Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading 'Wasted': Yes. Fucking yes.

Reading Wasted is like being belted over the head.

Marya Hornbacher's 1998 memoir of her anorexia and bulimia (written when she was just 23) has been much criticised for its triggering nature and unresolved, bleak ending. Which is fair enough, on one hand. It does have huge triggering potential. There are startling amounts of research and theory pulsing through Hornbacher's writing, along with descriptions of her personal experiences that are magnetic, raw and deranged. It's a seductive and mesmerising combination of factors - the academic and the mad, and she was obviously still unwell when she wrote it. Reading Wasted draws you in so close to Marya that it does make you feel pretty nuts, so if you're already a bit nuts, proceed with care.

But I'm not intending to enter the debate about whether Wasted 'should' ever have been published. It was published, it still is being published. People can choose what they read, choose to stop reading. People in recovery know what triggers they need to avoid. And not every book has to have a happy ending.

Moving on.

Wasted veers between vicious honesty, articulate introspection and self-indulgent ranting. The belted-over-the-head factor for me in this book comes from many things Hornbacher says that I haven't had the words to express, or that I haven't even thought of. Things you don't read in the Standard Government-Issue Pamphlets On Eating Disorders, and things that struck with with their truth (their truth for me, personally).

Sometimes it doesn't occur to me that the DSM-IV-TR might not be a comprehensive account of these conditions (although the very inclusion of EDNOS should be a tip-off that eating disorders are that easily defined, yeah?). The value of this book for me is pointing at a paragraph and just thinking "Yes. Fucking yes."

I've folded so many corners down in this book it's starting to fan out at the bottom. Rather than ramble on, I'm going to share a few corners. I don't think they're particularly triggery passages, but that's only going on my subjective appraisal.

"The bragging was the worst. I hear this in schools all over the country, in cafes and resaturants, in bars, on the internet, for Pete's sake, on buses, on sidewalks: Women yammering about how little they eat. Oh, I've starving, I haven't eaten all day, I think I'll have a great big piece of lettuce, I'm not hungry, I don't like to eat in the morning (in the afternoon, in the evening, on Tuesdays, when my nails aren't painted when my shin hurts, when it's raining, when it's sunny, on national holidays, after or before 2am). I heard it in the hospital, that terrible ironic whine from the chapped lips of women starving to death. But I'm not hun-greeeee. To hear women tell it, we're never hungry. We live on little Ms. Pac-Man power pellets. Food makes us queasy, food makes us itchy, food is too messy, all I really like to eat is celery. To hear women tell it, we're ethereal beings who eat with the greatest distaste scraping scraps of food between out teeth with our upper lips curled.
For your edification, it's bullshit.
Starving is the feminine thing to do these days, the way swooning was in Victorian times...My generation and the last one feign disinterest in food. We are 'too busy' to eat, 'too stressed' to eat. Not eating, in some way, signifies that you have a life so full, that your busy-ness is so important, that food would be an imposition on your precious time. We claim a loss of appetite, a most-sacred aphysicality, superwomen who have conquered the feminine realm of the material and finally gained access to the masculine realm of the mind."


"This is the very boring part of eating disorders, the aftermath. When you eat and you hate that you eat. And yet of course you must eat. You don't really entertain the notion of going back. You, with some startling new level of clarity, realize that going back would be far worse than simply being as you are. This is obvious to anyone without an eating disorder. This is not always obvious to you. But at this stage, when it is effectively Over, is haunting in its own way...This is the pitiful stage where you do not qualify as an eating-disordered person. And you feel bad about this. You feel as if you really ought to count, you ought to still merit worry, still have the power to summon a flurry of nurses, their disdain ill hidden, your skeletal smirk.
But you are in the present tense. Your husband sips his coffee, saying, But dear, I don't really care if you've gained weight. And you, triumphant, logical as the Red Queen, shriek, You see? I have gained weight! I knew it! And he sighs. You ask again, Do I look fat? No. Plump? No. Round? Well you're a woman. What do you mean? I mean - I mean -
I picture husbands all over the world, hovering in doorways, caught in a terrible tangle of language, feet and hands bound by these slippery words glossy and meaningless as the pages of a magazine."


"I should've known better, I should've called myself on all the lies I was telling myself - I'm eating enough, I'm doing all right, I'm healthy. I was happy. I had learned, or thought that I'd learned, that I was a valuable person. I understood that I needed to eat to live, and I wanted to live. I said to myself: It takes time, it's not that easy, you can't expect yourself to be perfect this soon. There are altogether too many 'empowering' things that professionals tell you that can be twisted around and turned against yourself. I had heard a few too many times that if I threw up, it was just a 'slip', if I stopped eating for a little while it didn't really mean I was relapsing. How long is a little while? It stretches out, one week, two weeks, three, and you're back where you started. Professionals give anorectics and bulimics way too much credit for having their brains in order: You have to be patient with yourself, they said, you have to be nurturing to yourself, be nice to yourself. And so, as I went through another day without food...I said to myself: I have to be patient, I'm being nurturing to myself by not expecting too much of myself, I will not push myself too hard today, so I guess we'll just have some coffee for lunch...
We all do this. I've never met an eating-disordered person who could not come up with an astonishing battalion of solid-sounding, intellectualized reasons why they can't eat."


"Did my family set it off again? Did my father's neediness and my fear of it spark relapse? My mother's distance? An article I read? A woman I saw? Not likely. What happened is that, faced with a number of things in my life that I didn't like, I turned to my eating disorder because I had never, ever figured out how to fucking deal."


"I have a remarkable ability to delete all better judgement from my brain when I get my head set on something. Everything is done at all costs. I have no sense of moderation, no sense of caution. I have no sense, pretty much. People with eating disorders tend to be very diametrical thinkers - everything is the end of the world, everything rides on this one thing, and everyone tells you you're very dramatic, very intense, and they see it as an affectation, but it's actually just how you think. And it isn't that you ignore the potential repercussions of your actions. You don't think there are any."


It was also very pleasing to hear my opinion on the therapist-worshipping 1980s YA novel The Best Little Girl in the World echoed: "It is in fact a rather romanticized account, written by a doctor intent upon demonstrating not the experience of having an eating disorder but rather his own genius in curing them."

Yes. Fucking yes.