If A Tree Falls

The last few days I have been thinking about this philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I first saw the short film, “Likeness,” directed by Rodrigo Prieto, a month ago, which is about a girl (Elle Fanning) with bulimia. **NOTE: If you’re thinking of watching it, and I will link to it here, I am telling/ warning you: it has disturbing images and shows purging. SO, be cautious before seeing it. If you’re worried about whether or not to watch it, maybe err on the side of not. That is my warning.**

Despite the disturbing content (I turned the volume down/ skipped through a few scenarios), this film spoke to something deep inside of me. Elle Fanning is at a party in the bathroom putting on mascara when all of a sudden her skin morphs into a peeling mask, and crying, she tries to rip off her own skin. It is haunting and raw, but it resonates.

It made me think of the tree falling question.

Does someone’s pain matter if nobody knows it is happening?

So often, with eating disorders, and mental health issues in general, the pain inside is not outwardly visible. I know the experience of walking around in a trance, knowing that people have no idea about what I’m going through. I can engage in normal activities and act like a regular human being, and yet, there is so much more inside.

Maybe one reason I relate to Elle Fanning’s character in “Likeness” so much is because the director externalized her self-loathing, dysmorphic inner state onto the outer, her skin. If I’m being honest, the outward is more tangible and seems more real to me.

The outward is also more comfortable for our culture. This series of images came out on imgur entitled, “If physical diseases were treated like mental illness.” My favorite image is a picture of a person who has blood spewing from his stomach, and someone is saying, “It’s like you’re not even trying.” Of course, no one would ever say that to someone who is internally bleeding, and yet, as the images suggest, isn’t that exactly how people with mental illness are often treated? Neurotransmitters are over/ under firing, and the brain is malfunctioning, and yet people are blamed for their issues because they can’t be seen. People receive rhetoric like, “You’re so frustrating. You’re not even trying. Just get out of bed. Eat dinner. It’s not a big deal.”

Stigma toward mental illness is so prevalent. It hinders a healthy person’s willingness to be empathetic towards those with mental health issues, and then sufferers can internalize self-stigma, or stigmatize themselves.

The tendency to hide is evident for Elle Fanning’s character in “Likeness,” who is in serious emotional discomfort  and then proceeds to go back into the party and tell others she is fine. My professional/ recovery instinct is to tell her: Everything is not fine. You can confide in someone. You don’t have to go through this alone. … and yet, haven’t I historically reacted how this character does? It is so easy to hide if you can.

In a recent anorexia memoir I read, I saw the author’s tendency to invalidate her own experience of an eating disorder. Her book is peppered with times that she is screaming, Was this thing that I went through real? Can you see it? Does it count? Is it good enough? Am I good enough?

My own eating disorder has seemed similarly elusive. Some of my past relapses have been in response to the thought, “I want to see if I still can do it” (hindsight: not a fruitful thought). I can’t say, “I broke my bone on this date, and I got a cast, and I was in physical therapy until this month.” My healing has been in a jovial conversation, a good cry, the taste of quality food, and increasing amounts of life. Part of me longs for the certainty and tangibility that I don’t have.

Now back to the philosophical tree question… Okay, I took a (required) philosophy class in college. One. So I know pretty much nothing about philosophical dilemmas. And right now I’m more talking about people than trees, obviously. But, shouldn’t a tree that falls matter? Maybe no one can hear or see it right away, but doesn’t it ultimately impact the rest of the forest? And if nothing else, I would think that it would be known by and matter to God.

Just because the tears may be deep inside, don’t they still count as tears? If someone is imploding and no one recognizes it, isn’t that still imploding? Just because everything seems okay, and others recognize it as such, maybe everything is not okay. Shouldn’t that be okay? Suffering is hard to measure, but it still matters. It means something, even if it is silent. My therapist has tried to tell me this 800 times, calmly, and the last 100 times more forcefully. I believe her every time. The hard part is putting it into practice in my own life. It is so hard to validate something no one can see, even when I know it is real. Elle Fanning and I cannot be the only ones in life who have had the impulse to hide emotional pain.

