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Eating Disorders: Haunting the 616.85 Section, a #MHYALit guest post by BELIEVAREXIC author J. J. Johnson

It may seem weird to talk about eating disorders in a week when we have been talking about food, but food is a complicated issue for a lot of people. It was for me. No, it is for me. And it is also for BELIEVAREXIC author J. J. Johnson. She contacted me about participating in our #MHYALit discussion in 2016, but since her book is currently out I wanted to share this post with you now.

Believearexic_drawn maze concepts_final.inddIn 1988, when I was fifteen, before I was hospitalized for bulimarexia (a combination of anorexia and bulimia), I haunted the 616.85 section of the library. I sat on the cold tile floor between stacks, breathed that comforting old-book smell, and found my tribe.

Those pages of 616.85s – dog-eared by me, I am terribly ashamed to admit now – are where I located the things I was in desperate need of: insight, expertise, and community.

Insight, expertise, community: that’s what books give us. That’s what we come for. But in my case, it wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Fifteen-year-old me gleaned the helpful—albeit confusing—insights that eating disorders were a disease, or an addiction, or an affliction (depending on the book) that could be treated. I learned that eating disorders often coincided with perfectionism and anxiety. But I also picked up expertise on purging, and hiding my illness, and counting calories. Most importantly, though, I found people who understood what I was going through. The authors of these books understood me in a way that no one else did.

And this was before the Internet. Think of the insight, expertise, and community to be found on pro-ana (pro-anorexia) or pro-mia (pro-bulimia) websites, blogs, forums, or Tumblrs. (Hashtags you should consider red flags include: #ana #anorexia #proana #purge #bulimia #mia #promia #ed #skinny #thinsporation #thinspo #fitspo.)

Even many of the supposed pro-recovery pages (#edrecovery #pro-recovery) can be a problem. Because like reading books, perusing Internet pages isn’t the same as getting help.

Why isn’t it the same? Let me explain with examples from my own treatment–ten weeks in an inpatient eating disorders unit, from November 1988-January 1989. In the EDU, we had two kinds of meetings: therapist-led group meetings, and patient-led 12-Step meetings.

In the therapist led meetings, Dr. Wexler (not his real name) would push back when patients talked about wanting to stay sick, or when we’d avoid blame, or when we’d rag on staff. He didn’t let us get away with it, and he guided us into taking a hard look at what had been making us sick. He knew us, and he knew all our tricks. He’d had a lot of training, and he’d been treating patients like us for many years.

The patient-led meetings? Well, here’s how I put it in Believarexic:

In some ways… [the meeting was] reassuring, because I wasn’t alone in my frustrations and misery.

But in other ways, it dragged me down.

It was as if we were all in the ocean because our boat sank, and every one of us was struggling not to drown. And while we were ostensibly trying to help each other, we were actually just pulling each other under.

The readers who haunt the 616.85s and the computer stations need help. Even if they know they want to recover, they need help. I can say this with clarity, because when I was sick, I wanted to get better, but I didn’t know how. And neither do your patrons. Recovery takes doctors with focused expertise, and/or recovered eating disordered patients with decades of solid recovery behind them. And I mean decades. I’m a tough customer when it comes to who I think should be doling out therapy and advice for actively eating-disordered people.

Eating disorders are tricky. So what can a caring librarian do?

S/he can strategically place the numbers of helplines next to the computers. S/he can say, gently, “I’ve noticed you checking out books about eating disorders. I care about you. I’m here if you need me. We can find help for you together.” S/he can create displays that don’t just promote eating disorder awareness, but recovery and body positivity. S/he can encourage real-life help-getting. S/he can steer young readers away from books that focus on disease, triggers, and tips for being sick, and instead suggest strongly recovery-oriented books, like Making Peace with Food, by Susan Kano; Regaining Your Self: Breaking Free from the Eating Disorder Identity: A Bold New Approach, by Ira Sacker; or, if you’ll allow me to suggest it: Believarexic, my auto-biographical novel that is raw, recovery-focused—and which, crucially and very intentionally—does not include any specific target weights, purging tips, or the like.

Librarians have a magic talent for putting the right book in the right hands at the right time. Here’s to helping readers find body-positive, health-focused insights, expertise and community. Here’s to helping them find their healthy tribe—in media and IRL.


Fifteen-year-old Jennifer has to force her family to admit she needs help for her eating disorder. But when her parents sign her into the Samuel Tuke Center, she knows it’s a terrible mistake. The facility’s locked doors, cynical nurses, and punitive rules are a far cry from the peaceful, supportive environment she’d imagined.

In order to be discharged, Jennifer must make her way through the strict treatment program—as well as harrowing accusations, confusing half-truths, and startling insights. She is forced to examine her relationships, both inside and outside the hospital. She must relearn who to trust, and decide for herself what “healthy” really means.

Punctuated by dark humor, gritty realism, and profound moments of self-discovery, Believarexic is a stereotype-defying exploration of belief and human connection. (Published October 1, 2015  by Peachtree Publishers)

About J. J. Johnson

Author J. J. Johnson

Author J. J. Johnson

J.J. Johnson is a youth counselor turned young adult novelist. She has a Master of Education from Harvard University, with a concentration in Adolescent Risk and Prevention.

She is the author of This Girl is Different (2011), The Theory of Everything (2012), and Believarexic (October 2015). Her books have received numerous honors and starred reviews, and have been translated into six languages.

J.J. lives in Durham, North Carolina. She loves echidnas, dance parties, and Star Wars.

Learn more about Believarexic and eating disorder recovery at www.believarexic.com. Learn more about J.J. at www.jjjohnsonauthor.com.

Karen’s Thoughts

I actually just read BELIEVAREXIC as part of my Cybils reading, it is nominated in the YA Fic category. I really thought it realistically depicted many of the struggles associated with eating disorders. And I like that it acknowledges over eating and binge eating as an eating disorder as well as anorexia and bulimia. I also thought that it had one of the best descriptions of depression I have ever heard articulated. The only thing I wondered about was that it is solidly set in the 1980s and a lot of musicians, movies and tv shows from that time period are referenced which teen readers may not be familiar with. But the meat of the story, the depiction of family and self esteem issues, the depiction of eating disorders, the depiction of therapy, rang true for me and I felt it was very informative and relate-able.

Body Image and Eating Disorders on TLT

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