Dancing with Relapse

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The trickiest part about recovering from an eating disorder is that food is essential to survival. It wasn’t like I could not eat in order to work through all the reasons why I was not eating. Instead, I had to tackle those underlying issues while simultaneously figuring out how to interact with food in a non-disordered way all day long. This was incredibly challenging and took nearly a decade, but I did it.

Seven years of recovery later, I started writing Bone Girl, my novel about a teenage artist who develops and seeks treatment for anorexia, anxiety, and self-harm. In order to complete a presentable draft, I’ve had to dive deep into my past over and over for five years now, and it only recently occurred to me that if all goes as planned – if I get an agent and a publisher (and then a movie deal...) – I’m going to be talking about my eating disorder for many years to come. After having spent so much time in therapy working to free myself from it, I keep asking one big question: WTF, Becky?

To be honest, creating this book wasn’t a choice. My main character, Kate Stewart, was burning inside of me. It also felt like an obligation. Literature saved me from suicide when I was a teenager – I want, and I need, to pass on that gift. But even though the fictional element of my novel has allowed for some necessary distance between the writing process and my own history, it still feels like I’m begging for a relapse.

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I started therapy back when I was fifteen years old. My sessions throughout high school focused primarily on staying alive, but everything changed when I received my early acceptance letter to Tufts University. With this concrete opportunity in my near future, I was able to gain enough weight that my doctors and parents agreed I was healthy enough to go. Freshman year went well, but coming back home for the summer retriggered everything – I hadn’t actually dealt with any of it, I’d just sort of put it on pause.

While anorexia was familiar, intoxicating, even empowering, it was also a terrifying hell that I thought I’d escaped from. A couple months into my sophomore year, I was completely broken down by the day-to-day of living it again and dragged myself to the on-campus counseling center. The poor grad students who managed my intake session were not equipped for the intensity of my mess and called in their director, who set me up with a specialist and mandated that I see her twice a week.

My new therapist was great, and as a promising college student who’d been dealing with anorexia for four years already, I honestly wanted to be healthy and eat like a regular person. But my brain and body were used to starvation; this had become my normal state, and I couldn’t even identify hunger anymore. In order to retrain myself, I had to wear an ugly sports watch that did not at all match my cute hippie skirts and set multiple alarms for every meal and snack. I also had to work on identifying the voice of my eating disorder and separating it from my own voice, then replacing an “Ed” thought with a nicer, more positive one (e.g., Ed: You are a bad a daughter, and you are so gross. Me: That’s your eating disorder talking. You are a good person. You are not gross.).

Even though I wanted to get better, it was hard to believe my thoughts over Ed’s. In time though, I did it. I distinctly remember a moment near the end of my senior year of college when I was wiping down the counter of the coffee shop I worked in and caught my reflection in the refrigerator. For the first time in my life, I thought, Oh my god, you’re pretty. That evening at home in my bedroom, I looked at my naked body in the mirror and thought, Wow girl, you ARE pretty! Then I burst out crying.

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In Bone Girl, Kate examines her body in a full-length mirror every morning before weighing herself, a harrowing ritual I used to partake in way more than once a day. Being able to look at myself and feel pretty was a huge leap in my recovery. But even after all the progress I’ve made, all the knowledge I’ve gained, all the support I’ve put in place, I will never own a scale. To be honest, they scare the shit out of me. So much of my eating disorder was centered around numbers – pounds, fat grams, calories, how many hours, then days, I’d gone without food – that just being around a scale makes me jumpy.

I would also never do a juice cleanse. Or a fast. Even something like keeping a food diary for a medical reason seems daunting. It’s not that my mental health feels so precarious that I’d slip back into anorexia on day one of a cleanse, but still – I can’t let that version of me be tempted.

Yet I’ve spent the past five years writing and editing a book that has required going back to that version of me over and over, and this has certainly been tempting. It doesn’t feel the same, though, as the tangibility of a scale or the restriction of a diet. Kate feels more cerebral to me and therefore easier to keep at bay. Besides, I’m smarter now. When the habits of my past start to feel too inviting, I take a break and phone in a friend until everything resets. Sounds simple, but it took me forever to realize I could do this.

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I initially began writing Bone Girl to reach out to young people who are suffering from eating disorders and maybe even give them some hope, but now I see that I also embarked on this project for me. In writing this novel, I have definitely come to better understand and accept what I went through, to celebrate my strength, and to connect my experiences to a bigger picture. Our entire society is eating disordered. I know so many people who go on fad diets, skip lunch, or count calories. And honestly, if we Americans don’t read nutrition labels, we’ll likely end up with diabetes or worse because so much of our food is filled with crap. Throw in the advertisement industry, and it’s a miracle anyone in this country has a healthy relationship with eating.

But this is all the more reason to write about it. If Kate manages to pierce through the bullshit and reach one teenager who decides to eat dinner tonight – or, ideally, to seek help – then my dance with relapse was worth it.

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If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please tell a friend, a family member, or call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.  Please also know that things do get better – I am living proof of this. Hang in there, believe in yourself, and stay strong.

Relapse. Redo. Reset: Part 3

Relapse. Redo. Reset: Part 2