To The Bone: Proceed With Caution

My fascination with eating disorder movies developed suddenly one day years ago, when I had a free afternoon and access to YouTube. For example, Growing Pains actress and anorexia survivor Tracey Gold played someone named Nancy in a Lifetime movie that is one of the most cinematically horrendous things I’ve seen.

Did these stories perpetuate my already severe eating disorder symptoms by including numbers, behavior details, and images of thinness? Yes, probably. However, I watched movie after movie, memoir followed by documentary, for another separate reason: I wanted to feel understood.

In the isolated pain of anorexia, I had shut out all my friends. I had stopped going to treatment appointments. Cold and alone in a prison that became unmanageable, I wanted someone to take my hand. I wanted someone to tell me, “I get it.” I wanted to connect with stories that made me feel safe and validated.

So, I turned to YouTube.

These films did not “heal” me. They did not constitute treatment. However, years later, these narratives stick with me. Nowadays, I am not seeking “tips” or numbers; I seek understanding.

I want eating disorders to be understood.

So many films have broached the difficult subjects of schizophrenia, addiction, and bipolar disorder, to name a few. But eating disorders? People are primarily directed to Lifetime movies and documentaries so corny, outdated, and ridiculous they can barely be taken seriously.

Cue my excitement when I learned about To The Bone months ago. Perhaps this would be a good movie about eating disorders. My high hopes were based on the fact that lead actress Lily Collins and director Marti Noxon struggled with eating disorders in the past. In addition, Project HEAL, a recovery organization I respect very much, provided consultation during filming and has endorsed the movie.

The conversation began to shift when the trailer premiered last week. Controversy spread across the opinion spectrum. Many eating disorder sufferers are infuriated (understandably) that the already small lead actress lost weight for the movie, as well as the trailer’s triggering images of empty plates and protruding collarbones. Project HEAL founder Liana Rosenman released this statement:

It’s a challenge to make a truthful movie about eating disorders that sheds light on their severity and complexity — capturing the patient and family experience of this real mental disorder — without glamorizing the disease ‘To the Bone’ tows this line beautifully. While the movie has the possibility to be triggering to some, I strongly believe that it will make a huge difference of raising public awareness of this silenced disorder.

In this post, I will be giving a layered critique of To The Bone by highlighting some key issues at play.

While I have not watched the movie, both the trailer and my understanding of the social and psychological factors of eating disorders will equip me to preemptively raise some questions and critique aspects of the upcoming film.

The Power of Eating Disorder Narrative (For Good and Bad)

Let me preface what I am about to say by noting that I will be watching To The Bone when it premiers.

I believe in the power of narrative.

When harnessed for good, the power of story can bring peace, hope, and understanding to the weary. Eating disorders are complex, misunderstood illnesses that have not captured adequately in film. Dozens of movies embrace plot lines surrounding alcohol and drug addiction, but eating disorder themes are often swept under the rug.

Historically, movies that cover eating disorders are truly awful.

I cannot say that more emphatically.

The level of cinematic creativity and diversity can be represented by me describing one scene that is inevitably in all these movies: Brooding teenage girl staring at the mirror with a bra on feeling like she is fat.

Is that the best we can do?

Elementary school-aged children have body image issues, dorm bathrooms have clogged drains from vomit, and the American diet industry is worth billions, but let’s look at a white, upper-class girl looking in the mirror with disdain?

American film is better than that. Eating disorder research is farther along than that.

It’s treacherous territory making a movie about an eating disorder. To accurately depict the hell and pain of these clusters of symptoms, while promoting recovery versus the pro ana/ mia communities, is like tiptoeing on a cliff.

“Honest” depictions of eating disorders such as Wasted and Thin have done much harm in inadvertently exacerbating a pro-eating disorder mindset. Included in these films are details that have served as “how to” tips for those who are very much embedded in an eating disorder mindset.

What can be most triggering for eating disorder sufferers in film is mention of numbers, images of grotesquely thin people, and vivid descriptions of ED behaviors.

This brings us to To The Bone.

To The Bone is advertised to be a movie that doesn’t “hold back,” in terms of showing a woman out of control in her life, with a sunken face and empty plate. Lily Collins is emaciated in the movie, a role for which she lost weight from her already small frame, despite having an eating disorder history.

I have no doubt that the movie will promote full recovery for Collins’ character, nor do I doubt the film’s intentions. I also believe it will be a great conversation-starter for the general public surrounding the secrecy of eating disorders.

