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.
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.
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.