Empty Net came out almost two weeks ago, and I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about a certain aspect of the story that resonated very strongly with me. That would be the Eating Disorder issue, and my own experiences with anorexia. That being said, I know this can be an incredibly triggery subject for many and believe me, I understand. So I have put it under a cut, just in case.
Disclaimer: This post, and the way the issue is treated in the book, is based on my own personal experiences. They will not be the same for everyone who’s dealt with ED issues, nor did I intend them to be. Just putting that out there.
One night about six years ago, I was thinking about my upcoming day at work. I was stressed out (I was always stressed out) and the only thing that would calm me down enough to go to sleep was thinking about what I’d bring for lunch tomorrow and how little of it I would eat.
I remember this moment very clearly, because it was the first time I heard the little voice that said, “You might have a problem.” I heard it, but I didn’t necessarily listen. I went to work, stressed myself out and ate half a turkey sandwich and waited to feel better because I didn’t eat. And I did, but I kept hearing that voice. It was like, once I’d heard it? No way to tune it out again.
And I hated it. I wanted it to go away. I was eating less than 800 calories (that was my safe number) a day, and I was losing weight and people were complimenting me. I’d always spent my whole life thinking I was overweight. I *was* overweight. So why was it so bad I was learning to have restraint? That’s what I would tell myself, even though I knew, I knew, something about what I was doing was dangerous.
When I walked into my therapist’s office the first time, I told her I didn’t think I had an eating disorder because I wasn’t skinny enough for it to count. She looked right at me and said the same thing that her fictional counterpart, Liz, says to Laurent in Empty Net:
“No one that comes through that door thinks they have an eating disorder. They don’t think they’re thin enough, or ‘good’ enough at it for it to count. They don’t think they deserve to call the illness what it is. And they’re right, because no one deserves an eating disorder.”
That was it, exactly. It was as if saying I was anorexic was a *goal* to be met, and I couldn’t because I wasn’t thin enough yet so how dare I use that word? It sounds so incredibly backwards to me now. But that’s how I felt. If you’re already dealing with struggles about perfection, then it’s easy to believe you’re just not good enough at having an ED to even say you have one.
That’s what my therapist — and Laurent’s — meant when she said, “No one deserves an eating disorder.” I thought it was some kind of twisted badge of accomplishment, though I’m not sure I was aware of that until much later. She thought I was too good to treat myself that way. That simple disconnect is what took months of intense therapy for me to understand. I didn’t want to stop. I told her that part of me was mad at myself for even admitting there was something wrong, for listening to that little voice that said, “You need help.”
Somehow, I thought the voice that said, “Don’t eat that,” or “eat half of that and throw the rest away,” or “take a nap instead of eating dinner,” “drink some bourbon,” etc…I thought that voice was the one that was trying to help. And my therapist was quick to tell me that, yes, in a very misguided way — it was. She urged me to confront that part of myself and instead of shouting at it or hating it, learn to accept and embrace it. Tell it, “Thank you, but this isn’t what we’re doing to feel better from now on.” From what I understand, she does what’s called “parts work” where the goal is to eventually integrate all of those parts of yourself into a whole. A whole that you love completely, and unreservedly.
When I wrote Empty Net, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’ll write a story about a character with an eating disorder.” I wrote Laurent, and he had an eating disorder and was using it as a coping mechanism for feelings of extreme self-hate. Writing Laurent getting the help he needed and learning to love himself (or, at least, get a good start on that journey) was therapeutic, but it also felt like a victory of sorts for myself. That in the end, listening to that voice was the best thing I could have done, no matter how much I didn’t want to hear it at the time. And I wanted the same to be true for Laurent, too.
The other part of writing Laurent was that he, like me, didn’t “present” as what people think is typical of someone with ED. Laurent, in the book, is vehement that he’s “not a girl” — his version, I suppose, of my saying, “But I’m not thin enough to be anorexic.” If there’s one thing I’d like to stress with this post, it’s to keep in mind that eating disorders don’t “look” any certain way. Anorexia is a disorder, it is not a descriptor. It can manifest in many physical ways, yes, but to focus on that aspect is to miss what’s really affected — your mind, your sense of self, your self worth.
The dedication in my book is to my therapist and reads, in part, “Thank you for letting me hear the stories in my head again.” Because now, when that nagging, insidious echo of a whisper that says but you could go back to how it was before tries to make itself heard (and it does, because, as Liz says, it’s called “recovery”, not “recovered”) I have much better things to listen to. And I suppose that’s part of why I wanted to write this post, you know? It’s like that little voice, the whisper that was my sense of self-worth, has become loud enough for me to shout. Politely. As a blog post. You know what I mean.
I’m not sure how to end this post in a way that doesn’t sound preachy or corny, but if you recognize any of this or if it sounds familiar….if you have a little voice, too, telling you that you need help, or maybe have a problem? No matter how quiet it is, listen to it.
The National Eating Disorder Association has a website full of resources, including a hotline and other emergency contact information. If you are in need of immediate assistance, you can call the Recovery Connection and receive confidential help 24/7 at 1- 800-993-3869.