B – ‘To the Bone’ [A Discussion]

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  • I mention details of the movie so if you hate any spoilers, perhaps read this article after viewing the movie.
  • That said, I actually wouldn’t recommend viewing this movie if you are currently vulnerable to eating disorder behaviours and/or tend to be influenced by images of anorexic sufferers. At times, the movie is a visual representation of a Tumblr rabbit-hole, only without the hashtags and mottos. Even Netflix gives a warning.

The other night I watched Netflix’s ‘To the Bone’ and I very much wanted to write about it. But I am not going to write a normal movie review where I evaluate the soundtrack, scrutinise the acting quality, analyse the plot consistency, and question why all movies these days have their titles at the end as if it’s fashionable or something… instead, I shall provide a rambling dissertation of my thoughts and questions, and produce brilliant suggestions on how I can so totally make the movie better – principally in the context of its representation of eating disorders.

The film is, in essence, more about “life” (heh) with an eating disorder than the journey that comes with eating disorder recovery, which is fine: there are plenty of grim and depressing movies out there, and this is light-hearted in comparison. I liked the candid talk of eating disorder behaviours, as they show how the patients have normalised them in their minds. I was happy to see the moments of ugliness, danger, fear, defensive outbursts, and inner turmoil, because that is what eating disorder suffering demands, and any beauty or romanticism of it would have been insulting and just plain wrong. I wanted more scenes like the one where Pearl was curled up on Luke’s lap, sobbing uncontrollably. It was good to see the unsettling contrast between Ellen’s dulled features and her step-sister Kelly’s healthy glow when they were sitting next to each other on chairs – these days it is too easy to forget what a healthy and average weight looks like, and too easy to praise weight-loss and skinniness without realising it too often goes too far. The movie did well in showing some parts of the gritty reality that comes with an eating disorder.

bone pic

The contrast between Ellen and her step-sister, Kelly.

For me, the bruises on Ellen’s spine from doing sit-ups brought back old memories, as did her compulsive exercising behaviours. At the same time, watching it I felt safe and comfortable, because I was in a body that had been freed from anorexia some years ago, and the movie reminded me that I no longer felt what Ellen was feeling: the endless cold, the painful hunger, the shadow of Death, the urge to burn non-existent calories. I hope I do not sound like a cruel sadist, drawing comfort from another person’s pain, but for me the movie prompted me to realise how far I have come. The sheer healthiness of Ellen’s alternate body in her vision is a powerful comparison to her sick self.

But of course, the viewing experience will be varied for many, and it highly depends on personal experience. Those who have not suffered might not understand the significance of some scenes, such as when the patients all swear loudly at the voice in their heads. Either way, ‘To the Bone’ cannot cover every single aspect of anorexia nervosa, let alone eating disorders as a whole – it’s just a film.

Nevertheless, a few extra scenes could have emphasised the ugly nature of eating disorders even further: Luke should have had a meltdown after realising his dancing career was over, to show how beneath his jolly façade is another vulnerable person who despite having gotten so far, at times still deeply struggles. There should have been much more self-hatred and crying. There should have been more emphasis on how much an eating disorder can interrupt life – such as its negative impact on school, work, friendships, and relationships. The teeth, hair and skin of the people with severe bulimia nervosa should not look nearly as good as they do on screen. Hell, they look better than mine. Instead of the girl’s polite paper “barf-bag” under the bed, we should have seen her huddled on a bathroom floor, in the aftermath of her disorder, with a runny nose, red eyes, and smeared make-up. There should have been fear as well as anger surrounding food – a panic attack would have been more powerful than everybody simply storming off. I wish that the girl with binge eating disorder spoke more and voiced her struggles too. A statement such as “I wish I had what you have instead. No one at home takes me seriously. I get called a greedy pig, you get all the compliments,” would have voiced an all too common sentiment for those with binge eating disorder.* When Ellen was able to fit her fingers around her upper arm, I wanted her to cry and look terrified, because I wanted her to realise that even when she ‘finally achieved’ one of her personal (disordered) benchmarks, nothing changed and she was still trapped with her eating disorder. It solved nothing.

