It was uncomfortably cold. We were all cold but blankets weren’t allowed. I can’t remember all the reasons why now, but it had to do with safety and body image. That’s why having a pillow on your lap during group meetings was against the rules. The staff didn’t want us using it as a type of armor. To not only cover our bodies, but also to shield our pain. Which, of course, was exactly what we wanted to do. Without a barrier, it was terribly uncomfortable. We were vulnerable. Naked. Exposed.
I like to curl up. I do it still. Make myself as small as I can whenever possible if at all remotely appropriate. At a parent/teacher conference earlier today, it would have been lovely to have been able to draw my knees up under my chin and wrap my arms tightly around my legs. Even crawl under the table. It would have helped me concentrate. I suspect it would be viewed with no small measure of concern, but it would also explain a lot about my oldest son and his current behavioral “issues” (the impetus for today’s meeting, but I digress.)
When you’ve starved away all but about four or five percent of your body fat, even tropical temperatures can’t warm the cutting chill that permeates your entire being. Perpetual. Inescapable. The hottest bath, multiple layering of clothing while basking under a heat lamp, the downy lanugo that your despairing body urgently supplies -it’s all laughably ineffectual. When I learned I would be spending my inpatient months in Arizona during the summer? I could have wept with thanksgiving. I had halcyon tunnel vision, and the light at the end of that tunnel was the blinding, westerly sun.
And yet there I sat huddled with a dozen other women in varying states of illness, granted on the plushest couches conceivable (and yes, “plushest” is a word, I checked), just as cold as I was in North Carolina. We continually grumbled and crabbed about how freezing we were to no avail. I, personally, began to look forward to the often heard, good-natured staff response of, “FREEZING is thirty-two degrees!”, the same way I laughed every time I heard, “Baby Jesus cries when you lie!” when someone insisted that they accidentally flushed a toilet for themselves. “I didn’t cack!!” ( I learned dozens of new synonyms for vomiting while in treatment. My favorite was “fergle“. Money well spent.) “It’s a habit!” ( That’s true. You try to get used to having someone flush a toilet for you for the next three months. Not kicks and giggles. Especially if the nurse recently administered an enema…I’ve heard.) So, while our morning orange juice hadn’t yet begun arriving in Popsicle form on our trays, braving the elements in the common room for the morning group meeting did not bring to light the (never witnessed), but conceivably chipper qualities of my temperament.
Group began with everyone taking turns expressing how they felt that morning. (In case you were wondering, feeling “like a sausage“, does not qualify as a valid emotion.). When I was still new, I explicitly remember one of these early meetings. The disturbance involved somebody named “Ed”, and he undoubtedly managed to profoundly piss everybody off. And the most disquieting element of this whole business, was the staff’s response. Not only were they agreeable to the acrimony, but they seemed champion it as well. I wondered what kind of place I had landed myself in. I told myself that they couldn’t force me to drink the Kool-Aid. I mentally went through all the men I’d met since my arrival. Male staff members tend to be sparse at such establishments and I knew I hadn’t met an “Ed” yet. Whatever this guy had done, I wasn’t sure it merited such malevolence.
“So…I don’t think I’ve met “Ed”.” Not unkind laughter rippled around the circle.”You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t.” This came from a treatment addict. I wasn’t especially keen on her know-it-all manner, mostly because she sort of did know it all. More often than not though, the nature of her instruction was fixated on ameliorating her infirmity and defying the keystone precepts that had been established for her safety. Our safety. Our strength. Our survival.
Treatment addicts pepper every eating disorder program across the country at any given time. They’re not the majority of us, for financial reasons if nothing else, but every inpatient setting I’ve heard of has at least one. They can be part of any generation. From any culture. Have had any upbringing. Hold any social status. Have a plain or privileged pedagogy. It doesn’t matter. They all have one thing in common. They’ve been to many hospitals. Often the best. The one’s with the big names, and the highest success rates. Their families will cash out their IRA’s, take out second and third mortgages on their homes,…try to sell various organs on the black market..who knows? No measure is too drastic to save the life of the one they love. But the one they love doesn’t want it. Not badly enough, or not yet. The allure of escaping..the isolation..the world where everything revolves around you and your eating disorder and making you whole..it’s understandable. But it’s impractical. Thoughtless. Immature. Unsustainable. But the treatment addicts haven’t realized this yet. This particular woman had promenaded down the treatment runway so often, she could conceivably direct her own pathosis performance. Should she live. She was still around at that moment though. And trembling like a Chihuahua at the chance to showcase her expertise. It was an unsettling sight. I suspect she might have wet the loveseat.
“‘Ed’ is short for eating disorder. We say “Ed” because it’s important to remember that you are not your disorder. You can talk to ‘Ed’ and tell him off and say whatever you need to just let out. Get it?” “Oh. Yeah. I get it. It just sounds really stupid.”
At this point I was pulled aside by one of the therapists. It seems that wherever I go, someone is always pulling me aside about something. The therapist expounded, and she made more sense to me. I listened as she detailed the purpose for the distinction. Yes, I had an eating disorder, but that didn’t mean I was determinately damaged. It didn’t have to define me. I had the choice, at that point, to make Ed a footnote rather than the theme in the story of my life. One is less resistant to surrendering a trait rather than an ingredient. It’s the difference between a haircut and an amputation.
I hear a lot about the substructure of eating disorders being vanity, narcissism, selfishness, control…largely from the outside populace. I don’t know. I see it differently. I’ve suffered it differently. For me, and many like me, Ed was much more apropos of a deep-seated personal loathing. A need to cause my body pain. It was my comeuppance. A message that had been imparted to me since childhood. The pique of vain stings. I’d heard it before.
My senior year in high school, I was living with my mother and her current love interest. He watched me steadily as I pounded my way through a Step Aerobics video about six times before wobbling my way to the bathroom to weigh myself. When he saw me picking listlessly at a bowl of dry Grape-Nuts later that night, I explained away my odd behavior with a simple “I don’t want to get fat.” He scoffed. “Pssh. Doubt it. You’re way too vain to let that happen.” Even then, I knew he was very, very wrong. If I was vain, wouldn’t I revel in my looks and not be tortured by each buckling and anamorphic likeness that scrutinized me from every reflective surface no matter how faint? No. Not vain. His words mattered little. I could hardly hear him. “Ed” had been roaring at me for years by then. The clamor was muffling everything else.
Calling out Ed was eerie at first. Interwoven with the absurd. “I don’t feel as though I’m really talking to Jen right now. I feel as though I’m talking to Ed. Ed is very loud today.” My mind frequently conjured the scene from the original “Ghostbusters” when Sigourney Weaver was possessed, drooling and thrashing on the bed, and Bill Murray is saying to her,” I want to talk to Dana. Can I talk to Dana?” “There is no Dana, there is only Zuul..” I became accustomed to referring to Ed during therapy, groups, colloquy. It was invaluable. I tasted the possibility of leaving Ed behind when I headed home. Understood for the first time that I did not have to accept merely existing. The abundant LIFE that God promises for His children was mine for the asking. Healing was genuine.
Ed isn’t part of my life now. Oh, I battle..much more than I’d like. But that’s what I call them. My battles. Naming Ed served it’s purpose for a time, but now I feel it would be sacrificing precious power that I need to heal. It’s the same principle that drives me to say with intention, that I am in recovery rather than I had/have an eating disorder. That empowers me to walk away from the cliques of women discussing this new diet and that new exercise program. The reason I snip the size tags out of my clothes.
I’m keeping Ed a footnote.