I see how stigma about mental illness has affected individuals and our culture, so one of my professional goals is to fight this stigma that inhibits people from acknowledging their own struggles and friends and family from recognizing and responding to another’s pain. It is unacceptable that so many people have to suffer alone without an advocate.

What would a world look like where people are free to be open about the pain they face inside, where the lack of judgment and safety are normative responses? I believe that through education and outreach, more and more people will be able to come out of the closet and verbalize their own struggles, or they can support others.

Many times, when you are falling or hurting internally, you can’t just get yourself out of it, just like this poor little tree below can’t re-plant himself if no one heeds his cry. People need support and love during hard times. They need it from others, and they need it from themselves.

“Engagement Season”: On Being a Single Christian

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Apparently we are now in “engagement season,” as this picture on Instagram that went viral showed. The viral nature of this picture has prompted lots of discussion on marriage/ singleness, so I decided, maybe it’s time for me to start talking about singleness, because, well, I am single. And I think about it a lot. Now let’s up the ante: let’s talk about Christian singleness. 

First a little background.

When I was growing up, I thought that my life would begin when I got married and had children. Even though I was always a high achiever, I considered career goals to be a back up plan reserved for my first few years of marriage prior to the commencement of popping out babies. I had this world view for a disturbingly long time– even in college, I was prepared to meet Prince Charming at any time and leave everything I had to follow him. My identity would be in being Mrs. Prince Charming. That’s where I would find worthiness and wholeness.

I was primed to think this way. My role model growing up was Ariel from The Little Mermaid, which, looking back, is scary, as this Second City skit hilariously depicts. I was idolizing a voiceless young girl who changed her body for a complete stranger who she apparently loves. Not to mention that she is 16. Growing up, I also saw a lot of educated women who stopped their lives when getting married and having children. The rest of their existence was filled with helicopter parenting, militant PTA presence, facilitating parties, and complaining to the principal about difficult calculus teachers. What is a young girl to learn from these models of love, marriage, and womanhood? That being a wife and mom were king. More than anything, those experiences colored one’s identity and guided the rest of a person’s life. Getting a job? Getting a raise? An education? Apparently less exciting and valued than blowing $70,000 on a wedding, as this article from the Huffington Post shows. 

My experience as an evangelical Christian with dating and marriage has been much, much worse than my experience with singleness in the dominant culture. Things get elevated when moral and divine components embedded into discussion. As a teenager in an evangelical church, I was given rhetoric like, “God’s plan for your perfect mate,” a poem that can be summarized by the following: God wants you to have the perfect marriage. Just wait. Draw close to him, and when the perfect time comes, he will give you more than you could ever ask or imagine in a mate. I heard things like, “If you dance with God, he will let the perfect guy cut in,” and, “God is writing my love story.”

I drank the Kool Aid… for a while.

I patiently (well, not that patiently, let’s be honest) waited for Mr. Right to march in, and (cue the crickets). It hasn’t happened. Theologically, this has been problematic for me. Am I not being a good enough Christian? Am I not holy enough? I’ve been having this really long dance with God, and it’s super awesome, but when is this awesome guy going to cut in? Maybe if I learn this lesson… and that one… GOD AM I BEING PATIENT ENOUGH YET???? (Crickets). Okay, guess not.

There is this strange theological view of God as a cosmic matchmaker who is facilitating billions of chick flicks. What about those of us who haven’t gotten cast? What about those of us who haven’t gotten the ring by spring? Are we missing something? Are we not good enough? What about people who never get married? Or who get divorced? Or who are in abusive relationships?

In my despair over being single, I’ve poured over Christian literature on singleness (and marriage). I remember reading a book based on the story of Ruth, which described how she patiently waited for Boaz. I read it every time I was lonely, which was a lot. Over the years in church, I have gotten the consistent message that a primary concern of the Christian life is getting married. I saw marriage portrayed like a massive party with balloons, blow up toys, and awesome cake. You could finally have sex. The instructions that Paul gives about lifelong celibacy? Contextual, apparently.

