This Ain't My First Rodeo: How Dr. Phil Got Anorexia Wrong

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This post was originally published on my personal blog, Surrender, Dorothy. I appreciate any help you can provide to share this message with a broader audience. The misinformation about anorexia needs to stop.

My DVR contains a little Dr. Phil. I'm particularly obsessed with the eating disorder shows, having recovered from anorexia and bulimia about ten years ago. Last week, Dr. Phil interviewed two families with 26-year-old anorexics.

Dr. Phil got Meagan, a 26-year-old anorexic, in his chair, and he basically read her the riot act.

It's the same thing he did to 26-year-old Jennifer a while back. Jennifer left treatment.

How's that working for you, Dr. Phil?

You've got it wrong. You have clearly never suffered from anorexia. I'm going to set the record straight.

You're right. Anorexia is a serious mental illness. Accusing an anorexic of being manipulative and controlling of her family hands the reins back over to her disease. Telling her she's tearing her family apart pushes her back to the chaos of her own mind.

Chastising an anorexic works about as well as telling your teenaged Juliet not to take Romeo to the prom. You never made Romeo look better until you told her he was bad news.

This summer I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg, a severe schizophrenic who recovered with the help of therapist Dr. Fried. Dr. Fried helped Deborah Blau, Greenberg's doppelganger, see that the kingdom of Yr was a creation of her own mind. I thought for a long time after reading the book that Dr. Fried could have helped me: She convinced Deborah that Yr was a creation of her own doing. And that is what anorexia is.

An anorexic truly believes that different rules apply to her than apply to the rest of the world. An anorexic -- no matter how she got there -- has created an alternate reality for herself, one in which she can't eat normally, she isn't allowed  to eat normally. Anorexics are not pleased with these rules. They are infuriated by them. I was. I wore my anger like a shield. And anyone who tried to change my behavior bounced off that shield like paper arrows.

What worked, what finally worked, was realizing that I myself had created that alternate reality, that kingdom of Yr. I had created those rules. 

Anorexic-rita

Me at my senior prom. Probably around 30 pounds underweight.  Heart palpitations.

Just as no one else in my life really gives a shit whether or not I ever publish another word, no one in my life cared if I gained weight once I was healthy -- except me.

I was the enemy. Not them.

But the way to make an anorexic see that is not to come down on her, to bash into her head in about how much she is hurting those around her. No good person wants to see their loved ones hurt. But anorexics live in their heads -- they can't fathom the hurt around them because they don't see an alternative. The rules won't bend, no matter how much they hurt anyone else. The way to combat anorexia is within the mind of the anorexic.

It's not a pretty disease. There's often laxative abuse, restriction and vomiting, an inability to retain calories for fear they will destroy all the hard work the anorexic has done. There is a sense of purity in hunger that can't be explained to anyone who hasn't gone through it.

And clearly, Dr. Phil's methods aren't going to work. They aren't.

The fear is too real. The fear is as great as the kingdom of Yr.

The mind is a powerful tool.

Anorexics aren't stupid. We know -- I knew -- that I was unhealthy. There were days when a heavy door would take me out, and I would think, "Oh my God, I might die today." It wasn't something I wanted.

I read cookbooks relentlessly, trying to imagine what the food would taste like. Every bite I did eat was both a blessing and a curse. I knew I needed the food, but the food felt like a sin.

How do you explain this to someone who never experienced it? How do you explain the voices in your head that tell you everything you've ever done will come undone if you ingest a "normal" amount of food?

And anorexics aren't blind. We see other people putting food in their mouths like it's no big deal. We wonder, honestly, why we can't exist in this world where other people function normally.

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