I began my recovery from anorexia nervosa in July of 2008. I had just returned home from Vienna, where I was a UN intern for 6 months. I was sitting with my parents in their backyard. I had a jar on my lap of green sludge. It was a concoction of spinach and water and a few berries which, with the correct blender and a healthy mindset, would be a perfectly fine snack. In that setting, however, it was a bitter metaphor for deprivation and rammed home an awareness that my life was shrinking.
That jar of spinach water was the only thing I had eaten all day. I ate the stringy, leafy mess with a spoon because the blender was a dud. It was not even close to the grossest thing I had ever eaten in the name of calorie restriction.
I told my parents that afternoon that I thought I needed some help. I needed some help because I was passing out all the time. I was growing hair all over my body and losing it on my head. I was freezing cold all of the time, even in the hot summer sun. I was also struggling to control my bladder. I could feel my body falling away.
But the scariest thing was the thought tumor.
This is the name I use to describe the cloudy, racing, repetitive thoughts that characterize the most treatment-resistant part of an eating disorder. The thought tumor - the compulsion to restrict, in my case - is a most dangerous invisible ailment.
I owe my life to the books. This is not an exaggeration.
We went to the internet. Was there anything available for a 24 year-old with a first time eating disorder presentation, with no co-morbid mental illness? Nothing free, that's for sure. There was a private place in BC - where I was supposed to be going back to graduate school in the fall to finish up my Master's degree - but it was so expensive. It would require a re-mortgaging of my childhood home. The psychiatrist I spoke with during the telephone assessment was pretty insistent that I agree to inpatient therapy. I could tell I was getting close to needing medical attention.
But I couldn't afford it. We could not afford it.
So I went to Amazon. And I ordered all the books I could find.
I was saved by the women who wrote the books. The books gave me a shred of perspective during those dark days. The books gave me some new ideas to which I could pin my safety, and my life. The books were weapons against the thought tumor.
I somehow knew I was going to be OK. But I also knew I had a lot of work, and a lot of pain, ahead as I figured out how to hear myself think again amidst all the noise.
Eating disorder outcomes are much better for people who present as adults, rather than as children. Specialized clinics across the country are filling up with 10 and 11 year old patients who require major medical intervention. These children have a higher risk of dying from their eating disorder than of almost all other causes combined. I know how lucky I was to have been otherwise healthy, older and in possession of many professional and academic opportunities.
I am sharing this list because I know you know someone living inside that dark space. It could be anorexia or bulimia or binge eating or an otherwise unspecified eating disorder. It could just be the trappings of a fitness-obsessed, fat-phobic society in which we drink the Kool-aid of external validation in the hopes that we will find happy there. It could be addiction. It could be shame. These books can guide you to the next right step, the next good thought.
The women who wrote the books knew where I tread and shared guidance from the future.
They were where I was, just as I am now where they were when they started writing, sharing and spreading subversive ideas into the ears of the willing. The books are listed here. You can click on the cover pictures and you will be redirected to Amazon. If you choose to purchase the book through that link, I will get a small percentage of our payment, which helps me keep cover the cost of this blog.
The first book: Gaining, by Amiee Liu.
The cover shows a woman basking in light. I like that. I also liked that she was thin. I thought that I would really be OK if I could have some guarantee that I could recover from this shitty disease without actually having to gain weight. The disease was still doing about 90% of the talking at that time.
This book helped me figure out who I was in relation to everyone around me.
Liu wrote the first memoir of anorexia, Solitaire, in the late 1970s and Gaining is about her relapse later in life and eventual recovery. Liu's writing confirmed for me what I already knew: I had developed anorexia nervosa, now characterized by the restricting sub-type. Liu was the first author to introduce to me the idea that my extended family's vast, tragic experiences with mental illness could be related to my own thought tumor. She was the first author to walk me through what it might feel like to feel better than terrible.
The second book: Feeding the Hungry Heart, Geneen Roth
I enrolled in an intensive outpatient psycotherapy program in Toronto within a few weeks of asking for help. I sat in the chair for up to four hours every day, four days per week. The psycotherapy was a thought MRI for my thought tumor. My decision to heal, and to hold my tumor up to the light of compassionate critical analysis, created a small wedge of momentum.
My therapist recommended that I read the work of Geneen Roth. From there, I flew. The first book was Feeding the Hungry Heart but all of her books are important.
