My niece Madison organized an eating disorders awareness event for her senior project. She invited me to speak (for reasons listed below), and because I knew that I would have a long day of travel before speaking, I wrote everything down. After I finished speaking a few people asked if I could send them my talk. So I’m posting it here–without the deviations that naturally occurred when in front of an audience because I can’t remember what I said:
When Maddie first invited me to speak at her Purple Party, I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew that she’d asked me in part because I have my own eating disorder stories to tell, and since the worst of my anorexia faded away a long time ago, perhaps I could shed light on the recovery process. But I didn’t really want to relive my anorexia story. It’s old, and, frankly, it’s not that different from anyone else’s. Yet I love my niece very much, and I want to support her, so I kept thinking about what I could say if I didn’t talk about anorexia.
The idea came to me, as so many of my ideas do, while I was getting ready for bed one night a few weeks ago. As I was brushing my teeth, a sentence began to form in my mind, so I rushed into my bedroom to write it down in the notebook I keep by my bed for that purpose. Finally I knew what I could talk about. Stories. Specifically the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about our relationship to the world.
I call them stories rather than thoughts or even beliefs for a few reasons. I’m a writer, so stories are what I work on every day. I also come from a family of women who LOVE to tell stories. Especially funny stories. I think that’s another reason Maddie invited me to speak—aside from my experience with anorexia, like the other women in my family, I am very entertaining. At any rate, lately I have become really interested in the power of our own stories—how they shape who we are, how they benefit us, and how they get in our way.
We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves—I’m a loser because…, I’m a winner because…, I’m lucky, I’m unlucky, the world owes me something, I’m not good enough…they go on and on. Some of our stories have been with us since we were very small, some develop as we grow older. Many of the stories we tell ourselves come from outside influences: for instance, there’s the old chestnut: ‘girls are bad at math,’ so there are hundreds of young women who don’t even bother with math. I was actually pretty good at math until I heard that I wasn’t supposed to be. Or until I took trigonometry—because it kicked my ass. And then there are the stories that advertising tells us that we absorb often without realizing it. Those stories are scary because they are so patently unreal, and yet we believe them as though they are proven facts. You can all think of at least one seductive advertising campaign that had you believing you needed x product to make your life complete, or stop aging (I’m not growing old gracefully, I’m going to fight it every step of the way), or have perfect hair. And you can all think of at least one little story you tell yourself about yourself.
Although some of the stories we tell ourselves can be comforting, many of them can be harmful. For example, when I was a teenager I began to tell myself the story that if I weighed above 100 pounds I was fundamentally unworthy of being loved. That’s a horrible story for anyone to tell herself—not least because it’s not true! But it stayed with me—perhaps not so clearly articulated—until my thirties—resulting in some really bad dating decisions. I am pretty sure that story came out of my anorexia (which I said I wasn’t going to talk about, but there you are). As you know eating disorders breed a whole host of horrible stories.
There’s a particularly insidious storyline in many eating disorder stories—the victim story. “I am a victim of ED,” it goes. “And that victimhood stems from something in my childhood, in my culture, in whatever it is I tell myself is true, whatever led me to embrace ED.” My problem with this story has two parts—first of all making the eating disorder into a character by naming it ED really bothers me. Giving a man’s name to a disease that largely affects young women seems fundamentally wrong. I know it’s a convenient nickname, but calling an eating disorder ED removes some of –if not all of—the power from the person who has the eating disorder. It becomes a separate entity entirely, not tied exclusively to the complexity of the individual, not allowing the individual full ownership of her—or his—disease. I also hate the victim story because it actually makes recovery—real recovery—impossible. As long as anyone believes she or he is ED’s victim, he or she cannot be free from ED. In taking away our responsibility for our behavior, we take away our power over the disease. As “victims of ED” we are forever linked to ED. I hate that.
Then how might we break free from our eating disorder stories?? I have a deceptively simple suggestion: we tell different ones. The beauty of being a writer in the early 21st century is that technology makes my job SOOO much easier. On my computer I can change anything with just a few clicks. That never gets old for someone who learned how to type on a typewriter (you could probably find a picture of one on the Google). But many of you knew more about computers by the time you were five than I ever will, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. Because of this editorial ease, I see all narratives as amazingly flexible, erasable, rewritable.
That’s why when Maddie asked me if she could say in the program that I would speak about the power of our thoughts I said no. Thoughts are different from stories. Thoughts creep up on us; they surface sometimes almost without our noticing them and then they’re gone. Replaced by a song (Electric avenue has been running through my mind for weeks) or another thought or something else. We can also be lulled into believing that what we think is true and therefore immutable. But stories require effort—we bring several thoughts together into a narrative. Stories have form, plots, characters. We make our stories, so we can change them. We can revise them. Reshape them. Rewrite them.
And that’s a big deal because if you really want to change who you are, you have to change the stories you tell yourself about yourself. That’s where my healing began—and continues—for I am NOT a victim of an eating disorder. [That’s my toothbrushing sentence] I am not a victim of my childhood experiences. Not a victim of something my parents, teachers, culture did or didn’t do. Yes, all of these things inform who I am and how I manage to negotiate my way through the world. But I refuse to see myself as a victim. As seductive as that story can be—because it takes the responsibility for a lot of my behavior off of my shoulders—that isn’t my story anymore, and that doesn’t have to be anyone’s story anymore.
But what, you might ask, do I do with this idea, (aunt) Beth? How do I apply it to my life and to my recovery? I’d love to say it’s easy as I’m making it sound with my awesome computer analogy. But it requires a lot of work. You start by thinking, really thinking, about what you want your story to be. Who do you want to be? How do you want to see yourself? Then you listen to yourself to find those stories that get in the way of you being who you want to be. What are the repeating negative storylines? One of mine is that chaos is just around the corner at all times and if I’m not vigilant about everything, chaos will reign. The world will spin completely out of my control and all hell will break loose. I break free from this story in a couple of ways—first of all, I know that chaos always wins anyway—one of the laws of entropy tells us that nature tends toward chaos—and I remind myself that I’m actually okay with that. There’s something kind of exciting and relieving about chaos being inevitable. Then I remind myself that my actions and the universe have absolutely no relationship. None. The laws of physics operate no matter how much I worry about anything—whether it’s about traffic, my husband, my dog, my work, my time, my health, my dog’s health…I think you get the picture. The truth is, I have very little control over most things. But I can either let that fact drive me crazy, or I can change the story. I can tell myself I am the type of person who doesn’t worry about control. I am the type of person who does not worry. (breathe)
That’s only the first part, of course. Because if I’m really going to change the story, I actually have to behave like a person who doesn’t worry about things that she cannot control. I’m working on that. My first step has been to stop the crazy worry stories from gaining traction in my mind by repeating, aloud if necessary, “Just because I can imagine it does not make it true.” That simple, albeit grammatically dodgy, mantra has helped a lot. It stills my mind and calms my stomach. It’s a tiny action I can take to change how I behave.
And that’s where all this leads. Putting the new stories into action. When you figure out what stories you want to tell yourself—the old stories that still work and the new stories that help you heal—then you figure out how to act like the person you want to be. It’s a constant negotiation with yourself and with the world, but it’s a negotiation that puts the power back in your hands. Which is where it belongs.