I’m bored with feeling silenced. I’ve heard many times some variation of “Whatever cripples or hinders us begins to decrease its power over us once we learn to speak about it.”
Words. I love words. Here are three:
I. am. struggling.
Let me be clear: This blog post is not a cry for help. It’s a way for me to begin breaking this silence’s hold over me.
I’m taking control of my struggles in a myriad of ways. Writing is one of them. Psychotherapy is another. Talking about it is another. My relationship with God, as disjointed as it is, is a big one.
Too many people suffer in silence, whether it’s mental illness, eating disorders, body image issues, self-harm, abuse, harassment…the list continues. It’s National Suicide Prevention Week. I’m sure it’s not news to anyone that there is plenty of stigma concerning mental illness.
Here are more words: I am struggling with eating disorder relapse.
Am I bending over toilets with my fingers down my throat? No.
Do I step on a scale every day, multiple times a day? Most days.
Do I miss my unhealthy and borderline-anorexic goal weight? Most of the time.
Do I say, “I don’t want that unhealthy and borderline-anorexic goal weight! Instead, I want a body that is strong and healthy and that I like”? Sometimes. But not enough.
This past weekend, I finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and looked to my bookshelves to find another book to read. You know, something light to read before bed every night. I love “chick lit.” Also, apparently, I love British women with the surname Jones. Since it’s been a while since I’ve read Jemima Jones by Jane Green, I forgot how it ended, and I was curious about how the story unfolded with relation to its romantic subplot. (Mental note: “Chick lit,” Bridget Jones, and romance. Three future blog topics.) Well, here’s a brief synopsis of the book:
Jemima Jones is overweight. About one hundred pounds overweight. Treated like a maid by her thin and social-climbing roommates, and lorded over by the beautiful Geraldine (less talented but better paid) at the Kilburn Herald, Jemima finds that her only consolation is food. Add to this her passion for her charming, sexy, and unobtainable colleague Ben, and Jemima knows her life is in need of a serious change. When she meets Brad, an eligible California hunk, over the Internet, she has the perfect opportunity to reinvent herself — as JJ, the slim, beautiful, gym-obsessed glamour girl. But when her long-distance Romeo demands that they meet, she must conquer her food addiction to become the bone-thin model of her e-mails — no small feat.
With a fast-paced plot that never quits and a surprise ending no reader will see coming, Jemima J is the chronicle of one woman’s quest to become the woman she’s always wanted to be, learning along the way a host of lessons about attraction, addiction, the meaning of true love, and, ultimately, who she really is.
Fun, easy reading, right? I found myself laughing at some of Green’s writing—the British humor, especially. Jemima’s inner dialogue is charming and relatable. But then, something felt far too familiar.
Jemima Jones obsesses about her weight, feels that her life will be perfect once she’s thin.
Jemima Jones cuts pictures of thin women out of women’s magazines.
Jemima Jones seeks comfort in food to “handle” her emotions.
Jemima Jones begins to become addicted to exercise and skips meals.
Jemima Jones, no matter how much weight she loses, still wants to be thinner.
I have been her.
And, one evening this past weekend, I put the book down on my blanket and had a breakdown. I didn’t expect this. I forget exactly how long I laid there, unraveling, but, eventually, I got myself together, picked the book up, and continued to read.
When I was in high school, my friends and I wrote these things called “letters.” Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They were what text messages and emails used to be called. It was great fun to pass around chain letters with questionnaires on them. These very insightful documents asked deep, probing questions such as: “If you could go out with any guy in the school, who would it be?” and “If you had a million dollars, what would you spend it on?” and “If you could do anything you wanted for one day and know you’d never get in trouble, what would you do?” In one particular letter, my friend wrote a question. I forget the exact wording, but it asked me to, in a sense, describe my perfect life. The exact details escape me, but I’m sure that, somewhere in the answer, I wrote that I’d be married to whatever guy I was infatuated with at the time. There were other parts too that were obviously too unimportant and fleeting to recall. The only piece that remains intact in my memory is the following statement that I wrote. Here it is, verbatim, part of my perfect life: “I wouldn’t be sick.” And I remember my friend wrote back and said, “You’re not sick. You’re great.”
What I meant by those four words was: I wouldn’t be starving myself. I wouldn’t count calories and applaud myself as the amount of calories I could get by on constantly decreased. I wouldn’t be throwing up. I wouldn’t be crying in the bathroom as I threw up until my body ached. I wouldn’t be collecting pictures of skinny models and hiding them in my bedroom. I wouldn’t stare at my body in the mirror and wish it away. I wouldn’t outline my thighs on computer paper to see just how big they were and then redraw the lines where they should be. I wouldn’t scour eating disorder resources, pretending that I was “doing research” for some imaginary school project when I was really looking for tips on how to be the “best” bulimic I could be.
That’s what I meant. But my friend thought I was healthy, because I looked healthy. I was never scarily thin. That’s the secret a lot of bulimics carry and how we can get away with it. We look healthy a lot of the time, as there’s no telltale physical signs like with anorexia.
In my late teens and early twenties, I was lucky that both my primary physician and her Physician’s Assistant (PA) were women of color. That is something I took for granted, and I miss them both now. Anyway, the PA was fantastic. I loved her because she was warm, funny, and had a wonderful bedside manner. I was studying toward my Women’s Studies degree at the time, and, over the course of my visits, I would talk to her about what I was learning. One day, I went to the doctor for a routine appointment. She was doing my intake, and, I admit, I had made some out of character decisions recently, so I had to answer some questions in ways that I didn’t like. I sat there, silently shaming myself: dumb dumb dumb. Speaking truth to my “mistakes” out loud was torture. As I talked, the PA shook her head, and at one point said to me, “Come on, Danielle. You know better than that!” She said it as though she were an older sister or best friend. I knew her intentions then; however, if she had said that to me now, she would’ve gotten an earful or at least a passive-aggressive, deserving side-eye. But back then, I just sat there, hung my head and said, “I know! I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
I share this anecdote because there’s an expectation that, as a feminist, I should have it all together. I am supposed to be a warrior—body-strong and positive. Screw you, patriarchy, and your unrealistic expectations! I can quote bell hooks and Adrienne Rich. Bring it on. But here’s a secret that shouldn’t be a secret: Feminists Have Food And Body Image Issues, Too.
I’m overjoyed that this “secret” is becoming part of the public narrative. I’m glad that there are people like Feministing’s Chloe Angyal who wrote, “There is no such thing as a perfect feminist, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect body.” I praise The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman who said, “I think one of the most radical things a feminist can do is radically accept herself.” Importantly, Wakeman was responding to Angyal’s confession that she was leading a “double life” while being a public feminist who was battling an eating disorder.
Today, I had a phone exchange with a nurse from my doctor’s office. I called the office because I was prescribed a new medication and, as I was reading the medication guide, I noticed a warning that warned against taking the medication if you have had or currently have an eating disorder. After I identified myself and shared the reason I was calling, I said in a matter-of-fact way, “I’m a recovering bulimic. It’s been at least a decade since I’ve purged, but I still struggle with body dysmorphic disorder.” I didn’t even flinch.
I realized something recently.
I will always be in recovery.