Recently, my fellow patients in PHP and I have been discussing the portrayal of eating disorders in the media and reasons why we are not fans of certain eating disorder memoirs. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for raising awareness of eating disorders through the media, and especially through commonly viewed television shows (see my first post). However, most TV or fictional storylines show a character going through extreme lengths to lose weight, only to be “cured” of this obsession by the end of the show. Growing up, I remember seeing both a Saved by the Bell episode and a Full House episode where this was the case. Other people I am in treatment with have mentioned additional shows and/or teen novels that follow a similar pattern.
However, as much as I wish that TV shows, movies or novels would portray eating disorders in a more realistic way, I recognize that these are works of fiction, and have to be taken with a grain of salt. With that in mind, my biggest problem with the portrayal of eating disorders in the media is not with these shows/books, but with memoirs. To start with, I think it is very tricky to write a memoir that accurately portrays an eating disorder without giving away “tips” or “tricks” to people that might be suffering. Eating disorders are very secretive my nature, so there is a fine line between educating the public about what goes on behind the scenes while at the same time not giving vulnerable people ideas about how to lose weight or hide behaviors. While I think some books are too graphic, I am honestly not bothered by things that others may find triggering because I would rather have the public know just how torturous eating disorders are rather than paint a lovely and glamorous picture.
Thus, my biggest issue with these memoirs is that fact that nine times out of ten, the individual enters treatment, has a “revelation”, and recovers. Sometimes the revelation comes first and treatment second, and sometimes the person needs a few bouts of treatment for things to really click. But, my point is that for most eating disorder memoirs (most, not all – no need to be black and white here 🙂 ), there is essentially a fairly easy fix that leads to a happy ending.
While I am happy that there are people out there in recovery, my problem with this is that it portrays to the general public the false idea that recovery is easily achieved once one enters treatment. I have had countless friends and relatives say to me “well in X book so-and-so goes to treatment, gets out, and is fine – so, why are you still struggling?” or “you just need to figure out the underlying cause and/or learn to love yourself just like so-and-so, and then you will recover.”
Now I recognize that these memoirs are books that are written for an audience, and as a result might not capture the true struggle that goes on for these individuals. But I think that rather than gloss over that struggle, they should be more candid about it.
That is why my favorite eating disorder memoir by far is the book Wasted by Marya Hornbacher. I have quoted the book before, but recent conversations have reminded me why I think the book does a good job of portraying the complexity of eating disorders.
As she says, “It is not a sudden leap from sick to well. It is a slow, strange meander from sick to mostly well. The misconception that eating disorders are a medical disease in the traditional sense is not helpful here. There is no ‘cure’. A pill will not fix it, though it may help. Ditto therapy, ditto food, ditto endless support from family and friends. You fix it yourself.”
She also says, “there is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ends, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn’t one. It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect. And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.”
Those two quotes describe my treatment and recovery experience exactly. Why have I come out of treatment and done really well, and why have I relapsed other times? Sure, there are some concrete things I can point to, but overall, there hasn’t been a “revelation” of “oh wow, so THAT’S why I have an eating disorder. Guess I can stop now.” It also isn’t a quick fix of “ok, I’m eating so I am cured” (although sometimes I do tell my treatment team that). It is a slow, grueling process that takes awhile, and continues to go on long after you start eating again and are physically fine. So, whenever anyone asks me “why aren’t you better yet like those other people in the books,” I point them to these quotes to help explain that it isn’t a quick fix and there is no set timeline or formula for recovery.