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. In an interview style format, I had the opportunity to chat with Elena about her story and published memoir.
Question 1: The way you describe it, anorexia nervosa doesn’t seem to be all about ‘being skinny’ but rather, on a deeper level, it’s more of an issue of needing to feel in control at all times, extending far beyond just the person’s relationship with food. Do you think this is a correct assessment?
That’s a very good way of describing a lot of the motivation driving many people who suffer from eating disorders. It isn’t about being skinny, it’s about the control. There is a significant link between traumatic experiences and eating disorders, and much of the pain of trauma comes from a loss of control. This causes many victims to engage in a negative relationship with food because it is something that can be controlled when everything around them seems to be in a complete spiral.
Many anorexics I have had the honor to meet have been very open about the fact that they know severe eating disorders make a person look unattractive. Rather than equate anorexia to dieting to achieve a look or a size, I would equate it to another addiction, like alcohol or drugs. Both anorexia and those addictions allow a person to disconnect from how he or she is really feeling and separate himself or herself from the terror and grief that comes from being a trauma victim.
This is why eating disorders need to be taken seriously and caught early. People need to realize there is no perfect weight or goal in the minds of those suffering from anorexia. Rather, they restrict food to feel the numbing effect that starvation brings, and the complete focus on food distracts them from the real source of their pain. Unless help is given, the end result often is death.
Question 2: While in therapy, you formed friendships with several different young women who also suffered from eating disorders. How would you say those friendships have affected your recovery?
Anyone who is going through an unusual experience benefits from relationships with people who are able to relate. I was very lucky to have a group I call on for advice and comfort; it helped to break through the anorexic mentality, which is very isolating and frightening.
The friendships in the treatment centers were closely monitored by the staff. There were many points when I allowed myself to sabotage my recovery to stay on an equal footing with anorexic friends I had made, and eventually, I had to learn to distance myself from those who were in a negative place.
It was a beautiful thing to meet people who were like me, but at the same time it was very hard to see some of them slip back and ultimately pass away from the disorder. The most important thing was to learn how to separate friendship from care-taking, to allow each woman to walk her own path, and to seek out the ones who had reached a place of being fully dedicated to recovery.
Question 3: You experienced several grim life events that combined to escalate the severity of your anorexia. How have you learned to deal with the memories of those events in a healthy way?
I realize the best way I have learned to deal with those memories is to be open and have a group of supportive people who are there to listen and help me work through those moments.
I think the best advice I have come to accept and can also give is this: there is no time limit on how long those memories will affect you. It could be years or even decades, and they will be as painful as the day the trauma happened. Never feel that you should have moved on by now or that you are just repeating yourself again and again.
I have a specific journal where I write down how I am feeling while recalling a traumatic event, and many times I write the same entry over and over. That is ok. Trauma stays fresh, and learning how to cope in the moments as they come to the surface is what is important. My therapist has never told me to move on, but instead to learn how to live with those moments and memories. For years, I would try to push them down and deny the effect they had on my life. Allowing moments of grief and staying in the present has been incredibly helpful.
Question 4: What do you believe was the turning point on your road to recovery? What has been your proudest moment?
I think it was a culmination of many years of therapy and an open relationship with my family and friends. It took a long time for the physical effects to really improve and an even longer time to allow myself to be open and trusting in therapy.
Becoming more in tune with my body’s abilities and realizing the limitations I was placing on myself through my relationship with food was eye-opening. And it was not, and still is not, a linear path. As a very dear friend said to me, “I am always three days away from loving starvation again.” That is the mantra I live by right now. I stay hyper-vigilant about my current mental state, and I put in a lot of work to create checks and balances for myself. I keep a food diary for every meal, and I have meal plans in place to prevent myself from sabotaging my own recovery.
My proudest moment came last year, when my five-year-old niece started hugging and cuddling up to me all the time. When I asked her why, she said, “Because, Aunt Lanie, you are softer now. You feel good to hug.” I cried and hugged her as hard as I could. I want to be there as an active part of the beautiful lives around me, and that was a lovely affirmation that I was on the right path. I still hold that memory very close to me and use it to help me on days that are tougher than others.
Question 5: Throughout your memoir, your relationship with your mother was rocky and tense. How has writing this book with her affected your relationship and your healing process?
Writing the book was one of the best things we could have done for our relationship. We decided we would be completely open and honest during the writing process, and that allowed us to revisit moments that had been hurtful and painful and talk those out in a way that brought us to a healthy place. We joke that it was the best form of therapy we could have ever had, but no joking, it was wonderful. Even though the process of writing was very hard, it was worth it to come together and work through a lot of that pain in a safe way.