However, the trailer is disturbing. 

Upbeat music and triggering imagery are paired with colorful sayings like, “I am in control,” and, “I am strong.” There is a scene of a friend joking that Collins has “calorie Asperger’s.” Snap shots of group therapy and psychiatrist Keanu Reeves indicate that the movie will have a “happy ending.” The treatment center is led by a cool, hot, “unconventional” doctor (Keanu Reeves) who takes the residents to a waterfall, I guess. Sunken faced Collins asked a fellow sufferer, “How do you just eat?” The boy replies, “I’m not going to lie. I’m really f%&#ing hungry.” Cue the upbeat music and bold colors.

Let’s start with the obvious emotional disconnect between the cheerleader music that could as easily introduce Bring It On, paired with disturbing words, phrases, and images. It’s obvious the movie is trying to promote an upbeat, “pro recovery” vibe in the weirdest way.

I’m also fixated on the hot doctor thing. There is nothing realistic about a doctor somehow going on treatment outings with clients. Sorry, been to treatment, and they have mental health techs do that kind of stuff. Usually people are lucky if they see psychiatrists once every 90 days. They’re billed at way too high of a rate to take treatment residents to waterfalls. In real life, that treatment center would cost at least $100,000 per month.

I get that the upbeat attitude of the trailer intends to foreshadow a happy ending, but it doesn’t fit. There is nothing sexy or upbeat about an emaciated girl with a protruding spine in a doctor’s office, or having “calorie Asperger’s,” whatever that means. How do any of these movie clips warrant the musical equivalent of high fives and bubble gum?

This trailer had me shaking my head as a once-enthusiast of this movie. I will still be watching To The Bone, but my concerns about this narrative are seismic, especially after the trailer. If this movie opens up the conversation about eating disorders and helps sufferers feel understood, I will celebrate. At the same time, this trailer depicts the sad reality of the lack of eating disorder education to the larger public and highlights persisting stereotypes.

Oh Look, Another Young, Upper Class White Girl With Anorexia

It’s a tale that is unfortunately the plot line of almost every eating disorder movie. A white, cisgender, upper-class, long-haired, intelligent, already-thin girl who needs control develops an eating disorder. She has issues with her family, probably. At the end, she gets better or dies.

To The Bone uses these same demographics with the main character.

Groundbreaking.

The reality is that eating disorders affect those in any ethnic group, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, age, and geographic location. Moreover, the rates of eating disorders are rising in other key demographic areas: males (especially gay males), younger children, and middle aged women.

Director Marti Noxon defended this story choice, “It’s important to remember EDs is unique and To The Bone is just one of the millions of ED stories that could be told in the US at this very moment.”

Noxon is correct in that millions of ED stories could be told, but this is the one being told in the film. This cinematic choice has broad implications. Many who watch this movie might not be familiar with eating disorders, so the choice to feature a thin, white, young female will shape the way others view what an eating disorder looks like.

The problem with a white, emaciated woman of privilege being the heroine of this movie is two-fold:

  1. It does not represent the reality of eating disorders, nor does it accurately portray the significant crossover between disorders across a lifetime (e.g. shift from bulimia to anorexia to binge eating back to anorexia). I’m not going to lie, Lily Collin’s emaciated frame and overdone sunken-eye makeup makes me roll my eyes. Many people with eating disorders are not underweight. It certainly doesn’t represent the physical “norm” of someone with an eating disorder.
  2. These demographic choices of the main character highlight existing stigma. Sadly, Lily Collins’ emaciated frame will draw in viewers. I wonder what would happen if Lily Collins had gained 50 pounds for the role rather than losing weight, or if the heroine of the film was another beautiful, but overweight, actress, such as Melissa McCarthy or Queen Latifah. What about James Corden? I don’t think a film like this would be popular. Starving is the most culturally sanctioned eating disorder behavior. Do I think a story needs to be told of someone who binges and is obese as a result, for instance? Absolutely!! But it won’t be, for a long time, anyway. I’m not surprised that the dominant narrative of this movie plays into societal fascination with anorexia and the cultural thinness ideal.  I have been disgusted by interviews discussing Collins’ weight loss. “How Did an Already Thin Girl with an Anorexia History Lose More Weight to Play Someone with Anorexia?” might be a popular headline, but it’s nonsensical for those in recovery.

