Have you ever heard the stand-up comic who does her entire sketch about her cancer? When she first did the bit, people were shocked. It was so unexpected because we don’t usually discuss difficult topics with comedy. She was breaking the rules. It pushed boundaries and pushed buttons. It brought mortality to center stage. It was awkward and uncomfortable. And it was wickedly funny.
There is something completely freeing about laughing at our personal demons. It takes away some of their power and allows us to step out of the shadows. Struggling with illness, whether physical or mental, keeps us apart. No one wants to bring it up, even when it’s staring them in the face, for fear of upsetting the person who is suffering. While this is understandable and even noble, it can be very isolating, leaving the sick person outside of normal.
I have had an eating disorder for as long as I can remember. While it doesn’t get to decide who I am, it does define a whole part of me that I cannot ignore. It has touched my family for generations. But I would never blame anyone for my illness (just like I would never blame my sister for bringing home head lice in third grade, even though she had really long, beautiful, blonde hair and I had a Dorothy Hamill bowl cut, making my chunky little body look like a mushroom stalk — its only purpose to support the large fungus cap that was my head). I was a chubby little kid, which was cute for the first day or two. But when you become the entertainment for the entire neighborhood by walking around — after some prompting — chanting, “I fat,” to the laughter of all, it may be time for an intervention. When that intervention doesn’t happen, you may end up with a rage inside that allows you to feel like a kindred spirit with Stephen King’s Carrie.
Though I never burned down my school with mind-control, I sometimes wished I could. Because little kids are openly mean. They’re like that drunk at the end of the bar who always has at least two empty bar stools between him and the next drunk — even during happy hour — because he says things like, “You look like my wife. She shouldn’t wear yellow either,” which may be accurate, but nonetheless is unnecessarily cutting. We’re all just here to have a good time, buddy.
Even well-meaning adults often stumbled through conversations. If one more person told me it was just a matter of willpower, I was going to shove my Velveeta cheese single wrappers right down their throat. Because let me say this right now, in case you have an eating disorder or know someone with one, it is never about willpower. Never. Not even for one minute. There is not one single person with an eating disorder who has ever said to themselves, “Gee, I know I shouldn’t eat that but I just love being fat so much!” For real. We never say that.
By the time I got to junior high or, as I like to call it, the teeming cesspool of insecurities, emotional instability, hormonal rage, and all-around awfulness, my peers had switched to quietly sneering and saying awful things behind my back. Because while little kids are openly mean, tweens/teens are insanely diabolical and live with so much of their own fear that they can smell it on others and know when to go in for the kill.
I was no exception. I was not a shrinking violet who went home and cried about the injustice of it all. I gave as good as I got, chewing on the anger and spewing it back out, at any person, as I deemed necessary. Because remember, junior high is a teeming cesspool of insecurities, emotional instability, hormonal rage, and all-around awfulness. I often wonder about people who choose to teach these grades. What could possibly compel them to spend 180 days, every year, with these tormented beasts, on purpose? There is not enough summer vacation, or booze, in the world to make that a viable option for me. Not surprisingly, I spent a good amount of time alone. I know, I sound like I was a real peach, right? But for some reason, people found the angry, fat, girl, dressed head-to-toe in black and combat boots, not so appealing. Go figure. So I watched a lot of television.
There used to be a series of programs called the “After-school Specials” or “School Break Specials.” They were geared towards us latch-key kids and, according to Wikipedia, “Most episodes were dramatically presented situations, often controversial, of interest to children and teenagers…Topics included illiteracy, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy.” With titles like, “My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel,” “Sometimes I Don’t Love My Mother,” and “All the Kids Do It,” how could I go wrong?
In the span of an hour, we learned things like epilepsy is not contagious. Also, if you refuse to dissect a frog, you can sue your school district for not allowing you to do an alternative project. Or, if you’re me, you learn how to be bulimic. While the aim of the program was to show the dangerous, destructive, and life-threatening nature of binging and purging, what I heard was that I could still eat all the things, as long as I puked them up afterward. Yes, I thought I had figured out how to eat my cake and have size four jeans, too.