Unfortunately for me, I’m not willing to be this single Christian woman who prays daily for my future husband and cultivates the traits of “sweetness and submission” to male authority figures. After years of therapy and theological education, I will not wait on the edge of my castle in a Cinderella dress waiting for my Mr. Jesus-Right to sweep me away. Yes, I pray, and yes, sweetness and submission can be beautiful and godly things, but I think that God is much more concerned about how I live and love others where I am than wistfully cry myself to sleep and read Mark Driscoll, who obviously understands the plight of single women (oh wait…).

Jesus talks about a lot of things. Poverty is a big one. The oppressed. Healing. However, the Bible does not talk much (anything?) about picking a marriage partner in the way that our modern culture conceptualizes marriage. The Bible can generalize to things like marriage, and there are clearly examples of marriage being a blessing in the Bible, but the Bible is not a guide book for dating or marriage. It is so much more than that. In addition, the way that the current evangelical church has defined dating and marriage are not inherently cornerstones of our faith. Just because many Christians are married and God can work in marriages doesn’t mean that marriage should be “the” ideal for every Christian adult’s life. Clearly marriage is not a mark of holiness and godliness in and of itself because Jesus and Paul both chose celibacy.

The evangelical emphasis on marriage is so pervasive (google the books/ articles written on marriage by evangelicals), I wonder if it borders on idolatry. The implication of the dance-with-God–then-the-perfect-guy-will-cut-in phrase is that you stop walking with God when a guy comes around. God is like your wingman who desires you to have a greater good… MARRIAGE. Isn’t that kind of problematic? Christian Mingle, a site that appears on my facebook page incessantly, has the verse Psalm 37:4 on its home page, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Then right below it, it has a picture of a couple gazing into each other’s eyes. If I recall correctly, Psalm 37:4 is not really talking about marriage– it is talking about delighting in God. Not God… so you can get a better husband. Not God for anything. God for himself. Elevating marriage over God is something that I have struggled with doing in my own life, but I think that a lot of Christians– including pastors– do that as well. And their beliefs are conveyed to teens in youth group and divorced single moms and single twenty or thirty-somethings attending baby showers every weekend, and it hurts. Yes, marriage is something to strive for and is something to be celebrated, and yes, churches are right to address marriage, but marriage cannot be seen as the only (or “preferred”) path, because it’s not.

Recently, I read an amazing post by Christena Cleveland called, “Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Unmarried Adults.” It is beautiful, and you should totally check it out. She writes, “In a Church that was founded by a single guy, singles are terribly marginalized.” Cleveland also has some helpful tips for churches so that singles are not treated like second-class citizens or oddballs. Also importantly, Cleveland has the experience of being unmarried herself. I appreciate how Greg Boyd, a married pastor, invited Cleveland to speak with him about singleness to his church so the voice of an unmarried individual was heard.

You know what is annoying? When people who are not single think they have the right to talk about singles. I grit my teeth when I hear someone say, “I was exactly like you, and then this guy came along, and everything changed! But I totally know what you’re going through.” Pastors are historically annoying about the topic. I can’t find statistics about this, but from my own experience: most pastors I know are married. And they got married at 22 to their high school sweetheart. And then they preach to their churches about marriage and have marriage seminars and have the audacity to say they understand singleness? You haven’t been single since you were 18. You’re done now.

If there is one thing I learned in seminary, it is this: it is hard to live in the tensions: between what you want and don’t have, between what is and what should be, between what you know and don’t know. I am not willing to settle for pat answers about… most things. Marriage is one of them. I am not willing to accept the evangelical cultural mandate for a certain kind of marriage. Yet, I am looking for a Christian man. This leaves me with a small pool of potential relationship partners, but it is a risk I am going to have to take because I am not willing to lose myself and my convictions for some guy just because he loves Jesus. Consequently, I am not willing to date a guy who is not a Christian just because he happens to be more accepting and liberal.

In lamenting about our lack of choices of single men, my roommate joked that Rachel Held Evans should start a dating service so we can filter out all Christian guys who are expecting us to submit to them for all major decisions. We would both sign up. Neither of us are joking. However, until then, I will be content learning more what it means to love the other, following the Spirit imperfectly, and realizing that in Christ, I am enough. I am enough with or without a husband, with or without a family. Until that right guy comes along, if he ever does, in the dance that is life, I will be awkward dancing in a corner eating Sour Patch Kids and laughing at my own jokes. Honestly, and this has taken me years to say that, I am okay with that.

