Eating Disorders And The Fear Of The Ordinary
In graduate school, we have this thing we call “imposter syndrome” — the gnawing fear that you don’t really belong there, that you don’t have what it takes, that you somehow slipped through the cracks in the admissions process and are actually an intellectual embarrassment, an incompetent fraud who knows jack-all about anything — and that sooner or later, like the Wizard of Oz, you will be found out and exposed for the humbug you really are.
This phenomenon is one that the eating-disordered are all too familiar with. Only in our case, of course, the fear is broader and more all-encompassing: we fear we are imposters at life; that in some generalized galactic sense, we don’t really belong. Moreover, we, like the tearful first-year graduate student, are horribly afraid that somewhere along the line somebody will figure this out. We are convinced in the teeth of the evidence that there is something fundamentally flawed about us, something that needs fixing and yet is unfixable. We believe ourselves a race of unique fuck-ups set apart from ordinary men, and so we erect walls that make Mr. Gorbachev’s look like a monument of Tinker-Toys. Ironically, the whole thing is a crude sort of megalomania: we think we are so damn special that we should be sequestered in some sort of leper colony for the unfit to live. It’s miserable, sure, but it’s also seductive.
Much has been written about how girls with eating disorders tend to be drawn from the ranks of the best and brightest. We are, if we are to believe the literature, an exceptionally savvy and intelligent bunch, abnormally intuitive and introspective, hyperaware of ourselves and our surroundings, and gifted with uncanny insight into what makes people tick. This is all unfortunately true. And it only reinforces our twisted sense of reverse-entitlement, enabling us to crow with confidence, See? I really am Different. I’m a Woman of Mystery. I Have Scars. You Don’t Get Me. Exit Stage Left, Asshole. The message we project is unmistakable: you will never understand why I am the way I am, so don’t even bother. Most of us lack the impetus to recover because — although we would rather snort barbed wire than admit it — we like our self-imposed exile. We wallow in it. It’s fascinating, even orgasmic. “You belong in a Graham Greene novel,” a friend in college once told me. “You’re too fragile for real life. You belong memorialized in pen and ink where you can’t do any real harm to yourself.” I — perversely — insisted on taking this as a compliment, as confirmation of my Otherness, which only goes to show that at the end of the day, most of us would rather be screwed up than happy. Happy is boring. Happy is passé. Happy is for lesser mortals. Give me misery or give me death.
Don’t get me wrong — most of us have legitimate scars. Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina — that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way — is equally true of the eating-disordered. No two stories are alike. Some of us were abandoned or neglected. Some of us were sexually abused. Some of us were victims of domestic violence, children of alcoholics, survivors of mental illness, or pawns in parental divorce. All of us were ravaged by relationship carnage of one kind or another. We’ve trekked through hell and pushed the outer limits of what the human spirit can bear. Nobody’s disputing that. Something precipitates that first momentous decision to forego dessert and starve yourself dizzy. From the moment you stick your fingers down your throat and puke till you see blood, the handwriting is on the vomit-spattered wall: something is not right. Normal people don’t subject their bodies to unspeakable torture just for the hell of it. Slow suicide just isn’t on their radar. They get their kicks elsewhere. So it’s safe to say that you’ve got to have more issues than National Geographic to put yourself through that kind of hell on purpose.
But the trouble with scars is that eventually you start wearing them like a badge of honor. Like Hooper and Captain Quint in that scene in Jaws right before the shark shows up, you strip off your shirt and swap stories about them in a spirit of gleeful one-upmanship. You take perverse and inexplicable pride in those scars; they validate you, comfort you, prove something to yourself. You throw a gaggle of eating-disordered girls together in a room and guaranteed, the conversation will turn into a macabre game of Whose Life is the Most Messed Up, Anyway? in thirty seconds or less. I’ve seen it. I’ve played it. I’ve won it. If you can call it winning.
