THE GIRL WHO DID NOT EAT – “ANOREXIA” AS EMANCIPATION
She is 13, and there is nothing in her life that makes sense. She is both terrified and doesn’t care anymore. People come and go, places shift. She has already invented herself hundreds of times, nothing helps. No one helps. No one sees. No one cares.
She already hates herself intensely. She is growing, growing into a woman. A woman, like her mother. A mother she hates as intensely as she hates herself. But she is also the mother she wants to be, to have the power she has. Power to make it all stop. But also, the mother she never wants to become like. Angry, cruel, selfish, arrogant, judgmental, cold, with a body that demands.
She can’t do it anymore. She has nothing left in her. There is nobody in her anymore and she just waits. For the final blow. Then it all will be over. She does not long for it, but she does not care much either. A part of her is scared. How long will it take? Which day will it be?
A small part of her carries on. While most of her just goes through the daily motions. Get dressed, go to school, talk, live in the disgusting body, go to bed. Repeat. A small part of her still smiles. Makes up stories, even finds a new friend. A friend who unintentionally teaches her she can escape even further into herself by not eating. And suddenly she has something that is hers. To “not eat” becomes her everything. It soothes her and numbs her. She can use it to structure her days. To punish herself. It makes her shrink, she becomes smaller again, less womanly, but more childlike and pretty. She feels like she has a secret weapon. Like she suddenly has a “no”. But also, as she has a medicine and a cure. Not eating makes her feel even less. At the same time as it makes her feel invincible. Now, no one can touch her – no matter how much they touch her.
Not eating becomes her friend and protector. But also, her advocate and agency. NO. I will not eat. Only what I decide is okay. She also gets a purpose. To make sure nobody knows about her secret weapon. She is very inventive in making food disappear. In having excuses to not eat.
Suddenly she has a shard of control. First, she does not understand that she has started a war. Or that in doing so she will be saved (for a while). She does not know what she is doing. She has no plan. She does not even know she is making choices.
Eating and food have always been loaded in her “family”. There are rules around it, and she has her own. But up till now she has been eating, never seen that she could just refuse. Now, “not eating” shows her the way.
The longer she does not eat, the weaker she gets. She loses a lot of weight, but nobody seems to notice. So, her weapon works, it is still a secret weapon.
But it does bring new problems. She gets awfully tired. She likes that. That her body is as tired as her mind. It feels appropriate. But in school they start to notice. She is too tired to sit up properly in her desk. Too tired to go outside. Too tired to follow what is taught and she falls behind. Too tired to brush her hair, too tired to even care about the slurs around her. And she starts to faint. She likes how the whole world also between the faintings get dizzy and fuzzy. Less sharp in its edges. Softer. It even takes away some of the fear.
Eventually she is sent off to the school counselor, the school nurse, then to hospital. And she is out! Out of the “home”. And maybe this is the solution? As long as she does not eat – she will not be sent back. But why do they all want her to go back, despite she is telling them all she cannot, will not go back? Do they want her to die? Can’t they see she is saving herself by not eating? That she speaks through her body? That not eating is a language they need to decipher with her? But no. They all focus on getting her to eat – and when she does, the immediately start talking about “going home”. Resuming her life.
As if that was possible.
How come they do not understand this is all she has? When she eats and they want to send her “home”, she feels betrayed. Not that she trusts them. She did have hope of getting help the first few days, but when she understood nothing would take place without her parents, and that they cooperated between them, she knew. This was a war she was alone in. As always. Nothing had changed. Adults against children. She did not matter. What she said did not matter. As long as she behaved like a “normal” child, nothing else mattered. Not even if she was alive.
The only weapon she had in the beginning was “not eating”. This would continue to be a weapon and a solution for many more years to come. But slowly she learned about more weapons. Everything that she could refuse, would keep her away from being sent “home”. So, she yet again she became the child she needed to become, to help herself.
