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6527212 January 16, 2009

Hunger: An Aberration Story


"... this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place."

The verb hunger means to have a strong desire. Lust, crave, itch, thirst. Those are its synonyms. We all hunger for basic emotional needs such as love, acceptance, control, and freedom. And the reality is that some of us focus on these necessities much more than others due to genetics, stress, and personal history.

If only we could place our hands around those wonderful intangibles and shove them into the few open orifices we have. If there were only a safe, fantastical pill that could carry all that we crave deep into the bowels of who we are. Could we finally be satisfied? Could we be content with the face in our mirror--warts, curves, and all?

If there were such a pill, it just might work. But there is no magic panacea, and there never will be. If there was, Marya Hornbacher would surely have found it. In her critically acclaimed memoir, Wasted, Marya shares her courageous battle with anorexia and bulimia. Both conditions continue to be perpetuated by our size zero, competitive society. If our strengths can also be our weaknesses, it may also be true for culture. The American dream, the self-made man, and the ability to have it all has a darker side in more ways than one. Our cultural legacy to control our own destiny, and captain our own courageous ship, has a sharp edge that just may kill you on the way to your dream.

Marya has joined the Aberration Nation. Her reflective answers about her journey as well as how our culture continues to undermine those susceptible to all types of eating disorders is fascinating, well-said, honest, and inspiring. No doubt, the same aspects that made her memoir a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

You've been diagnosed with and have overcome anorexia and bulimia. While many of us are now generally familiar with anorexia and bulimia, can you tell us in plain terms what they're really all about? I suspect that some of us still don't get it.

Eating disorders are complicated, and touch all areas of a person's life--his or her body, mind, and spirit are all affected, and all are involved in the development of the disorders as well. The usual answer given to the question of "what are eating disorders about?" is "control"--and that's not wrong. People with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and the variations on these themes, tend to struggle with a sense that they are out of control of their lives and their worlds; the desire for control is then projected onto the body, as a kind of "object" that can be controlled, or so we are told and often believe. In my own experience, eating disorders are very much about fear; the fear that one is too much, not enough, not right, all wrong, and on and on, in a kind of endless refrain of inadequacy and excess, as well as a fear about one's ability to navigate the challenging waters of life and the world. They are also a manifestation of this culture's obsession with food, body, and weight, and a literalization of the rather deathly images of beauty that are plastered on the walls of our Western world. I am always surprised that people can possibly wonder why some of us get eating disorders, when they are in fact encouraged and rewarded in so many ways. The hell of it is, you often set out with the belief that "losing a few pounds" will make you happier in some vague way, and find that, because of your personal makeup and set of issues, you are caught up in an often-fatal addiction.

Your struggle with eating disorders began at very young age. Can you tell us about that, and explain how young children can also be susceptible to eating disorders?

I developed bulimia when I was nine. It was less common back then for someone to develop an eating disorder so young, but it's terrifyingly frequent now. Children are exposed to the same cultural messages as the rest of us, but they have even fewer filters to help them understand what they're being told; children who are predisposed, through personality, chemistry, and/or family, to develop addictive or otherwise unhealthy behaviors, may develop eating disorders very early on. Children, both boys and girls, are aware of the pressure to have some mythical "perfect" body, translated usually as a thin body, and they may take that pressure very seriously and try to respond. Some kids grow up in families that are actively body- and food-obsessed, so they are aware of the pressures at home as well. In my case, there was a combination of family pressure and obsession with food and weight, plus my own excessive awareness of the larger cultural pressure, plus the various personality traits that contribute to eating disorder development (such as perfectionism, competitiveness, and self-dislike), as well as an underlying mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder); this combination is not terribly uncommon.

How did you come to be diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia? How did you initially cope? What were some of the greatest challenges to overcoming these aberrations?