And the really ludicrous thing is that we think it makes us special. Those of us with eating disorders have gone to absurd lengths to distance ourselves from the ordinary run of humanity. We’ve felt alone and out-of-place our entire lives; we’ve kicked and screamed and flailed to no avail. And so, predictably, like the kid who’s run out of steam after a temper tantrum, we have given up and gone limp on the kitchen floor. If you’re doomed to be alone, might as well be alone with panache. Might as well give up the fight and revel in the aloneness.
But what’s so funny about this whole self-fulfilling prophecy is that we aren’t really alone, and our methods aren’t really as terribly original as we’d like to think they are. The statistics don’t lie: there are eight million eating disorder sufferers strong in this country alone, each and every one of us absolutely convinced that we are unlike all the others, that we are somehow Extraordinary.
Extraordinary. What does that even mean?
I’m always reminded of the Mena Suvari character in American Beauty, whose most fervent wish is to be thought extraordinary and whose most crippling fear is fear of the ordinary. In an ironic twist of fate, however, it is her very self-destructive impulses to act out and impress others with her “extraordinariness” that ultimately reduce her to being flat, dull, prosaic — shrinking her soul to something small and mean and ordinary.
Those of us with eating disorders have known, intimately and oppressively, the fear of the ordinary. It was never enough, growing up, to be merely yourself, precious and unique, loved and lovable, unique, unrepeatable, irreducible. Nobody ever told you you were any of those things. The pressure was always on, and the external and internal compulsions to be Something, to be Great, to be Extraordinary, were both ubiquitous and unbearable. In our unceasing efforts to impress our parents, our friends, our enemies, to prove ourselves worthy of love, we got straight A’s, were valedictorians and salutatorians, graduated summa cum laude, danced through the hallways of academia with self-promoting narcissism masking the self-loathing lurking just beneath. We became great students, writers, actresses, singers, dancers, athletes. We lusted after elusive perfection, seeking with an insatiable and hellish desire to be the best, the brightest, the prettiest, the wittiest, the smartest, the sexiest — all embodied in being the Thinnest — whatever the cost. Eventually, we lost ourselves in the process, turning violently upon our own person, destroying our very selves in our desire to obliterate the imperfect bits. Embracing imperfection is still a near-impossible task for most of us. But it’s time we recognized that chasing the extraordinary is what almost killed us in the first place.
What is all this “extraordinary” nonsense, anyway? Cosmically speaking, what kind of achievement is it to be the thinnest woman in the room? Does that really make you extraordinary? Or, like Mena Suvari in American Beauty, does it only serve to make you pathetic? If your greatest achievement in life is a weight in the two digits or the ability to shimmy into a pair of size zero-jeans — if the only impact you have made on the world when you die of cardiac arrest at age twenty-five is that they play James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” at your funeral and everybody cries and they emblazon across your tombstone the dubious distinction “She Was Thin” — if the world remembers you not for the size of your heart but for the size of your waistline — then I would venture so far as to say your entire life has been in vain, has been — dare I say it — ordinary.
It’s time we reevaluated and redefined what it means to be extraordinary, because clearly, what we’ve been doing all these years isn’t it. In her Pulitzer-nominated memoir Wasted, Marya Hornbacher writes, “My entire identity-being was wrapped up in (1) my ability to starve and (2) my intellect. I had a complete identity crisis when I realized neither of these was impressing anyone.” I think many of us have undergone a similar crisis in the long, slow, painful process of recovery, but it’s about time we understood, like Marya Hornbacher eventually came to realize in treatment, that we are “actually good at something other than starving and puking,” that, in her words:
“It was entirely unoriginal to be starving to death. Everyone was doing it. It was, as a friend would later put it, totally passé. Totally 1980s. I decided to be something slightly less Vogue.”
So be a real rugged individualist.
Do something really innovative and cutting-edge.
Try something really extraordinary.
Stop hating yourself.
Love other people.
I’m not extraordinary, and I’ve nearly killed myself trying to be — but what I am is perfectly imperfect. That’s what I have to offer this world — and that’s fine by me.
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