Anyway, I swear, I’m not a psychopath nor am I the Joker. It may sound extreme, but I just think the more the ugly truths of an eating disorder are shown, the better. They need to counteract the glamorization and normalisation of chronic dieting, the rampant romanticization of weight loss and over-exercise, and the excessive trivialisation of eating disorders as teenage phases. There are many movies that do not shy away from the horrors of rape, war, violence, abuse, and drugs. This should not be any different. Of course the more intense the movie is, the more likely it is to trigger a vulnerable individual, but there is a plethora of triggering material out there anyway within easy reach. At least this triggering stuff could be educational, and especially help in enlightening those ignorant about the seriousness of eating disorders. Besides, choosing to watch this movie as a vulnerable person and not expecting to get triggered is like slathering yourself with honey, lying in the Australian bush and not expecting a horde of ants to come and bite you. I admit though – had I watched this movie several years ago, it would have definitely screwed me over for a few days.

There were a few unrealistic features of the movie that annoyed me (ignoring the scene when the unmarried and childless John Wick/Neo randomly talks to his younger female patient when she is by herself in the bedroom, and the fact that the principle rule is to sit at the table during meal times but no one seems to follow it, nor is it enforced.) Firstly, all of the patients seemed to have disrupted and selfish families, but that does not have to play any role in falling victim to an eating disorder. Plenty of people can tick all of society’s Must-Have boxes and still get sick through no fault of their own. Additionally, while I can’t vouch for everyone, despite the occasional competitiveness and bitchiness, the people who I have interacted with and heard about would never wish an eating disorder on anyone else, and would have never encouraged behaviours in another person. I forget her name, but the girl who aggressively offers Ellen laxatives in exchange for not ratting her out must have been very ill – in more ways than one – to encourage a new and dangerous behaviour to someone else. Finally, apart from Luke and Karen, there is no evidence of the patients making any attempts to recover or curb their behaviours. Instead, behaviours run rampant in the cosy and large house.

Lack of ugliness and flaws aside, ‘To the Bone’ has redeeming characteristics, the biggest of which are its ending and the character Luke. They show that recovery is possible – no matter how far gone or lost one may feel, every positive choice can help. The body and mind are strong, stronger than an eating disorder. There is a rich and bright life after an eating disorder. With these sentiments, the movie rings very true.

P.S. How can Luke kiss Ellen and not wince from her cigarette breath? I also don’t understand what Ellen randomly changing her name to Eli means.

* Unfortunate source: various forum posts of BED sufferers on a “Pro-Ana” website, read several years ago by a sick me

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B – Bravery

Did you know that the noun bravery can mean fine clothes or a showy display? I myself didn’t until I looked up the dictionary definition online for bravery. At first, I was going to aspire after high school debating teams and attempt to start this article with a dictionary definition, but I got side tracked by the idea that you could wear bravery. Anyway, moving on…

Too many people think bravery simply means doing something and not being afraid of it. That to be brave is to be bold and fearless. That a brave person is someone who continually holds faith in their capacity to successfully manage any situation, regardless of how dangerous it may be. However, that is not bravery – that is either being drunk and/or knowing that you are immortal.

Bravery also often has connotations of victory and success: accompanied by triumphant music, the hero’s head is held high while they charge into battle/towards the dragon/keep on getting shot at but somehow magically be able to keep fighting/raise their weapon, roaring about their homeland/mother/freedom. But bravery in real life is quite different. The type of bravery that is required when recovering from a mental illness isn’t so noble or cinematic.

With a mental illness you have to be brave every day. You aren’t really given a choice. If you want to recover and be free from it you have to constantly confront uncertainty, intimidation, terror, and pain. You are required to always be a knight, wobble around in rusty ill-fitting armour, and face off a giant wrinkly dragon (or a giant spider, if you like dragons and don’t want to envisage hurting one) who just won’t leave you alone.

Being brave is personally different for everyone. Especially when it comes to mental illness. Please bear in mind that certain situations and tasks which may seem trivial, forgettable, and even enjoyable to some, may seem to others a like a dragon who has just stepped on a piece of Lego.

Being brave, or having “the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty” when trying to recover from a mental illness is exhausting. But you don’t have to do it well. Being brave means confronting your fears, and so even if you make a mess of it all, you’re still brave if you’ve ploughed through and given it the very best shot that you felt capable of at the time.