A New Kind of Anorexia Memoir?

When I sat down to read Kelsey Osgood’s How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, I was more than a little excited. I had read a review of the book in the New Yorker and was interested in how Osgood was going to critique the modern anorexia memoir and provide a corrective alternative. I was elated that finally, maybe I could read an anorexia memoir and not be triggered.

Yeah… that wasn’t really how things happened.

There were parts of Osgood’s memoir with which I found myself nodding in agreement. Anorexia memoirs often glamorize and romanticize the disease and have a sort of aesthetic appeal that veers on a perceived fulfillment of a spiritual or cultural ideal (classic memoir that does this = Hornbacher’s Wasted). That is problematic. As Osgood argues, an un-addressed but problematic part of these memoirs is that they are too graphic. They describe too many showing clavicles, too many weigh-ins, too many calorie counts. As Osgood asserts, these memoirs can serve as guideposts for sickness or even how-to guides. Finally, someone to expose how, “The writers know they’re up at the invisible podium to speak out about their journey to the brink of death (oh, yeah, and back).” Osgood speaks of learning how to be anorexic through books like Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted and is also critical of books like Thin (also a documentary) by Lauren Greenfield.

I have shared similar issues with anorexia memoirs. I have read these memoirs throughout my journey with an eating disorder, albeit for different reasons. In times of relapse, I have felt compelled to pour over every anorexia memoir in my local library, in the same way that I would also gravitate towards calorie/ diet-oriented tabloid covers. I would absent-mindedly pour through this rhetoric, my eyes barely absorbing the words, but absorbing the material fulfilled some “fix” or satisfied some compulsion. During these periods of time, I was magnetized to all covers involving DIET in all caps and books whispering tales of people who have suffered from anorexia. I remember reading Wasted during a particularly bad period of my life. I don’t know what I wanted to get out of the book. I think I wanted to feel something… beauty, pain, remorse, guilt… anything to remind me of what this disease really was doing to me, anything besides numbness. The book definitely gave me a reality check, but I don’t know if it was a good one.

In times of doing better, I have also read anorexia memoirs because I am a very meaning-focused, introspective person who is always trying to understand my experiences. A few years ago, I casually mentioned to my then-therapist that I had ordered Wintergirls and Wasted on Amazon, and she responded with an immediate, “No, no, no, you absolutely should not be reading that right now.” I would scoff at her, “Yes I can, I am in a good place, I will be fine.” I just wanted to understand, I told her. I wanted to make make meaning out of what I went through, I wanted to feel something about it. I would read it without being triggered, I was fine. Of course, my therapist was right. I would emerge from these dark, aesthetic, triggering memoirs in a daze, and it might take me between hours and days to re-orient myself to the reality of recovery.

Osgood says that she “will write a book about anorexia without ever once recording someone’s weight.” She also writes, “The only way to understand anorexia… is to examine and then devalue its currency. It’s to strip it bare of its beautiful language and its glamorous, deathly aura.” I was totally on board with this. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say.

And yet… I read this memoir scratching my head, because I saw how embedded the glamorization of anorexia was in her narrative. Even though she does not use specific weights, Osgood does mention specific behaviors, especially behaviors done in a residential treatment setting, which can be just as harmful as recording weights. In Osgood’s memoir, anorexia is still on this cultural pedestal, and she uses literary techniques to enforce a sense of drama and “misery,” the exact thing she is supposed to be critiquing.

I had a visceral personal reaction to Osgood’s portrayal of anorexia, a reaction equivalent to what I experienced when I read books like Wasted. The whisper of never being sick enough, the author constantly trying to prove herself, the “I’ll get there, I’ll show them,” the dance of anorexia descending lower and lower and darker and darker spoke to something so raw inside of me. I felt this sense of competitiveness, a sick sense of comparison and camaraderie from Osgood’s narratives of her experiences with others in treatment. While her writing was amazing, I noticed something unhealthy was stirred inside of me. The memoir was not devaluing anorexia’s currency. Most of her narrative was very pro-anorexia, and then, at the end, “Oh yeah, and then I came back. I don’t deal with it anymore.” How does that differ so much from Wasted? If Wasted was a major instigator of the pro-ana movement, does Osgood realize that while her work might outwardly critique such memoirs, it is actually in danger of having the same effect?

