“Anorexia is a gift that can awaken the world to the realization that if
we devalue one gender, all of us suffer—both women and men.” —Leah
By Cat Saunders
As I write this introduction in September 2011, it’s been nearly twenty years since I conducted in-depth interviews with women who were or had been anorexic. I was one of those women.
The interviews were completed during research for my doctoral dissertation, which examined the relationship between functional neurology and eating disorders, and also offered a holistic approach to healing anorexia.
When I began working on the interviews in 1992, it was a difficult decision to “interview” myself as as former anorexic, particularly because the interviews cover intimate details about family issues. Recently, when I decided to finally publish the interviews, I went through another layer of fear about making my personal story public.
The admonition not to talk about the family outside the family is strong. But if nobody ever talks about the family outside the family, how can we ever learn anything about what works and what doesn’t? Besides, we’re all part of the human family, so it’s impossible to talk “outside” the family because we’re all in the same one!
In the end, I realized that if I didn’t share my own story, I would be hiding. Making myself vulnerable in the same way I was asking the other women to be vulnerable felt like the most honest thing to do.
Of the women I interviewed, two of them (jill andLeah) graciously gave me permission to publish their interviews. Sadly, one of the other women (Meg) was killed in an automobile accident, but her husband gave me his blessing to use her words. Please note that Meg and Leah are pseudonyms to protect their privacy, while jill and I decided to use our real names.
At the time of the interviews, we ranged in age from 33 to 46. For all of us, our parents were present during our childhood years. With the exception of Meg’s mother, all the parents were still alive at the time of the interviews.
In the years since the interviews were conducted, the rest of us have lost one or both parents, and some of us have lost a brother or a sister as well. The interviews are published here as originally written, in present tense, when speaking about family members who were still alive at the time.
It’s important to note that these women’s stories are told from their own personal perspective. This may seem obvious, but some of the women expressed fears about being unfair, since their perspective is the only one being published.
I assured everyone that the interviews would be presented simply as one perspective, with the understanding that there are many perspectives within any given family. In making this promise, I hoped it would help the women feel safe enough to tell their truth, including the details of any abuse they experienced.
Anorexics tend to hide their truth and often take too much responsibility—even to the extreme degree of taking responsibility for their own abuse.
By sharing our experiences openly, we are giving ourselves the chance to be seen and heard and valued by others. Unfortunately, our openhearted sharing also puts us at risk of being discounted and criticized and shamed.
By offering a personal glimpse of our family experiences and our dance with eating disorders, I hope that others can gain a deeper understanding of the pain—and the power—of the anorexic path.
Do you consider yourself anorexic now?
No. I think I have some of the attitudes, but not the behaviors.
When do you think it was over, and could you describe how you knew it was over?
Well, it might have been partly over when I stopped traveling with a scale! At least, that was one of the beginning signs.
I think it really ended when I moved to Switzerland in 1987, at the age of 26. Suddenly I had to start going out to eat, and I had to eat things that were different than usual for me. I was forced to abandon the behaviors because it was hard to do otherwise.
Everything was different. The calorie scale was different, and it made foods appear to have many more calories. Something that had 90 calories in the States would have 400 calories there. I was freaked out! Also, I think my behaviors changed as a result of being around people who ate much differently than I did.
How would you describe the onset of anorexia?
I think there was a real “high” in discovering that I could control my body. There was also a real high in starting to get positive feedback from people who thought I looked good when I lost weight. Then there was the high of people saying I was too thin.
What was that high about for you?
It was like I had finally arrived, because I was able to do something most people couldn’t do. It’s kind of embarrassing to say that now!
When did anorexia start for you?
Even though I wouldn’t have been considered physically anorexic, I think something started in regard to anorexia when I was about 15. I had dieted before then, but I hadn’t had hyper success until I was about 15.
You don’t have to answer this—or anything I ask for that matter—but what did your anorexic behaviors look like?
I starved and I became an exercise junkie. Hours a day. More hours and more miles. I tried really hard to be able to throw up, but I never could.
Did you have specific food behaviors?
I gradually got more and more restrictive in what I would eat, until there were only a few things I would eat.
During the period when I was the most severely anorexic, I lived for some of that time with a partner. I would eat in front of her, but not in front of anyone else.
Later, when I moved into a collective living situation, I rarely ate in front of people. I would take food to my room, or eat when people weren’t home.
When I was anorexic, I couldn’t eat in big public groups. I remember we had a big Thanksgiving dinner. All that food! I didn’t eat until after everyone left.
