I recently read A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger (review coming soon) and enjoyed both the story and the point of view from which it’s written. Lois Metzger has written an important book, so I’m happy to feature her guest post today on the blog.
Anorexia is a Liar
By Lois Metzger
Author of A Trick of the Light
My new book, a young-adult novel about a 15-year-old boy who falls victim to an eating disorder (“A Trick of the Light,” Balzer + Bray, HarperCollins) took me almost ten years to write. It’s not just that I’m a slow writer (though that’s part of it). It’s because I was researching anorexia, which took me down so many twisty paths I needed a long time to understand it.
Basically, as I can now see, there’s what anorexia pretends to be, and what it actually is. Anorexia convinces you that your world will be a better place if you are thin or fit. Anorexia promises you:
You’ll look great and feel great!
But, and this is the crux of the disease, anorexia is a liar.
Many young people and adolescents (though there have been children as young as seven with the disease) fall into anorexia because they are unhappy with their appearance. (Or they’re unhappy with something else, but the focus becomes fixed on the body.) They may begin by restricting certain foods to get rid of a few extra pounds, or exercising to get rid of a flabby stomach.
At first, there may be a few compliments: “You lost weight! You look terrific!” or, as in the case of Mike Welles, the main character in my book, who hasn’t had much experience with girls, a girl says to him, admiringly: “You been working out? It shows.”
This is all the encouragement anorexia needs. It pushes you to keep going, eat less, work out more. If goals are met, new goals must appear and be met (with no end in sight). Generally, in the case of girls and women, they want to see the numbers on a scale go down. For boys and men, it’s more about getting rock-hard abs or a six-pack. Mike, in my book, begins doing sit-ups and push-ups and running laps around a local park. It doesn’t matter if he can barely breathe or gets cramps that feel like a knife in his chest. He keeps going.
So it’s all about looking good or feeling fit, but after a while, these girls, women, men and boys don’t look so good anymore.
They may lose hair or eyelashes. Cuts and bruises don’t heal. They may have a soft coat of fuzz on their faces, backs and chests (because of a lack of food, the body can no longer produce heat, and this hair is the body’s attempt to get warm). Due to a lack of calcium, they may develop osteoporosis; they can’t stand up straight and their bones can break from a simple fall. Too little potassium may result in weakened heart muscles, which can lead to a heart attack.
And the intent — to look great — has actually been reversed. They look wasted, emaciated, skeletal.
In the first stages, they feel good. The compliments, the added energy. Even starvation can give you a bit of a high, and exercise can release endorphins. Mike’s senses are heightened; things look brighter and more vivid. He feels like he’s waking up to the world: “He sees his boring old neighborhood in a whole new way. The slanting light makes everything pop as if it exists in more than three dimensions, a kind of super diorama — front lawn, sidewalk, street, bus, trees, sky, universe, beyond-the-universe.”
But after this initial euphoria, they don’t feel so good.
Besides the dizziness and weakness that come with starvation, they can’t sleep because their bodies are actually de-volving to a kind of caveman existence. As a therapist tells Mike in the book, “A Cro-Magnon man didn’t sleep much — he was always thinking about getting the next meal. His senses had to be at full alert, so he could smell food that was ripe, see a small animal trying to hide in the bushes.”
Body temperature plummets. Getting heat to the heart, lungs and kidneys takes priority over the hands and feet.
So anorexics are cold all the time, and hungry all the time, and can’t sleep (even while protesting they are not freezing, not starving, not exhausted). Here, again, the intent — to feel great — has been lost.
But instead of fighting the disease, they still believe the lie. They are committed to it, or, more accurately, addicted. They deny the reality within them.
My book started out as the story of a boy struggling with an eating disorder. I didn’t really know what that meant, and it took me years to figure out that it’s the story of the struggle to see the lie for what it is.
© 2013 Lois Metzger, author of A Trick of the Light
Lois Metzger, author of A Trick of the Light, was born in Queens and has always written for young adults. She is the author of three previous novels and two nonfiction books about the Holocaust, and she has edited five anthologies. Her short stories have appeared in collections all over the world. Her writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and Harper’s Bazaar. She lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and son.