The problem with this one story fitting the predominant cultural narrative is that it makes us more likely to miss someone who doesn’t fit the physical “type” of Lily Collins but is displaying eating disorder behaviors. We are more likely to overlook an older female who is always in the gym or a young male who sneaks off to his car and comes back hours later smelling of food and vomit.

Moreover, those who don’t fit the mold To The Bone sets forth might feel even more shame. These are things I’ve heard or said dozens of times:

“Someone like me shouldn’t have an eating disorder.”

“I don’t look like I have an eating disorder.”

“My insurance company denied me treatment because my symptoms weren’t severe enough. I think if I lose weight they’d pay for it.”

“What if my church/ friend group/ school/ ethnic community found out I have an eating disorder? I’ll disappoint everyone.”

I am not knocking stories of women in privilege. In fact, my story is in some respects that story– white, small girl in a seemingly normal, upper-middle class environment with straight A’s develops anorexia. I had access to health care, even when my insurance refused to authorize treatment. This is not to say that I fit the standard mold entirely. There is no “normal” eating disorder story. People are dimensional, complex beings. Those of any religion, race, cultural group, age, and sexual orientation can develop an eating disorder.

My concern is that To The Bone will fall into a category of story of a woman in privilege, stifling and silencing other narratives. To the third grader chewing gum instead of eating popcorn with her friends as an attempt to reduce “baby fat,” to the male model who drinks and smokes to avoid daytime meals, and to the middle-aged housewife who finds herself needing inpatient treatment, I say this: Your story is valid. Just because To The Bone features an unrealistic, seriously emaciated young actress doesn’t mean your pain is less valid.

Eating disorders are eating disorders. They don’t discriminate.

The Mundane Reality of Eating Disorder Recovery

Keanu Reeves apparently plays an “unconventional psychiatrist” in the movie and seems both hot and cool. I worry that these unconventional methods will serve as the vehicle of healing in the movie. As if meeting a cool doctor and coming to a profound understanding of the “why” of symptoms leads to recovery.

For years, I expected when I found out the “why,” perhaps through lots and lots of digging during therapy, I would stop my eating disorder. Maybe would no longer be necessary. I was trying to find the elusive “it,” which often doesn’t come. 

I never found out why I have an eating disorder.

Does it matter, at the end of the day? To really, truly know why I developed an eating disorder, I would have to dissect my brain with the science of 200 years from now and look at every single circumstance in my first 13 years of life. I would have to look at my family history, get data from my mom’s pregnancy and my prenatal care, etc. It is impossible to know exactly why. 

I did not find recovery from talking about my family background for years or going to restaurants with my therapist in treatment. Yes, I have done these things, and to an extent, they helped, but they never got me “there,” to the elusive “it.” 

The reality of eating disorder recovery is a secret, but I’m going to tell you it anyway:

It is boring.

There, I said it. Eating disorder recovery is choosing to sneak a mid-day snack between meetings because my stomach is grumbling. It is paying the damn $100 every few weeks to check in with my dietitian. It is filling my medication on time. It is grocery shopping on Sunday night because I am tired.

It is ongoing, and it is not fun. Well, sometimes recovery is fun. Eating ice cream on a warm night is a fun part of recovery. Most parts are not fun. I hate having to wake up, knowing that the extent to which I restrict will guide my body’s well-worn path of switching to starvation mode. I hate forcing myself to eat lunch when my stomach is in turn due to anxiety, knowing that I have to eat anyway.

Boring is not Hollywood. Boring will not gain ratings. And so, I assume To The Bone will be filled with exaggerated moments of truth and insight, as well as dramatic sensational images and numbers. Showing a protruding spine is extreme, so it’s better for ratings. Getting weighed when you’re bloated and haven’t taken a shit in 2 weeks is gross and not sexy, so it will not be included.

Most of us don’t have the luxury of having a hot, cool psychiatrist taking us to waterfalls in treatment.

Real eating disorder recovery is boring and regular. It isn’t sexy or worthy of a red-carpet Netflix debut, but it is so worth it. 

Proceed with Caution

As I said before, I will be watching To The Bone on July 14th. I hope my concerns will be unfounded and that others will benefit greatly from this film. I hope I’m not going to be on the couch eating sour candy rolling my eyes because of unrealistic “aha” moments, too many protruding spines, and calorie-counting.

I know the film will open up conversation about what eating disorders are like.

I just hope it opens up good, informed conversation, conversation that heals rather than shames and stigmatizes.