I was diagnosed at the age of 16, when the medical toll of the disorders was great enough that I couldn't hide them anymore, and I was hospitalized. My hope is that families, friends, teachers, and counselors are more aware of eating disorders these days and can identify the signs sooner. As is usually the case, I was deeply disinterested in recovery at first, and seriously in denial about the severity of the problem; I didn't want help, and refused to cooperate in my own care. It wasn't until several years and many hospitalizations later that I made the choice to recover. At that time, I clung hard to the people I loved, who were extremely supportive, and I worked my butt off in therapy to get at the root of my troubles. But the simple process of re-learning how to take care of my body, and to trust it, was the most immediately necessary step toward recovering. You can wonder about your issues all you want, but if you don't take active steps to change your behavior, you won't get far. The greatest challenge was my own fear of recovery--I had had an eating disorder for so long that I couldn't discern where I ended and the eating disorder began, so recovering seemed very threatening. A second challenge was tuning out all of those cultural messages that encourage obsession and self-damaging behaviors. That's hard to do, and very necessary. You have to become stronger than the messages you hear, and define for yourself who you want to be, defining that person not by how you look or how much you do, but by who you are and what you believe.

Was there a turning point in your recovery? If so, what made the difference in your life? Was it ultimately something that someone else did for you or said, or was it an internal change or resolve that saved you?

There were people all along the way whose words helped me, even though they didn't magically make things better. I drew on those words of support and encouragement and challenge, and I still do. There is unfortunately no magic moment when one turns the corner; it's a combination of other people's assistance and your own internal determination to live a better life unrestricted by obsession. At a certain point in early recovery, though, I did make the decision to stop the behaviors (binging, purging, starving, over-exercising) absolutely, no matter what; that was a tough decision to make and stick with, but it can be done. I told myself that I was giving health six months--if I hated living without my eating disorder, I could always go back. And while it was hard to live without it, it was so much better in every way to live in freedom that I stuck it out. Gradually, living healthy got easier, and then it became natural, and now it's just the way I live. Getting through those first difficult stages is the hardest part; then the rewards of health come fast and furious, and you begin to see how much you were missing while you were sick.

Can one fully recover from anorexia and/or bulimia, or do they pose a lifelong struggle similar to alcoholism? How have you managed to remain healthy?

One can fully recover. It isn't easy, and unfortunately there is the belief that it can't be done; this belief encourages people to think it isn't worth trying. But it is worth it. The comparison with alcoholism isn't entirely off, though; I am a recovering alcoholic, and I don't think of it as something I "struggle" with, or will struggle with all my life. It isn't a struggle to stay off the sauce; it's a choice, and the real work is the personal growth one needs to continue doing over the years. I also know that I am at a higher risk of winding up drunk than is the average person, so I have to make sure I'm doing the personal work I need to in order to stay away from that first drink. Similarly, I'm at a higher risk for relapsing into eating disordered behavior than your average person is; I need to keep doing the personal work to stay away from that, too. But the idea of these things as "struggle" gives them a negative connotation that they don't have to have; they are choices one maintains with consistent effort. That's a good thing, not a bad thing.

You have gone on to become an accomplished writer and advocate. What has been the biggest struggle in achieving your goals and how have you managed?

The biggest obstacle to meeting my goals has always been my fear. I think that stops more people from realizing their personal dreams than anything else. Fear is my biggest challenge, and I meet it by doing the things I want to do whether they scare me or not. As Georgia O'Keeffe said, "I'm afraid all the time. But I never, never let it stop me." I wouldn't say I'm afraid all the time. But when I am, I don't let it stop me.

Anorexia and bulimia can be killers. While there seemed to be a considerable amount of attention given them in the late 80's and 90's, they seem to have slowly dropped on the radar since the year 2000. In the meantime, while the media and social pressures to be thin may have shifted a little, a large number of girls and women still idolize size zero, and obesity remains a national issue. Do you feel that enough has been done to educate people about eating disorders?

No. But I also feel that people are very resistant to seeing the way in which they are engaged in their own degree of obsession and body-hatred, and this is a big part of what perpetuates eating disorders. We have normalized a hatred of the body and an obsession with food to the point where we expect people to behave and feel in ways that are actually not normal at all; this is what I mean when I say that our culture is eating disordered. Not many people know what it would mean to truly take care of and respect their bodies, and that's what's strange. The fact that some percentage of the population develops full-blown eating disorders isn't odd at all; it's just an extreme form of what we have come to see as normal self-dislike and lack of self-care. I'm not saying it's acceptable, just that it isn't surprising. I believe the most effective education about eating disorders would be to ask people to look at how they, too, obsess and engage in unhealthy behaviors; what do they believe about healthy, beauty, food, their bodies? The most important tool in changing society is the individual act. Until each of us, as individuals, make the decision to stop playing this game, there will be a problem in the cultural as a whole.

