A CONVERSATION WITH ANOREXIA
Dreamed 1994/6/25 by Chris Wayan
I'm studying anorexia, since I have it. Today I read a case history where suppressing tears and grief from a hellish childhood led to suppressing hunger too. Is that be true of me? I do ignore hunger when I'm upset and want to escape my body.
Yet this case study ignores its own evidence, asserting the root cause of anorexia is sexism--men demanding women look thin. How's that explain me? No one like me this thin, and I don't starve myself or look in a mirror and feel fat--I just don't feel hungry most of the time! It's internal--stress can trigger it, but it's not media brainwashing but an appetite problem. This article tells anorexics to put the locus of control outside; we're passive victims. But then putting the power inside me is as scary as putting a pizza inside, or a penis. Food, sex, power... all no-nos.
So I head over to my library and find exactly one book on you-know-what: Hilde Bruch's "Conversations with Anorexics". I sit and read, aware of the irony that I'm getting quite hungry--only eaten some toast and a few pieces of fruit today myself. Check the book out and go home, deliberately cook a big meal, lie down and stuff myself... while reading about us!
The anorexics sound totally familiar, comfortable. We're not hard to understand! At least from inside.
When did my illness start? As soon as I was away from my parents' control, in college. It worked like a parental substitute, kept me from getting sexually involved--every time I untied another parental knot, my health worsened! It kept me unattractive, too, so I'd get rejected if I did break parental rules and come on to anyone. Anorexia ENFORCED my parents' rules; it was no rebellion.
Denial creeps in. "Oh, I'm not a real anorexic." Wrong. I had starvation episodes--like that foodless two-week Sierra hike. I LOVED being thin, light, and full of energy. I was blind to others' alarm when they saw me--5'11" and 112 lbs at the low point (brief, though. Bounced back to 120 lbs, bony but not SKELETAL. More denial?)
I freak out on page 58. "...the seemingly cooperative, conforming behavior that many patients display--even though they may have openly stated that they do not need or want treatment--slows down the therapeutic exploration. The act of "undoing" that is so common in treatment with anorexics is related to this attitude. In "undoing," the patients will agree to some point, even elaborate on something that has been clarified, speak about it as if it reflects their own thinking... and within a few days or weeks, act and talk as if nothing has ever been learned. Many are so subtle in this seeming agreement and undoing that it is difficult for the therapist to help the patient to clarify what she is doing."
My therapist Shelley's caught me undoing, and I've heard her. Can even see why--undoing tests her patience, expresses my distrust and anger toward therapists, warns her not to expect too much too fast.
Related: my friends and relatives fish for approval and I withhold it. My sister Althea sent me some writing, including a piece on what I'd meant to her as a kid--on missing me now. I read it--just the one. Powerful--I felt sad & that I don't visit. But I still don't want to!
At a family dinner, Althea said "I didn't expect a response, just wanted to know that you'd read them." I didn't answer. Enjoyed my silence! Because she had crossed my boundary. It was my time--to read her unsolicited stories or not. To spend time with her or not. She was fishing; I want to discourage that. Not because I dislike Althea (or her writing, which is pretty good). But I was wall-building, in a family with bulldozed boundaries.
Bruch seems blind to the worst side of this "undoing": I undo my own insights, undo me, just as I undo my flesh... yet I'm can't stop it. It's disheartening to read old journals and find the same insights I had last week--and I still can't act on them, can barely think them without my mind going slippery and distractable--losing them again. "Undoing" isn't aimed at others but at me. Bruch claims anorexics frustrate and worry their friends and family by being incurable! Come on, do terminal cancer patients die just to annoy you? Undoing, and anorexia, aren't a statement to others.
When I undo my own dream-messages... mild instances of that create depression, severe ones suicidal despair. Undoing myself feels bad! Who or what gains? All I can see the undoing doing, is keeping me doing what I'm doing!
So maybe it's a safety brake keeping me from normality. Like Hawking's paralysis, like Darwin's mystery illness, excusing them from normal obligation, freeing them to think... anorexia lets me dream, in the heart of a society that wants me to turn outward. I AM vulnerable; I was trained to defer to others' needs--but is that all? I'm not stupid--wouldn't I have changed my obedience training if I'd not "undone" all the insights many times? Worse anorexics than me, have done it. So I'm skeptical this is protection! Maybe I need isolation for my work--without facing that fact--like Darwin and Hawking. If so, I need to convince this saboteur I can have friends & a sex life while doing my soul-task. And maybe I can't! The saboteur could be right! My deep needs could preclude a normal life.