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On Donald Trump: Post Election Musings 

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On Wednesday morning I woke up as I normally would, snoozing my alarm past the point I should, and groggily leaned to my side to check my phone.

The memories from the night before flashed before me… the increasingly anxiety-ridden faces of the MSNBC newscasters, state after state lighting up in red with the words: ” (state)- Donald Trump: Projected Winner,” stunned texts from my friends, “What is happening?” I remembered in horror as the newscasters dissected Michigan counties, mine and the ones adjacent to me. I remembered a newscaster saying, “Michigan will decide the next president of the United States.” I thought to the many Trump signs I saw canvassing for Hillary and to my conservative family members. My immediate reaction was: Oh my God, it’s up to us, and she’s going to lose. 

I went to bed thinking that it couldn’t be real; still holding on to the faint hope that decency would prevail, that Hillary’s face would be on my Google home screen as our next president when I woke up. “Wake me up when Hillary is our president,” I texted a friend before drifting into sleep.

I was wrong.

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A Letter To My Former Therapist

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Dear J,

The three years we worked together were the best and worst of my life. I knew at the beginning– in my bones, I knew— that you were it. You were my ticket out of misery and into living a full, rich life. My first thought about you was, Wow, this woman seems like the reincarnation of Carl Rogers. Your empathy was unprecedented.

I didn’t have a solid enough sense of self at the time, but I could feel that you believed in me. When I doubted myself, when I slipped back into old patterns, whatever happened, you were there. You treated me like I was a worthy, capable, real human being.

Sometimes, I could believe that. Other times, I relied on your strength, and you believed that for both of us.

You cared about my feelings– no — you loved them. You acknowledged whatever I was feeling and took it seriously. I was stunned by how much you cared about me. Maybe even by how much you loved me (in the most platonic of ways).

In your eyes, I was a capable, intelligent therapist, prone to struggles, yes, but worthy of love. You trusted me not only as a human but as a professional.

Words cannot describe how you changed my life for the better. You helped patch my ragamuffin, broken self into a mosaic of messy parts. The mosaic was in the making.

But then again, words cannot describe how you changed my life for the worse.

In a whirlwind, what became a healthy, therapeutic relationship led to your emotional unraveling and at the end, a break up via email, with no closure.

To say that the end of our relationship destroyed me is cliche but true. My life, just like yours, unraveled at the seams, and everything was turned upside down.

You, the person who believed in me, who laughed and cried with me, who I would send my most personal writing, who was my rock, disappeared into thin air. In a moment, you were gone.

Just as I was starting to trust you and the walls were down, you left me without defenses. I was raw, cold, crying, emotional, and numb all at the same time.

I developed a disgust for therapy. I left graduate school. I moved back home to be closer to family. I changed my life completely because I didn’t believe in people anymore, and I didn’t believe in myself.

Almost 3 years later, the scars are still there, and sometimes, they bleed. I cannot trust my new therapist of almost 2 years. She reminds me so much of you, it’s scary. I see you in her sometimes, in her mannerisms and words, and I quiver. I don’t know if I can let anyone into my heart again. Not after you. 

“I wish I could do something to make it safer for you to open up,” my new therapist tells me.

“People always leave, just when you count on them,” I respond.

This has become our therapeutic struggle. I can’t trust, and I think about abandonment constantly. Would I get hurt now if my new therapist leaves? What about now? I can’t hurt again like I did with you. My sense of self can’t sustain another loss of that magnitude.

I think about you less and less over the years. I don’t cry every time I go into Ann Arbor anymore, nor do I listen on replay to Sia’s “Titanium,” a song I remember playing at the time of our relationship’s demise.

I still grapple with this: What happens with all the memories, the loving, painful, bitter, scattered memories?

I have tried locking them all in a box, and it never works. The moments we spent together spill over, sometimes through tear-streaked eyes, and sometimes with a smile.

I’m not back to normal following this experience. I have occasional flashbacks of you, and I remember every moment from when our relationship turned sour. I remember the angry emails we sent back and forth. I remember where I was when you broke up with me.

Then, I remember your face and how you used to laugh at my weird humor. I remember your expressive eyes, and your frown. I remember how you advocated for me. I remember the good things sometimes, and I don’t want to forget those. You were a huge part of my life and my story, and I can’t only hate you and have that be the end.

You weren’t just the “bad object,” you were the “good object” too. 

And yet, what you did and how you ended things caused me so many abandonment issues and trauma, I have needed years of therapy for years of therapy.