In her learning period of becoming the defiant child, she also found out how much she could do to herself, without feeling much. Except the fear and the shame.
And from there, the list got long, of everything that was wrong with her.
She went from having been invisible to becoming a visibly disturbed and disordered child. But it did keep her alive.
And she was so receptive. She paid close attention to her environment and what everyone did in it, this has saved her so many times before (did not always spare her but kept her alive). Her repertoire of disturbed behaviors just kept on growing.
A child does what it has to do. She was a survivor and knew how to hide what needed to be hidden and be what was asked of her to be.
What if she had met someone who had taken the time to hear this language of behaviors? Helped her sort out what was genuinely her behaviors, adaptive behaviors? Who did not only spend time with her to categorize and diagnose her? Would she ever recognize if someone did? What language would they have to speak for her to hear them? What would be needed for her to stop fighting this war? To trust that the one in front of her would not harm her?
Everything is language – and what seems to be destructive and bad to you – fills a function. Says something.
As the adult I am now – I am “out of there”. I can voice myself. I have words. Which I put on paper. For me to share. For you to read. And hopefully – for you to see that nothing is as simple as it seems. People are not categories, not labels, not diagnoses. They are humans trying to solve problems, with the tools, knowledge, agency and – trust – that they have.
Did I have Anorexia? (A “disorder” I have almost died from, several times) – does anyone have Anorexia – is it even a disorder? Or is it “just” language? And problem solving? A paradoxical way to make sure one lives? The story of Anorexia would be different for each individual who have used starvation as a solution. You really need to be a “polyglot” (speak many languages) – to hear their stories. Because I am sure everyone has one. It might not be trauma and abuse in the common sense, but again, it might be. It might be a story of everything from not feeling good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, normal enough to “protection” from further abuse, or to stay small to keep on being “loved”, or a refusal to continue to grow up and take on generations of trauma.
As I see it – Anorexia is not one “disorder”. It is just a way to express yourself. Then the starvation in itself messes with you. But the reason people starve themselves are as many and individual as the people doing it. Each story of starvation is unique.
What would be clearer than to speak with your body? And your behaviors?
My most “anorexic” teenager me – wanted to be like an exclamation mark – to poke everyone in their eyes – so they would have to open their eyes and see. See how children get sexually abused and get no support, no care, no nothing. Just a diagnose and people who cannot hear them. Like that would solve any problems at all. That eating would be the answer. If she did eat – nobody would listen to her anymore. That felt like a purpose to her. To be the reminder. And yes. She was angry. Why would people not listen?
I often ask myself – am I (was I) really the dissociative one? It often feels like my surroundings are more dissociative than I am. We live in a dissociated society – many do not want to hear, see, understand, acknowledge what being sexually abused growing up does to you. Many simply do not want to know about it. I did not have any other language than starvation, at the time I learned to starve myself. But I did speak, with it. It kept me alive, but I could not make myself understood. I and my experiences of abuse was still locked inside of me. Not that I had forgotten it – but I had no words, and no trust.
Not anymore. Now I speak freely. Now I trust, also myself.
Listen to the behavior. Learn to listen beyond words. Learn to speak wordlessly. Learn to be patient. Learn to open up for other ways of communicating and help to put words (gently, carefully) to stories coming from the body, from behavior (also spoken behavior). Do not shame. Do not demand obedience and control. Do not take what comes out personally. Dare to stay and listen. Find ways to support.
Whatever the story is, the reason behind a behavior – it needs to be heard, respected for its wisdom. And not pathologized. Pathologizing is counter productive and will just cement status quo.
In a way – “Anorexia” was the beginning of my way out of abuse. If I had not starved myself, and the school had not noticed, I don’t think I would have been here today. I did “speak” clearly enough to shift my own fate.
PS. I keep on calling her “Anorexia” here, it is not her real name, but I deal with one thing at a time. When the time is right for me, I will talk about how dissociation was something else that saved me.
Text and picture are copyright protected. © Katarina Lundgren, 2022