The stories we tell ourselves: Narratives and EDs

I’ve written volumes about eating disorders over the years–beginning before I was even diagnosed. Most of the writings were personal, private- scribbled by dim desk light as my roommate (any of them) snoozed in the bunk a few feet away. I didn’t create them as stories. They were more the semi-deranged ravings of someone who was very sad, very tired, and very afraid.

My goal, especially in those journals, was to make sense of what was happening to me. For a long time, I didn’t know my suffering had a name. Giving it a name–depression, OCD, anorexia–was powerful. But it still didn’t explain my tumultuous feelings and seemingly inexplicable behaviors. I didn’t know why I had to copy and re-copy my classroom notes. I knew I was terribly afraid of failure, but it wasn’t that simple. I knew I didn’t want to eat, that I didn’t feel I could eat, but all I could put my finger on was an overwhelming terror of weight gain and, yes, failure.

Diagnosis was a relief, but it also changed things. All of a sudden, my symptoms weren’t just mysterious and personal. They fit into a larger cultural narrative that told me what anorexia was (a disease of control, a rebellion against my parents/society/femininity/patriarchy) and what my symptoms meant. The world at large told me that strict control over diet and exercise was a good thing. The books I read said my mother was over-controlling and my father was distant. I incorporated these threads into the weave of my narrative. I never questioned the pattern because I didn’t know it was possible to create something different.

As a scientist, I love eating disorders research. I love neuroscience and psychology and epidemiology and genetics. All of it. I love what it tells us about the nature of EDs. As a writer, I’m also fascinated by how people narrate their eating disorder. How do people make sense of ED symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors? How do we feature in these stories? How do we cast ourselves?

In a blog post I read today in the new online science magazine Nautilus, I was reminded of the psychological power of narrative. Our selves are infinitely malleable, as we get to choose the threads that we use to define ourselves. No, we don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we weave them together.

Writes Jennifer Ouellette:

…in addition to being actors in our own lives, we also perceive our own agency: We can look at our past, project into the future, and set goals, whether we want to become an astronaut, a writer, or merely find a best friend. Finally, as we move into early adulthood, we embrace the self as author, developing a narrative identity that we continue to hone for the rest of our lives to describe what kind of actors we are, and why, as agents, we do what we do.

Why, indeed.

How I narrate my eating disorder has changed dramatically over the years. At first, I was an angry kid. I was furious that people were demanding I receive treatment I didn’t want for an illness I wasn’t even sure I had. I felt pushed, shoved, and tied down. Feeling victimized twice over–first by getting sick, second by the control freaks who were trying to run my life–I lashed out everywhere. As time passed, I realized that this wasn’t the only way to understand my illness.

I didn’t see that before.

It’s like the movies where they show alternate endings. If you’ve only known one story arc, the idea that there are more than one ways to end the story seems silly. The end is THE END. There can’t be another way. But movie directors are sneaky. They often create several different endings and then preview them to see what works the best.

Often, when I sit down at my laptop to write a story for work, I have an idea of a beginning and an end. Usually, at some point in the middle, I look up and have to figure out how to get there from here. Sometimes, it’s obvious. Other times, it’s not. As a writer, I’m lucky, because I can move here to there simply by cutting and pasting. In real life, here is here and that’s not changing. But there can change. You can shift your direction or focus, both in writing and in life.

For a long time, I wrote my life as a tragedy, and I was the tragic hero. It was utterly romantic and completely pathetic. I didn’t realize that I could take advantage of the movie director’s trick: I could re-write the ending. I could change the story I told about my life. I don’t want to create a Homeric epic or something out of Shakespeare (too many thees and thous anyway). I’m not always sure exactly what I’m creating. It will probably change, again and again, as I re-write my own life.

Says Ouellette

In the end, of course, all stories are ultimately about change. Nobody tells a story about how they’ve always been the same. Therein lies the psychological power of narrative. We can change our stories, thereby changing ourselves, even though our core self remains the same.

