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#MHYALit: “Eating Disorder” Books: How They Only Show Half of the Struggle, a guest post by Jen Petro-Roy

MHYALitlogoofficfialToday librarian and blogger Jen Petro-Roy shares with us her experiences with an eating disorder and what she’s learned from her eating disorder, from treatment, and from recovery. See all of the #MHYALit posts here. 

 

 

 

Screaming in the middle of the night.

People getting dragged off the Eating Disorders wing for self-harm.

Temper tantrums and hissy fits during meals.

Counselors hovering outside the bathroom, listening to me count OUT LOUD while I peed.

Counting down the hours until “bench,” that wonderful fifteen minutes when we were all allowed to troop outside and loiter around a bench while getting our dose of fresh air.

Mumbling.

Cold shoulders.

Suspicion.

Overly attentive counselors.

Crying.

Utter fear.

 

This was eating disorder treatment. It’s all stuff you’ve probably read about in the many young adult books written on the subject, where a girl (usually only a girl) gets sick, reluctantly goes into treatment, experiences horror after horror, has sick thoughts, then gets better.

I’ve read a few of these books. Wintergirls. Perfect. Tiny Pretty Things. How I Live Now. Believarexic (the last being perhaps the best, most accurate treatment-related book I’ve read). These authors have done their research, and, in many cases, experienced an eating disorder or disordered eating themselves. As you’d expect, there’s a common thread in so many of these books: the evils of eating disorders. The pain. The torment.

These are some of the phrases I see and the feelings I get when I’m reading a so-called “eating disorder book”: My brittle bones. Aching hunger. Isolation. Misery.

 

I’m not saying that an eating disorder isn’t miserable. I suffered from severe anorexia for three years. I went into treatment seven times. Then I hovered in some middle-of-the-road no man’s land between almost recovery and full recovery for another ten years. I was miserable for a lot of that time. My stomach was a pit and my body almost collapsed from over-exercise. I lied and deceived. I did all that knowing how awful I was being, knowing that I was valuing my disease over my life. I lost friends and harmed relationships. I transferred colleges and took time off and missed out on so much.

I gained so much, too.

 

I’m not talking about just weight, although that’s obviously a key factor. A vital factor. I did gain weight. I “weight-restored,” to use the technical term that was bandied about so much.

But I gained knowledge, too. Knowledge about myself and knowledge about the world. Like that this society is royally messed up. That people treat a “you look like you lost weight” compliment like it’s the equivalent of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Or like it’s a better compliment than something that really matters, like “you’re a good friend.” That my Facebook feed is filled with posts about Beach Body cleanses and how eating chocolate makes someone bad.

You know what makes someone bad? Breaking the law. Discriminating against others. Not liking to read. (Kidding!…Maybe.)

Bad isn’t gaining weight. Bad isn’t losing weight. Bad isn’t eating kale or cheesecake or oatmeal or peanut butter. Weight has nothing to do with morality. It’s a number. A NUMBER.

I’m not trying to lecture, because god knows, I beat myself up for a long time about that whole peanut butter thing. But that’s what a lot of these books don’t show—the slow process where someone learns that peanut butter isn’t so awful after all. The push and pull, the advances and backslides. The knowledge that comes with time.

 

And there has been so much knowledge. I learned that I can’t go on diets anymore. I learned that my brain is wired in such a way that if I start to cut back on food, then I’ll want to keep cutting back. I learned that if I drop below a certain weight (for any reason), then my brain will do a happy dance. I learned that I need to eat a lot. I learned that food is freaking fantastic. (A fact that I honestly knew all along, but tried really hard to suppress.)

 

I learned that I’m wired a bit differently than other people, and that medication brings me back to that state of equilibrium that some achieve naturally. Medication isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It’s my insulin. My beta-blockers. My brain food.

I learned that I don’t need or want a scale in my house. I learned that it’s quite satisfying to toss said scale out of the window and watch it smash to pieces on the cement below.

 

I also learned that when I stop obsessing about shrinking my body, my life expands dramatically.

Young Adult “eating disorder stories” get part of the story right. They show what it’s like to suffer and ache, to obsess and hunger. But where they often fall short for me is on the recovery front.

Recovery is hard. Damn hard. Soul-searching, relapse-having, losing what you thought made you you hard. It’s anxiety so fierce that you want to hide from the world and that you think will tear you apart inside. It’s getting new clothes and making new friends and for some, even finding a new place to live. It’s changing career paths and confronting loved ones and figuring out what you want in life.

Recovery isn’t just that time in treatment or therapy, or that time when you’re gaining weight. You don’t leave treatment cured. You don’t even leave treatment almost cured. You leave treatment with a toolbox of skills to use and are then shoved/gently coaxed/pushed into the same world that helped you develop your eating disorder.

