay in my apartment and resist going out. I am afraid no one would want to be friends with a depressed, anxious person with an eating disorder and no life.

  3. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for that. I REALLY needed to see that right now and it will haunt me for a while — which is a good thing because I need the reality check.

    About the concept of death, I read something in a book called “Lit” about an alcoholic:

    I live my life as if my body can die and my mind keep on living.

    I can relate to this a lot … it is as if the concept of death and the reality are hard to get a grip on for the eating disordered. We may know what we are doing might kill us….but we think of it more in terms of the physical…body being dead rather than US..

    Anyways thanks again! I follow your blog but I have never commented and I just want to say thanks!

    • I just finished LIT!!! And I too relate to what you said!!!

  4. beautiful post. thank you! These last sentences gave me chills…probably because I can so relate and am grateful for the reminder.

    “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.”

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