Was there shame about having nourishment? Or was there just too much energy flying around when there were lots of people near you?
I think I couldn’t focus on food as much as I wanted if there were people around. It was like this: I couldn’t eat one raisin every fifteen minutes if there were people there!
Is that because it was “abnormal” to eat one raisin every fifteen minutes, or was it because it was difficult to focus on the raisin and still interact with people?
It was both those things, and something else—something I still hate. It’s the flip side of my fear, which is fear of being out of control.
You know how people get at public gatherings, when there is only so much food, and everyone is jumping on it and piling it on their plates and eating it really fast?
That’s something I don’t enjoy, but I could have that tendency, and it freaks me out. I don’t want to partake in it.
Is it even scary for you to watch other people being out of control around food?
Yes. It’s partly scary, and it’s partly disgusting. I want to lecture them! Like, “How can you be so unconscious about what you’re eating?”
Are you also jealous of their unconsciousness in some way?
I think so. People put twelve different things on their plates, everything has fat in it, and then they eat all twelve things. Then they go and get seconds!
That amazes me, too! If you feel safe to say, what was your height and weight at your low point, and what is your so-called normal weight?
I’m about 5’1″. When I weighed the least, I weighed 77 pounds. I think the normal range for me is around 105, according to the insurance charts. I weigh around 100 pounds now, which is kind of freaky for me.
Congratulations! I think it’s a real sign of recovery when former anorexics can talk about their weight openly. Do you think you were anorexic before you actually admitted it?
Yes. I don’t think I actually admitted I was anorexic until I was over it fully.
I understand. Did other people know you were anorexic?
A lot of people suggested that I had an eating problem. Some people used that specific word, and I remember saying, “I’m not anorexic because I still eat.”
Was anyone in your family aware of your anorexia?
At a certain point, my parents and my brothers all said to me that they thought I had a problem. But they didn’t see the anorexia at its worst because I didn’t live with them anymore.
They bitched and moaned at me when I was a teenager, and I’d get really thin. But I was on such a yo-yo cycle that I always gained weight again quickly enough that they didn’t really do anything about it.
What years was it going on for you?
It started in high school from 1976 to 1979, but it got worse when I was in college away from home in 1979 to 1984.
Your anorexia lasted about eight years?
It was a phasal thing, but I think I was still eating in an incredibly restricted way until about 1987, when I went to Zurich.
That’s more than ten years.
Yes. I never thought about it that way. It was a big chunk of time.
I’d like to ask you some questions about your family.
My favorite people! [Laughter.]
Right! What was it like for you when you were growing up in your family?
It was uncomfortable. Indirect. Closed. You couldn’t talk about things. From when I was very young, I didn’t like bringing my friends home to play. I didn’t know why, really. It just wasn’t as much fun as going to someone else’s house.
Were boys treated differently from girls in your family?
I didn’t know it when I was young, but yes, looking back now I can see it. There was a different division of household chores. Girls did dishes. Girls learned to do laundry. Girls cooked, unless the boys were interested in cooking, then they could cook. But they didn’t have to cook.
There was an additional chore division because I was the oldest, and my sister was four years younger. I did more, because I was the oldest girl.
Girls did the domestic chores. Did boys do the outside work?
We all shared the yard work, which I never understood. The boys took out the trash, and they got to shoot guns. That was one big difference. Boys got to hunt.
Did you want to hunt?
I didn’t really want to kill animals. But I wanted to learn how to shoot skeet targets, the clay targets.
How about in terms of doing things? Were boys and girls encouraged differently?
I don’t think my parents consciously encouraged us differently. But none of us were encouraged much at all. There was a silent expectation that we would all do great things. Both sexes.
Who ruled your family—Mom or Dad?
Passively or actively?
Both. I remember he used to say, “This is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship. And I’m the dictator!” That was pretty active! Also, he ruled in terms of being someone to fear.
Did your mom say, “When your dad gets home, you’re going to get it?”
Who was in charge of discipline—your father or your mother?
Both of them. My mom would flip out and hit us, but she would also say, “Wait till your father gets home!”
Were they a united front, in terms of the children?
Pretty much. They didn’t get split by us. The children didn’t like either one of them, I think!
In terms of your understanding now, how would you describe your mother?
She was really crazy. She was overwhelmed and freaked out, I think. She beat us. She’d scream. She’d lose it around having kids, and throw the toys out. She’d actually gather up all the toys and throw them away.