 

You aren’t at the starting line of a journey. But you aren’t at the end yet. Not by far.

I understand that books are supposed to have a happy ending. There needs to be a narrative arc: pain, realizations, struggle, pitfalls, closure. Readers want that closure, that hope that recovery is possible.

Because it is. It’s so possible. My life, my career, my family, my marriage, my body is proof of that.

But the happy ending didn’t come right away. And that’s where I think YA books about eating disorders can do the reader a grave disservice. That’s where I think our cultural conversation about eating disorders does us a grave disservice. Because those suffering, along with their friends and family members, come to expect a cure right away. They want that narrative arc in their lives or in their loved one’s life. And when it doesn’t happen, they despair. They backslide. They relapse.

There’s no magic pill to take that will immediately clear up the obsessions, compulsions, and irrational fears. Just hard work, time, and transformation. Of body, of self, and of mind.

We need a society that recognizes how arduous recovery can be. In this country of Starbucks drive-thrus and microwave bacon, of 10-day detox diets and multitasking, we need to understand that some things take time.

Some things need time. To realize who exactly you are without your eating disorder. To understand what you want to do with your life and what harmful messages were leading you to hide behind food or the lack thereof. To filter out the toxic influences and start to craft an identity beyond your illness.

It took me fourteen years from my initial symptoms to get to 100% full recovery. That time included a good eight years where I was convinced that I was fully recovered, too.

I wasn’t. I was still sick in a lot of ways. Unnoticeable ways. Little ways. Ways that still held me back from the life I wanted to lead.

I’m there now, though. And those characters will get there eventually, too.

We need to read about that part.

 

Of course, I understand that a book has to stop somewhere. Each novel can’t go on and on detailing every slip and fall and stumble and rise. But there should be more narratives out there that cover the “after,” not just the “before” and the “during.”

Because the after is what we all want. Not the lurid details or the dramatic numbers, but the peace and acceptance that comes with recovery. Where you find not the new you, but the true you.

 

Meet Jen Petro-Roy

YMPKbSIxJennifer Petro-Roy is the Young Adult Librarian at the Chelmsford Public Library, where she also runs the Young Writers Club. She got her MLIS from Simmons College and is also a middle grade/YA writer. She blogs at http://www.losingmylabels.com about parenting, body image, and self-esteem. When she’s not writing or talking about books, Jennifer is reading many more books and spending time with her husband and two daughters. You can find her on Twitter as @jpetroroy.

Book Review: Beast in the Mirror by Laura Bradley Rede

In Beast in the Mirror, a novella by Laura Bradley Rede, the story of Beauty and the Beast is reimagined with an interesting twist—Beast is a girl.

 

17-year-old Bella, a model, is just out of rehab for anorexia. She flies to Ireland to meet up with her cousin James, a photographer. Bella explains that she’s always felt close to James, not just because he got her into modeling, but because out of all the members of their large family, she and James are the only queer ones. Their photo shoot takes place on the grounds of the crumbling and creepy Blackston estate, a place her cab driver tells her is full of dark magic. While there, Bella and James discover a lavish flower garden and climb the wall to take some pictures in it. The Beast appears and initially tries to capture James, but Bella offers to trade places with him. Bella describes the Beast: “Its face is like a lion, with a lion’s mane, but two huge ram’s horns curl from its head. Its back is hunched like a buffalo’s, but it walks on two feet—hooves, really. Mismatched hooves, one like a Clydsedale and one like a goat.”

 

Once inside the estate, Bella realizes the interior of the house doesn’t match the outside—it’s gorgeous. She’s tossed into a small, dank room, where she overhears a woman chiding the Beast to remember that Bella is a guest, not a prisoner. She also overhears this woman telling Beast that Bella will need to eat to keep her strength up for what is to come.

 

Once out of her dungeon-like room, Bella is set up in a lavish bedroom of her own. In the dining room, she learns she only has to think about a food and it will appear in front of her. For someone with the issues Bella has with food, this is frightening. She learns more about the house and about Beast as they grow closer. Despite their appearances, the two have a lot in common and can understand each other in unique ways. At one point Bella says, “I’m not under a curse or anything,” and Beast says, “Aren’t you?” Bella is surprised to find being at Beast’s house is kind of like a strange rehab—one where there are no mirrors and essentially no one else to see her or judge her.

 

When Bella learns more about how the Beast’s curse works and the terms in which it will be lifted (Beast is free to leave the house when a man give’s her true love’s first kiss), she’s intrigued. The Beast makes it clear that she doesn’t want a kiss or anything else from any man. Bella comes up with a plan—a very surprising and complicated/risky plan—that will break the curse, but is it something she can pull off? Is it even something she should attempt?

