Recovery, Honesty, Shame and True Self

Last night I had the pleasure of talking about recovery at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. There was a good turnout and I was mightily impressed by the students who asked such great questions about eating disorders, recovery and other related topics. They really made me think! Usually, I talk about Purge from a writer’s perspective, but last night I talked about my eating disorder and recovery in a very personal way that I haven’t done before. It was a positive experience and it made me think about a lot of things.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the concept of “true self” and honesty in terms of recovery. I’ve been dredging through some old emails, journals and writings. Someone who is very special to me wrote me a lovely card and letter that I’m going to quote a bit of here:

“…When you are honest and direct you can reach a place within self and others that is immensely powerful. My hope for you is that you can live that honesty daily, not just at sporadic times. And through being accepted as your honest self, you can heal.”

This was written in the fall of 2004, when I was struggling post-treatment. I always got the general of gist of what this person was talking about, and I was touched by her taking the time to share this. It means a lot to me. Yesterday, I really got what she meant though.

Yesterday, at Augsburg, I was open and honest about my recovery and I believe that within that honesty, I was able to reach beyond myself and reach others. Honesty is powerful. I wasn’t talking about eating disorders and recovery in the abstract; I was talking about my own personal journey in a way I don’t think I would’ve been able to talk about until recently. It is easy enough to do a reading, answer some questions and sign some books. But, to actually talk candidly and directly about my own experience is something different. It was more emotional, and in some ways, more powerful than just doing a reading. Being that honest took a type of emotional bravery that I wasn’t sure I possessed.

Here I am, all of me.

How incredibly vulnerable is that?

I used to cringe and blush beet-red whenever someone asked me what my book was about, but now I can look them in the eye and tell them in a straightforward manner. I own my story. I have lost my sense of shame surrounding my eating disorder. And shedding that shame has allowed me to reach others in a way I haven’t before. I am also able to reflect on my experience with EDNOS in a different way, unhindered by shame. I am able to own my experience, all of it, even the ugliest parts.

Living honestly, for me, includes being myself, not trying to please others or win the approval of other people. It is a hard way to live, but it is rewarding, being true to oneself. For a long time I tried to shove myself into a box structured by the expectations of other people and it was miserable. I am so much freer now.

Being my true self has helped me heal. I will always have a fear of rejection and vulnerability (If I show my true self to someone, will I be too much (or too little) for them?), but I am learning to overcome it. It’s not easy, and I haven’t perfected the art of living as my true self (it’s a process), but I’m trying.

By being honest last night, I showed others that it is okay to be honest and share their true selves, that they do not have to hide, if even only for a little while. I found that I am steadier and stronger than I previously thought I was, and that I am now in a place where I am living in an honest way most of the time, and now, I am ready to share this with others and help them find this honesty for themselves.

Living in an honest way and being accepted as my true self has gone a long way toward healing. I encourage everyone to think about what it means to live honestly and be your true self.


I've seen a review on Amazon that's similar to your comments above, and I find both that review and your comments disturbing enough that I have to respond to them. Underlying both of these seems to be some implication that a book can somehow direct or control one’s actions or behaviors. I find that idea absurd. Your reaction to or interpretation of any book is something that comes from within you. A book is not a sentient thing or mystical talisman, compelling you to behave in certain ways–it is someone else’s story, someone else’s experience, neither something that a reader can appropriate to accurately define his or her own reality nor something that can appropriate the reader’s life and experience for itself. You don’t take things from it; you bring things to a book–your own experiences, your own tendencies, your own beliefs. It’s a powerful story, yes–you even say so yourself (“At first, when I read it, I was captivated by your story”)–but it can’t force you to do anything or behave in a certain way; that’s not the kind of power it has. You say that at some point the book changed for you, but your tone seems to imply that it held the power to somehow betray you. I’m curious to know what that was, why that happened, why you started looking at the book as “nothing more than a manual of how to get away with things at the EDC.” I have trouble seeing how that’s some fault of the book rather than a shift in your interpretation of it. And if your interpretation did shift, no problem; no one could find fault with that. But if your interpretation shifted, how does it make any sense to blame or belittle the book? I, too, was captivated by her story, but I remained captivated by it throughout. Contrary to your claim about its readership, I am not an “extremely sick girl”–I’m male, and have never had an eating disorder or been in treatment. How, then, is that possible if this book is “nothing more than a manual of how to get away with things at the EDC?” Your statement–about the book being a 270-page treatment cheat sheet–is both wildly inaccurate and, I would think, a profound insult to the writer.