I remember the first time it happened. I couldn’t really believe she was going to do it! She said something like, “Pick up your toys or I’m going to throw them out.” When we didn’t, she threw them out! It was irretrievable. That was really freaky.
She would also leave. She would get in the car when she got overwhelmed, and she’d go for a drive. She would just disappear and leave us all alone. I don’t remember when she started doing it, but it was sometime before I was in school, which means it started before I was five. My siblings were younger.
Did she stay crazy your whole childhood?
I’m sure she wasn’t technically crazy, but she sure acted crazy. I think she calmed down when we got older, but she still did really weird things.
I don’t know if I’m just focusing on the negative side? But I remember I talked back to her when I was in high school, and she poured a can of beer on my head. If I had done that to her, it never would have flown!
I bet not! What was your father like?
He wasn’t around much. He was a doctor.
What was his form of discipline?
He hit us—with his hands, with cooking utensils, with belts, with wooden spoons. My family’s favorite form of discipline was wooden spoons.
Where did he hit you?
On the rear, usually, if he was planning it. If he was just pissed, he would hit us anywhere he could reach.
If someone was acting up when he was driving, he would swipe his hand through the back seat and hit whomever he could reach. Or if he pulled the car over, he would turn around and hit everyone in the back seat. He’d hit faces and arms and anything he could get.
Were you ever able to stop the abuse, or did you just have to leave home?
I don’t think I ever successfully stopped it. I started adapting when I was a teenager. I learned how to disobey them covertly, and I did a good job.
You learned how to be sneaky and still act out?
Right. Once I told my parents I wanted to go to a keg, a beer party. They said, “Oh, come on! Tell us where you’re really going!” and I said, ” I’m telling you!”
I really was going to a keg, but I had created such a “good child” front that they didn’t believe me!
Was there any emphasis on achievement in your family?
Yes. Again, it wasn’t really overt, but it was there. Well, they paid us for grades. That was pretty overt!
How about looks? Was there any emphasis on appearances, either on how you looked, or how the family looked?
Both. It had to do with weight a lot, with how people looked. My father and mother would bicker over my father’s weight, because he was a little overweight. That was one obvious thing.
There was also a more subtle undertone, like it was simply better that we were thin. Yet I also knew my mother was more comfortable if we were heavier. It was strange, like she wanted to be the thinnest, or better somehow.
There was also emphasis in regard to the family not having anything going on that made it look like we were not the perfect family. Being the perfect family was really important.
I remember when it was obvious that my sister was addicted to drugs, and my father didn’t want to tell anyone. He wanted to keep everything in the family. There were other kinds of trouble. My brother was in jail.
Of course! Act out louder, so the family will wake up!
Yes! My brothers were involved with drugs. We kids used to joke about that, like, “If only people knew what was really going on!”
The kids never told anyone either?
Outside the family? No.
That’s interesting. You were acting out, and yet the real acting out would have been to tell.
Yes. No one did that.
You were all scared of your parents?
Yes. Also, now I know different things I didn’t know then. I think the whole thing about sexual abuse was going on, but none of the kids were remembering it.
I don’t think my brothers were sexually abused, but they might have been. The truth is, I don’t think we would have even known what to say. I think we didn’t not tell on purpose. I think we didn’t know what to tell.
Would you tell a story about some of the abuse in your family, and about how no one talked about it?
One of my brothers was growing marijuana on the roof of our house. Both my brothers had already been in trouble for drugs in high school. The younger one might have been in junior high.
At any rate, one of them had already been in jail. My father found out about the marijuana on the roof, and he was really angry. He went after my youngest brother and grabbed him by the neck. He started shaking him and strangling him and screaming at him.
My brother was turning purple and he couldn’t breathe. My other brother came and pulled my father off, and he got in a physical fight with my father. Then no one talked about it!
My brother had purple marks on his neck, and my family just sat around at dinner, acting as if nothing had happened.
Wow. How did your parents treat you when you went through puberty?
They didn’t talk about it much. Surprise, huh? When I got my first period, I told my mom. I had read this book when I was eight called, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.
It was in my parents’ house and I read it. It was considered a joke that I was reading it when I was eight, because I was young and it was a fat book.
Then we had a film in school about menstruation, and my mother would say, “Run upstairs and get me a tampon.” So I knew what they were for. I knew that women used them.
She asked me if I wanted her to show me how to use them. She didn’t say, “What do you want to use?” I have opinions about that now, but at the time, I said I didn’t want her to show me.
I remember locking myself in the bathroom and figuring it out. I didn’t figure it out right, so I wore them wrong for a while. I wasn’t inserting them far enough inside my body, so the bottom part of it was halfway out.
