What is our body telling us when we have an eating disorder?
By Aimee Liu
Let’s say you cannot speak. You don’t dare ask for help, but you can’t resolve your problems alone. What do you do?
One strategy might be to act out your distress. You might go hungry, shaping your figure like an empty spoon, as hollow and lifeless as you feel. You might secretly stuff your body with food the way you’ve stuffed down fear and shame, and then violently purge, as if to get rid of those unspeakable emotions. Or you might just keep on eating more and more until the outside world seems to shrink by comparison, each new binge mimicking the onslaught of feelings too huge to contain within the mold of acceptable expectations. When viewed as wordless cries for relief, the psychological pantomimes of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating make perfect sense.
Like most girls with eating disorders in the ’60s and early ’70s, I never received treatment. Then, at 22, I fell in love. My lover knew how to see and hear and touch me. He fed me pasta, wine and laughter, and, in so doing, taught me how to nourish myself. Suddenly, starving my body made no sense.
But shadows of self-doubt remained and, within them, the half-life of my eating disorder. I no longer deprived myself of calories, but for decades, I “could not” eat meat. Evenings and weekends, I “had to” work, while everyone else had fun. And although I thought I was content with my husband, the slightest marital disagreement would render me mute. Instead of confronting our problems, I would run away, literally, often running through injuries for hours. By the age of 36, this relentless physical punishment had permanently crippled my right ankle.
Then, my marriage of 20 years fissured and, at age 46, I once again became a stranger to myself. The woman who lived in my skin would stand blinking blindly in front of the bathroom mirror. More familiarly, she went days without eating. Hopping on and off the scale, she’d mutter, “At least you’re losing weight.”
Fortunately, separation was accompanied by long-overdue therapy. The plea behind my attempt to make less of my body should have been obvious to anyone, including myself, but it took a skilled psychologist to help me interpret my own signals. I emerged from this crisis with a more powerful voice in my marriage and a new respect for the eloquent conditions we call eating disorders.
I think of all the women who’ve told me they wish they could be “just a little” anorexic. My reply that that’s like wishing they could be just a little bit dead is usually met with uncomfortable laughter and an abrupt change of subject.
Imperfection and blemishes are part of the human condition. We may not look exactly as we would wish, but our bodies contain us. They carry us and work for us and give us pleasure. They speak for us when we dare not admit the truth. We owe it to ourselves to remember how to listen.
Excerpted from the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. - join the ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.
AIMEE LIU is the author of three novels and two memoirs, most recently Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders (Wellness Central, 2008).