Last night I read an article by an Asian woman by the name of Twyla (https://medium.com/invisible-illness/dear-body-6d2b0490ec3a)).
As I read her heartfelt words, my entire body ached. This body that I damned to four decades of eating disorders, subjected to starvation, the loss of all my once-lovely teeth, the untold hours of extreme and painful dental procedures, the endless hours of facing the smooth insides of toilet bowls, stashing massive piles of cookies in my closets, hiding, forever hiding.
Living in the prison of my mind, being shocked each time I touched those prison walls. The rat in Skinner’s box.
On one hand, I can look back at those years and realize that they are largely over and done. Not so for Twyla and far too many men and women who are firmly in the grip of this immensely evil disorder. The death rate for us- and this includes men- is twelve times higher than any other illness. We battle with suicide. I have battled with suicide. Nearly succeeded.
Psychologists and psychiatrists ply us with pills. We sit for hours discussing our pain. The medical community has given birth to an entire cottage industry (the National Eating Disorder Association https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/). People whose success depends on our inability to heal ourselves.
They feed off our eating disorders, as it were.
How perfectly capital. Capitalism works, just like gravity.
Some years ago I considered speaking for them. Then I realized that what I had to say would earn me a rain of rotten tomatoes from the audience. We don’t need you, I would tell them. Screw your counselors, screw your pills, screw your manufactured concern.
As an eating disorder survivor, I am no fan of counselors. When you are incentivized by having a long-term paid relationship with your patient, it doesn’t serve you to heal us. Call me a cynic (by god I am, I’ve been there) then give me a counselor who ONLY gets paid when you and I walk away with no more compulsion to stick a spoon down our throats to revisit our last meal.
As an eating disorder survivor, I am also no fan of pills. My body dysmorphia grew out of multiple rapes in the military. PTSD. The medical response is, natch, to medicate. Those anti-depressants, which my various providers referred to as “standard procedure,” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my compulsions.
They did, over time, cause vastly more powerful suicidal thoughts, as well as a long laundry list of symptoms that were only alleviated when I quit. Went cold turkey. That cold turkey was just as evil as cycling off opioids.
Pharmaceutical companies count on it. Several days into that hell send most of us running back to our bottles. I did that, too. A year later I nearly took myself out. Then I took myself off the pills forever. It was worth it but by God I wouldn’t wish that journey on anyone (except most current members of Congress and this Administration, but I digress).
The symptoms went away. Every. Single. One of them.
Pills, inpatient programs, patently useless counseling, poring over books on eating disorders to try to understand how to heal myself were all worthless. Being informed about the damage I was doing to my body simply added to my guilt. No amount of logic, no amount of scientific information, no amount of proof positive that I was indeed killing myself slowly as Twyla wrote made a damned bit of difference.
You cannot fight an eating disorder with logic. It’s like fighting religious terrorism with more religion. See where that gets us. More terrorism. Precisely. Who benefits? The medical community that sucks off us like lampreys.
In his magnificent book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation, the great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh gently throws down a gauntlet: why do psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists spend endless hours and days and months and years having us discuss our pain, our hurts, our agonies?
Because it serves them. Financially, emotionally, it serves them. They have a need to feed: Feed at the trough of our troubles, because this is what keeps us coming back. As long as we don’t get better, they get paid. The medical community only thrives when we aren’t improving.
Whatever we focus on, grows.
This isn’t everyone. But the model doesn’t encourage discussing what’s right with us, what we do well, how to find pleasure in our bodies (thanks, it’s not about sex), how to learn to embrace the day as a journey rather than a jail sentence.
When the medical community is paid based on our success rate, we will heal. Or, at least, we will begin to heal. Of course, this is true for all illnesses. We are not a prevention-based, health-conscious society. The model rewards our illnesses, our sadness, our obsessions, our pain.
Ultimately, we have to deal with our love-hate relationships with donuts and disease on our own. Just as we do everything else.
Twyla, and those of us like her who have despised our bodies and the psychic pain they cause us because of societal norms and messaging about thinness, perfection, or gorgeous muscles (name your damnation), are on a sacred journey. As are we all. However those of us who damage our physical selves because they aren’t and will never be perfect have to overcome that enormous barrier before we can even be in life.
The barrier is the belief that you and I are our bodies, our physical selves. That our entire worth is wrapped up in the muscle, sinew, fat and bone that we embody. Until we understand that this is a lie, we can’t live.
Even begin to truly commit ourselves to our creative work. The reason we showed up in the first place.
Many of us never make it.
I am enormously fortunate. Because even though at 65, I still am mildly uncomfortable if my scale inches north a touch more than I want, I now love food. Eat with gusto. Even a donut or Kit Kat every so often. Without guilt.
From this vantage point, as I read the words of someone whose journey now is so close to my own for so many years, all I can ask is this: What does it say about our so-called Western society and all our so-called advancements when so many of our best and brightest hate themselves so much that they are willing to starve? What does it say that we are so obsessed with our bodies- the one thing that is temporary, fleeting and flawed- that we cannot live our lives in full?
What does it say about our medical system that the rewards are based on continuing illness, as long as we pour that agony into the coffers of our shareholders? The more bodies in beds, locked in padded cells, the more padded their stock portfolios, even as we wither to nothing.
What does it say that we are so in love with our sadness, our pain, that we invest all our psychic energy into pouring salt into our hurts? We feel guilty for the crime of taking up space? Having been born? That we are in love with our self-loathing?
I don’t have an answer for anyone else. Mine came just after lunchtime in a tiny Thai town nearly eight years ago. I had just returned to my hotel room after a trip to the local market to load up on cookies. Spread them around my table, with a big cup for me to chew them up and spit into. As I began writing in my journal, I noted:
I could be doing this at 95. Or I could stop RIGHT NOW.
For some reason, I stood up. Gathered up my cookies. Took them downstairs to the staff. Never looked back.
I have no idea what happened. Or why. I was done forever.
I was 58.
We eat our young in Western Society. Thank god I never had kids, because I’d have visited my angst on them, and have brought up children who carried the same body anger I did. Happily, nobody else suffered on my account, other than those who loved me (and plenty have and still do) and suffered while watching me damage myself.
There is no easy answer. I wouldn’t entrust my journey to a counselor. Or for that matter any other aspect of so-called “modern medicine.” Because what hurts can’t be helped with toxic chemicals or shock therapy or treacly sessions with a counselor who is him or herself dealing with a slew of personal problems, as are we all.
From where I sit on my now much-healthier butt, a butt which sports padding and muscle and sinew, a butt that happily fills out a pair of jeans very nicely thank-you-very-much, all I can say is that this a solo journey. When we fall out of love with suffering, that’s our get-out-of-jail card.
When we’re willing to call bullshit on societal norms, we will feel the sunshine on our faces.
When we decide that we owe our gifts to the world rather than wait for someone to save us, which they can’t, we will rise.
When we understand that we deserve to live, life will show us the space it has always held for us.
It’s possible to heal. Not easy. But possible. For Twyla and everyone else like her, I wish godspeed. With my whole heart I wish for you to feel the wind on your faces.
I hope with all my soul you will find your way. Because the beauty of your truth helps heal us all.