Thursday, December 13, 2012

Triggering content

I joined a few facebook groups that promote awareness around eating disorders thinking it might be a good way to promote my book. Now that I am involved, I realize that, book or no book, my goal is more about reaching out to and helping others than selling anything, though I do hope people read what I worked so hard to put together. When I first started writing years ago, this idea that numbers and other bits of information could be "triggering" wasn't prominent or well accepted. It seems these days authors often avoid talking numbers for fear of influencing or indirectly encouraging someone else's illness. I can definitely see that mentioning specifics could be risky, but, at the same time, it's almost impossible to convey how sick I was by only mentioning my symptoms. As extreme as these problems were, stating my weight really drives the point home.

I once watched a movie about Ellen Hart Pena called Dying to be Perfect. It stars Crystal Bernard who doesn't exactly look like an emaciated runner. Crystal is thin, just not sickly so. As a result, the viewer is supposed to imagine her being more unhealthy than she looks. I felt that leaving numbers out of my book would cause people to imagine me either healthier or sicker than I was, and wondering what my weight really was might be distracting for the reader. I guess I was aiming for accuracy and honesty. It was important to let people know where I had been, so that they could better understand what I overcame.

In the end, I chose to mention my weight in my book knowing that what the scale says is not the only measure of the illness. Numbers do create an image, however, how sick a person is isn't entirely determined by how little or how much he or she weighs. In 2003, a young woman died in single binge purge episode when her electrolytes were badly thrown off kilter. At the time, she was not at a weight that would normally cause alarm. Sometimes people who appear normal in terms of weight are still in the throes of the disorder emotionally and mentally, and for those who are bulimic, weight doesn't usually determine how sick a person is. I should explain further that there have been women who have died before their weight got as low as mine did, and, surprisingly,  there are women who weighed less that I did who lived. When I was in an eating disorder treatment facility, I met a lady who weighed probably 20 pounds less that I did at my worst. It's hard to comprehend and unbelievable that she endured; it's pretty much a miracle. She was in very bad shape even two months into her recovery and one month out of the regular hospital, still having to wear stockings for the terrible edema and circulation issues she was experiencing and still struggling to handle the food she was eating. I'm not suggesting that death is arbitrary when it comes to eating disorders, more that the illness affects people in different ways and each body responds differently to extreme conditions.

The thing to keep in mind is that eating disorders kill more people than all other mental illnesses combined, and there's no magic number that determines whether or not a person will survive. Obviously the more malnourished the body is, the less likely it is that a person will live. I was lucky, extremely lucky.

My point in bringing this up is to make sure that people understand that eating disorders are not entirely about food, meal plans and weight, just like alcoholism isn't completely about drinking. Because my dad was a brilliant thinker and he drank, I made the incorrect assumption that most addicts are troubled and tortured geniuses. But, as Stephen King noted, look at how many janitors, parents, musicians, food servers, street people and toll booth collectors are alcoholics or addicts of some sort. There are approximately 15 million people struggling with alcohol dependency and eight million people diagnosed with eating disorders in the United States alone. Why is addiction so prevalent?

It seems the more chaotic the world becomes, the more people are trying to feel a sense of control. We are not often taught coping mechanisms as children, so when we are faced with uncomfortable emotions, we become overwhelmed. The media tell us that life is supposed to be grand and pain free. Any discomfort is supposed to be stopped immediately with a pill or liquid elixir. Instead of learning to weather our emotions, we are taught to stuff them. With no coping skills, addiction becomes a common solution.

I'm reading a book called Eating in the Light of the Moon. It's a beautiful little piece of non-fiction that discusses the relationship women have with food. In it, the author offers a wonderful analogy about addiction. I will give the gist of it here: She describes a scene in which a person is struggling in river, being swept downstream. She is overwhelmed and can't swim to shore. In a frantic effort to survive, she grabs on to a log. This log keeps her afloat, but it is also pulling her further down the river. Meanwhile, people on the banks of the river see the simple solution: Swim to land. The people shout to her to let go and swim, but she's too afraid to let go. She has convinced herself that she needs the log. It did save her, after all. The problem is that it is now carrying her away and may eventually take her into waters that will drown her. 

Obviously the log in the story represents the addiction or disorder we choose in order to cope. It can be addiction, eating issues, bad relationships or any coping method that ultimately isn't healthy. It serves us in the sense that it offers us a way to survive in a chaotic situation, but it's not a comfortable way to live. In fact, it may kill us in the end. For anyone struggling with these issues, it's important to ask how the illness or addiction has served us. What does having the disorder keep us from experiencing? Why are we drawn to the disorder? It's impossible to swim to shore without strength. Coping takes courage. Often in recovery, relapses occur, because the core issues are being ignored. Every time we feel overwhelmed, it becomes too tempting to grab the log again. In order to get past the urge to revert, we must discover who we are. In doing so, we begin to recognize our own strength.

One of several flaws that I saw when I was in various treatment facilities for my eating issues was an abnormal fixation on meal plans and food in general. These plans we are supposed to stick to when our body might need more nutrients one day and less another don't allow our inner wisdom to be expressed. I'm not saying that plans can't be used as guidelines, but I found that they are relied on too much. It's odd to suggest that eating disorders aren't really about food, but they are just like any other addiction and about more than that. If the focus remains on the food, deeper issues won't be addressed.

An example is a woman who is facing a date with relatives that she knows will be emotionally hard for her. She has put her attention on trying to avoid binging during this time instead of addressing the deeper feelings. If she could prepare for and deal with the sadness that she is attempting to avoid, she might realize that the urge to binge would be less. Instead, she is asking for ways to avoid binging. Suggestions have included drinking water, chewing gum and eating a small portion of what is served. Nobody has suggested that she talk to someone at the event about her feelings, write about why she feels the urge to binge or focus on her physical body in order to feel more comfortable. The more she focuses on the food or the act of binging, the less she will address why she feels like she wants to binge in the first place. Those emotions will continue to get stuffed until she can use different ways to cope. As scary as it can be to allow emotions to come to the surface, it's the only way to get through them, and even though it can feel like we will get lost in them, like the weather, they will eventually pass.


  1. I can't wait for the day that log is completely out of site.

    1. Definitely. Being on solid ground is a much better place to be.

  2. Hey Lize,

    You probably know this already, but Becki over at Middle Miles wrote a nice post about your book. Thanks for sharing your story.


    1. Thank you so much, Ken.

      I was very touched by Becki's review. That was so sweet of her to do. I emailed her a thank you. :)