But most importantly, look at the book as a whole, which you must do if you’re going to make any kind of claim about it. You seem to forget the fact that it is a story of recovery. At the end of the book, the author is no longer engaging in eating disordered behaviors, is no longer trying to “get away with” bingeing and purging. It’s a story of her work to END her eating disorder, not maintain it. So when you say at the end of your comments that you have "witnessed many girls carry around your book as their eating disorder bible, and use its chapters to find more ways to stay sick, and more specifically, how to stay sick while at Rogers," what you're actually saying is that people are literally ignoring the majority of the book and taking it upon themselves to use certain parts of it for their own purposes–not as a bona fide story of successful recovery from an eating disorder, but only as a way to maintain their own disorders at the time. It’s deeply tragic, but the fact of the matter is that they are seeking it out, interpreting it for themselves, and taking it out of context. The book did not make them do that. The book cannot make them do that. And besides, who needs a book to tell them how to get away with these things? From what I read, it’s really not that hard to figure out. The author herself didn’t need a book to explain it to her. In fact, you literally say that THEY are the ones who “use its chapters to find more ways to stay sick, and more specifically, how to stay sick while at Rogers.” How is that the author's fault? How is that her responsibility? She has no control over what other people choose to do, consciously or unconsciously.


continued from above…

Look at the facts: The author herself did NOT "stay sick at Rogers." On the contrary, she did the OPPOSITE–she got into recovery, to a point where she is no longer sick. One could just as easily use that aspect of the book, the author’s recovery, as his or her “manual” at Rogers. Why don’t these girls do that? It’s all right there in black and white, just as available to them as the parts of the story that they do use. If that were the case, if they did use that positive side of the story, would you still be upset about it? Would you then be able to see that it’s not the book encouraging these girls to flout the guidelines of treatment, but the girls themselves? How do you know that nobody has used the book in this way? And true, that would be taking her recovery out of context, as well. But the choice to use only the positive side of this story–even out of context–would be a step toward recovery. The choice to use only the negative sides–again, out of context–is a step toward remaining entrenched in the disorder. Someone is making that choice, consciously or unconsciously, and it’s neither the book nor its author. They literally, physically can’t make that choice for anyone else. They don’t have that power. Tragic as these girls’ use of Purge is, you have no right to berate its author or blame her for the choices that those girls make. You also have no right to characterize her book as solely a cheat sheet, speaking logically or ethically. By doing so, you yourself choose to ignore the fact of her recovery, the positive end of this story. Why is it that you’re not trying to impress upon others the need to see that positive side of the story? If you know how bad it is for people to use the book as a manual on maintaining their eating disorders, and you acknowledge that they are the ones making the choice to use the book as such, why are you calling for the book to be banned instead of voicing your wish that people use the book as it’s intended? Logically speaking, by definition, a “manual” on how to maintain an eating disorder through subterfuge and manipulation is not likely to include information about how the writer was able to end the disorder. One doesn’t glamorize things by uncovering the disordered thinking behind them, which is exactly what this book does.

I also have a lot of trouble understanding the notion that the book “glamorizes” her eating disorder. I’m not even sure I understand what that means. If you’re finding graphic descriptions of barfing and emotional torture glamorous, it would seem to me to have much more to do with your state of mind at the time than with the book itself (again, your interpretation). I know that phenomenon is likely a part of the disorder itself. The one-upsmanship and finding of meaning in pain that often occurs among those of us with eating, mood, and other disorders (mine is depression/anxiety, thanks for asking) can seem glamorous to the disordered person him or herself. But isn’t the very fact that it’s a disordered mind that’s finding glamour in something as horrifying and troubling as this writer’s experience evidence that the story itself is not glamorous?

As for your opinion that the book should be banned, I’m gonna go ahead and assume that was a joke.

I find it really sad that you ended up so angry about this book and at its writer. It’s really too bad, because there’s an enormous amount of hope and honesty to be found in its pages. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a real story. And perhaps that’s why it’s threatening.

Best of luck to you.