That glorious tidbit of educational backfire started me, not surprisingly, down a dangerous, destructive, and life-threatening path. While I spiraled out of control, raging against the machine, my parents saved my life by locking me up. For six months. You have not lived until you have had your Sweet 16 in a psychiatric facility. Nothing says “party” like a sheet cake in the eating disorder ward. It was like Finding Nemo when they meet the shark who desperately wants to eat them, but is fighting all of his inborn instincts. I think more than one person was circling the serving table, silently tabulating the calories and calculating how many days they would have to go without eating if they shoved the whole thing down their throat. Who says you’ll never need that algebra they taught you in school?
When they finally let me out, I returned to my tiny high school, where rumors about my absence had reached legendary proportions. In the girls’ bathroom, I learned that I had been busted for selling cocaine on school grounds. And that many of my classmates found it convenient that my return coincided — almost to the day — with the birth of my “cousin.” Clearly, they had been watching the After-school Special, “Babies Having Babies.”
While I was neither a drug lord nor a teen mom, I was a recovering bulimi-rexic (because I wasn’t content with just one eating disorder, I needed to have them all). Some days I was actually terrified of food. Other days it took all the self-talk therapy that my angry therapist has jammed into my head to keep me from sticking my finger down my throat. Remember the Al Franken SNL character Stuart Smalley? She was exactly the opposite of that. But even when I struggled, or especially then, I was like every other teenager out there. We all had our own demons. We were all scared and angry. We all had bad days and good days. We all thought, at one time or another, that we were completely alone, that no one would ever understand us. And we also understood that we weren’t supposed to talk about it.
My ’80s compatriots all remember St. Elmo’s Fire (and if you were a teenager when it came out and have never seen it, you are hereby disowned by all Gen-Xers). There’s a scene where they’re sitting around the dining room table and the mother is talking about a friend of the family, “Have you heard? (whispering) Cancer.”
You were not allowed to say scary things out loud, because obviously that meant you were inviting these things into your life, like saying Beetlejuice three times (if you haven’t seen that one either, just change your birth certificate. You’re clearly not one of us.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s not good practice to ask a recovering alcoholic for details about when they hit rock bottom. But if they offer that information up, maybe don’t look like a deer in the headlights. Maybe just listen. Maybe even offer to go for a cup of coffee.
Let’s be honest, the fact that I learned how to take my already-thriving eating disorder to the next level of sickness by watching a television show aimed at dissuading me from exactly such a thing, is really funny. The fact that my therapist could have had her own sketch comedy show was hysterical. The fact that I came home to legendary badass-bad girl status actually made me snort Diet Coke through my nose. But my favorite people, the ones I gravitated towards, were the ones who asked me all about it. They were the ones who weren’t afraid of me. They still saw me as a person, not a sickness. And they gleefully helped me pass pictures of me and my baby cousin around the school. I mean, if you’re going to have to deal with the rumors anyway…
Listen, I understand that these are serious issues. People who suffer are not to be ridiculed or mocked. It is not okay to laugh at their pain. Except sometimes, it’s ok to laugh with them at their pain. Because it lets them know that that pain doesn’t make them a freak. Pretty much, it makes them normal.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone. I do not suggest watching an after-school special for help, but you can contact any of these helplines:
Eating Disorders Crisis Call Center 800-273-8255 or text ANSWER to 839863 Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorders 630-577-1330 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST, Monday to Friday
National Eating Disorders Association 800-931-2237 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, Monday to Friday
Thursday’s Child National Youth Advocacy Hotline 800-USA-KIDS (800-872-5437) Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week
There are other numbers available for those who are suffering at Teen Health and Wellness.
You. Are. Not. Alone.