On “How to Disappear Completely”

There are so many things that we don’t know about eating disorders. Culture? Society? Biology? Genetics? I have been obsessively searching for the “why” for nearly ten years.

Society on the one hand makes sense to me. Just look at the magazines. Thin is in. Strong is the new skinny. Thin, waif-like women is somehow held up to be the ideal womanly shape. I could, if I chose to, write such a scathing review of this concept in society. So many books have already; most of them are sitting on my bookshelf. It’s society’s fault for making me think I need to be so thin! Is a common, angry response by fed-up women.

(Also, just interjecting, I KNOW that not just women get eating disorders. But I am a woman, I am a cisgender woman, and I don’t speak for anyone other than me right now, so for brevity’s sake I’m just going to go with “women” for this rant.)

But is it just society’s fault? No! I think some of the most helpful research in my own process is that which points at temperamental and personality factors related to anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Stereotypes, I have to say, exist somewhat for a reason. When I read a personality description for those most likely to develop anorexia nervosa, it’s like reading a description of me as an adolescent.

But is it just epigenetics? No, of course not. When I fall into the trap of “it’s my brain” or “it’s my personality” when trying to understand the why of my late teenage/early 20s eating disorder … I fall into a trap of letting go of personal responsibility, and clinging to the concept that I’m special or unique or that the eating disorder was somehow unavoidable. And maybe it was unavoidable when it first began, as the only way things could have gone is the way they went… but it’s not that passive, either.

There are so, so, so, so many reasons why — anyone’s why is bound to be an amalgamation of various factors. A sampling:

  • Fear of growing up
  • Fear or uncertainty around sexuality and bodily changes
  • Anxiety
  • Perfectionism
  • Obsessive compulsive tendencies
  • Trauma history
  • Family dynamics
  • Invalidating environments
  • Highly Sensitive traits
  • Asperger’s/Autism connections
  • Impulse control
  • Emotional regulation
  • Wanting to be thin
  • Diets gone astray
  • Peer pressure
  • Pro-Ana websites
  • “Thinspiration” or “Fitspiration”
  • A need to feel special
  • A desire to disappear
  • Feeling unworthy

I can go on and on and on. There are so many reasons and I am begging my brain to stop wondering why.

I read Kelsey Osgood’s book this afternoon: How to Disappear Completely: Modern Anorexia.

I found this book incredibly difficult, and addictive, to read for what I suspect is a very good reason: pieces of it rang true. Osgood focuses on some of the less-discussed whys — the wanting it. The narcissism. The insecurity. The wanting to be pretty. What does anorexia look like in our culture? So many histrionic memoirs exist that make eating disorders, especially anorexia, glamorous. It symbolizes purity, control– without a doubt, anorexia is an ego-syntonic illness– compared to bulimia, which traditionally is discussed with more shame.

And this is true in my world, as well. In middle school I often looked to people in my life as “sad” role models. I thought their challenges made them beautiful. I wanted to struggle. I was also depressed and grieving and obsessive compulsive and anxious and a highly insecure adolescent at the time, but there you are: I saw people who struggled and I thought their struggles were beautiful. It seemed like something I could strive for. I needed for other people to know how much I was struggling.

Except then I couldn’t, I couldn’t make anything perfect…. and in my head I just glorified the too-thin girls even more, and I became more anxious, insecure, and depressed. I specifically wrote in my journal when I was 15 that I would never want to actually be anorexic or bulimic (“I could never bring myself to that”) but I wanted the self-control that those diseases brought– and the weight loss.

I very much needed a sense of control in my life in a time when many, many things felt out of control.

So there you are: I aspired to be ill. I could never articulate that then, but it was an undercurrent.

Except then I was actually ill, and I wanted nothing to do with it. For a while the anorexic decline felt powerful, felt like a secret, felt like my secret to happiness and I protected my secret with my life. And then it got very out of control and I almost died. I was saved by dumb luck and a hospital.

And then I developed bulimia, and wanted to kill myself all the time because of how out of control it all felt, and I romanticized the anorexic phase, clinging to it, longing for it. Only after letting that desire go could I stop the cycle of binging and purging. And then after awhile my eating evened out.

But the romanticizing bit– Osgood is spot on in her book. What’s the line between “pure” anorexia and something imitated and desired? Does it matter? And why on earth do young girls aspire for such a state? Society, yes– for thinness — and it’s also how we talk about it all. How we glamorize it. Even when we don’t mean to– we glamorize it. Eating disorder “rehab” culture is dangerously toxic– people learn tricks from each other and it is common for individuals to learn the system and stay in treatment indefinitely.

I am guilty of this– I romanticize the past because it felt “safe” — sure, the eating disorder was developmentally protective, but it was anything but safe. And now– at a fairly turbulent, uncertain time in my life, I find myself on occasion slipping back into anorexic habits and routines, without a lot of conscious thought. Then I become aware of it and snap out of it. And then I fall back– this back and forth on the edge is dangerous– but what would be more dangerous would be to “feed it” — to give these thoughts attention, to focus on them, to obsess on them.

I don’t know why these behaviors and thoughts are back. Many believe eating disorders, especially anorexia, to be chronic– and I have given that some thought. Perhaps a part of it will always be in my periphery. And that’s okay– I can accept that– as long as I don’t make it into anything beyond that.

What am I saying? What does Osgood say? That the culture in our society in how we respond to eating disorders can be just as devastating as the society that tells us women must be thin.

I believe this to be true. I believe this to be true and I have been trying to articulate this sentiment for years.

Sometimes, the cure for eating disorders is “Just eat.” — it is that simple. It is not that easy, but it is that simple.

All the other work — that is the work of growing up, of learning, of growing, of building self-esteem and tools to cope with anxiety and pain and loss… But as far as eating disorders are concerned… sometimes we need to pay them just a wee bit less attention. Are you in therapy? Instead of spending the session planning meals, talk about feelings. What are you scared of? What is holding you back? I say this lovingly, and compassionately, and respectfully.

We must, as a society, do more. All of us.

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