It was really painful. But I thought that was how it was supposed to be, and I didn’t want my mother anywhere near my body to show me! I don’t think she really wanted to show me, either. I think she just thought she should ask me.
Did your father know that you had started to bleed?
I didn’t tell him, but I’m sure he must have known. There was no direct acknowledgment. We didn’t have a menstruation dinner!
Was your mom happy for you? Or was it like, this is just what happens?
It was like, this is what happens. My father joked about my body as it matured, but not specifically about menstruation. He used to call me “petite but well-rounded.” That was his description of my body.
Now, why was he describing my body? That’s the biggest thing I remember about maturing. He said it with a flirtatious tone, like he was appreciative.
My mother wasn’t “well-rounded.” She was very gaunt, so I think there was a contract between us. She also didn’t want anything to do with sex.
My father was really into dirty jokes, so he would tell them to me. I would laugh, and I loved it, because it was attention. We had this whole flirtation thing going on. I felt like I was the favorite and he liked me—like I was sexy and my mother wasn’t. I was into being sexy for a while.
Did you experience his behavior as sexually abusive?
I didn’t know it then, but now I know that it was abusive.
How about when you started dating? I know you’re with a woman now, but were you seeing boys in those days?
Yes. I was seeing boys in high school. My parents wanted to know who I was seeing. They made it clear who they liked, who they didn’t like, and who they thought was appropriate for me to see.
I had curfews, and there was an assumption that dates were for weekends, not weeknights. I did a lot of group stuff as a teenager, so I could end up with one boy without my parents knowing. I might go to a party, but then we would pair off and neck. Teenage stuff!
My parents said, “Don’t get pregnant!” I think they thought that was enough. I don’t think they ever said not to have sex!
Did they talk to you about birth control?
Were you having sex in those days?
No. I was too afraid of getting pregnant. The expectation was that I would not get pregnant, and I internalized that message.
When did you start being sexual?
Intercourse? When I was nineteen. It was a mixed experience. It wasn’t an awesomely great experience. He wasn’t very aware of what would be nice for me, and he was an emotional idiot.
But I admired him because he was a senior in philosophy, and because he was politically active. So much for why you get involved with people!
When did you first have a female lover?
When I was twenty-one.
I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of the percentage of anorexics who have sexual desire for both sexes, or who choose to be only with women. I’m wondering, do you think of yourself as bisexual?
I struggle with the labels. I think honestly I am bisexual, but I don’t often call myself that, because there are so many judgments about it.
I know. I consider myself bisexual, too, though I’ve chosen to partner with a man. But I don’t often talk about being bisexual. If you did call yourself bisexual, would you get more flack?
Yes. Many people in the lesbian community would say, “Well, forget you then!” or “You’re not really a lesbian.”
The same prejudice that is shown toward lesbians, they might show to bisexuals. That’s sad. Let’s come back to your parents. How would you describe your parents’ relationship with each other?
I don’t think my mother ever really liked my father that much. Their beginning myth, in some ways, was about my mother rescuing my father from committing suicide.
I think my father really loved my mother, and thought she was wonderful. But I don’t think my mother really liked him, men, bodies, or sex. I think she felt trapped and stuck, like she couldn’t have a career, because of her training in the era when she was born.
She didn’t want kids, but my father did. I think she felt angry and bitter about her role, like there was no way out. I don’t think they had a great physical relationship with each other, either. I think he was very into it, but she wasn’t.
He would come after her to kiss her, and she would back away, turn away, or push away. They slept that way, too. She was at the edge of the bed and almost off the bed, and he was often glommed right up behind her.
When I was in college, during one of the few two-sentence discussions my mother and I ever had about sex, my mother said something to the effect that she finally realized that sex gave my father pleasure. This was after more than 25 years of marriage! I guess that helped her endure it.
How about affection with the children?
My mother was very nonphysical with us. I don’t remember her touching us at all. Obviously, she must have changed our diapers. I’m sure she was fastidious about that!
I remember her cutting my toenails when I was really young, and she would tuck us in and kiss us on the forehead. That’s what I remember as far as affection goes.
My father was into bouncing me on his knee. After a while, I knew that was kinky and I hated it. Even as a child, I knew I didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it anymore. At some level, I knew it was sexual. I knew something was wrong. Other than that, I don’t remember him being particularly affectionate either.
They’ve both changed now, as adults. My father asks for hugs regularly from everyone in the family. He asks for hugs from my mom, too, and she does give them to him, but it’s like, “Here you go, dear! (Pat, pat, pat.)” It’s sad.
