Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Ever since I began recovering from my eating disorder, I've just wanted to talk about it.
Unfortunately, the average person’s reaction is less than satisfying. When I tell her, for example, that I’ve just eaten a donut, she somehow stays standing up. Doesn't she know that donuts are forbidden?
In contrast, a disordered eater understands the gravity. She falls right off her chair. A story about eating a donut (especially one with an ambiguous calorie count) is the conversational equivalent of sharing the dirtiest thing I've done in bed.
So lately, I've preferred talking to other disordered eaters about recovery. No, I’m not interested in trading diet tips, pretending to commiserate while silently taking notes. I simply want to laugh at the insanity. I want to celebrate the feeling of getting well.
Today, in honor of my 100th blog post, I’d like to share my recent interview with Lisa. She and I went to college together; it was a small school, only 1400 students, and yet we never really talked. I don’t think this was deliberate, but I do think it was a missed opportunity. Looking back now, I suspect that both of our college careers were a series of missed opportunities. Our eating disorders ran a tight ship.
Lisa’s recovery looks different than mine. In fact, these days, it doesn’t look much like recovery. She still restricts her diet to “safe” foods only, consumed only at “safe” times of day. She still sometimes chews her food and spits it out. As a complication of her eating disorder, she developed gout at 29. (To make things more complicated: The gout medication had to be consumed with a "full meal.") When I told Lisa just how many "full meals" I’ve eaten every day for the last six 6 weeks, her jaw dropped. Such a thing is unfathomable to a disordered eater - right up until it isn’t.
So, like I said: We’re in different places.
At around the age of 10, Lisa stared in the mirror and wondered if she was pregnant. She asked her mom if sex was absolutely required for pregnancy. When her mother answered yes, Lisa concluded instead that she was just fat.
She was not fat.
(I came to the same conclusion in the doctor’s office when I was around the same age. “You’re in the 90th percentile for weight,” they said.)
A few years later, Lisa underwent a complicated orthodontic procedure, and it became painful to eat. Her weight dropped. She made friends with the popular girls, and she no longer thought she looked pregnant. Not eating seemed to be working.
The more I listen to the stories of disordered eaters, the more I hear the same arc. There's the moment you “realize” that you’re fat, and the moment you realize that not eating is “working.” Maybe, like Lisa, you start making popular friends. Maybe boys begin looking at you. Maybe people say you look great; maybe they ask for your secret. Maybe your doctor - the one who told you were too fat - now worries you’re too thin.
Eventually, a girl at Lisa’s school told her counselor that she wasn’t eating. Lisa was forced to attend therapy with a therapist who was unqualified to treat eating disorders. Lisa ran circles around her. Needless to say, it didn’t help.
That marked the one and only time someone has intervened on Lisa's eating disorder. She once lost ⅕ of her body weight in the span of a couple months, and no one said anything. I sense a certain disbelief as Lisa recounts this part of her story. Why do people almost always stay silent?
Well, that’s not quite true. These days, Lisa's mom flatly remarks that she looks like she’s dying. She knows full well that Lisa’s disorder adores this remark. She says it anyway because she doesn’t know what else to say.
The question of what to say, how to intervene, is exceptionally difficult. When your loved one is in active addiction, there isn’t much to do. Is it any different with eating disorders?
Lisa’s therapist once told her that it was a choice. She chose to maintain her eating disorder. On one hand, it was bad news. Choosing her disorder meant she was voluntarily wasting her life away, purposefully preoccupied by thoughts of eating and not eating, losing and gaining, hard or soft, safe or unsafe. But her eating disorder offered comfort in the form of a valiant reframe: Hey, if you’re choosing me, maybe that means you can always choose to be thin.
I want you to notice that. I want you to notice that the disorder sounds like a friend. Not a good friend, of course; many have marveled at how truly insane it is to keep a “friend” around who forbids you from eating. (Eating carbs, eating before noon, or eating at all). But I find that less interesting. I find it less interesting to examine why eating disorders are “irrational” or even “insane.” I want to notice instead why they might sound like a friend.
To a thirteen-year-old girl, not eating can feel like a sane response to an insane world. Perhaps, by 29, that girl technically “knows better.” (After all, Lisa is fully capable of laughing at herself.) And yet, anyone who has wrestled their entire lives with mental or behavioral addictions, whether that’s depression or alcoholism or codependence or binge eating or perfectionism, knows all too well that old habits die hard. Really, really hard. Often, they don’t die at all - at least, not before you do.
If we are to have any hope of overcoming the widespread, soul-sucking, life-shrinking phenomena that is disordered eating, we need to stop talking about why eating disorders are bad. Wrong. Vain. A “waste of time.” Instead, we must understand why they exist at all. And why, in their biopsychosocial contexts, these disorders make a whole lot of sense.
Case in point: In Lisa’s life, she has sometimes had a hard time making friends. In response, her eating disorder has felt like her most reliable ally. She was raised Catholic, and inferred from an early age that that to be a good person meant to control one’s appetite. Anorexia - which is, in reality, an utter loss of control - masqueraded as this coveted ascetism. In high school, when Lisa struggled to define herself, her eating disorder drew a character: You are the pretty girl who eats this, not that. You are thin, safe, invulnerable.
To this day, Lisa struggles with dissociation, with maintaining a feeling of connection to her body. Paradoxically, the sensation of hunger is safe. Grounding. Something to latch onto. Sounds pretty screwed up - until you realize that the alternative is floating away. There can be solace in following instructions, even if they lead nowhere.
On one hand, eating disorders would likely be much less prevalent in a society that wasn’t terrified of fat. On the other, Lisa’s disorder isn’t about fat all. She doesn’t really notice others’ weight, and she finds bodies larger than hers to be attractive. She does fear weight gain - more specifically, in her words, “volume gain” - but it’s not about the weight. Hell, in our culture, even weight isn’t about the weight. Weight has errantly become about belonging, worth, talent, potential, the very right to exist.
Even though eating disorders are not about the weight, I knew for myself that I couldn’t recover from my eating disorder until I faced my fear of getting bigger. Lisa has never felt prepared to face that fear. As such, she reports that she has never been "in recovery."
That being said, there have been periods of her life where she has gained “happy weight.” When, briefly, she affords the size of her body less significance than the size of her life. When she is invited to eat with a friend, for example, she can say yes. She has a weekly ritual where she and her boyfriend go to brunch and order enormous meals; she eats the whole thing without guilt.
No, she’s not a “normal” eater - not yet. But she knows what normal looks like. And when the light hits just right, she can even catch a glimpse of it.