The only way to find out is to learn to say no--the basic anorexic task. If that doesn't free me, maybe it's time to bargain with the anorexic urge--agree to work consistently on some damn project my soul has on its angelic little pinhead mind--a job I've been dismissing as "too much while I'm sick." If so, it'll have to come clear in dreams. I won't let myself be bullied into working on it, unless the sexual and social and health-sabotage stops in exchange. Until then I'm on spiritual strike. I won't let my soul do anything great until my soul lets me have a life. Meanwhile, my soul blocks healt till I agree to its hidden agenda! Deadlock. Everything gets vetoed.
I've known this for years--stumbled on it in old journals. Another insight that's been undone a hundred times. Impasse? Not necessarily.
Whether my spirit has just basic self-respect on its mind or some longterm project, figuring out what I want remains top priority--I can't have much fun OR do difficult lifework without it. Just... while I trying to learn to say yes to pleasure and no to a whole LOT of shit... I better keep an eye on this deeper level, the sunken kiva.
I've had many dreams this year about genius--unique abilities, unique goals. Grandiose dreams, to counter the shame of anorexia? If so, they miss the emotional target: I feel bad about my inability to act, to identify feelings, to cope with fear. Dreams about me being warm, or confident, or scared but handling stress without illness... those would be comforting, compensatory dreams! Not dreams about being a genius. I mean, being a child prodigy caused a lot of my problems. Reminders of my intelligence dredges up old fears & hurts. And many dreams haven't expressed ANY feelings around giftedness at all--utterly matter of fact. "This is what others are. Here's what you think you are. And here's what you are." So many emphatic reminders this year (green spots all over my dream chart) tell me something's up.
"Conversations with Anorexics" makes me nervous about my weight, though it's been stable at 130 lbs for months. I don't even know my height any more--the dance classes stretch my spine so much. I no longer know if I'm merely thin, underweight enough to increase the risk of ill health, starving to the point where thinking is distorted, or life-threateningly skeletal. The numbers in the book are all for women, much shorter and lighter boned than I am. This ignorance in someone who has looked up such charts over and over depresses me. "Undoing?" Or part of this society's sexist view of anorexia and deprivation in general? No chart for me because I don't exist! I didn't undo--I've been undone!
So I close the book and go out in the back yard. Lie in the hammock under the trees, for the first time. A hot day. Eat fruit and watch ripply cirrus clouds. Fight to allow myself pleasant time... Guilts creep in, I throw them out patiently. "Finish the book, it's provoking insights!" "You're hurting the trees this hammock hangs from. You weigh too much!" Can you believe that? Just had my nose rubbed in how underweight I am, yet I actually think that...
I finish eating, but can't bear to lie still too long afterward--it feels too nice, I don't deserve it. The poor bean plants need water... I give in and water the garden. Sigh. Giving myself half an hour under a tree was hard work! Tired me out!
Later, I read more of "Conversations with Anorexics". Her worst patients remind me of me. Huge holes in myself, no idea what I like, how to sense it. Thorough self-deprivation. And a much longer history than most to entrench the behavior. One consolation: she confirms that physical improvement often triggers depression; it's not just me. The illness masked your utter inability to function. When my therapist urged me to be more social, I felt a wave of gloom! When I do force myself to socialize, it's a minefield. I'm unprepared... for everything from piano lessons to flirtation to buying used cars. Hide for a reason!
I know I'll dream tonight about the agenda of the Undoer. Is it just self-defense... or something more?
DREAM 1: IN THE ANOREXIC KIVA
I'm riding in a car with several others, including a shy gentle woman who seems abused--too shy, too gentle. I understand her too well; she must be sick! Slender; is she anorexic?
We climb a mountainside, convoluted as a crumpled rug. Meadows, flowers in little hanging valleys. The winding road spirals up to a peak lost in fog. Down here we have sunlight, but weak, damp, pale. Horses and cattle. There are skeletons lying near the living horses, who ignore them in a spooky, unhorsy way. Fresh--some still have manes. The shapes of the bones are beautiful, sculpted--but still worry me. What's killing them, and why don't the living ones care? Are they anorexic?
A little valley where the road ends. A couple of weird hooks or racks, like those for bike repair, standing about six feet tall. They're a veterinary innovation--a way to hold up weak, sick, skeletal horses, making it easier for them to breathe? The hooks look sinister, but in fact are kind--not only improve the cure-rate but reduce suffering. A few horses graze among the racks. Pass a small spring, lined with nodding flowers.
We're seeking a small boy who lives among the horses. They say he's psychic.