Did your parents fight?
No. Not overtly. Never.
What did they do with anger?
They expressed it toward the kids. They would blow up at us. Occasionally, my father would get angry at some service provider who hadn’t done a good job. But my parents would never get angry with each other.
What do you think kept your parents together?
Obligation. On my father’s side, I think it was love. He really did care about her, and he had more capacity to feel. In some ways, he idolized her. He has very little self-esteem, and she was his reason for living. On my mother’s side, though, I think it was obligation and fear.
What was your family’s relationship to feelings?
[Pause.] I’m quiet because there wasn’t much! Being happy was good. Being anything else was not so good.
What kind of communication did your family have?
None or indirect. There was a lot of physical communication of displeasure. In some ways, punishment—physical abuse—was one of the most direct forms of communication in my family.
Occasionally, they would give a direct compliment if someone’s skiing or some other activity had improved, but that never felt very good because not everyone got a compliment. Maybe one child would get a direct compliment when everyone else was present, so it felt weird.
What did your parents teach you about fear, by their example?
My father taught me that it wasn’t a good thing to have fear. My mother was very afraid of everything, and I didn’t understand it. She actually taught me, at a certain point, that it was okay to be afraid, to not want to do everything.
My father had forced her to learn to fly, to pilot small planes. She learned, and she did it, but finally she refused to do it anymore. She also refused at some point to keep skiing, because she didn’t like that either.
What were your family’s rules, in one-sentence cliché form?
Be successful. Do everything yourself. Don’t ask for help. Never say “no” to anyone.
Do you know anything about your birth?
A little bit. I know that my parents saved a certain amount of money before they had a kid, so they’d feel secure. I was born in a Jewish hospital, because it had the best maternity care. But my mother was pissed off because she couldn’t get bacon in the hospital.
I know my mother was drugged, so she doesn’t remember what happened and she doesn’t remember feeling anything. I’m pretty sure my father wasn’t there.
Did they hit you to get you breathing?
I was born in 1961 in a standard hospital birth, so I would guess they probably did.
Did they take you away from your mother as soon as you were born?
Probably. She was out from the drugs, so I can’t imagine they would have given me to her.
Were you breastfed?
My mother always said I “sucked her tits off.” She evidently used to have bigger breasts, and they’re small now. She said that happened after she breastfed, which is the opposite of most people’s experience. I’m sure she didn’t want to breastfeed me.
Did your parents want you as a girl?
I don’t think so. Neither one of them.
Did you have any head injuries or accidents before the onset of anorexia?
I fell and hit my chin really hard when I was three, and I had stitches. Also, I cut open the top of my head in a tree house when I was somewhere around six to eight. I jumped up and hit the top of my head on nails that were sticking down from the tree house, so I had to have stitches for that.
I was also in a bad car accident when I was sixteen, which was before the most severe part of anorexia. That’s a great question.
I’m checking that in regard to brain dysfunction and neurological work, because I’m curious if anorexics may have also had head injuries instead of, or in addition to, various kinds of abuse. Head injuries and any kind of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse or neglect can all affect the functioning of the brain.
If the pons level of the lower brain is dysfunctional, for example, it can affect a person’s self-care issues, such as the right-to-be, feeling “good enough,” the ability to respond appropriately to pain, and the capacity to feel and respond appropriately to hunger.
Pons level dysfunction can also show up in terms of suicidal ideation. Have you ever been suicidal?
Did you ever try to kill yourself?
No. Sometimes I wished I was dead, and sometimes I would think about methods. But I never actually tried to kill myself.
This may seem like an obvious question, but do you consider that you were emotionally neglected or abused?
Physically neglected or abused?
Physically neglected, as far as any kind of positive touch. Not in regard to food and warmth. Physically abused? Definitely.
What was your parents’ response to your having needs?
I know my mother hated it. She just didn’t want these clingy creatures around. I remember when my sister was crying in her crib when she was a baby, and my mother not going to her.
My mother would just say, “She’ll stop.” I think that’s what she was hoping for—that my sister would stop.
Do you feel that your family was shaming?
Yes, definitely. It’s funny that I don’t remember exactly how they did it. I know they were shaming because of how incredibly ashamed I feel now.
I know I got it from somewhere, but I can’t remember what they did. So much of it was unspoken. A lot of it was the underlying sense that “your perceptions can’t be right.” In this case, “your” perceptions meant the kids’ perceptions.
