Hello, my name is Melissa, and I am a recovered anorexic.
This is a part of my story that I haven’t talked about much in recent years because it doesn’t seem all that relevant to who I am now. However, I just read Portia de Rossi’s autobiography, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, and it reminded me very much of the person I was back then. I’ve tended to shy away from eating-disorder memoirs or autobiographical articles on the subject because I didn’t feel ready to revisit that time in my life, and I used to read them for tips, which I had to stop doing when I decided to be healthy. (I should add that if you are currently struggling with an eating disorder, you already know that you shouldn’t read this book. The book does not have a strong focus on recovery. I know you think it’s a good idea, and you may even fool people into believing that you’re reading it for help, but you know you’re not. Please reach out to someone who can actually help you and hold you accountable to yourself.) However, I loved Portia de Rossi on Arrested Development, and I was already familiar with her eating disorder from watching her over the years, so when I found Unbearable Lightness in the discount section at Barnes & Noble (sad, I know), I bought it.
As most people who’ve read it agree, I thought that it was a very well-written, very candid account of Ms. de Rossi’s personal struggle with anorexia and bulimia. There were two things that really struck me about her story. The first was that anorexia is really and truly a disease. While I was in the thick of my eating disorder, I felt very alone, like I was the only person in the world experiencing thoughts of despair, inadequacy, and hopelessness about myself and my body. Of course, I couldn’t actually talk to other girls with eating disorders who might have helped me make sense of my feelings because 1.) that would have been admitting that I had a problem, and 2.) it’s hard to talk to people with whom you are silently competing. However, reading this book was like reading my own story, minus the Hollywood fame and lesbianism. She and I shared the same thought patterns, eating habits (if you call that eating), the same deceptive techniques in trying to cover it up, the same pride in being a “good” anorexic, and the same shame in not being a good enough anorexic. At one point in the narrative, Ms. de Rossi marvels that someone could actually forget to eat. I remember having that same bewildered thought: How could someone not think about what they’d eaten or were going to eat? It’s all I thought about.
The other thing that struck me about her autobiography was that she chose to write only about her time as an anorexic. Anorexia defines you while you’re going through it. You put your pathology on display as an emaciated person for everyone, but you, to see. So, for a long time she was one of several eating-disordered actresses who garnered a lot of attention for being so thin. (And trust me, being told you’re too thin is not a bad thing to an anorexic.) It’s what defined her. And it made me sad that she continues to define herself by her eating disorder, even if she talks about it in the past tense. I understand that she was writing a book, and publishers need to make money. Perhaps she, and maybe her publisher, thought that talking about her eating disorder would sell. Perhaps she thought that it was the most interesting part of her life. Having experienced the wit, humor, and depth of her writing, I doubt that it is.
I used to believe “once an anorexic, always an anorexic,” but I don’t subscribe to that philosophy any longer. Of course, it would be disingenuous to say that my eating disorder hasn’t affected who I am. I still self-identify as a slim person. However, I have maintained a healthy weight for about 15 years now. There is a five-pound weight range where I am comfortable, and I eat a healthful diet and exercise to keep myself there. I believe my vegetarianism may have been incited by a need to eliminate food groups, but it too has grown and evolved over the years. My reasons for being vegetarian are more healthfully and morally focused these days. When I was pregnant with Scarlett, I read horror stories of women who, afraid of weight gain, didn’t eat enough, and their babies suffered terrible neurological problems. The first doctor I saw shrugged his shoulders and told me to eat whatever I wanted when I asked him about diet. This was not helpful. Because I was so afraid of under-eating, I overate. When I switched to my midwife halfway through my pregnancy, she gave me a structured diet that helped me stabilize my weight gain. Structure, though not too much structure, helps me best to stay balanced.
My name is Melissa, and I am a recovered anorexic. I know this because sometimes I forget to eat. But I’m not afraid to.