“That is the funny thing about paint. At the first cold splash of reality it washes away. And the surface you are trying cover is as ugly as ever.” —Jodi Picoult
In layman’s terms, a cognitive distortion is an extremely exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that perpetuates several different psychological disorders. It is commonly assumed that these distortions are at the heart of eating disorders. Personally, I disagree. Having an eating disorder, to me, is like painting over a picture that has already been created. The picture on the underside, the thing that is in the past, is ugly, but it’s covered up the incessant need to be “beautiful.” “Good enough.” “Thin.” Take away the paint, and that thing is still there. It hasn’t been dealt with; it hasn’t been destroyed. It still hurts. Festers.
It is always there when you look in the mirror.
A large portion of people who experience some type of eating disorder are perfectionists. Perfectionism is shown to be a fairly significant risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, and the levels of perfectionism tend to improve slightly when the person is in “recovery.” An article I read recently by Anna Bardone-Cone, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, stated that a fully recovered group of people largely resembled a non eating-disordered control group in terms of their perfectionism, while the partially recovered group more resembled those still in the full throes of their disorder.
This perfectionism can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from always having to do things right the first time to needing to earn straight A’s, to having to order your clothes a certain way. But the disorder isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about being thin. It’s about knowing that there is one thing left in your life that still belongs to you, one thing that you can still control. It’s about having the power to slowly disappear.
That is the only power you still wield.
Last semester, I took an amazing class in writing creative nonfiction. One of the last in class journals that we did was about body mapping. I was not thrilled with the assignment or the world itself that day, so I drew my “body” in the somewhat shape of a gingerbread character. Lumpy. Out of proportion. I’m fairly certain that the first thing people notice about me is how fat I am, I wrote. It’s certainly the first thing I notice about me—every day. I had a baby, but didn’t get to bring him home. I only brought home the fat.
I remember the first time I realized I was fat. I was eight and I was in the school lunchroom. I had a pink Barbie lunch-bag, and the Barbie had that skinny body and perfect yellow blonde hair that can only exist in Barbie-land. I had a sandwich and a banana. And maybe some sort of dessert. I don’t remember. But there was another girl at the lunch table who looked in my bag and said “You’re going to eat all that?” Rather than defy her, I walked to the trash bin and threw my entire lunch away.
Looking back now, I can see that the little girl in the lunchroom that day was jealous of my lunch box. That’s why she said the things she said. But it wasn’t so easy to see then. I lost myself in the mirror, in the desire to fade away. I remember a quote from the movie “Girl, Interrupted” based on the memoir by Susanna Kaysem, said by a girl with an eating disorder during expressive group therapy: “I don’t want to be a fucking tree. I want to be a bush!” I get her. All she wanted was to fade away, to disappear. Into the mirror.
I own a small panda bento box. I went on this weird tangent last year where I was coming up with weird stuff to put in it. For instance, one time I made spicy peanut noodles. Another time, I made japanese rice balls. It was a fun thing I did to keep myself entertained on really long days.
This semester, I haven’t brought it to school. I claim to be busy, that I have a meal plan, that I’m this, that I’m that. I wonder if I’m making excuses. If I’m slipping. I wonder. Do I have to wonder? Am I forgetting because I’m busy? Or am I forgetting because it’s the one thing I can remember to do? What does it mean? I notice I’ve been getting a large amount of food from my friends, and I wonder what they see. Do they see me? Or do they see the me in the mirror? Is it okay that I sometimes eat and sometimes don’t? This question seems important right now, and I’m not sure why. I feel like I’m forgetting. I worry that I’m lost.
I was a bit of a bitch in the throes of the disorder. I remember one particular conversation with my therapist in high school where she asked me to describe what an apple would taste like. I refused. “I don’t eat apples,” I informed her. “I don’t like the way they get stuck in my teeth.”
“Correction—you don’t eat anything.”
She offered me a choice then. Sour cream and onion chips, an apple, and a container of strawberry Yoplait yogurt. “Pick one,” she commanded. “You can’t until you do.”
“No.” I folded my arms stubbornly across my chest and met her gaze dead on.
She folded her own arms and leaned back in a replication of my position. “That’s fine. I can wait.”
That was a lie. She had other appointments; I was not her only patient. I got up off the couch I was settled on and snatched up the apple. “How do you know I won’t throw it out the first chance I get?” I was trying to be as big of a smart-ass as possible. Trying to save myself. Trying to hide how sorry I was that I let her down. I was certain I could live off of caffeine and potato chips alone.
I ask myself often whether I want victory, or I want escape. And are the two interchangeable? If my victory is graduating, then that is also when I will escape. But if my victory is simply surviving…my escape could come whenever. Does losing everything that I am mean giving up dreams too, as a side effect? I’m still here. Does that mean anything at all?
I am reinventing.
I spend my days pondering grad school, wondering if I’m good enough. Wondering if I will get in. Wondering if I can get them to like me. Wondering if I make myself the right fit. I sit in N’s office and eat candied orange peels and worry that I’m messing up my life. My GPA. These things I’ve graded that we’re working on. I’m terrified that I am wrong, always. That I will fail. That I am not the right fit for anything. Someone very wise told me that there is no right fit; I could be horrible and they won’t take me, but I could also be awesome and they still won’t take me. There’s no perfect formula for this, no solution. No easy way. I am juggling too many things, and it feels crushing sometimes. It’s devastating that I can’t be perfect all the time.
I am always apologizing.
I live off caffeine.
I run from the past things that I don’t think I can deal with.
I dream of that moment of victory, of escape.
I am always doing these things, everything I can possibly do, but I worry that they aren’t enough. I worry that I’m lost. I worry that I am trying to paint over the picture that is me; that I’m trying to cover up. Hide.
Is it okay to dream if you can never reach the dream? If the dream is way above you? Do we morph or evolve to fit our dreams? Or does life just happen; does it just destroy us? I believe that we make choices, when we are scared. And these choices are not always the right ones. Marya Hornbacher writes, “Never, never underestimate the power of desire. If you want to live badly enough, you can live. The great question, at least for me, was: How do I decide I want to live?”
How? That really is the ultimate question.
Disappearing into the mirror means a long road back and a painting I can’t afford to pay for.