What was your parents’ relationship to tears?
I saw my father cry once. I saw my mother cry twice. I remember her crying a couple times in complete frustration. She always went into another room to cry.
She went into the laundry room. I remember seeing her slumped over the washing machine, crying, and I was completely freaked out about it, because I’d never seen that.
We weren’t told not to cry, as far as I can remember. I don’t remember what they did when I cried, when I was a kid.
Do you remember crying?
That’s a good question! I remember crying when I was punished, and I remember crying when I was hurt physically. But I don’t remember crying about sadness. That’s really interesting. I remember my sister crying when the cat was killed, and I remember not crying.
What was your family’s relationship to joy?
I don’t remember anyone being particularly joyous.
What was your family’s relationship to food, eating, and meals?
My mother cooked the meals when I was young. I always got the feeling that she didn’t enjoy it. She would often ask us what she should cook for dinner. I think she was just sick of it. I don’t blame her at all!
I never got the sense that my mother really enjoyed eating food. Even now, when she’ll say something is yummy or it tastes good, there’s some sensual quality that is lacking. It’s always been lacking.
My father was pretty compulsive about food, which I didn’t realize until I was older. He would starve himself all day, then he’d come home and binge.
I remember my mother shaming him occasionally, like, “Are you sure you want to be eating that?” or “Didn’t you already have such and such?” or “You’re having another one of those?”
I remember comments from my mother about me, too. At one point, I was supposedly overweight according to one of those weight charts. I remember hearing her say to someone else that she didn’t understand why I was overweight, because I really didn’t eat that much.
She didn’t know that I ate a lot in between meals, privately in my room. Somehow, even when I was young, I knew not to eat those twelve cookies in front of someone.
What were your parents’ expectations of you when you grew up?
When I grew up, I would be a doctor or a lawyer or a translator for the U.N. or a writer or a college professor. White-collar, definitely. It wasn’t overtly said, but it was definitely an undertone.
For a while I dated a mechanic and almost married him, and with my parents, it was, ” Your boyfriend is a mechanic?”
You mentioned earlier that you were sexually abused. Would you say more about that?
Yes. When I was very young, the sexual abuse was in regard to those things I mentioned about my father and the knee-bouncing.
When I was an adolescent, it was more emotional incest, with his comments about my body and the flirtatious games he would play with me. Also, I think that I was genitally sexually abused by at least my father, and also my mother, when I was really young, when I was preverbal.
My memory is that they were fingering me, or putting things in me. Sometimes now I’ll have a sudden fantasy, and all I’ll see is a broom handle or a pencil, and I’ll freak out. That’s the kind of thing that happens to me. It’s still hard for me to believe it.
So there was both covert and overt sexual abuse. What has been your family’s response to your having been sexually abused? Does anyone know?
No one knows, except my sister, and she was killed in 1991. When she brought out her own memories—the statement that my father had raped her—it was during a time when she was in a psychiatric hospital.
She was suicidal, and she wasn’t eating, so she was hospitalized for several months in my parents’ home town. Since she was in the hospital, my father discounted her memories as delusional. I also think that was one of the things my father held against her forever.
When you went through puberty, did your parents try to control you in any way? For example, did they try to control how you dressed?
Yes. Some of the things didn’t specifically go with puberty, but they were just about control in general. I remember that my mother always buttoned her blouse up to the very top button.
Once, when I unbuttoned not one, but two of my buttons, she commented on it. Or she would say, “Your skirt’s awful short!” That kind of thing.
She would also say, “You can’t wear jeans to school.” So I would take what I wanted to wear with me and change clothes while I was on the bus.
Was there any alcohol or drug abuse in your family?
My father was an alcoholic when I was growing up. For a while he didn’t drink anything, and we didn’t have alcohol in the house. But he drinks now—wine, but not martinis.
He used to come home and drink martinis every day. Both of my parents did. But I don’t think my mother is an alcoholic, because I don’t think she’s addicted. She’s so cut off it wouldn’t have been a big deal for her not to drink, and it still isn’t. She doesn’t drink that way anymore.
She was just drinking to support your father’s alcoholism?
I think so, though I think she was also unhappy and liked winding down. It’s hard to explain. In some ways, I don’t believe she has an addictive personality.
If someone had said to her, “You can never have a drink again,” she would have said, “Okay.” I never saw her fix a drink when she was alone. If my father was away on a trip, she didn’t drink.
Was there anything in your family or in your childhood that you think positively contributed to your sense of self?