This book helped me see that it wasn't about the food.
It wasn't even about being thin because I was so body dysmorphic that I didn't feel thin nor did I know how thin I appeared. So if it wasn't about the food, and it wasn't about being thin, what was it about?
I always have to gulp down my debate voice when people - without knowing this part of my story - say, "eating disorders are all about control!" Eating disorders are a form of exerting control, but they are not about control. They're about pain, fear and feeling like your emotions are so large they might actually swallow the world. Shrinking helps all of that feel better for about three seconds.
The third book: The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf
I have never been angrier at myself than when I was when I read this:
A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.
My efforts - and later compulsion - to shrink took place in the context of structural sexism. We have to live under rocks to not feel the pressure to exist as a certain kind of woman. A delicate wisp with enough intelligence to make things interesting but not too much to make things hard. An easy-going, complacent doormat whose main virtue rests in being slender.
Slender is one of the grossest words on earth.
This book positioned my recovery as an act of feminism. Of equality. Of justice.
My white privilege protects me from so much in this world, things that women of colour have to steel themselves against every single day. But not this. Not the expectation that my face please someone else's eyes. Nor the expectation that my poundage not offend someone else's sensibilities.
In January 2011, I was sitting on a tarmac in Kabul, Afghanistan. Myself and a few of my colleagues were preparing to load into a Kodiak plane and fly to the Northeast of the country. The pilot needed to weigh everyone to make sure we wouldn't fall out of the sky into a Taliban stronghold. I was the heaviest of all of everyone, including all of the men. The men stood around the dial on the scale that I stood on, put their hands to their mouths and mumbled their shock at my 200lb weight. I made sure they got a good look. I made sure they knew how much space a woman could take up in this world.
I got to fly up front with the pilot, while we flew that flying lawnmower of a plane over the spectacular Hindu Kush.
The fourth book: Hungry, Crystal Renn
Much later in my recovery, in 2010, I stumbled across this book by Crystal Renn in the bargain section at a large bookstore in Ottawa. I had just finished gaining 50 pounds against the backdrop of a few relapses and the mutation of some of my restricting behaviours into bingeing behaviours. The underlying rationale for bingeing and restricting, in my experience, is the same.
Crystal Renn's progression from a large teenager, in height and girth, to the runways of Europe mirrored my own but without the runway part. When I was very ill, I got swarms of male attention. Once I got below a size 2, it came hard and fast, all the time. Now when I think about the role of thinness, of smallness, in crafting a portrait of subordination, I seethe with anger. The attention from complete strangers was entirely about making them feel big in contrast to my excavated self. It wasn't that they were turned on my the fact that they could see all my bones, it was that they liked what I represented, at 6 feet tall and a size 0.
Crystal Renn experienced this phenomenon in exactly the same way and she writes about it beautifully. She left regular runway modelling for plus-size modelling and experienced total personal catharsis in the process. Her story made me feel safe in my own expanding body.
This book helped me see food as life-giving, not dangerous, and helped me choose life.
She wrote about food in this luxurious way. She described how she respected her body by eating wholesome, rich food until she wasn't hungry anymore. For her, this made it impossible to exist as a size 0 so, when given the choice between satisfying her hunger and walking the runways, she chose to feed herself. She chose life.
If you're actually about to go and give these books to someone who you believe has an eating disorder, stop right now. These books require a request for healing from the person who is sick. They cannot be thrust upon someone who does not feel as though they have a problem. Had these books arrived two weeks earlier, I would have been enraged and possibly have missed my moment.
These books are for people open to the idea that they could possibly heal.
Getting someone from unwilling to willing is not your job. It's their job. If they are experiencing the medical complications of an eating disorder, as I was, they need to speak with their physician. My hope of hopes is that they have a physician who gets this stuff. Many do not.
Finally, never give a cookbook or a recipe book to someone with an eating disorder because:
- It isn't about the food.
- They don't experience food as life, they experience it as a threat.
- They will not eat the food anyway, until they've done all sorts of other work.
My goal in writing this piece, in with baring my heart in the process, is to chip away at mental health stigma, to share resources and to help people who have a perfectly functional relationship with food - a shrinking minority - glimpse into how terrifying food, our culture of food and our culture of the body can be for many people. It is ok to share. It is essential that we share.