Osgood’s understanding of anorexia is predicated on certain assumptions: that anorexia (or the desire for anorexia- “wannarexia”) can be learned and reinforced through memoirs and “recovery” rhetoric and that anorexia is a cultural ideal that others aspire to attain.

I would agree that some memoirs, especially Hornbacher’s notorious Wasted, give too many details and can be harmful for people who want to emulate her (or any) author’s experience with anorexia. The whole pro-ana movement is real and destructive. However, I don’t agree with Osgood’s conclusions in how to address the problem. In fact, I was startled to find them harsh and off base. She asserts that in “theorizing, eradication of stigma, and spreading awareness… we are still instructing our youths how to starve and we are making it look good.” Perhaps awareness and stigma movements can portray anorexia in a positive light, a “better” alternative to less culturally accepted outlets such as drug addiction or cutting, but is it necessary to throw out the baby with the bath water? Are eradicating stigma and awareness of eating disorder inherently maladaptive? Maybe what we should be doing is finding more creative and more constructive ways of telling others about eating disorders.

For me, reducing stigma and speaking out about my struggles has been empowering and has helped me combat shame. Unlike Osgood, I never believed that anorexia was a cultural ideal, something that made me proud. In fact, for years, I was too ashamed to admit that I had an eating disorder. It wasn’t until I had met others who shared my struggles when I was able to put a label on what I had been experiencing. The anorexia label helped me feel less like an alien. I never knew anything about an eating disorder until I was forced into therapy by my mom after exhibiting symptoms of anorexia at age 13. Even then, I thought the concept of anorexia was complete bullshit created by people who wanted me fat. Just because sharing tips of the trade is a problem doesn’t mean that people with eating disorders should go into their shells and isolate from narrating their struggles and seeking support. There is an abuse of the anorexia rhetoric available to the public, but why does it follow that all recovery-oriented rhetoric focused on reducing stigma and spreading awareness should be eliminated?

What rhetoric needs to be eliminated is that which presents a certain “ideal” of anorexia and specific tips of how to attain that ideal. Osgood’s narrative critiques this ideal but imposes her own ideal of sorts into the text anyway.  Osgood’s narrative is a very narrow, strict, ideal of anorexia that can be harmful for readers. Her book still sets her own experience as a “gold standard,” when in reality, many people with eating disorders are not hospitalized multiple times, or reach a dangerous point with severe physical symptoms, nor do they pride themselves on how sick they are. Osgood is critiquing something she is also perpetuating.

Even more destructive is Osgood’s beliefs of how we should address the issue at hand, “Perhaps what we need to do is actually restore some of the myths about anorexia, namely, that it’s a problem of vanity, or resurrect some of the stigma that surrounds it, in hopes that we move away from radically accepting it.” I don’t see how producing more stigma and enforcing stereotypes are going to help anything. Personally, I have enough self-stigma and shame attached to my eating disorder that I would rather not have people walking around thinking that I developed my eating disorder because of vanity. I developed my eating disorder because of a lot of complicated factors, most importantly that I wanted to disappear. Vanity had little to do with it, and when you are deep in the thrust of an eating disorder, that matters less and less (at least, it did for me).

I think her statement that we are “canonizing” people with anorexia is an exaggeration, and a harmful one at that. In my experience, I have been ridiculed by the way that I look and have been shamed in food-related situations. Anorexia is still culturally inappropriate and a mark of disgust. Even the thin-adoring media will post tabloid covers with pictures of people who have crossed the threshold of being too thin or anorexic, and those bodies are looked at in disgust.  Are people with anorexia really being canonized, or are they put on display to be publicly ridiculed, like freaks at a freak show? It depends on the person, the community, and the context. Maybe a little, or neither, of both. I think more research must be conducted on the topic before such bold conclusions of “canonization” can be made. (Side note: stigma based on people who are a normal weight, overweight, or obese is also destructive and real, but I am going to leave fat shaming for another post… or two… or three and focus only on anorexia for the purposes of this post).

