I sit on the blue couch, facing Dr. Ramone in his blue armchair. I try to cross my legs, but my thighs won’t let me. I settle for hooking one leg underneath me and letting the other hang to the floor. I twist my bracelet – the one that says “be brave” and supports eating disorder awareness – on my wrist.
Dr. Ramone smiles as he finishes writing something on his yellow notepad. “And if one of your patients says that to you, what would you say?”
I groan. This is my least favorite question, and people keep posing it to me. “I don’t know. That’s the problem. If one of my patients told me she was romanticizing running and restricting, I’d be off in my own head doing the same thing.” Twist the bracelet some more. Imagine running, hard, pounding the pavement with a slightly echoing rhythm. Drift off into space for a moment. Return, scowling.
“What’s that look for?” Dr. Ramone’s pen is poised.
“I can’t run like I used to. Not as hard, not as far, not as controlled. It feels like a waste.”
“Is that why you haven’t been running?”
I feel my cheeks burn. “It’s very all or nothing with me,” I reply.
Dr. Ramone sets his notepad on the arm of his chair. “So, you feel like you can’t run because you… can’t run. So you just don’t.”
I nod. Frustration rises. It sounds so stupid when someone else says it. Just like when a patient talks about not getting a job because he is unmotivated due to not having a job. Or doesn’t quit shooting heroin because he can’t imagine not shooting heroin.
“Who says you have to run thirteen miles?” he asks, leaning forward.
“The mini-marathon people,” I reply glibly.
He laughs. We laugh often in our sessions. “You said it shows strength that you can run that far, or restrict that much.”
A scowling nod. “I’m jealous of all the little anorexic girls I hear about, and some of the girls in IOP. And Penny. She works out hours every day and barely eats anything. She has more stamina and strength than I do.”
Dr. Ramone is silent, lets that sit with me for a moment.
“I mean,” I begin again, “I know it doesn’t show strength – “
“ – psychopathology is more like it,” he adds.
“ – but it feels like it. It feels like, on the ladder of eating disorders, I’m at the bottom.” I use my hands to mimic a ladder and then start punctuating, each rung higher than the next. “There’s the bingers, then the binge-and-purgers, then the binge-and-exercisers, then the restrictors, then the restrictors who exercise. They have double the strength.”
He watches my movements, understanding on his face, but it betrays how silly I sound as well. “So, is this like how the IV users are at the bottom, then the crackheads, then the meth users… all the way up to your innocent marijuana?” He keeps relating things back to my work, and damnit things are clearer when he does that.
I nod. “Yeah, and you don’t want to be at the bottom of either ladder.”
“Except in your ladder, the higher you go, the more psychopathology there is.”
I put my face in my hands. “I can’t even be the best at an eating disorder,” I moan.
“I’m grateful for that,” he tells me, for the millionth time.
“Yeah, yeah, me too,” I say dismissively. “But despite knowing it shows sickness, not strength, I still envy those women. I want to run like that. And I want to not-eat like that.”
He leans forward again. “It might show strength that I can hit myself in the knee with a hammer, but does that mean I have to do it?”
I look up from my bracelet and pause mid-twist. “No. No you don’t have to.”
“So who says you have to run five or ten or thirteen point one miles to show strength? Isn’t it showing strength that you know your limits? That you honor yourself?”
I don’t know what to say. His hammer point made so much sense that my world feels upside-down. No, I don’t have to run ten miles. If I only make it one, that’s okay. If I walk three miles and don’t run at all, that’s okay too. So who says I have to run more than that? It’s some idea I’ve constructed of what strength looks like. But he’s right, trying to run ten miles is as asinine as hitting myself with a hammer right now. Why am I envying the runners and the small women who are hurting themselves with their restriction? Just because I can restrict doesn’t mean I have to.
I open and close my mouth. Finally, I find some words. “That may be the best thing you’ve ever said to me.”
He smiles, visibly glad to have helped.
“I’m going to have to use that with my patients.”
Debbie is an addiction counselor and yoga teacher in Indiana. She is an avid reader of any genre, and has published fantasy short stories; she is still working on the elusive novel. Recently, Debbie has ventured into non-fiction writing, in hopes that discussing her life with an eating disorder will help someone in need. Debbie’s loves include her niece Lillie and her girl-cat, Emilio Estevez. She is passionate about mental health awareness, especially related to addiction and eating disorders.