The sad thing is, nobody talks about the death of a therapeutic relationship. Nobody talks about a loving, trusting therapeutic alliance gone south.

If I was grieving the loss of a best friend or family member, it would be socially acceptable to feel grief. With a therapist, not so much. Does one ever hear, “Hey, I am a wreck, my therapist broke up with me today”?

Psychotherapy can be wonderful, yes. It can be healing and transformative and beautiful. 

… but it can also hurt. It can cause trauma and pain. It can sting, hurt, and wound on a gut-level. Nobody talks about the latter. 

But you know what, J, I am coming out of the closet. I want to say goodbye to you, but I also want to publicly acknowledge my grief. For years, I was quiet about the matter. No longer.

I am left, almost 3 years later, with no answers, ambiguity, and lots of pain. For a long time I thought it was me. Something I didn’t do. Maybe, despite all odds, you could come back to me if I did x or y.

Now I am learning that it was never about me.

It was about you.

It was your baggage and emotional issues that ended our relationship, and it wasn’t my fault. We will likely never meet again. On a good day, I can be okay with that.

So goodbye, J. You were a great therapist… one of the best. You started me on a path to healing that I hope I’ll one day finish. But I won’t finish that journey with you.

Sincerely,

Charlotte

 

 

 

Eating Disorders Kill, But Relationships Heal

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Fall 2009

Charlotte: Five years ago, the story was much different. Numbness and deprivation had drained my body of life, and vacancy replaced life in my eyes. Every night, I would pray that my heart would keep beating another night. I was spiraling into darkness, snowballing so fast that I wondered when and where I would crash. I eventually did crash, and landed on a ranch in Arizona, of all places. I had no hope but also nothing to lose by giving hope a try at residential treatment.

Janine: For over twenty years, anorexia had been the albatross around my neck. I had attended a long list of hospitals and treatment programs that seemed like one failure after another. As a last chance to evade death, I exchanged the towering evergreens of the Canadian west coast for the Arizona desert. My thoughts were jumbled in a fog of starvation and self-hatred. Anorexia had promised me everything, yet it had left me barely existing.

***

It sounds like the beginning of a bad, if not odd, joke. So this Canadian and Michigander walk into a ranch in Arizona… We, the writers, Janine and Charlotte, would never have met outside the confounds of one specific time and place: residential treatment for our eating disorders in 2009-2010. While our backgrounds were very different, in nationality, interests, and phases of life, we did share the same desperation for something better than living in the torture of anorexia. So we, along with others in our program, embarked on a journey that involved nourishing ourselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically. We cried with one another but also laughed and read books for pleasure. We ate pie on Thanksgiving and talked about identity and God. It wasn’t easy, or remotely close to easy even, but we healed together. We could see the tangible changes in ourselves. We could feel that we were no longer lifeless bodies anymore. Leaving treatment, we had hope again.

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Christmas at treatment 2009

Five Years Later:

Janine and Charlotte remain best friends. In many ways, our lives are so different now, now that we are less marred by our eating disorder scars. We are no longer treatment friends: we are just friends. We enjoy having adventures together. We have gone ziplining in Whistler, British Columbia (much to Charlotte’s terror/ chagrin) and to Disneyland (twice). While 1000+ miles separate us right now, we are intentional in maintaining our relationship through the wonderful development of Skype. Our eating disorders left us hopeless and incapacitated, but slowly, sometimes at a snail-pace, we have found freedom. In our respective ways, we want to help others out of their struggles within our spheres of influence. We would never have chosen to meet how we did or have anyone suffer in the ways we have, but we would never have changed the fact that out of the living hell of an eating disorder, an amazing friendship blossomed.

janine and i recovery

Charlotte: Treatment was a beginning of a new life chapter for me; not one filled with rainbows, unicorns, popsicles, and the end of all struggling forevermore, but one filled with real emotions, thawing, pain, and joy. In treatment, I felt unconditionally accepted and loved during one of the worst points of my life. I never believed that anyone could love all of me, even the ugliest parts. The abundant love and grace I received helped me emerge out of deep shame so I could deal with the factors that had led to my eating disorder in the first place. In the last five years, I moved across the country and then back to the Midwest and somehow earned two master’s degrees in the meantime. Although I still struggle with eating disorder behaviors at times, I believe there will be a day when that won’t be the case. I am so blessed by loving friends (such as Janine!) and a therapist who deserves an honor. I couldn’t be on this journey without them. Relationships don’t inherently heal eating disorders, but support is an integral part of recovery. While I wouldn’t wish my wild, roller coaster journey onto anyone, it is my story, and I am thankful for the beautifully chaotic mess. It is my story to own and love.