Your legs have been bitten off, the princess has vomited on her dress, and you’re still facing an enormous, utterly terrifying monster. The dragon breathes out and searing flames of panic attacks, flashbacks, hallucinations, phobias, and hateful criticisms engulf your body and its flimsy armour. As the fire blinds your vision, you start to cry, which is unromantic for a knight, especially when you start getting snot all over your armour, but do you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how badly you screwed up trying to fight the dragon, because you tried. You may be a crawling, sobbing knight, but you’re still facing the situation, and you’re not running away.

Your legs to grow back, you buy some tissues, you try to repair your damaged armour… and you go out and face the beast again. You know that it will be waiting for you, growling and cooking up another blistering firebomb in its stomach. But you still go and confront it, because you know that in order to survive, you have to face the dragon, and as awful as it may be, it is the only way forward. And every conscious choice to attempt to move forward is an example of bravery.

Maybe I am getting a bit too into the metaphor here… just let me put it this way: When you are let go of the ideas that are both your safety net and trap, when you accept the crippling yet liberating truths about yourself, when you give up the dangerous behaviour and rules that are comforting and feel like all you’ll ever know, when you say ‘no’ to the ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ to the ‘no,’ that is you being super-duper incredibly brave. You would put a dragon-fighting knight to shame.

 

B – Binge Eating Disorder

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This will be a long post. Bear with me! *insert bear picture here for wittiness.*

A few years ago, sick of being sick, I donned my Totoro slippers, downloaded a bunch of rather average movies onto my laptop, and went inpatient for several weeks, determined to recover and stop my binge eating for once and for all.

Part of the services offered by the clinic were educational group sessions, where a psychologist or doctor would explain various concepts such as mindfulness and acceptance. One time, we all got a photocopied picture of an unhappy person with a list of all the effects of starvation syndrome and the risks of being malnourished: the hair thins and falls out, circulation gets poor, the bones weaken and the organs shrink, etc, etc. One girl who, like me, was trying to recover from binge eating, piped up and asked what the risks of binge eating were. We got a vague response about Type 2 diabetes and obesity, and then the doctor went back to talking about the dangerous risks of purging and restricting.

At night time, drinking tea and crocheting with a little too much efficiency, some of us patients would gossip about the extreme behaviours we had gotten up to. The compulsive exercising, the lowest weights, the fear foods, the hormonal irregularities and the laxatives. I found myself referring to my previous times of anorexia, as no one there directly related to my then recent struggles of daily binging without compensation.

I began to realise an unsettling pattern.

When I told people that I was suffering from an eating disorder, the most common response I got was “but you are not underweight. You eat everything and seem to enjoy your snacks.” Indeed, my BMI was healthy and I could eat out at a restaurant without having a panic attack.

The truth is this: when people think of eating disorders, they think of anorexia or bulimia. They think of the dangers associated with being underweight and purging, and remember the high mortality rates. They do not think of an obese adult bulk buying chocolate from the supermarket. That person who stuffs their face can’t possibly have an eating disorder! Some might say they enjoy their food too much and unfortunately didn’t get a proper education in healthy nutrition. Others would say that they are lazy and should exercise more.

I have personally felt that anorexia and bulimia come with a sense of elitism. It is much easier to acknowledge the existence of a disorder when confronted by someone who has the physical attributes and behaviours unique to their illness. If you are extremely underweight, have a lot of anxiety around food, and engage in behaviours such as taking laxatives, how can you not have an eating disorder?

Please don’t get me wrong – I am NOT saying one eating disorder is worse than the other. They are ALL absolute hell in their own ways, and they all have their individual risks and complications. Everybody’s struggle is valid and every attempt at recovery deserves praise and acknowledgement.

But it is a lot harder to ‘prove’ you have an eating disorder if you simply seem to eat ‘a lot.’ “How dare u say u have a eating deesorder,” says a highly intelligent commenter on the internet. Their even more intelligent counterpart adds, “u just gotta understand that sugargh n fat are addictife. I usd to binge on biscits heaps then I realisd sugargh is baad so I stopped and I lost wait. Also u need 2 exercise more! Stop making excooses for being an ugly fatty. And dw its ok for me to call u ugly cos that can motivait u to loose wait.”

