#MHYALit: “Eating Disorder” Books: How They Only Show Half of the Struggle, a guest post by Jen Petro-Roy
Today librarian and blogger Jen Petro-Roy shares with us her experiences with an eating disorder and what she’s learned from her eating disorder, from treatment, and from recovery. See all of the #MHYALit posts here.
Screaming in the middle of the night.
People getting dragged off the Eating Disorders wing for self-harm.
Temper tantrums and hissy fits during meals.
Counselors hovering outside the bathroom, listening to me count OUT LOUD while I peed.
Counting down the hours until “bench,” that wonderful fifteen minutes when we were all allowed to troop outside and loiter around a bench while getting our dose of fresh air.
Overly attentive counselors.
This was eating disorder treatment. It’s all stuff you’ve probably read about in the many young adult books written on the subject, where a girl (usually only a girl) gets sick, reluctantly goes into treatment, experiences horror after horror, has sick thoughts, then gets better.
I’ve read a few of these books. Wintergirls. Perfect. Tiny Pretty Things. How I Live Now. Believarexic (the last being perhaps the best, most accurate treatment-related book I’ve read). These authors have done their research, and, in many cases, experienced an eating disorder or disordered eating themselves. As you’d expect, there’s a common thread in so many of these books: the evils of eating disorders. The pain. The torment.
These are some of the phrases I see and the feelings I get when I’m reading a so-called “eating disorder book”: My brittle bones. Aching hunger. Isolation. Misery.
I’m not saying that an eating disorder isn’t miserable. I suffered from severe anorexia for three years. I went into treatment seven times. Then I hovered in some middle-of-the-road no man’s land between almost recovery and full recovery for another ten years. I was miserable for a lot of that time. My stomach was a pit and my body almost collapsed from over-exercise. I lied and deceived. I did all that knowing how awful I was being, knowing that I was valuing my disease over my life. I lost friends and harmed relationships. I transferred colleges and took time off and missed out on so much.
I gained so much, too.
I’m not talking about just weight, although that’s obviously a key factor. A vital factor. I did gain weight. I “weight-restored,” to use the technical term that was bandied about so much.
But I gained knowledge, too. Knowledge about myself and knowledge about the world. Like that this society is royally messed up. That people treat a “you look like you lost weight” compliment like it’s the equivalent of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or like it’s a better compliment than something that really matters, like “you’re a good friend.” That my Facebook feed is filled with posts about Beach Body cleanses and how eating chocolate makes someone bad.
You know what makes someone bad? Breaking the law. Discriminating against others. Not liking to read. (Kidding!…Maybe.)
Bad isn’t gaining weight. Bad isn’t losing weight. Bad isn’t eating kale or cheesecake or oatmeal or peanut butter. Weight has nothing to do with morality. It’s a number. A NUMBER.
I’m not trying to lecture, because god knows, I beat myself up for a long time about that whole peanut butter thing. But that’s what a lot of these books don’t show—the slow process where someone learns that peanut butter isn’t so awful after all. The push and pull, the advances and backslides. The knowledge that comes with time.
And there has been so much knowledge. I learned that I can’t go on diets anymore. I learned that my brain is wired in such a way that if I start to cut back on food, then I’ll want to keep cutting back. I learned that if I drop below a certain weight (for any reason), then my brain will do a happy dance. I learned that I need to eat a lot. I learned that food is freaking fantastic. (A fact that I honestly knew all along, but tried really hard to suppress.)
I learned that I’m wired a bit differently than other people, and that medication brings me back to that state of equilibrium that some achieve naturally. Medication isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It’s my insulin. My beta-blockers. My brain food.
I learned that I don’t need or want a scale in my house. I learned that it’s quite satisfying to toss said scale out of the window and watch it smash to pieces on the cement below.
I also learned that when I stop obsessing about shrinking my body, my life expands dramatically.
Young Adult “eating disorder stories” get part of the story right. They show what it’s like to suffer and ache, to obsess and hunger. But where they often fall short for me is on the recovery front.
Recovery is hard. Damn hard. Soul-searching, relapse-having, losing what you thought made you you hard. It’s anxiety so fierce that you want to hide from the world and that you think will tear you apart inside. It’s getting new clothes and making new friends and for some, even finding a new place to live. It’s changing career paths and confronting loved ones and figuring out what you want in life.
Recovery isn’t just that time in treatment or therapy, or that time when you’re gaining weight. You don’t leave treatment cured. You don’t even leave treatment almost cured. You leave treatment with a toolbox of skills to use and are then shoved/gently coaxed/pushed into the same world that helped you develop your eating disorder.
You aren’t at the starting line of a journey. But you aren’t at the end yet. Not by far.
I understand that books are supposed to have a happy ending. There needs to be a narrative arc: pain, realizations, struggle, pitfalls, closure. Readers want that closure, that hope that recovery is possible.
Because it is. It’s so possible. My life, my career, my family, my marriage, my body is proof of that.
But the happy ending didn’t come right away. And that’s where I think YA books about eating disorders can do the reader a grave disservice. That’s where I think our cultural conversation about eating disorders does us a grave disservice. Because those suffering, along with their friends and family members, come to expect a cure right away. They want that narrative arc in their lives or in their loved one’s life. And when it doesn’t happen, they despair. They backslide. They relapse.
There’s no magic pill to take that will immediately clear up the obsessions, compulsions, and irrational fears. Just hard work, time, and transformation. Of body, of self, and of mind.
We need a society that recognizes how arduous recovery can be. In this country of Starbucks drive-thrus and microwave bacon, of 10-day detox diets and multitasking, we need to understand that some things take time.
Some things need time. To realize who exactly you are without your eating disorder. To understand what you want to do with your life and what harmful messages were leading you to hide behind food or the lack thereof. To filter out the toxic influences and start to craft an identity beyond your illness.
It took me fourteen years from my initial symptoms to get to 100% full recovery. That time included a good eight years where I was convinced that I was fully recovered, too.
I wasn’t. I was still sick in a lot of ways. Unnoticeable ways. Little ways. Ways that still held me back from the life I wanted to lead.
I’m there now, though. And those characters will get there eventually, too.
We need to read about that part.
Of course, I understand that a book has to stop somewhere. Each novel can’t go on and on detailing every slip and fall and stumble and rise. But there should be more narratives out there that cover the “after,” not just the “before” and the “during.”
Because the after is what we all want. Not the lurid details or the dramatic numbers, but the peace and acceptance that comes with recovery. Where you find not the new you, but the true you.
Meet Jen Petro-Roy
Jennifer Petro-Roy is the Young Adult Librarian at the Chelmsford Public Library, where she also runs the Young Writers Club. She got her MLIS from Simmons College and is also a middle grade/YA writer. She blogs at http://www.losingmylabels.com about parenting, body image, and self-esteem. When she’s not writing or talking about books, Jennifer is reading many more books and spending time with her husband and two daughters. You can find her on Twitter as @jpetroroy.
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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