Janine: I catch myself once in a while realizing how different my life is now. A moment during work when I can’t believe I’m back doing what I love. I’m able to bring energy and enthusiasm to my job working with children that I couldn’t possibly have done when my eating disorder ruled my mind. I don’t think twice about eating cupcakes with my little nieces or laughing with friends over dinner. I am no longer numb and terrified all the time. I’m able to feel the amazing and wonderful parts of life and no longer attempt to dissolve into oblivion when the guaranteed challenges arise. Recovery has not made life perfect for me, but I am able to make plans for my life that I never thought possible. Nothing about recovery has been easy but I know it has been made easier by my unexpected and unlikely friendships.

Goodbye Ed: Why I Don’t Call My Eating Disorder “Ed” (Anymore)

In 2006, I entered treatment for the first time. I also read Jenni Schaefer’s book Life Without Ed. She externalizes and personifies her eating disorder as, “Ed,” on par to an abusive husband who she has since divorced.

At the time, externalizing my eating disorder was helpful because up until that point, I was convinced that my eating disorder was, actually, me. When I read it, Life Without Ed changed the way I understood my eating disorder. I learned that I could survive the loss of my eating disorder. That was a profound realization for me. When losing my eating disorder felt like part of me had died, and I didn’t know if I could pick up the pieces again, I had this: “Life without Ed is waiting for you/ Be strong keep the faith and you’ll see it coming true/… You can believe in life without Ed.”

I am not the only one who found comfort in Life Without Ed. During both of my stints in residential treatment, conversations were peppered with “Ed” lingo.

“Ed was really chatty today.”

“Ed was driving me crazy. I told him to go home.”

People in treatment would applaud and mmhmmmm. Head shake. Yeah Ed that jackass. He’s the worst. 

I used that language too. I found this from one of my 2010 journal entries: “Ed has been my horrible husband for the last few years, and when I feel so bitter and angry, I come running back to him, abusive as he is, because he’s familiar and comfortable.”

Phrases like, “It’s not you I’m mad at, it’s Ed,” or, “Tell Ed to shut up,” were comforting to me at the time. Besides, to be honest, if you don’t drink the “Ed” Kool Aid, residential treatment can be a menacing nightmare. It is a pseudo-expectation that if you are in treatment, you will call your eating disorder “Ed” at some point. Ed is common treatment vernacular, the metaphorical elephant in the room.

Since I left treatment for the last time, the seasons have come and gone and the roller coast of life has continued. As I morphed and grew, I said goodbye to Ed, but in a different way. I have stopped calling my eating disorder “Ed,” or by any other name, for that matter.

That has been my own personal choice, and I don’t have anything against people calling their eating disorder by a name. Similar to this eloquent blogger, I am just trying to open the conversation up.

I don’t think that “Ed”ing your way through recovery is the only way. 

There are some great reasons to externalize the eating disorder (ED) voice. But I am just going to say it: it is possible to go Ed-less. In this post, I am going to delineate some of the reasons that I have chosen life without the term Ed:

1. Because reducing my eating disorder to something outside of me does not take into effect that eating disorders are complicated diseases. What most worries me about the term “Ed” is that it has the potential for simplicity and reductionism. The whole of something cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. An eating disorder is more than what the ED voice says. If it was only about telling Ed to shut the hell up, you might think that recovery would be easier. I recently donated my blood to support genetic eating disorder research. Why? Because, research wise, we know relatively little about eating disorders. Externalizing an ED may be helpful to sufferers but it is a shortcut, a heuristic. It may help someone for a period of time, and if it does, great, but “Ed” is a tool, not a solution. Pat answers to complex questions can be harmful if taken at face-value.

2. Because my eating disorder is a part of me. One of my favorite recovery books is Gaining by Aimee Liu (read it, seriously). In it, she interviews people who recovered from eating disorders decades ago, but she notices in them (and in herself) personality characteristics and other similarities to the ED that linger. I may not hear eating disorder thoughts for the rest of my life, nor will I give in to urges, but I believe that my eating disorder will always be a part of me in some capacity. In recovery, I have had to discover the scared, fearful voice inside and honor that voice. If my eating disorder thoughts are loud, I have to ask: Why? What is going on right now? Instead of screaming “ED I’M DIVORCING YOU” at the time of my lungs when an ED thought hits, I am now more likely to listen to what my internal voice is telling me and ask what I’m feeling and why.

