In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a close friend of Dating & Hookup and a respected journalist, ”Nate Milsham,” writes on his relationship to his wife’s debilitating sickness.
Part one, here.
Emily was never fat in the first place—she was curvier in high school and lost a lot of weight through starving herself so badly that she could tell exactly how much she could eat before she blacked out. As with ballet, she was able to make her anxieties work for her. Many people in her life have done very cruel things to Emily—a boyfriend who humiliated her for fun a long time ago, a stalker when we were at school together, regular unkind words from her mother along the way—and whatever rage she feels, she turns inward, into the kind of brutal punishment you wouldn’t inflict on a rabid dog. She treats her body like a lump of particularly stubborn clay; pain is merely proof that the sculpting process is working. She can fit into a pair of skinny jeans now, and she can buy designer clothes if she saves her teacher’s salary, and she likes the way she looks.
But she can’t order takeout after 8 p.m., because she gets tired and the stress of fatigue pushes her that crucial few inches over the precipice into recursion and terror and paralytic anxiety.
She is terrified to go to church because she’s afraid someone will talk to her. She hates to eat with anyone besides me, and even then, although we’ve eaten nearly every meal together for five years and change, she has to know what I’m ordering, and if it’s a salad, she has to get a smaller salad. If it’s a steak, she has to get a smaller steak. She’s happiest when we’re sharing, which makes me happy, too.
The eating disorder is just a manifestation of deep, unshakable fear: that she’ll never be good enough, that she’ll never live up to the standards set for her, that she’s somehow ugly in a part of herself no one else can see, and that fear, actually, is eating her; consuming her from the inside out.
Some nights she literally wakes up screaming, her voice hoarse from disuse during sleep but still in that desperate register reserved for fires and murders.
Still, Emily is getting better. She ate a dish of chicken curry from our local Thai restaurant in front of me the other day; I have had to restrain the urge to cheer because she can’t stand for me to draw attention to anything she eats or doesn’t eat. It’s been weeks since I’ve had to beg her to eat something—anything—for dinner. She hasn’t bought an issue of fucking, fucking, fucking “Cosmopolitan” (“Are Your Boobs Uneven? You’re Not Alone”) in a while and we got drunk and ate a whole bag of marshmallows together after Valentine’s Day. Some of this is simply Emily being Emily; she’s extremely stubborn and wants to get better. Some of it is that it finally got around to Enid that she’d been hurting her daughter rather than helping her. She sends boxes of cake mix and crackers now, which Emily rolls her eyes at, but isn’t hurt by.
It is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which five years ago I would have called the stupidest thing I could think of. It’s a psychiatric disease that affects upper-middle-class white girls—who gives a shit? Well, I suppose I do. It really messes people up. It is horrible beyond description, and ladies, it is one of the worst things your partner will ever deal with short of fatal disease.
Many women already deal with eating disorders; others are in the early throes of anorexia or bulimia or some permutation thereof and “just trying to lose weight” or some other excuse. Here’s the thing: an eating disorder is not a part-time occupation. The name fits much better than whoever wrote the DSM-IV entry probably intended: it is an eating disorder in the sense that it disrupts your ingestion of food, but it is also a disorder that devours. It devours you, and it will devour your loved ones if you let it. If you understand only one thing from reading this, please understand that an eating disorder is not something you do to yourself; it is like suicide in that it constantly tells everyone who loves you that their opinion of you is worthless, and you don’t care what they think. Unlike suicide, it is reversible. Antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, good old-fashioned therapy and occasionally tough-love inpatient treatment can work wonders, and ultimately, you will be the person you’re supposed to be. Trust me, you are not supposed to be the person you are becoming when you purge, exercise until you pass out or see spots on an empty stomach, or eat half an apple for dinner. That person is dead.
You are probably somebody’s dream girl. There is a good chance that there are magazines, websites and blogs devoted to people who look exactly like you—the variety of male desire is equaled only by its enthusiasm. My wife is the best person I’ve ever met and the only thing she could ever do to make me happier with her body would be to gain ten pounds so that she doesn’t get lightheaded if she goes six hours without eating. I don’t want her to be Kate Upton—I don’t know what Kate Upton likes in bed and I don’t think she’d have much interesting to say about the George Bellows exhibition at the Met.
I’m writing this the day after the Oscars and I’m reading every possible variety of nasty thing said about the women on the red carpet, who are more or less what our society has to offer in the way of paragons of beauty; I understand that both men and women are hearing these things and that prejudices against women who don’t conform to an unattainable standard of beauty are much stronger and have much more real consequences for men than for women. But you have to believe someone who has watched it firsthand: the consequences of forcing yourself to conform to that standard are so much worse, and they will ultimately affect you and the people who love you the most. The hot little bitch at your office who makes fun of you for eating a sandwich; the older married guy who flirts with everybody but you; the manager-bro who’s only kidding about your weight—fuck those people. Their opinions don’t matter, and you don’t even like them. What you do for them, you take away from the people who love you the most.
That’s all I wanted to say.
Thanks, loadmaster, for the image!
"Nate Milsham" is some version of the persona and pseudonym Nate Milsham. He is a New York City-based writer and stand-up comic. He holds degrees from Wheaton College and Penn University, has lived in New York since 2004, and reads more science fiction than is healthy for an adult human being. He was born and raised in the deep South and is not about to go back there. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, who can fly and shoot laser beams out of her eyes.
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