[Guest Post] An open letter to the woman who said I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder

Another guest post, this time by my friend Kate.

You are the mother of my greatest friend. Your house was my refuge in high school. I wanted to surprise you and share my happiness with you when I got into my dream college. By my senior year, I spent almost every day after school at your house. You offered to cover for me, to be a hiding place when I simply could not deal with my family…and you became someone I trusted. You knew me in the worst throes of my starvation. I was skinny then. I was too skinny, and faint and malnourished and mentally ill. You didn’t know it then, but your son guessed, and for that, he has my eternal gratitude. Without him, I do not know that I would have survived to this point. That is not hyperbole.

You saw me this summer, back home for the worst summer I’ve had. I have gone off therapy for these three months, because you see, my parents don’t use modern medicine, and I cannot trust them to care for me. I am dependent on the kindness of my university to have treatment in the first place. This summer, all I have are friends, and my own will to do anything to keep from slipping back into a hell of calorie counting and obsessive thoughts and the nightmare of reflective surfaces. I used to hate myself, you know. It still creeps up on me and strangles and pulls at loose skin, until all I can do is hold off from screaming and curl up in bed.

You don’t know this. I would have told you, had you asked. I speak about my cesspit of destructive behavior, because you can’t tell when you look at me. That is true of most eating disorders, and someone has to talk about it. I will be that person.

You can’t tell that some days I realize all I’ve had is a cup of coffee in twenty-four hours, and I am blisteringly happy. You can’t tell because I force myself to hold a normal weight. I have for four years, and on especially good days, that is a source of pride.

That number on the scale isn’t the weight I want, but it is healthy. It is perfectly in the range for my height, a muscular build that runs and leaps and cartwheels, but it isn’t skinny. It isn’t skinny, and that is all you see. I am not starving, and so I cannot possibly suffer. I should get over it.

I’d like to, but if the past six years are any lesson, I won’t. I will always depend on alarms to remind me when to eat. I will plan my workouts ahead of time, because when I don’t, I become obsessive, and exercise until I cannot see straight. I will never eat with abandon. Meals will be planned for. Eating out will be stressful. I will have an uneasy truce with food.

And there will be people like you. I hate saying that because, until yesterday, when I said that I meant people who would care, and make me laugh, and be one of the solid ones. There will be people like you, who think I’m making a fuss, playing victim. You were one of the good ones, once, so I’d like to set the record straight.

I am recovering from an eating disorder. For two years, I averaged less than 800 calories per day. I danced intensively, as much as four hours a day. I lost too much weight. I was starving and bony. I did permanent harm to my body.

I have bradycardia. That means my heart beats too slowly; it doesn’t speed up enough when I exercise. If I push too far? I’ll faint. I do not trust myself to exercise outside of a gym. I cannot know when my vision will narrow, but in a building, I at least know that if I stay unconscious, someone will be there. I want you to consider that my safety net is the kindness of strangers to notice if I do not wake up.

The rate for attempted suicide in those with eating disorders is as high as three times that of the general population. Everyone quotes statistics, but I want you to take a hard look at that one. If you combine the neurotypical people out there with those who have PTSD, with those who have major depression, with everyone else who has considered their life not worth living, they attempt suicide at one third the rate of those with eating disorders. You know what makes me hurt so badly I want nothing more than to make it stop any way I can? When people I trust decide some number on a scale measures the weight of my claims, when they reinforce the horrible things I believe about myself. I just never thought one of them would be you.

I want you to know something important about your son. Your son cared for me without knowing any of those facts or statistics or numbers. He just thought I was worth time. He thought I was too skinny, that I was maybe hurting myself, and so he did what he could. He held me and took me to dinner and made sure I ate. He never demanded justification—he waited until I told him I had an eating disorder—the first person I ever confessed to. He smiled, and said he knew, and then we went back to life as normal. We talk every day, because we take care of each other.

I want you to understand something, more than anything else in this letter. You
said I didn’t really have an eating disorder. But that wasn’t the worst thing. You also told my greatest friend, your son, that he should back away from me. You said he shouldn’t ‘have’ to take care of me. You wanted him to back off, because I was being whiny. I cannot forgive that.