3. Because the concept is a little strange. I get why people do it. Like I said, I myself called my eating disorder “Ed” for a while. But… can we for 2 seconds think that there might be down sides to using “Ed”? I mean, to state the obvious, my ED voice is not a person. It’s not like I’m living with this asshole named Ed against whom I can file a restraining order, you know? For me, the idea of an abusive guy (or girl, whatever) in my head is not appealing at this point in my life. I’ve dated enough asshole guys, so why would I make up a nonexistent one and be in a pretend bad relationship with him? I am doing fine on my own, thanks. Also, could the term be demeaning to people who have undergone abuse or domestic violence? Could it be re-traumatizing even?

4. Because, quite frankly, calling my eating disorder “Ed” can be a cop out. “Ed was talking so loud” is a common sentiment you hear in treatment. Or even, “Ed was getting really worked up when you said x yesterday.” Is saying something like that helpful? What about, “I was feeling really anxious today because I was thinking of x and did y, and I’m having issues coping with my anxiety. My feelings are overwhelming.” Okay then! Now we have something to work with. That is taking the issue to its source. Blaming, sometimes scapegoating, Ed is not helping people to recovery. Eating disorder thoughts don’t come out of a vacuum. I have to place them in their proper context and take responsibility for them.

5. Because, after a while, eating disorder recovery has less and less to do with the behaviors. At the end of the day, the reason I have stopped calling my eating disorder Ed is because the term is no longer relevant for me. I don’t have regular urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors. I am not over my eating disorder completely just yet, but my recovery process has shifted. My therapist specializes in eating disorders. But do you know what we do NOT talk about 95% of the time in therapy? My eating disorder behaviors! Or my eating disorder at all. These topics are not agenda items. In fact, if my therapist made me set up a chair and do an “Ed’s voice- my voice” role play, I’d stare at her and then probably get pissed. Those things might have worked for me at one time, but they no longer do.

 

I met Jenni Schaefer at an event earlier this year. She signed a bumper sticker for me that is pink and has a line through the word Ed. I have placed it on a binder for my school papers. I don’t hate Life Without Ed. I don’t read it anymore, but I don’t hate it. If it works for you, fabulous, keep using the term.

What I get concerned about is the fact that there is an expectation, or to get punny, an EDspectation, that if you have an eating disorder, his name must be Ed. Ed is preferable, Ana or Mia are secondarily accepted.

Externalizing is not the only way of recovering from an eating disorder.  Or, “Ed” may work for you for a reason of your life, and then it may become irrelevant. The “Ed” label no longer fits in my personal recovery journey. And that’s okay.

Like this blog post says, some people may find the term belittling. Some may feel invalidated by it. Some may find it simplistic. Others may find it to be a brilliant way of breaking from of an eating disorder’s tight grip. Great. But let’s at least talk about it.

Foregoing the term “Ed” does not constitute recovery heresy.

Just saying.

Therapy: A Love Story

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I did not find therapy. Rather, therapy found me.

Or, more accurately, I was coerced, dragged, and bribed with a Harry Potter book to attend what my adolescent self found to be the most pointless 50 minutes of my life. “Waste of time” and “stupid” were other words I used to classify my experience. I wanted to be on my own to… you know… like STUDY (I know, I was lame). Sometimes I would just pull out my AP US History textbook during session. How could she stop me? Our sessions were confidential, right?

My relationship with therapy has been a lot like dating someone you don’t know you like. It has been a very love-hate endeavor. Since I began in therapy as an angsty pre-teen who took selfies with braces before selfies were cool (note taken: selfies with braces = still not cool), a lot has changed. Slowly, I have started to own my need for therapy. And ultimately, I have started to change. It took a long time. But it happened.

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that everyone needed to go fuck themselves and leave me alone. Everyone was concerned with my eating disorder and obsessive-compulsiveness and anxiety and BLAH BLAH BLAH. I put on a facade of wellness enough to appease others and continue doing whatever I wanted which was, in hindsight, destructive. I don’t know if I knew that what I was doing was bad. Honestly, I just didn’t give a shit.

It is really hard to help someone who doesn’t think they have a problem. Therapists tried with various degrees of success but weren’t able to adequately penetrate my ambivalence and denial. The behaviors that I developed were ingrained so deep into my psyche that stopping even one of them felt like I was being suffocated.

