An excerpt from “I Only Said” I wasn't hungry.
(Ellie has realized that anorexia is not her friend)
When I see myself as I was before I came to Beach Haven, trapped by anorexia’s lies and deceit, being eaten alive, I can allow myself to get really angry. I can chase anorexia away and know that I’m safe, if only for a while. I’m not stupid; I know that It’s there, just out of reach, waiting to creep closer when I feel down. But that’s when I use my affirmation bracelet, and it really helps.
Today we’re having an open day and our parents are coming. As soon as we’ve finished our hot water bottle session after breakfast, the first parents arrive. I feel excited but a bit apprehensive.
I go to my room to brush my teeth, and when I come down the spiral staircase, Mom, Dad and Alice are standing in the reception area. Alice runs over to me, and I hug her. I can feel tears prick my eyes.
“I’ve been dying to see you,” she says, jumping up and down.
“I’ve missed you, too.”
I take her hand and tell Mom and Dad we have to go to the Group Room.
The Group Room is packed with kids and their families all talking at once, but everyone gets quiet when Miss Tina and Miss Cassie come into the room.
“Welcome, everyone, to our open day,” Miss Tina says. “We want you to have fun today, but we also want to help you understand that your children have declared war on a vicious enemy, and they need your help.”
Everyone’s quiet. Alice shifts on my knee and puts her arm around my neck.
“When your children came to Beach Haven, they had been diagnosed as ‘Anorexic,’ which implies a state of being. It’s a label that sees an individual as being disordered – as if there’s something wrong with them. Parents who watch their child in the grips of anorexia feel as if their child is slipping away, and many say that it feels as if their child has been possessed by a type of force, one that takes over the body and mind. When seeing anorexia this way, it seems impossible for the child to disentangle who they are – their sense of self – from the invading force that demands total obedience and masks itself as the child’s own voice.
“What we do here at Beach Haven is to attempt to separate the child’s own internal voice from the invading force called anorexia. We see anorexia as a separate entity, one that is determined to invade your child’s sense of self and take total control until It is able to kill him or her. Seeing anorexia as a separate entity is vital, so that your child can regain his or her sense of self, listen to his or her own voice and challenge the brutal dictates that anorexia demands. Once your child is able to see that anorexia is not the best friend It professes to be, and It’s actually determined to ruin his or her life, seeing anorexia as a separate entity allows the child to put distance between himself or herself and anorexia’s voice. It’s virtually impossible to do this if you don’t see anorexia as a separate entity. How would you be able to tell whether you’re being led by your own thoughts or by anorexia’s thoughts if you were enmeshed with anorexia and saw anorexia as part of your self? How would you know what thoughts you could trust? Unless you can see anorexia as a separate entity, It stays hidden inside your sense of self, and sets out to make you believe that Its voice is your own. How can you tell yourself to go away? How can you fight yourself?”
Miss Tina takes a sip of water from a glass next to her.
“You may ask yourself, ‘How can this happen to my child?’ Anorexia is an insidious, cunning and callous presence that preys on vulnerable kids who have low self-esteem. All the time that anorexia remains hidden within the sense of self, It makes their low self-esteem worse. It sets up a vicious cycle that’s very difficult to fight if anorexia has enmeshed itself in the person’s sense of self, and if they believe that Its critical thoughts are their own. Again, ask yourself these questions: How can you tell yourself to go away, and how can you fight yourself? The only way is to see anorexia as a separate entity, one that you can challenge and ultimately walk away from when you’ve improved your self-esteem.”
Bonnie’s dad says, “You make it sound like an alien invasion.”
Miss Tina laughs, and says, “I guess that’s a good way of looking at it. It’s only when you see anorexia as if it were an alien, one that’s trying to invade your body and feed off it like a parasite, that you can fight it.”
“You make it sound like a war,” Matt’s mom says, and I remember that’s what my dad said in our family session.