BED is not a made up disorder so people who eat a lot can have an excuse. It’s a thing in the DSM-V. BED is not just eating a whole packet of biscuits out of boredom, or comfort eating due to being in a sad mood – it is continually suffering from episodes of severe overeating in a short period of time. People with BED suffer from intense feelings of guilt, shame, misery, embarrassment; disgust, and self-loathing. They also suffer from extremely high levels of distress, often have clinical depression and anxiety, and tend to experience episodes of self harm and suicidal ideation. In short, binging episodes are the opposite of an enjoyable indulgence.

What causes confusion is that there are overweight people who do not have Binge Eating Disorder (BED), just as there are people who binge at times and do not have BED. There are also those who suffer from BED but are not overweight (perhaps as a result of a faster metabolism, medication, and/or being at a lower weight when the binging starts.) Without this knowledge, it’s understandable that there is confusion and doubt.

The determining factor is that those with BED can’t stop the binging. Even when they are full and feel like throwing up. Even when they are curled up on the ground in pain. Even when they can’t afford to buy any more food. Even when they KNOW it is extremely unhealthy for them. Even when they aren’t hungry and just want to go to bed. Even when their weight continues to climb and they desperately want to stop binging… but they just can’t. And they bully themselves, dismayed at this percieved weakness in their self-control: I am indescribably disgusting. As soon as I finish this binge I will lose all of this weight and never binge ever again. But before they realise, they are confronted by another awful binge episode. The lack of control feels terrifying and can be devastating. It only reinforces their highly critical thoughts and further erodes at their already fragile self-esteem.

But many people don’t realise this. They don’t realise that telling someone with BED that they eat a lot is like telling an alcoholic that they drink too much or a gambler that they lose more games than they win. They also don’t stop to think that telling a BED sufferer to “just stop binging and lose weight” is just like telling someone with anorexia to just gain weight and stop restricting. It feels literally, physically, utterly impossible. To recover, just like with any eating disorder or mental illness, they need professional help, time, support, compassion, and kindness. It is never as simple as do or not do.

Some fear that this type of eating disorder will give some people an excuse for their behaviour. Surely those who are simply lazy or enjoy excessive amounts of food or don’t have any willpower then won’t be motivated to help themselves because they are ‘sick!’ But someone with this illness doesn’t just eat a bucket of chicken nuggets and then not leave the house. BED is horribly powerful and can make sufferers feel compelled to do almost anything in order to quench the overpowering urges to binge and intense feelings of anxiety and self hatred. Examples may include: stealing food from shops, lying about their eating habits, eating food from the bin, eating other people’s leftovers, going to multiple supermarkets in one day, hiding food, eating vast amounts rapidly in secret, ravaging the food cupboard like a swarm of locusts, borrowing or stealing money/going into debt just to buy food to binge on, missing appointments or being late to work/school because they can’t stop binging, the painful list goes on. The sufferer is aware of these detrimental behaviours. They are miserable about themselves and their situation. But they feel completely powerless to do anything about it.

The other extra challenge posed to BED sufferers is our dieting and fat-shaming culture. While it is extremely hard for an ED victim to actively gain weight in a society that encourages weight loss, they do at least have science on their side – their bone density improves, as does their concentration and circulation. They can reap the physical rewards of the body repairing itself and receive physical confirmation that they are doing the right thing. However a BED victim cannot recover by dieting and actively trying to lose weight, because that will just refuel their binges. They have to focus on any personal issues, such as trauma or anxiety, work on finding healthy coping mechanisms instead of binging, concentrate on eating a balanced diet with no restrictions, AND figure out ways to manage the addictive behaviour before they can even begin to think about working towards a healthy weight. But when trying to eat a chocolate bar one afternoon in order to avoid eating ten that night, some unhelpful poo-bum will decide it is their holy mission in life to tell you that chocolate has sugar in it (who would have thunk it?!) and you should eat a salad instead. They effectively make you feel guilty about doing the right thing.

To finish, if you or someone you know suffers from Binge Eating Disorder, get help. Your eating disorder is just as deadly and devastating as all of the others. However, just like these other eating disorders, you CAN get better, even if you currently feel like you can’t. Full recovery is completely possible. Please be kind to yourself.