We stop at the ranger station. This is a national park. There's a small museum. One of our group taps her watch and says "Not much time--20 minutes." I go in anyway, want to see something famous to shamans: the basement is a kiva, an underground center for Native American shamanism. It's the studio where they broadcast the weekly "Shaman's Report" on National Public Radio.
The only way down is through a sipapu, a chimney between worlds. This one's modernized--a metal pipe about 4 inches in diameter. Impossible, impassable. Oh! It STRETCHES! It's made of foam rubber and sliding arcs of soft aluminum arranged in a spiral like the iris of a camera. The pipe looks solid yet can change diameter under pressure. Can I squeeze through? I try. Down through a stifling passage, only a foot or two, but terrifying. Gasp "Oh, God." Then realize I'm praying to a deity I don't even like! "Oh, Goddess." No, that won't do it any more either, she slides into man-hating too much, and she's too human. "Hey, Coyote." I say, "get me through here." Feel silly asking reassurance from a trickster but I do it anyway. And it works--he's a slippery guy! I promptly squeeze through the pipe and burst into the kiva.
I only have a few minutes, so I hustle around memorizing names and references to follow up later. Last thing is the shamanic bookshelf. A note says "The best general guide is upstairs--a pamphlet the park people put out." But the specialty items include "The Further Adventures of Peter Pan." From the cover, he appears to have changed sex, is now a girl who won't grow up--not if it means losing the ability to fly. I'm not sure I'd make that trade either.
I know a couple of the other books, they're marketed as kids' fantasy novels--but according to the notes here, they're really shamanic manuals, to be taken literally! I can get them from my local library--all I have to do is reread them in this new light.
It's a lot easier leaving the kiva than entering. Made it with a minute to spare! I buy the National Park Service's "Guide to Shamanic Dreaming." A ranger drinks at fountain, a long drink. Makes me realize I'm very thirsty too. I reach for fountain--and the ranger blocks me! "This fountain is for staff only" he says. Points me to an old, small fountain, not refrigerated like his. I feel furious, insulted. Stifle it all, and bend to drink the tepid water. It's nearly as red as blood--stained with old iron.
AT 1:45 AM
Then... an earthquake wakes me! It's 1:45 AM. I turn on the radio briefly. The quake was 4 to 4.5 on the Richter scale. Not dangerous, but unnerving...
Write my dreams and some notes. Then I put on sweats and lay my shoes and coat by my bed in case a bigger quake hits, and go back to sleep.
Wake again. Don't remember much. But when I go to the bathroom, recall waking in the night and writing about the water-fountain scene--"This isn't just symbolic. I'm dehydrated and don't know it. Drink water as soon as I wake up." So I drink a lot, and suddenly feel much better. It was true: I was dehydrated w/o recognizing it. Unable to!
If this is true for something as simple and obvious as water, why not food?
Why look for complex explanations for anorexia when I may not even sense my hunger?
IN THE MORNING
I'm startled to find that some of the notes and interpretations of the dream last night are missing from the notepad--like "drink water", mentioned above. Yet I clearly remember writing it. Those dream interpretations were THEMSELVES a dream. My dreams were explaining themselves for me again!
Between physical notes and remembered dream-notes, I list these symbols:
DREAM 2: KENNEDY, KING, HUCK
The kiva again! Only this time it's a swamped wooden room, floating down a big, muddy river. I think it's a stateroom on a half-sunk Mississippi steamboat. The flooded room has strange properties. The psychic boy squeezed through the window before the water rose too far, and swam around inside, holding his breath. He reports "I heard echoes of events decades old. Caught a flash of thought from the guy who really shot Bobby Kennedy--linking the brothers' deaths directly. The man REMEMBERED working on JFK's assassination! I also got a snatch of grief from someone close to Martin Luther King after his assassination."
No coincidence that these are echoes of violence--ghosts usually are. Violent feelings cast the longest shadows. Still, they weren't easy for him to figure out. The boy perceived the feelings as overlays on his own feelings about living people--a sudden urge to assassinate Teddy Kennedy led him to the memory of the killer of Bobby; a deep sad sympathy toward the first black man he saw, and a rage toward white men with Southern accents, led him to the King memory. The kid is good--spotted and examined his odd feelings without guilt. A novice psychic might have freaked at having an urge to assassinate a senator, but this boy knew enough to stay calm and recognize it for what it was: a time-shadow.
I suggest we get scuba divers to meditate in the sunken room. Diving in there like the kid can give you a taste of what the room can do, but holding your breath, you just can't stay long enough to get the full effect.
NOTES THAT MORNING
What undoes undoing?
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