Sometimes the darkest moment can be a catalyst for light. At the 2010 Academy of Eating Disorders Salzburg ICED, I was eating lunch and enjoying a chat with fellow advocates, Kitty Westin, Laura Collins and Carrie Arnold. We were sitting around a small table outside at a sidewalk café when news came through from the United States that Erin, daughter of Joan Riederer, had died from Anorexia Nervosa.Kitty, whose own daughter had died from an eating disorder illness, was understandably very upset and was struggling to regain composure. She was scheduled to present as a plenary speaker in front of hundreds of delegates in the next 30 minutes. I rummaged in my shoulder bag seeking a tissue. Instead, I pulled out a sock belonging to my daughter Amanda, who was back home in Australia. The sock was far from sparkling white (it had got mixed up with grandchildren’s clothes after a visit, and hitched a ride to Salzburg).
Kitty took the sock gratefully. The padded anklet sport sock was soft and ‘squeeze-able’. Kitty dabbed her eyes and clutched the sock. Somehow it gave comfort. When Kitty walked on the stage, the sock went too, providing her with the strength to deliver an excellent talk. After the conference, the sock hitched another ride, this time to the USA, to accompany Kitty to Erin’s funeral. The sock, an ordinary, every day object, emerged through this series of tragic, serendipitous and poignant events associated with the loss of Erin’s life, as a symbol of hope in the fight against ‘Ed’ the eating disorder.
Almost three years later, I am touched to note that Beat in the UK is continuing to commemorate the sock with ‘Sock it to Eating Disorders’ awareness week, February 11-17. Congratulations to Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat, and her team, for making this happen. I would love to see other eating disorder support groups follow Beat’s lead.
The field of eating disorders has long needed a global symbol to raise eating disorders awareness. Many diseases are signified by ribbons or by plastic bracelets. Some of us dared to hope that the unlikely sock could become a powerful global symbol.
The everyday sock is a unique symbol. It is at first incongruous, unexpected. Unlike a ribbon or bracelet, many of us believed the sock had the potential to stand out, arousing curiosity in the media and among the public. The sock could perhaps succeed where many other efforts had failed, in increasing awareness of eating disorders.
All cultures use some form of sock. Similarly, eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or religion. One is an unacknowledged ‘creature’ of comfort, the other an often-unacknowledged mental illness.
When you next pull on a pair of socks, I hope you will think of Erin and all the other beautiful people who have lost their lives to an eating disorder. I hope you will be empowered, and be determined to walk tall and ‘sock it to ED’.