[Well this post has turned out to be loooooooooong. My longest article ever, to be honest! So thanks for reading it all if you did. But this is not a niche subject. BED is more prevalent that you may realise. In Australia, out of all of those who suffer from an eating disorder, 47% of them have Binge Eating Disorder, compared to 12% bulimia nervosa and 3% anorexia nervosa. BED is also the most prevalent eating disorder in the USA.]

Take care now. :o) I really appreciate each like, comment and share. If you want, please use this as a resource to explain to others the nature of Binge Eating Disorder and it’s legitimacy.

B – Birthdays

Not too long ago, it was my birthday.

It was nice. I got some great presents, people were kind to me, I was social, and there was a fantastic cake.

But it wasn’t happy. In fact, I was depressed. I felt empty, lost and apathetic. Of course, because that’s never enough when it comes to a mental illness, I also felt guilty, hopeless, and sad that I couldn’t feel happy on a day that I should.

I had never experienced fully blown clinical depression during a birthday before, so it felt like a step back compared to last year’s, when I was happy, hopeful, and finally making steps in my eating disorder recovery. As a result, I felt ashamed and cried both the night before and on the evening of my birthday.

It was only afterwards, talking to my doctor, or rather ranting (about how dare my depression stay strong on the one day that should be mine), did I realise that me being depressed on my birthday was the perfect example to throw in the faces of those who believe a mental illness can just be switched off, that it’s just a phase, that it’s easy to just stop, or whatever nonsense some ignorant douche may have told you.

The sad reality is this: there are some people who will be spending their birthdays in hospital because of self harm the night before. There are other people who will get happy birthday greetings from their fellow patients and nurses, being stuck in a clinic for a few weeks. There are many, many others who won’t be able to ignore the demons in their heads even on their special day.

You see, there are those with an eating disorder who will hate themselves and feel extremely guilty for eating a piece of birthday cake, if they can push themselves to eat it at all. Ditto for a restaurant or meal that used to be their favourite.

Those who compulsively or obsessively exercise won’t give themselves a break, even on a day they are supposed to spoil themselves.

There are those with binge eating problems who will eat all of the leftover cake and any edible gifts in secret that evening, and utterly loathe themselves for it.

Those with depression may feel guilty for receiving presents they feel they don’t deserve, and have just as much struggle taking care of themselves as they do on any other day.

There are those with anxiety who will be afraid noone will have fun at their party and find it boring, if they are able to organise it without panicking.

Someone with an obsessive compulsive disorder will have just as much trouble dealing with behaviours and urges as on any other day.

Even on your birthday, the voices, demons, urges, behaviours, fears, cruel thoughts and dangers are still present. Mental disorders do not rest. (Nor do panic attacks, for that matter.) Not on your birthday, not on Christmas, not on your wedding, not on the day you lose your virginity, not when you turn 60, not when you graduate, not when you fall in love, not when you are on holidays, not when you come first in something, not when you travel overseas.

Of course, happy events can make things easier and sometimes provide welcome distractions, but in my experience (not that all of the above things have happened to me),  as soon as they are over the mental illness resurfaces, just as strong as ever.

So we have to be super strong, super brave, I would even say super noble, and accept this. We have to fight just as hard on our birthday as we would any other day. We have to keep on challenging our illnesses and taking care of ourselves. We have to keep taking our medication, we have to eat what our body needs, we have to resist damaging urges and not act on harmful thoughts – even if all of this if is the hard thing to do and we just want to be a little lazy and give in to it all, because after all, it’s our birthday.

You and I need to accept that it’s ok to feel rubbish on a birthday (or any other special day.) After all, there are (hopefully!) many many many more to come and memories of joyful ones in the past. But most importantly of all, if we keep fighting, seeking support and developing strategies to deal with our difficulties, in the future we can celebrate the birthday of our dreams. For me, while my most recent birthday was tough mood wise, compared to the ones in the past which were dominated by eating disordered behaviours, this is admittedly a step forward.

Don’t forget: recovery is possible, and therefore so is a happy birthday. It may not be this year, or next year, but it WILL happen, eventually, if you keep on fighting.

 

See ya next Thursday! :o)