I am reading Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder. which is excellent and a really practical.guide to dealing with the resistance to eating that L demonstrates at every meal. It also urges parents to get inside the head of their teenager, to understand what it is they get from their eating disorder. It is unique as an illness in that the sufferer has a relationship with the illness that they need, albeit in a destructive way
To me anorexia is a destructive force, a demon that is wreaking havoc with L’s health and our lives. But it is not the same for L. I have been trying to think what it is like for her, and it feels as if finding an eating disorder was like meeting her first boyfriend. Let’s call him Ed. When L first meets Ed, a light switches on. She feels a secret thrill at the time they spend together, a sense of being a better person. Ed loves the way she is with him and she loves to please him. At first she’s not sure if it’s real, especially because she keeps their relationship a secret. Ed prefers that you see because the rest of the world wouldn’t understand. She feels differently from everyone else and her family and friends ask her constantly what is wrong. What is it with these people and their questions. Can’t they see she is happy?
But, in time, aspects of Ed start to worry L. Is it right to have to vomit to feel better, to keep Ed happy, just to capture that special feeling they have. Cautiously, L asks her friends. Their visible shock alarms her. She shouldn’t have told them, Ed was right. She says it was a joke and she didn’t really mean it. They urge her to tell her mum. She does, but she plays it down. She tells her mum that she did do it, but she has stopped. She promises her mum she will tell her if she feels like doing it again. She means it at the time, but she never does. Ed is furious at her betrayal. To get things back to how they were she tries harder. She eats less. She exercises more. She does sit ups each morning. Ed is so pleased and she is happy. That secret thrill returns. But she knows that others will see the physical evidence of her abusive relationship with Ed, and they won’t understand. So she covers up, in baggy clothes so others won’t ask questions. It helps too because she is so cold.
At times she gets fed up with Ed. She sneaks behind his back and orders ice cream. He always finds out. He rages at her for being greedy and disgustingly fat. She has to try harder and at last she pleases him.
But soon enough her secret is out. Everyone knows, her family and friends. They take her to doctors who tell her she is at serious risk of harming her health permanently. She nods and listens, but thinks, Really? Her Ed? She knows he goes too far sometimes, but to lose him altogether would break her heart. So she tries to negotiate. If she can eat a little, if she can cook it herself and choose what she eats, perhaps she can keep her family happy and Ed happy too. It is so hard though. Her mum pushes and pushes and doesn’t see how much it hurts her to even think about giving Ed up. She tells her that It is Ed making her not eat when she doesn’t and L always defends him. Ed isn’t happy either. He taunts her and mocks her weakness. He is especially cruel when she goes away and forgets about him for a while. He lurks and then attacks in the middle of the night, screaming at her, telling L she is huge, loathsome. Somehow L finds some strength to stand up to him. She believes her mum and the doctors now. She knows Ed is bad news, even though part of her still loves him. So she eats the food Ed hates most. Pizza, garlic bread, cheese. She feels pleased with herself. She clings on to her mum and weeps for the loss of Ed. She thinks she is too weak now, after months of Ed’s bullying and abuse. L thinks he will never give up and it will be too hard. Her mum tells her to get through each day without him. That one day she will meet someone else, she will feel special and beautiful and it will be real. That life without Ed is freedom and a future. They all know Ed is watching and waiting, planning his next move. L’s mum is ready.
One day L will be free of Ed and she will look back in bewilderment at what she saw in him. I imagine her seeing his latest girlfriend, gaunt and lost, wrapped up in a hoodie and tracksuit bottoms on a summer’s day, picking at lettuce with her bony fingers. And L will remember and shudder and hope that she escapes him too.