I am very, very skeptical about any book about eating disorders. The subject is a minefield of possible missteps, triggering concepts, or just downright oblivious offense. Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls has so far been my one exception. It had a big hand in helping me realize that I was really sick. That saved my life. I'm not being melodramatic. People think that other people "get" eating disorders for attention and then are "cured" by the therapy du jour.
Everyone's coping mechanisms are different, but I compare my ED past and current struggles with food and body image with my celiac disease. They are a part of me that can't be transplanted, and there are triggers that will make the sickness roar to life from a previously quiescent state. And I'll have them, in one way or another, for the rest of my life. I have learned to accept and manage my celiac. EDs are a lot harder to manage. I have accepted that I'll never be perfectly recovered, but I believe that I can do my best every day to fend off the nasty thoughts that crowd around my self-esteem like so many starving wolves. The thought patterns that an ED engraves in your brain are pretty much impossible to eliminate. You can fill them in or cover them over, but there's always a risk that one thought will knock you down and you're in the hole again.
Many books about mental illness (broadly speaking) tend to have the "issue" of being sick suddenly be resolved or "fixed" by the end of the book. Too often in books about depression, BPD, or OCD, the main character goes off their meds, feels the "fog" lift, and usually finds love with a manic pixie dream girl or guy. Please now imagine me screaming into the void for several minutes.
Okay, that being said, similar things happen in books about disordered eating, body image, or EDs. The main character magically learns that what she or he is doing is unhealthy, that they are "perfect the way they are," and are thus "cured" of having anorexia or bulimia or OSFED or whatever. Pardon me, once again, as I go ruin my vocal cords screaming.
Back now! J.J. Johnson's Believarexic doesn't have any of that. The main character, Jennifer, knows that she will have to go to therapy once she leaves the hospital. She knows that you don't just snap your fingers or click your heels together three times and voilá! All your problems are gone. No, no. That's not how it works.
Recovering from an eating disorder is an ongoing battle. I have my good days and my bad days. My bad days, hours, and minutes. Those times when my head keeps chasing itself rabidly, ready to savage any scrap of self-worth I have left. The eating disorder Ouroboros.
Belivarexic starts out with a free verse style that moves into more solid prose as Jennifer slowly begins to regain her hold on life. The first chapter is dreamy, but not in a fluffy clouds and unicorns sort of way. Jennifer's disconnected from reality: she's starving and vomiting and her body is quietly shutting down. But she doesn't want to go like that. She wants to live. So she does a very brave and very, very, very scary thing: she tells her parents that she wants to go to the hospital. "Mom didn't--doesn't--really believe Jennifer. But she does love her. And so she called and made the appointment."
The story is set in 1989, a few years after I was born. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and all of their killer kin had this haze of glamour about them. Movie stars and models and singers were anorexic. Not kids in the suburbs. Right?
Parents didn't watch the after school specials or the teen dramas. "Eating disorder? My child? No, she's just thin." And Jennifer's mom says precisely that to Dr. Wexler, Jennifer's primary medical touchstone in this story: " 'Jennifer says she has an eating disorder,' Mom tells Dr. Wexler. Jennifersays. Not: Jennifer has an eating disorder." I always thought the most terrifying part about this ordeal that is ED was telling my parents. Now I realize that it's even scarier to tell them and be faced with disbelief.
"This is news to her.
Does she not hear the rattling of
the scale in the bathroom
And night? ...
It's like they haven't been living in the same house,
But Dr. Wexler's questions, and Jennifer's answers to them, show beyond a doubt that she needs treatment. She is admitted to the Samuel Tuke Eating Disorders Unit.
What follows is basically what the author went through in treatment at her version of Samuel Tuke. The Rules. The Stages. The monitoring while urinating and taking of vitals early in the morning. The meal plans. I'd like to think that treatment is different now, that girls aren't force-fed unappetizing slop or tormented by nurses on an ego-trip.
After Jennifer's admission, she attends therapy, group therapy, and treatment in the teen wing for alcoholism. And it's so hard. And scary. But Jennifer is committed to getting better, and when she sees girls sign themselves out against doctor's wishes, she gets angry. Anger is a great motivator. I was impressed with Jennifer's tenaciousness. She's definitely not perfect in any way, but she's relatable and real. The fear of being fat, which is like this racing fear that zooms from your head to your stomach and back up to your head again, is ever-present. But Jennifer continues to eat.
Johnson seamlessly weaves in Jennifer's family issues as well. I wanted to shake them, even slap them at times. It's never insinuated that having family problems "made" Jennifer sick. However, a stressful home environment definitely kick-started Jen's anxiety issues, and anxiety led to purging, and then restricting ... because there needs to be some sort of control. Some sort of identity to be found in a family where the father's rage goes full blast at random times. A family whose mother confides her marital woes in her daughter and refuses to stand up for herself. A family that didn't even notice their daughter shrinking right in front of them.
Belivarexic succeeds where many other explorations of ED have failed because it's based on the author's own story. She's fictionalized where necessary, but it's not melodramatic and it certainly doesn't have a fairy-tale ending. This isn't an after-school special or a dramatic call to action. This is what happened. This is what still happens.
Many autobiographical books can read too much like an essay and not enough like literature. I'm so happy to say that Believarexic is an exception. Although it's based on true events, Johnson's writing is really lovely. I particularly enjoyed the segue from verse into prose, and Jennifer's relapses into poetry every time she slips back in her fight.
I know that my copy of this marvelous book is an ARC, and there might be some tweaks here and there before it comes out, but I have to share some of the quotes that hit me right in the gut. Up until this point, there has only been one book that I felt accurately represented my mental illness, and that was It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. That was for my anxiety and depression and suicidal ideation. Now, I have Believarexic to help explain my history of ED. Like Jennifer, I would categorize my illness as bulimarexia, although I don't think that's in the DSM-V. Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DSM-IV) or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (DSM-V) are a bit wordy. I purged and I restricted. Bulimarexia.
On being noticed:
"The sparkly glamour, the pride,
of being the
I would always brush off compliments on my weight ("Oooh, you're so tiny!") but secretly I reveled in them. I was winning. If I couldn't be pretty, at least I could be thin.
On the pecking order of EDs:
"A diagnosis of bulimia?
It dismisses years of Jennifer's hard work,
It negates all her hunger,
her painstaking dieting, her weight loss.
None of them matter in a diagnosis of bulimia, only the bingeing and
No. She has bulimarexia. That is her real diagnosis. The rexia is what you work hard for."
I swear I stopped breathing when I read that. For the first time, I realized that I thought the same thing. Bulimia meant a loss of control, but purging and restricting? That was control-squared.
"She can't function in real life without her eating disorder, because who would she even be without it? Who is the girl with the eating disorder, if she doesn't have an eating disorder?
"'Worry? What do you worry about?'
'Everything. Constantly. I worry about what people think of me. And whether I'm acting the way I'm supposed to. And I worry about why I always worry. Why can't I ever just enjoy myself? Why can't I ever enjoy anything? And of course I worry whether I'm thin enough."
I swear, Johnson was reading my mind here. Even now, when I'm working on staying healthy, I still have that nagging worry.
Believarexic ends with hope, but not unconditional triumph. Jennifer has the tools to recover, but there has been no magic potion, no fairy dust, no boy with floppy hair and a crooked smile that "cured" her. She has to work on herself. And sometimes you-sometimes I--slide backwards. But I hang onto hope. I cling to my support network. And I believe. I believe that I am more than my illness. I am more than my weight. I am more than what I ate for dinner. I am twenty-eight years old and I still don't know everything about myself. That's fine. Because I believe.
ARC received from Netgalley.