Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Moon isn’t much of a hippie.
In fact, her name isn’t Moon.
That was the name she requested. I asked for her pseudonym, and she said “Moon.”
In college, she wasn’t the “Moon” type. In college, an appropriate pseudonym for Moon would have been “Kelly,” “Gabby,” “Kylie.” Hot girl names. She was pretty, athletic, funny, outgoing. Everyone knew who she was. She wasn’t a Moon.
In fact, her popularity was intimidating. It took me a while to get to know her, and even longer for me to trust her. I was afraid of being judged. I was afraid she’d see me as awkward, nerdy, and weird.
Moon and I first became friends when we were partnered up for a research project on disordered eating. We were looking at how our participants perceived thin versus athletic body types. Although we didn’t discuss disordered eating in any depth, I had a feeling that both of our research interests were rooted in personal experience.
As our friendship grew, we sometimes went deeper. Our feelings about food and our bodies came up occasionally, although we always stopped short of saying the truth. I’m obsessed. I’m miserable. I’m exhausted.
To be fair, by the time we were friends, both of us considered ourselves at least mostly "recovered." Our eating disorders were so last year. In my experience, a disordered eater always claims they’re about 50% more recovered than they actually feel. (“I still sometimes think about food” = I still sometimes think about other things.)
By the time I called Moon up for an interview, we hadn't spoken in years. And yet, I felt as comfortable as if we’d just talked yesterday.
When Moon was 13, she asked her mom if her tummy was a little big. Her mom said, ‘Yeah, a little, but it’s okay.”
This mattered, but it wasn’t the turning point. Her eating disorder didn’t emerge for another five years.
Five years later, in her sophomore year of college, Moon went to England to study abroad. That’s where things got worse.
It's often said that eating disorders are about control. Loosely, I think this is true, and it certainly was for Moon in England. Her entire life had been upended, let alone her carefully curated diet and exercise routine. In part, it was Moon’s fear of gaining weight abroad that precipitated her weight loss. In England, gyms were too expensive, so she contented herself with running. She was surrounded by novel, foreign foods, and she was so afraid of indulging that she clung to a diet of apples, peanut butter, and crackers, consumed on weekdays from the safety of her room. On weekends, she granted herself a brief reprieve. Drunk eats with friends were permissible; the last thing she wanted was to stick out in a brand-new social scene.
Moon’s ex-boyfriend went abroad too. It isn’t clear to me the role he played in her eating disorder, but it’s clear that she associates the stress of the relationship with a heightened need to control food. Her ex only ever made one comment on her weight loss in those few months abroad: “You lost your butt. You need to get your butt back.”
People just don’t know what to say. And they usually guess wrong.
When Moon returned to her friends, family, and classmates back home, the consensus was simply that she looked, in her sister’s words, “weird.” I didn’t know her well at the time, but I asked someone who knew her better if she had an eating disorder. (Takes one to know one.) Of course, my question got back to her, and years later Moon told me that this question made an impact. She realized that strangers were noticing her eating disorder, and not because of how glamorous she looked.
Fortunately, Moon got little positive feedback on her weight loss. Less fortunately, the closest thing to it came from her mother: “You do look thin,” her mother admitted. “But it’s okay.”
It was not okay.
Moon thought about food constantly. She was preoccupied by eating too much and kept only to “safe” foods. Her daily workouts lasted hours, and missing a workout was catastrophic. Her ex demanded that she eat more, but with none of the empathy or insight needed to deal responsibly with an eating disorder. He was, after all, a 20 year old male.
Things came to a breaking point when Moon began to feel sad in the gym. She was exhausted. She no longer enjoyed the strength training that used to feel so fun, so close to her identity. Moon’s ex called her parents. To his credit, he didn’t say “She’s losing her butt.” He said instead, “She needs help.”
Moon was, in part, relieved. The jig was up. She started seeing both a nutritionist and a therapist who specialized in disordered eating. In some ways, the nutritionist’s short-term impact was greater than that of the therapist; it was the first time in Moon’s adult life that she entrusted another person to change her “food rules.” One such “rule” was that Moon could eat as much peanut butter as she wanted. That too was a relief.
Today, Moon is recovering. She works on an inpatient unit for people diagnosed with eating disorders. Disordered eating is also the focus of her academic work, most recently her dissertation. Far from being triggering, these daily run-ins with the disease show her how far she has come. She still has her “safety” foods, but she can usually talk herself off the ledge of restriction and she no longer works out obsessively. However, Moon still sees her disordered behavior mirrored in her mother. To preserve Moon’s own recovery, the topics of food and body are simply off limits between the two of them.
For context: When the nutritionist tried to introduce an 8oz can of soda into Moon’s daily diet - and in so doing, normalize a “bad” food - her mom actually protested. But soda’s not healthy!
We don’t all recover at once.
There are a couple of things I always ask a fellow disordered eater in recovery. I want to hear the moment she first suspected she was fat. I want to hear what happened when she first lost weight, particularly the feedback she received. I want to know when, if, and how she “bottomed out.” And I want to know what it looked like to turn things around. Perhaps most of all, I want to know if others could have helped in any way. Do other people ever play a role in our recovery? Do family, friends, and partners have any power to change the course of the disease?
I posed the latter question to Moon, and she told me a story.
Once, she casually mentioned to someone she was dating that she had a history of restrictive eating. It was not the focus of that conversation, and she all but forgot she had said it. Two weeks later, he brought it back up: “Hey, I remember you said something about having a history of trying to control food. I want to know if that’s something you’re struggling with now. I know I compliment your body a lot, but the last thing I want is to affirm a size that isn’t healthy.”
Her mouth dropped. So did mine. I literally got goosebumps.
I don’t know whether others can affect the final course of our disease, but I do know that statements like this are miraculous. His comment showed both that he was listening and that he cared. It showed that, while he liked how she looked, he prioritized how she felt. He somehow managed to ask about her eating disorder without commenting on her food or her body - which is seriously difficult. He came with concerns but no assumptions.
After hearing this story, I was struck again by just how difficult it is for loved ones to respond appropriately to this disease. This dance isn’t for the faint of heart.
Luckily, recovery isn’t about holding your loved ones up to sky-high standards or expecting to find a support group right in your living room. Rather, recovery is about finding those people and resources which naturally and effortlessly hold you up. It takes a whole lot of searching and sifting, wading through disappointment and disillusionment. And: It’s worth it. On the other side, you’re different. Renewed. You do not wait for love, community, recovery; you create it.