“I think it is like a war,” Miss Tina says. “It’s certainly the enemy. It helps me to think of it as being similar to Hitler’s Germany in World War Two. The German people were vulnerable after mass unemployment and depression and were susceptible to the promises Hitler made. They wanted to believe that their lives could be better, so they believed his promises, and as he fooled them, he became more and more powerful. Eventually they realized that he was an evil man, but he and his Nazis were too powerful for them to overthrow, so they avoided an all-out head-on fight but undermined him with pockets of resistance. This is what the war on anorexia is like. The voice of anorexia is incredibly powerful and an all-out fight may make anorexia polish Its arguments about why your child should try and be thinner than anyone else. Trust me, anorexia is exceptionally clever and manipulative. It knows exactly what buttons to press and how to hook your child back in. What we’ve taught the kids here at Beach Haven is how to be like one of those in the resistance movement of World War Two. We’ve given them tools to be able to walk away from anorexia. They know that anorexia is likely to always be around, waiting to prey on any left-over insecurities they may have, but they now have the choice as to whether they engage with anorexia or not.”
Miss Tina smiles at everyone, and says, “And this is where we need your help.”
“Anything,” several parents say. Mine do, too.
“One of the surest ways that anorexia has of hooking children back in is to whisper in their ear when you give them food. It says, ‘They’re trying to make you fat.’ Is that right, kids?”
“Yes,” we say together.
“What we’re going to do today is to look at your relationship with food, so that you can help join the resistance movement, and silence anorexia’s arguments,” Miss Tina says. “The fear of getting fat is one of the hardest things to deal with when battling against anorexia. Of course the kids don’t want to get fat… most of them have suffered at the hands of bullies for being fat, and it fills them with fear at the thought of being that vulnerable again. Obesity is bad for your health, and there’s no one here that would ever encourage a child to put on loads of weight.” She shakes her head, and I’m glad she’s said it out loud, because when I first got here, Edie told me that Miss Tina and Miss Cassie were out to make me fat again.
“What Miss Cassie does with the kids in her class is to turn cooking into an art form, where they reconnect with food and see it as life-giving and pleasurable, rather than something that’s disgusting and forbidden. At Beach Haven we don’t get into confrontations about eating food, nor do we get sucked into power games.”
I glance at Mom and we share a weird little smile, which tells me she knows that we both got sucked into power games at home when she was trying to force me to eat.
“We want the kids to reconnect with their bodies and to listen to what their bodies are telling them. These are our rules: If you are hungry, then eat, but only until you are satisfied. If you aren’t hungry, then don’t eat; wait until you are hungry. When you do eat, choose something that you like, something that will reawaken your taste buds, something you’ll want to eat and enjoy. Choose things to eat that are healthy. Eating should be pleasurable. It should be a social occasion, a time to share. There should be no animosity around the table. If you stick to these rules, no one will ‘get fat,’ but you will be healthy and happy.
“We’ve explained to your children that the human body is designed to store a little fat in order to stay warm and release energy, and this has been difficult for the kids to accept. They’ve heard anorexia tell them lies for a long time.” Miss Tina turns to us kids and says, “How many of you heard anorexia tell you that I was lying when I told you that your body has to store some fat? How many of you heard anorexia tell you that I was only trying to make you fat again?”
Most of us put up our hands and say, “Me.”
“I thought so,” she says. “Sneaky isn’t It.” Then she continues to talk to our parents. “The kids still struggle with this and battle against the distorted beliefs anorexia has given them about what constitutes being pretty or attractive. It’s an on-going battle and one that you can help with. Today Miss Cassie is going to help you learn how to cook different types of food, how to cook healthily and how to make food look colorful and appealing.
“Most of us learn our eating habits from our families. Some families eat a lot of fast food, others are vegetarians or eat a lot of carbohydrates. Some families always have dessert, others don’t. Sometimes feeding our families takes on a greater meaning.”
I look at Mom and smile. I feel proud of her for working through the fact that she equated the amount of food that she gave us with giving love. She smiles at me, too.
Miss Tina continues. “Today you’re going to learn some new habits, and as you do, you’re going to join the Anorexia Resistance Movement – the A.R.M. And with your strong A.R.M. you’re going to silence anorexia’s arguments that you are trying to fatten up your children.”
Miss Tina punches the air with her strong arm, and we do, too. “Yeah!”
Miss Cassie stands up, and says with a smile on her face, “Okay, off to war we go!”
We leave the room in a noisy mass and head for Miss Cassie’s classroom.