 

The parallels between Beast and Bella being trapped in their bodies in different ways, and their issues with how they perceive themselves and are viewed by others, are interesting. They are both complicated characters—stubborn, determined, sometimes foolish, and brave. Bella thinks about her anorexia, her body, and her recovery a lot. We see in great detail how she felt about her thin body, the issues she still has. She never minces words, so we get a very visceral and at times disturbing look at her thoughts. The twist at the end (Bella’s plan) completely threw me for a loop. The themes of transformation and insides/outsides and identities are taken to the extreme in the final pages. I think there’s a lot of fodder for discussion from this brief novella. What does having a female Beast do to the story? Can we forget Bella is still a captive as time goes on (and what does it mean if we do?)? Are they as similar as it might seem? What do we think of Bella’s risky and surprising plan? Does it change how we view her? Do we like or agree with her choice? I love Rede’s vivid writing and the details she infuses this world with. Readers looking for a unique Beauty and the Beast tale with a lot to think about won’t be disappointed. 

Laura Bradley Rede’s novella is available as an ebook from Amazon, B&N, and Smashwords. For an excerpt of the story, see our cover reveal post from earlier this year. 

 

Interested in more thoughts on the Beauty and the Beast story? Check out these previous posts on TLT: 

The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature by Karen Jensen

 The Beauty and the Beast Effect in YA Literature part II: A Discussion on Rape/Abduction Fantasies by author Christa Desir

 

 

 

Take 5: Books about eating disorders

Did you know that under the Teen Issues link up there on the menu bar, you can find lots of great posts and book lists organized by issue? Everything from addiction to violence is covered. If you don’t see a topic covered that you think is of interest, please leave a comment, tweet us (Amanda MacGregor @CiteSomething or Karen Jensen @TLT16), or email us at the addresses provided on the About TLT page.

 

Take 5: Books about eating disorders (2014 and 2015)

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 22-28. Visit the National Eating Disorders Awareness site for more information.

All descriptions of these recently published books from the publisher. Check the links provided for reviews and other posts by us on most of the books. See the “Body Image and Eating Disorders” list under Teen Issues for many great previous posts on TLT that cover this topic.

 

Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan

Publisher: Albert Whtiman & Company

Publication date: 3/1/2014

ISBN-13: 9780807573976

Summary:

Sixteen-year-old Jack, nicknamed “Bones,” won’t eat. His roommate in the eating disorder ward has the opposite problem and proudly goes by the nickname “Lard.” They become friends despite Bones’s initial reluctance. When Bones meets Alice, a dangerously thin dancer who loves to break the rules, he lets his guard down even more. Soon Bones is so obsessed with Alice that he’s willing to risk everything-even his recovery.

(Check out “Skin and Bones: Talking about Teens and Eating Disorders,” a guest post on TLT by Sherry Shahan.)

 

 

Pointe by Brandy Colbert 

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group

Publication date: 4/10/2014

ISBN-13: 9780399160349

Summary:

Theo is better now.

She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse.

Brandy Colbert dazzles in this heartbreaking yet hopeful debut novel about learning how to let go of even our most shameful secrets.

(See my review of Pointe, and Christa Desir’s guest post for TLT, “Consent and Teenage Vulnerability: A Look at Pointe)

 

Running Scared by Leslie McGill

Publisher: Saddleback Educational Publishing

Publication date: 9/1/2014

ISBN-13: 9781622507061

Series: Cap Central

Summary:

Capital Central High School, or Cap Central as the students like to call it, is in the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. Any urban school faces broad challenges, and Cap Central is no different. But some tight-knit juniors meet the difficulties head-on with courage, friendship, determination, and hard work. Rainie’s grades were slipping. Good grades were a lifetime ago. Back when her dad was around. Before her mom’s boyfriend started hanging out at their house. Commenting on her figure. Looking her up and down. Before she decided to stop eating. Become invisible. Her friends were alarmed, especially Joss. She knew times were tough for Rainie’s family. But she felt like there was more going on. Something serious. And she was going to figure it out.

 

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz 

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Publication date: 3/3/2015

ISBN-13: 9781481405966

Summary:

Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere—until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca might be Etta’s salvation…but can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

(See my SLJ review of this title here)

 

Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkel

Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC

Publication date: 5/19/2015

ISBN-13: 9781452121512

Summary:

Seventeen-year-old Elena is vanishing. Every day means renewed determination, so every day means fewer calories. This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety becomes artillery against herself as she battles on both sides of a lose-lose war in a struggle with anorexia. Told entirely from Elena’s perspective over a five-year period and cowritten with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena’s memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must read for anyone who knows someone suffering from an eating disorder.

 

If you would like to recommend additional titles on this topic, please leave us a comment. We always look forward to hearing what books others value and recommend.