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The following is a video essay that I put together on the topic of the distinctive and abusive eating disordered voice. I put a lot of heart into it, despite the first couple of minutes being blurry(!)- which turning it to HD will help with- but you can also read the transcript below the video, if reading is easier for you. I hope you enjoy!
I’ve mostly stuck to writing essays for the blog, but a few days ago I came across a narrative essay I wrote while I was in treatment for anorexia. This was quite a few months ago and it was deeply buried under my stack of miscellaneous papers on my desk, but I thought it might be fun to turn it into a video essay, given the somewhat artistic style of the piece.
I want to warn you, before I jump into it, that I wrote this when I was still really sick. I can read myself trying to be objective, but I had a very severe eating disorder that I was in the beginning stages of treatment for. The purpose of sharing this is to exemplify for you all what having eating disordered thoughts is really like.
I do that, as per my assignment from the treatment team, by discussing the role of the eating disorder as if it were the voice of an abusive partner named Ed. This approach is modeled really well in the book Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer. By understanding Ed as a voice distinctive from their true voice, folks with eating disorders can “check” the voice using objectivity and logic, and begin to find themselves again.
So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote while I was perched on top of my hospital bed, on a rainy afternoon.
Ed’s voice is soft and quiet, but it is constantly chattering. When I’m not eating, he’s insisting that the way in which I position my body- when sitting, arms crossed over stomach and knees pressed together to allow my thigh fat to fall and, when standing, arms obscuring stomach, but out from my torso, thighs apart and knees facing each other as much as possible- is crucial to how everyone is interpreting me. He says that if I allow my body to relax or be incorrectly exposed for even a second, my body will be revealed as fat and that that will signal to others that I’m undisciplined, lazy, unattractive, or just bad. He says all it takes is a second.
When I’m eating, he’s most active and fussy. His attitude changes depending on who’s with me. If I’m with my parents, he tells me that I have to appear to eat normally while, crucially, NOT doing so. He encourages me to make lots of mitigating comments like “this is delicious!” when around my mom, for if she’s made the food, she’ll be so flattered she’ll let her guard down and I can get away with eating less. He tells me that sneaking and deception is justified, for once, because if I’m not, I’ll gain weight. He can be comforting, though, because he’ll often tell me I can make up for slip-ups, like having lunch (if mom’s watching, etc), by skipping dinner for a few nights or by going for a run. Every bite can be balanced somehow.
If I’m alone, he needn’t fret, because I don’t often eat alone. I avoid it. If I’m alone it’s a relief, because Ed doesn’t bother me and I can feel powerful in peace by just not eating.
Post meal, Ed kicks into high gear. He has to administer the proper amount of shame and self punishment to deter me from the next meal or any further slip ups. He’ll say that I’m undisciplined/lazy/weak for having eaten, and follow that up by saying it’s okay (soothing) because I can right the wrong by skipping the next or by heading out onto the running trail. His words are brusque but giving me an “out” feels gracious and kind.
I have agreed because it’s much too exhausting to argue, and because I want to achieve the baseline level of respectability that he says will come with the right small-ness. Smaller is better for not being seen. I wouldn’t judge other people based on his standards, but I often feel like I do deserve to be judged based on them.
Ed’s words are almost entirely judgmental. I can intellectualize that distinction (judgement vs. fact) well, but I feel that the judgements are ultimately deserved because I do believe that it’s fact that I’m fundamentally less worthy, such that I don’t deserve protection from judgement. It’s judgement, but it feels deserved.
I feel worse when I agree but the worse-ness feels correct. It’s obviously not comfortable to believe that if my stomach roll is visible under my blouse then my peers will see me as slovenly and I’ll hurriedly obscure it, but doing so gives me power that feels right and correct. None of my Ed-inspired behavior makes me feel good, it just feels like the right thing to do.
Speaking objectively, agreeing with Ed does little to help me. I’m constantly preoccupied with fixing myself and/or putting myself down, which sucks time and energy and makes me feel generally poorly. The adverse physical consequences of adhering to Ed-type behavior, like aches and fatigue and bruising, are 95% unenjoyable, and the 5% is only in that they’re physical reminders of discipline. It’s not really helpful to have aches. The only helpfulness would come from the satisfaction and relief I get when I agree with Ed and make decision at his request.
Ed has promised me that a smaller body will be more respectable and that when a body is more respectable, it can and should be ignored. Smaller, less space, more compact, is better and more justifiable because it catches the attention of no one and when seen, would only be respectable.
In a way, yes, people treat me differently now that I’m smaller. My dad doesn’t encourage me to exercise. My boyfriend is more attracted to me, sees me as more sweet and sympathetic. I can grip onto various body parts- wrist, ankle, etc- with my fingers touching. My thighs never touch. Ed doesn’t usually promise that I’ll feel happy or love myself if I listen to him. He knows that wouldn’t motivate me. I feel satisfaction when I do as he says; I’m righting a wrong, I’m fixing, I’m being disciplined.
Fear of gaining weight and losing control is powerful. I feel like if I challenge Ed too much, I’ll be unable to temper myself and I’ll balloon and lose my ability to restrict at all. OR if I don’t engage in non-eating Ed behaviors, then I could lose respectability in a moment of exposing my stomach or sitting wrong or scrunching my chin in. If I start disagreeing with him too much, I’m afraid I wouldn’t stop.
On the positive side, if I argued with his fundamental contentions about my worthiness, successfully, I would be much more likely to like or even love myself. That would take… an enormous amount of work. In order to disagree, I’d need to get into the habitual practice of caring for myself, being kind to myself, and maybe liking myself, too.
I’m happy to report that these days, I decidedly do like myself. I still have trouble loving myself, but I pretend that I do in order to perform self-care and self-loving activities, like purchasing massage memberships, going to work, completing schoolwork, attending therapy, and eating right! I only got here, though, by the grace of intensive treatment and willingness to surrender to that treatment.
Thanks guys, and be sure to attend your next appointment!