We would all love to have the easy route to happiness but it doesn't always happen that way. In what ways have the negative, powerful forces in your life enabled you to emerge as the courageous, positive person you are today? When you look back on your life, do you believe that the path it took led you to a great place?

I do. I am a very, very happy person, very grateful for the people in my life, and very blessed. Experience is a great teacher. I would prefer it if it hadn't taken me so long to learn what I have; no person's troubles are theirs alone, and the people I love have suffered through a lot with me. I wish that were not the case. But yes, I believe that this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place.

What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with eating disorders?

1. Be honest. Don't ignore the problem. Tell them what you see, and be honest about how that makes you feel.
2. Help them find help. Don't try to take care of them, cure them, or fix them; know that these are complicated disorders that require the help of professionals wherever possible.
3. Once they have that help, don't coddle them. Love them, but be firm in your insistence that they keep working toward recovery.


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6527212 August 06, 2008

Make Me Perfect, Please

Who wants to be perfect? Raise your hand. (It’s tough to type with one hand so I’ll put mine down for now). Even as young children, most of us realize that perfection is a dream. But we still crave it, right?

You bet your britches I do.

The dictionary defines perfection with phrases like: the highest degree of proficiency, skill, or excellence, as in some art; a perfect embodiment or example of something; a quality, trait, or feature of the highest degree of excellence; the highest or most nearly perfect degree of a quality or trait. So who defines the highest degree? Who describes the perfect embodiment? Can I have that job?

You bet your britches I can.

I’ve always longed for perfection. As a small child, I hungered for the perfection I thought would make my mother happy. As a teenager, I chased the perfection I thought would make me loved by all. As a college student, I craved the perfection that would get me into medical school, get me the boy I loved, and snag my mother, too. As you can guess, I failed miserably time after time.

It turned out that I really didn’t want to go to med school. I also wasn’t suited for the love of my college life, and as for my mother, I realized her capacity to love me was already at its max.

Now I look back at pictures and see a thin girl who thought she was chubby, a smart girl who feared she was dumb, and a lovable young woman who failed miserably to love herself. How do we accept who we are? It seems so easy for some people. I envy them. I wonder if those lucky folks are wired with simple circuits, or if they are so complex that they’ve got it all figured out. Now, I know they’ve got that job I want.

When I was about twelve, it dawned on me that I loved the protagonists in great books despite their flaws. I then chose to view myself as a character in a fabulous novel, complex and flawed, beautiful and ugly. Then all those voyeurs following my life story would surely embrace me with open arms. They would love me for exactly who I am because without me, there would be no story, no purpose, no entertainment. No one else could possibly fill my role. I could be perfect because they would think I was. I was onto something but not quite there.

And doesn’t this smack of romance? How many times have we been swept off our feet, pulled toward the look in someone’s eyes that tells us we’re perfect, if only for a moment, if only for one night? Oh, doesn’t it feel so damn good? How I wish I could drag those moments out into hours, days, years. If I could capture the perfection that blinded them before they actually knew me, I’d float there and soak in it ... too bad that sponge got squeezed every time. As they saw my flaws seeping out, some hung around awhile and some ran as fast as they could. I failed every time.

If we’re lucky, those fantastical moments of perfection intermittently poke through real life. For those of us still job searching, we live in jeopardy of snatching at them, trying to build something that feels real. If you’re like me: a hopeless romantic with an overloaded imagination, easily bored, a dreamer, a believer in miracles, you may understand what I’m getting at. Some of us are far more practical. I used to think the hearts of practical folks beat much slower than mine. I found out I was wrong. So if you’re not quite like me, I’m guessing you get it, too.

I do believe in true love, the kind that lasts forever and embraces the sponge, full and empty. I think I’ve finally found it. But I can’t count on it anymore to make me feel as if I’ve reached perfection. The only way I’ll ever reach perfection it is to give it to myself, to define and describe the metric I want to hit.

But wait, that’s still hard. Well, nobody said life was easy. Who wants to keep trying? Raise your hand.

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