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18 Responses to “The stories we tell ourselves: Narratives and EDs”

  1. Great post, Carrie! As a diary-writer since age 12 (goodness, that’s 50 years of diary-writing!), I appreciate the importance of narrative – of writing as a survival and coping tool, as a form of self-expression, as a safe place in which to explore who we are and strive to make sense of our life. Pouring out thoughts and feelings – on paper or through the keyboard – helps us know who we are, and work out what direction to take. And yes, as we evolve, our growth is reflected in what we write – words are a great companion. We create our own life canvas. Words are a great friend. Let’s use them. Lots!

  2. I just wanted to point out that the quote about “embracing the self as the author” of one’s own life and identity during the passage to adulthood strikes me as a pretty direct reference to Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory, which I’m super-sensitized to at the moment as I just completed a paper for Kegan’s Adult Development course (although taught by a different prof. as he was on sabbatical this term) – incidentally on the intersection of this theory and fat-acceptance communities.

    It’s an interesting theory for anyone who wants to read more about models of human development across the lifespan (I.e. extending beyond early adulthood). The concept of “self-authorship” is a major aspect of this work, and yes, the ability to look objectively at one’s own identity, role(s) in society, relationships, and goals independent of others’ expectations is a huge aspect of what it means to be self-authoring according to this model. It also provides a pretty elegant explanation (albeit one with roots in a number of older psychologies, if you’re a stickler about that sort of thing) for the experience a lot of us have, as we get older, in looking back at the narratives we’ve written over time and the shifting sense of agency (e.g. in terms of who’s pulling the strings around treatment decisions) that almost invariably emerges in these narratives over time as we age. Just some food for thought, pun fully intended.

  3. The conventional narrative about eating disorders is, I believe, one of the reasons I didn’t believe I was really ill for such a long time. I’m an independent, highly educated professional woman. I’m a feminist; I don’t buy into this idea about body image, ergo I am not ill.
    Even more worrying, when I started to open up to my psychiatrist, I found myself using all those terms. Because it’s a lot easier to fit into a society narrative of a disease than it is to confront what’s actually going on in your head.

  4. As part of my recovery from anorexia nervosa (AN) at an older age (in my 40s), I was encouraged to write a personal narrative to aid self understanding. I have done this at least 4 times in the past 7 years, and two of the accounts have been published as academic papers.

    One of the accounts describes my past exercise dependence, while the other explores my general obsessionality. The latter emphasises the complexity of AN and the fact that the thoughts which accompany AN can be totally unrelated to body image. Both accounts are analytical and non ‘tragic’. (I am not one for writing or reading ‘tragic life stories’).

    What I have realised over the years is that there are a number of ways I can ‘tell my story’, and I’m not sure whether writing my story is at all helpful – to me or to anyone else. Given that both articles in academic papers are published under my real name, I now wish I had never written them, because I do not want to be thought of as ‘the woman who had life-threatening anorexia nervosa’ – even though it’s true. I desire an identity that is completely free from anything to do with EDs, but given my long history of AN, this is desire is somewhat elusive…

    • Carrie Arnold May 15, 2013 at 10:31 am

      I agree- I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to create an identity totally free of AN but I can try to make it as minor of a character as possible.

      Like in the movie credits, when they have all the people at the end who are listed as “Hoodlum #2”.

    • Grappling with a real (this time) attempt at recovery from a long-standing battle with anorexia (started in my early 40’s..and am now in my early 50’s)..I would be extremely interested in your published articles. I find there is so little “out there” on late-onset type ED’s…Perhaps your insights and obvious wisdom (as well as writing prowess) could engender some sort of inner fiber to face the struggle ahead. Thank you for such intelligent commentary.

      • Thanks Carrie and Donna.

        Donna, my ED (AN) was not late-onset. It started at age 11 after a history of childhood OCD and subsequent depression – and has persisted into my 40s. I had ‘atypical’ (non fat phobic) AN. I am much better now than I have been in the past, but I still have a lot of anxiety around change and periods of major depression.

        The most recent narrative I wrote (which I now wish I hadn’t; it seemed a good idea at the time…) is titled ‘Anorexia Nervosa and the Body Image Myth’ and was published in European Eating Disorders Review in 2009.