One fundamental error is Osgood’s idea that anorexia must be seen as either “exciting” or “boring”… that either we glamorize it or portray it as stale and mundane. Why is that our only dichotomy available for anorexia memoirs? I don’t think that exciting vs. boring is a meaningful dichotomy to describe anorexia. In talking about the idea of eating disorder being boring to my therapist, she gave me one of those therapist looks, and said, “Do you really think eating disorders are boring? I think of it more as needless suffering and pain.” I think she’s right. Not just because she’s almost always right (although she often is), but Osgood overlooks this human element of suffering in her portrayal of anorexia. We are not just characters, protagonists, whose lives are either heroic or a sheer failure. We are not a set of literary devices or narratives, nor can we be reduced to learned behaviors, nor can we cut out our early experiences and concentrate (perhaps narcissistically) on the sufferer her or himself. People with anorexia have real struggles and real pain.

Osgood, purposely, does not discuss issues that contributed to her eating disorder, and I think that does a disservice to people who have eating disorders who have been through a lot in their lives. Eating disorders both are and aren’t about the food. Yes, there are real effects of starvation that can spiral, and maybe some people will never learn what exactly contributed to the development of their eating disorders, but others do. I am one of those people who has learned a lot from examining how my eating disorder developed. My recovery involved eating, but it was also so much more than eating. There is so much more to anorexia than the anorexia rat race of competition at meal time. Not discussing those other issues is miscategorizing the nature of the disease.

For me, therapy has not been about cultivating my “special” anorexic persona; it has been about discovering who I am without my eating disorder entirely. When I think of my eating disorder, I think of tragedy, pain, and suffering. I think of all the moments, all the years I missed. All of the years I didn’t feel safe being myself. Recovery was like opening up a world. That world was so much bigger than learning to eat ice cream when out with friends. It was more like a widening of my world. I remember being in treatment and staring at a collage on which I was supposed to draw in response to the prompt, “Who am I?” I just stared at it and asked my therapist, “Can I say that I like coffee? Does that count?” My therapist raised an eyebrow and told me I needed to come up with some other ideas.

When I think of treatment and my personal journey in recovery, I think less about how I learned tips of the trade and more how I saw the brokenness inside of me and inside of my fellow sufferers. I think of the daily pain, crying, and anguish. Osgood avoided discussing her recovery journey in the book, much to my chagrin. It isn’t good, nor does it make sense, to romanticize something that almost killed you and somehow be completely against it by the last page. Her memoir is a very abbreviated, and narrow, view of anorexia, and her conclusions are puzzling. It also leaves gaps about how she made such a wide leap from point A to point B. I finished the book feeling betrayed– as if my emotions were preyed upon—and frustrated by double standards present in her memoir. I did not understand the implications of her critique.

The problem I have is not with Osgood’s argument that memoirs can serve as how-to manuals. That is constructive and provocative. My first major issue is how her subsequent memoir plays into the critique she is making. Second, I take issue with her sweeping and bold conclusions that have the potential for harm. I am all for integrating science writing and memoir, but when conclusions are based on one person’s experience and are not backed up with much scientific rigor, and involve things like dismantling the system of de-stigmatizing and eating disorder awareness, that is an inappropriate use of her platform. Now, if someone wants to design a study that analyzes impact of memoirs on anorexia sufferers, or does a review of the literature on this topic, those would be meaningful next steps in hopes of drawing more accurate conclusions.

All in all, I appreciate Osgood’s attempt at the anorexia memoir that is unique while not being a how-to manual. However, we must go farther. This book leaves me wondering: what would an eating disorder memoir look like that neither paints a romantic glaze on anorexia nor is unrealistically positive or cryptic? What would this anorexia memoir look like that does justice to one’s experiences while not providing specific behaviors or comparisons? Is it possible to have a beautifully written, poignant, moving, inspirational story on anorexia that doesn’t engage in the rat race of the disease?

I don’t know. Someday I’d like to try.