I learned how strong my mother was in her ability to walk with me through very painful parts of my life, and how non-judgmental she truly is when learning about mistakes I had made. It gave me a new respect for her and helped me to appreciate her part in my recovery. I am very proud of the success of both of us.
Question 6: Around the world, the number of ‘body positive’ campaigns is growing. These campaigns encourage young women to embrace their own unique beauty, regardless of their shape or size. How do you think you would have reacted to these campaigns while in therapy and how do you feel about these campaigns today?
I think I would have reacted the same way as I do right now. The campaigns make me very uneasy. There is a very strong medical link between weight and health. I would not have benefited if anyone had come to me and told me, at my lowest weight and very near death, that I was perfect the way I was.
I reached a point where I was so close to death my parents were afraid to come wake me up in the morning. They were afraid they would find I had died in my sleep. And yet, it was when I was most comfortable and happy in my own skin. So, even though it sounds very empowering, it can be a very dangerous to say everyone deserves the right to decide what his or her body should look like. If that right had been given to me, I would be dead.
I believe there should be less pressure to conform to generic beauty stereotypes. Factors such as stress, trauma, or being raised with an unhealthy relationship to food can be very detrimental to health. We should have more education campaigns that stress the need for both health and happiness. Praising beauty at any size can be a very short-sighted solution to a very serious problem.
My parents and doctors all showed a great amount of tough love to me. While they didn’t humiliate me, they certainly didn’t affirm that I was beautiful when I was an unrecovered anorexic. That tough love was hurtful at the time, but it saved my life, without a doubt. I have never been more thankful for their honesty and their concern of my wellbeing.
I think it is important to be body-positive while also understanding how fragile and sensitive one’s body is.
Question 7: In your book, you share scathing thoughts from your ‘critical voice’ . Is this voice something that many people with eating disorders struggle to control? How did you finally learn to ignore and/or stop it?
I remember my therapist telling me never to expect the critical voice to go away, but to focus on living my life in spite of it. The voice is still there, and I think it is something many people with eating disorders and other addictions struggle with for their entire lives.
Just as long-term recovering alcoholics still refer to themselves as alcoholics, I still refer to myself as an anorexic. I am always in the process of recovery, and some days are as bad as they were when I was in the worst stage of my eating disorder. I have learned many coping skills to work around the negativity. I let those thoughts and criticism speak and then sit down and logically work through those thoughts to find their source. It is very difficult, and it is still a step-by-step process. I have been able to build up a good support network that lets me turn to others when I need help.
Question 8: Today, you work as a nurse in a hospital. How does it feel to know you’ve reached your career goals? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What else do you hope to accomplish?
The biggest thing I have learned through my process of recovery is not to focus solely on goals but to live in the present. For a very long time, I was so afraid of the past that I missed my present by focusing on the future.
I hope to see myself in ten years still being as open and vocal about my experiences with trauma and anorexia. I do hope to spread more understanding and awareness of the long-term devastation anorexia can cause. I hope to look at each day as a gift. I am very happy with the person. I hope to continue to pay back those around me who supported me during difficult years through being a stable and trustworthy person whom they can turn to in difficult life circumstances. I hope that in 10 years, I have not taken a single day for granted.
Question 9: What advice would you give to young girls who suffer from eating disorders?
Whenever I am asked this question, I close my eyes and picture myself as a little girl. Geeky, big glasses, scared, defiant, and utterly unprepared to take on anorexia. I wish I would have had someone say to me: Get help. Reach out. Nothing you have done, no matter how ashamed or how scared you are, is worth closing yourself off. Find a way to start battling your eating disorder now so you have a better chance of not damaging your body too drastically.
Eating disorders are traumatizing, isolating, and utterly terrifying. There are many of us suffering from eating disorders, and many of us who have survived trauma and pulled ourselves out of that darkness and paralyzing fear. You are not alone, even if you think you are.
In the last six years, I have met and loved and lost twenty-four beautiful friends to their eating disorders—through suicides, comas, heart attacks, ruptured esophaguses, their bodies gave up the fight. Twenty-four souls from the ages of nine years old to sixty-seven, men and women, boys and girls, with families, careers, talents, and a lot to give the world that now will never be given.
Eating disorders are incredibly dangerous. Even though in the short term, they seem to bring relief, they will bring a tsunami of pain to you and those around you. It is so vital to realize that you cannot have a little bit of an eating disorder in your life. It will take over and not stop growing until it is too big to extinguish.
Please, do whatever you need to do to get help.