There was not a magical revelation or a moment when I owned my need for help. Rather, there was a period of time, over a couple of years, when I admitted– kicking, screaming, crying (okay, fine, bawling)– that I had a problem (okay, fine, many problems), and I needed help.

People often tell you in eating disorder recovery that food is like your medicine. That is true. Without nourishment for your body and brain, nothing else can happen. However, I realized that I needed therapy too. I couldn’t just eat my way to recovery. Therapy was another type of medicine: a different type of sustenance, but sustenance nonetheless. In the past, I had seen therapy as a waste of time, so it was a waste of time. I acted like it was prison, so it was prison. But… what if I saw therapy as healing, and I wanted to heal? Maybe– just maybe– then, I would heal.

As I was also going through a period of identity and paradigm shifts and learning about psychology in school, I was open to self-reflection and growth. For the first time, I was ready to do the work. On my own accord, I returned to therapy and decided to let someone in.

Over the years, I have come to see that therapy is not a series of skills, tasks, and tools in and of themselves. It can include those things, but it can be so much more than that. Therapy is the act of being present with another person. It is a real relationship, albeit special, with a certain purpose. The few therapists who I have let in have given me warmth, love, and empathy that I never thought were possible. In the context of that safety, I began to thaw.

Therapy can be deep and painful. I like the analogy Brene Brown made about the church being a midwife and would like to extend it to therapy. At times, the pain that comes up in therapy has been so overwhelming, it feels like I’m having contractions and it. won’t. end. My therapists have been there in solidarity, holding my hand through pain. As I learned, when you open the Pandora’s box of feelings, pain often coincides.

I had to learn to become vulnerable and unlearn maladaptive patterns from my childhood, such as stuffing, suffocating, and hiding my feelings. Opening myself up, exposing the dark parts of me to someone else, and letting that other person hold those parts were the most terrifying trust-falls of my life. Therapy felt like I was jumping off a cliff and praying that this person who was holding my deepest hurts wouldn’t drop them.

Change took me realizing that I was at the end of my rope, and I didn’t have to pretend like everything was okay anymore.  After years of running in circles and forming tight defenses against anything that might get too close, I found that I could just crumble to the ground. Paradoxically, it was in the posture of utter powerlessness that I could heal.

You would think that I’d be some therapy expert after being in therapy for so goddamned long. Not so. I have not “arrived,” nor do I even understand what “arrived” means. I am not better. I am not healed. And subsequently, I am on the remedial therapy track.

But you know what, there are worse things in the world. I’m just going to come out and say it:

I love therapy. 

After over a decade of therapy, I have more than an abundance of skills and tools from all the BT’s, and I can reference them on cue. More importantly, I have felt unconditionally loved and understood by my therapist. She has learned my dirty webs of defenses and the ever-abounding slime in my deepest parts, but she has not turned away from me. I love seeing her every week to work on my issues. Talking about defense mechanisms has become my crack. I keep a dream journal and text my therapist on command when I dream about her. Her insight has become ointment to my hurting soul.

Therapy is a beautiful, redemptive mess, a microcosm of the craziness of life. 

Now, therapy is not a panacea. For those who are like, “Where can I get a therapist?”, this is not a public service announcement. I do think everyone could benefit from therapy, but the process of therapy takes a lot of work. When I said I was finally ready to do the work, I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for. It’s like ripping off a band aid. No one wants to do it, but unless you want to live the rest of your life with a band aid chilling on your arm, you need to pull it off.

Without therapy, I would be either dead or a brittle body with vacant eyes. I needed to address my issues in order to survive and thrive. It sucks at times. As much as I love my therapist, sometimes she says, “How do you feel about that?”, one too many times in a given session, or she looks at me reflectively with those Carl Rogers eyes, and I want to tell her to go to hell.

Therapy can involve crying and talking about things I’d rather not discuss. It always involves feeling.

FEELING ALL THE FEELINGS.

For a very reflective, existential, intuitive, sensitive person, this has meant feeling a lot of feelings. I don’t like to feel all the feelings. But through therapy, I have come to see that my feelings are an asset, not an annoyance. They are part of makes me, well, me. They are what help me empathize with and love others.

I think my 13-year-old self who would scream in dismay at this, but I have become one of those people who believes in therapy. I have seen the redemption that can come from a corrective, messy, deep experience of connectedness. Therapy has been healing, needed, and so, so worth it.

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.