Learning to read was one of the best things. I had books, and it was one of the things in my family that was supported. It was a socially acceptable escape.
I’m happy I grew up in Montana. I had nature, and I was supported to be in it. There weren’t any “girl” kind of messages like “Don’t get your clothes dirty.” One other thing that helped me was that I learned to play an instrument, the violin.
What do you think are the roots of your anorexia?
Being a woman, but not wanting to be a woman. Realizing, at some deep level, that being a woman was not a good thing to be.
I was not wanted as a woman. If I had breasts, and if I looked like a woman, I wasn’t going to like what that would get me, in terms of being abused, and in terms of status in the world.
Another root comes from the things I learned from my parents about bodies and shame and eating. Another root of my anorexia involves the attention I got for being thin, up to a certain point anyway. Also, the need for control could be seen as a root.
When I was really emaciated, it was one of the few times I had any kind of self-esteem, which is sort of sick. I feel like I’m still trying to get that level of self-esteem now.
Do you think your self-esteem was actually high when you were emaciated?
Not in the deepest sense. It was more self-esteem about an appearance. But it was the closest thing to self-esteem that I think I’ve had. In many ways, self-esteem is still connected to appearance for me.
Why do you think you couldn’t do the behaviors anymore, even though you still connect self-esteem to thinness?
Because I know it wouldn’t really make me feel good, and because some life force in me is just too strong to do that anymore. But I still don’t think I know the difference between being okay and being overweight, though I know it’s ridiculous to put those two things together.
What do you think anorexia is about spiritually?
I think there’s something about transcending having a body that I think is important. It’s something about really feeling like a spirit and not wanting to feel weighed down or tied to the body.
Do you feel that there is a separation between bodies and spirits?
In some ways, I think I still believe that. At least, I don’t think we learn anything about how to be a spirit in a body, as we grow up.
When you’re born, I don’t think you’re taught that you are a beautiful spirit, and you have a body, and here’s how to have it be your home. I’m not saying it’s an impossible thing to learn, just that we are not taught about it.
I think anorexia is an attempt to get out and get free of the body. More specifically, it’s about getting free of a certain body experience such as femaleness or shame, things that really are too heavy.
What are some of those “too heavy” things?
Having to be perfect. Let’s see. What else do I think it’s about spiritually?
There’s something about the whole discipline of anorexia, the awareness. There’s something yogic about it. Weighing, measuring. Anorexia is like a spiritual practice. It’s different than the normal culture.
With anorexia, there’s a lot of awareness about the body and functioning and eating. It may be crazy awareness, but it’s awareness nonetheless. It may not be a kind of awareness that will actually result in transcendence, but it’s an attempt in that direction.
Anorexia is about trying to get away from something, or trying to get to some kind of freedom. In a way, the body is experienced as a trap.
If you thought that you couldn’t learn anything about being a spirit by being in a body, why do you think you came into a body in the first place?
I don’t think I thought about it then. If you started out knowing that you were here to learn about being in a body, and this idea was supported, I don’t think there would be such a thing as anorexia.
Nicely said. What kind of healing work have you done in regard to anorexia? What has been helpful and what hasn’t been helpful?
A lot of what I’ve done hasn’t specifically been around anorexia. One thing that helped was the year I lived with you as housemates. That was very special—just being able to talk about anorexia, compare notes about it, and get support around it. That was one specific experience that was helpful.
I think Rolfing was helpful. Getting more physical body experiences was helpful. Feedback from friends assuring me that I’m really okay if I eat something has been helpful.
I remember one hour that I had with Arny Mindell once was helpful, because he didn’t know my whole history in regard to anorexia. I was talking about my eating habits, and that I didn’t eat lunch. He got so upset!
He said, “You what? You have to have lunch!” But it wasn’t shaming. It was more like, “You’re depriving yourself? Wait a minute!”
I didn’t start eating lunch, but that was helpful. I’m still on a “two basic meals plus a sweet snack” routine. But the meals have filled out. They’ve grown.
It must astound you, on our visit together this weekend, that I now eat four meals a day.
Yes! I’m really impressed!
Anything else about what you’ve done that was helpful or not helpful?
A lot of different parts of therapy haven’t been directly helpful, but I think they were steps along the way. I don’t think anything has been negative.
The only thing that really didn’t work was my parents telling me to eat. That had no impact, except it got me to eat less!
Did anyone ever try to hospitalize you?
No. I think if they had seen me when I was the thinnest, they might have. But they didn’t see me then. My sister was hospitalized, but she was living at home. They hospitalized her against her will.