  5. This post provides a lot of hope. We can all re-write our endings if that is what we choose to do. I think a lot of ED patients fall victim to the “I’ll never get better” mindset because they have a hard time finding a way to get from ‘here’ to ‘there.’ That was definitely the case for me for a long time. Adapting to change is absolutely necessary. My ED was a way to avoid that change, but I am quickly learning in order to be “normal” again, I need to accept change whether I want to or not. Life never stops. Thanks for this post, as always.

    • +1 To all you have lucidly said Ms. Conkright! Especially taken to heart “ be “normal” again, I need to accept change whether I want to or not. Life never stops.”

      And..indeed, thank YOU so very much, Ms. Arnold for an extremely thought-provoking, enriching post.

  6. Wow Carrie. I am feeling so happy and wiser for the evolution of your change in thinking. Life is Like of an evolution for everyone. We don’t always allow it to happen or to believe we could or should change the direction. We tend to be creatures of habit. Comfort zones are safe and familiar. But they can also be isolating and lonely, or even depressing. But exploring something new requires risks. Thing is fear of something is before we experience it usually much worse than the actual experience.
    Your just so right in about writing the narrative. The free flow of thoughts and words, good and bed give us a picture of ourselves uncensored. Thoughts and feelings but not actions or ideas of what to actually do. Because so many people can learn to respond to negative thoughts and feelings (we all have, just now with the same intensity or frequency) as way to feel safe, it’s biological response to per curved eminent danger ( I know you know that ) but we have evolved and although I believe people with eds have a much stronger link to that response , you have explained so eloquently how to go beyond that response with writing tour own narrative. Learning to allow yourself the expression of thoughts and feelings, good and bad and exploring different actions and outcomes like in a story. Bravo!

    • Sorry for the typos ( just not with the same intensity ) and ( respond to perceived not per curved)

  7. Hi Carrie,
    Great post, thanks for writing it! I’m really interested in narratives of eating disorders in recovery… so much so, in fact, that it is part of my thesis topic. Have you read any work by Epston, Maisel, Borden and/or Madigan? They’ve done a lot of work in the narrative therapy realm for eating disorders- that kind of “re-writing your story” type of thing. I know that narrative therapy has been really powerful for some people in recovery; I didn’t personally experience narrative therapy but I’ve read a good deal about it and it seems to make inherent sense to me.
    I really like that you mention the ever-changing nature of the stories we tell; I think too often we seek some kind of “happy ending” to our stories and expect that a story will stay constant & feel true over the long haul, which is so often not what ends up happening- I know personally that when I look back on stories I told about myself and my eating disorder/recovery and the relationships therein I cringe about the way I framed things/events. But then, if it was true for me then, maybe it helped me in some way? The whole process of telling/writing and re-writing our stories is so fascinating to me. I always wonder, too, how much the stories we tell collide with the stories others tell about eating disorders; there’s a kind of bi-directionality to it all that I think needs to be explored more deeply.
    Anyway, thanks for the great post.

    • Carrie Arnold May 15, 2013 at 10:27 am

      I’ve never personally done any narrative therapy- I’m not sure what the evidence base is, either.

      The big revelation for me was to stop trying to shoehorn myself into some magical happy ending. I kept getting disappointed and frustrated when life didn’t work out the way I had written it in my head. I had to learn how to accept that sometimes I had to weave the story with what I was given and I needed to make the best of it.

  8. Kelsey Wallour May 15, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Love this post and the philosophical nature of it 🙂
    Thanks for helping dispel the myths surrounding the eating disorder narrative – it can have a crippling effect on those undiagnosed, in recovery, and recovered.

  9. There is a fantastic anthropologist named Arthur Kleinmen who has written extensively about the power of “narrativizing” illness—his book “The Illness Narratives” isn’t about EDs per se (although it does focus on treating chronic illness) but talks a lof about the issues you raise here, such as how the individual illness experience fits into biomedical disease categorizations and cultural perceptions. Eating disorders are especially tricky here because there are such loaded preconceptions about what they are and how they manifest. Really interesting to think how narrating your illness can be empowering, yet is so deeply influenced by conflicting contexts.

  10. Thanks for sharing such a good idea, paragraph is pleasant, thats why i have read it fully


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