I can forgive your careless misunderstanding of my eating disorder. You won’t be the last. You hurt me badly, but it’s ignorance like the words you spoke that keep me speaking up. I cannot forgive your wish to destroy my support.

You spoke selfishly. It is the selfless spirit of your son, and his love that quite literally, saved my life. I’m sorry you can’t see that. I’m sorry I don’t want to see any more of you.

Relevant citations: here and here.

Kate Donovan is a junior studying psychology and human development at Northwestern University. She is the president of Northwestern’s Secular Student Alliance and a writer at Teen Skepchick and the Friendly Atheist blog.

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On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

The Friend Zone is a Myth

This week’s Daily Northwestern column.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us are probably thinking the same thing : Dating is hard.

And it is, especially in college. People who look for serious relationships (as opposed to casual dating or hookups) face plenty of challenges, such as jam-packed schedules, breaks away from campus, study abroad semesters, plenty of temptation, and, of course, the constant specter of graduation.

Some might say that friendship is another one of those challenges. The concept of the “friend zone” isn’t a new one. On UrbanDictionary.com, where it was the “Word of the Day” back in October 2011, “friend zone” is defined as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to. Usually initiated by the woman saying, ‘You’re such a good friend.'”

Despite the gendered definition that UD provides, I’ve heard both girls and guys claim that their crush rejected their advances because they were “just such a good friend” or because they “didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

I think the friend zone concept is mostly bunk. First of all, the fact that many relationships do start off with the couple being good friends shows that friendship itself isn’t exactly a cold shower.

Second, the friend zone seems like a convenient (if well-intended) excuse that people use when a friend whom they see as nothing more expresses romantic interest. After all, it’s never pleasant to have to tell a good friend that, for whatever reason, you just don’t see them as boyfriend/girlfriend material. And often people might not know the reason for that lack of connection: Maybe they just didn’t click with the person, or there wasn’t chemistry, or whatever you want to call it.

In such a situation, it makes sense that someone would say something like, “I just don’t see you as more than a friend.” And it makes sense that the person they’re rejecting would conclude that the friendship is the problem.

But it’s not. The problem is the person just doesn’t like them that way.

Of course, some people do choose not to date a friend they have feelings for because they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship. However, such people are probably simply valuing friendship over romance for the moment, and that’s their choice — it doesn’t mean becoming their friend was a bad idea.

Sometimes the friend zone explanation arises when a person puts a lot of energy into being a good friend to someone they’re interested in and gets frustrated when their emotions aren’t reciprocated. Since humans are wired to find patterns, the natural assumption is that the friendship caused their crush not to like them back.

However, as important as it is, being a good friend doesn’t entitle you to someone’s romantic attention. In fact, nothing entitles you to that.

It makes me sad when I see advice columns in women’s magazines exhorting them not to act like good friends to the men they like for fear of getting “friend zoned.” These columns generally advise women not to do anything overly friendly, such as worrying about a guy’s health or listening to him talk about his problems. Caring actions like these might prompt the dreaded “You’re such a good friend” comment.

However, unless you’re looking for the most casual of flings, friendship first makes a lot of sense — it allows you to get to know the person well before getting too invested, it helps them understand your boundaries, and it allows you to make sure that both of you are looking for the same thing from each other.

Especially at our age, people vary a lot in terms of the sorts of sexual and/or romantic relationships they’re looking for. Some just want to hook up, some want to date several people, some want an exclusive partner until distance forces them to separate, and others are looking for something serious and long-term. Getting to know a potential partner as a friend first is a great way to prevent hurting each other when you discover that your goals diverge.

Besides, if it never develops into anything more, having a new friend never hurts anyone.

This Valentine’s Day, ignore the cliched advice and go with your gut. People are either going to like you, or they’re not. But they’re more likely to like you if you treat them well.

You Don’t Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU’s student newspaper. I can’t find the link on their website so I’m not linking to it, but here’s the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

On People Who Think They’re so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3” on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”