What is your relationship with your body now?
If I answer honestly, I still don’t feel that I like my body. That’s painful. I like some parts of it, but I don’t like the whole thing.
I do like my body more than I used to, because it feels more, so I can’t do the things I used to be able to do to it. Those are indicators of healing, so I think my deep-level liking is getting better.
Do you think food will ever be a non-charged issue for you?
I don’t know if it will ever be non-charged. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people who goes to a potluck, takes potato salad and cheesecake and barbequed spare ribs, and eats it without thinking about it or feeling guilty about it. Not that I’d want to eat all that stuff!
I know how I’d like it to be. I’d like to be able to eat whatever I want, whenever I want it, without feeling guilty about it. I would like to not have such rigid categories in my head. I’d like not to feel so bad about things that I really do like.
What do you think you’ve learned from taking the anorexic path?
It’s given me a lot of compassion for people who feel like they are caught up in something they don’t feel they can change. That might be the biggest thing I’ve learned.
I’ve also learned that things that look like they’re only about destruction, aren’t only about destruction. I also think I’ve learned how much people may be suffering even when they look like they’re “fine.”
Like people who are maybe bulimic, or people who look like I look now, and no one would know that there’s a problem, or that there has been a problem.
I’ve also learned an appreciation, in many ways, for being here. After spending so much time not wanting to be here, I’m finally really here! I don’t think about it much, but I think I appreciate that more now.
What do you think is the culture’s part in anorexia?
The incredible emphasis on women’s appearance and on being thin—being emaciated-thin. Like the ideal of models who are 5″10″ tall and weigh 105 pounds—like you at your worst—and that’s supposed to be normal? Give me a break!
I also think that the supposed freedom of women is a factor—the illusion of women being liberated, as opposed to the reality of being a woman in the world where you’re still in physical danger all the time. A world where you really aren’t paid equally for equal work. A world where you really are expected to have children and also succeed outside the home.
I think there’s an illusion that you can do whatever you want as a woman, but the reality is that you can’t do whatever you want, and that is a big contribution from the culture to anorexia.
You’re not left with much—except your body—to control. You’re supposed to be powerful in all these areas. You have a career, you’re supposed to be articulate and outspoken now, manage the household and take care of your kids, take care of your aging parents, and please your husband sexually.
I still think those are the expectations for women. But where are you going to be like a passive object—which is also still expected of women?
You’re not allowed to be passive in all the ways that you used to be, but you can still be cute and emaciated. That option is still available, in terms of a way to be apparently powerless, apparently fragile. I think the culture still demands that of women.
Big women are not cool. It’s as if the culture wants us to control our bodies, but the way we’re supposed to control them is to make our bodies look fragile and frail. The culture doesn’t say, “Make sure you maintain a healthy weight for your height.”
The culture also teaches us that we’re supposed to be very interested in food. What else are we going to get obsessed about, if we’re supposed to be emaciated and yet very involved with food?
What do you think is the most important thing an anorexic needs in order to heal?
I think having one person who’s able to be there and be really flexible. It would be great if that one person could also know a lot, and be able to help with all the different aspects of anorexia.
Next in importance would be a group of people with shared experience—a support network of people who have been there themselves and can be there for the anorexic.
In terms of that one person I mentioned as being most important, it could be someone who has been there, or it could be a therapist who can come close to having been there. But with anorexia, I’m not sure if someone can really be there for an anorexic unless they have been through it themselves.
I don’t know, but that’s my hit. It’s similar to incest. It’s very different sharing about sexual abuse with someone who has had that experience, who knows what it’s like to feel that ashamed.
I agree completely. What do you think is the gift for the world from anorexia?
I think that if the message of anorexia was truly heard by the world, it would mean that the world would have to change. The world would have to accept people for who they are—and have compassion for who they are—instead of trying to turn people into who they are not, and instead of trying to hurt them and abuse them. That would be one gift of anorexia—the message that there is a need for big changes in those ways.
Another gift is that the world might have to wake up to the craziness of a system that devalues women so deeply that women have started committing mass suicide, which is what anorexia is about in the extreme. Finally, anorexia is a gift that can awaken the world to the realization that if we devalue one gender, all of us suffer—both women and men.
This interview is one of four in a series:
For the list of questions used in the interviews for this series, please click here.
The image at the beginning of this interview is one of 1300 daily drawings completed by Cat Saunders between 1983 and 1987, from which a deck of 64 images was created called “Shadow and Light: Images of Change and Transformation for Women in Recovery.”
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).