Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mail Call

When I walked in from the very long day at work today there was a card standing on the kitchen island, waiting.  I've become nearly blind without glasses, but I could see that it said "Peace" on the front, so I immediately assumed it was from someone who knew Kelsey or us and had somehow just heard the news.  Even after all this time and the complex, highly connected world that we live in, there are still people I'm not sure know what happened.  I fumbled around for my glasses, thinking I should get my heart strings tugged now, as soon as I walk in, instead of later when I'm even more tired and it would be even harder.  The neat, flowing script began, "You don't know me..."  I have some messages tucked away that begin that same way. We did receive some comments on Kelsey's obituary from total strangers who were moved by her struggle and our candor about it, and we did receive a number of messages from individuals who knew our daughter, but not us.  Those messages mean a lot to me because it's a fast paced, busy world.  I've been carrying a card around to write out to a friend of mine who just lost her mother for a week now and haven't managed to get it written. So, the fact that someone took a moment to write to people they have never met or even heard of before is pretty amazing.  This was a particularly interesting message because it goes on to disclose that the writer is a parent of a young woman just celebrating (the writer's word) her fifth year since going to treatment.  The family did not know any of us, but she disclosed she keeps Kelsey's obituary in a drawer.  While that might seem unusual, I understand it, it's a reminder of things that might have happened.  But for the Grace of God go I kind of thing.

She went on to write, "These girls are the most beautiful, selfish, smart, talented and caring people on earth."  That statement really resonanted with me.  I think that it is most concise and accurate description I have ever heard or read to sum up the many women I have met over the years who have been personally affected by an eating disorder.  Now, let me say right from the start that eating disorders are not a female-only disease.  Men, in ever increasing numbers, are being victimized by eating disorders as well.  Nor is it a Caucasian disease, a rich/elitist disease, an athlete's disease or a disease of vanity.  It cannot be corralled into any neat little quantifier like that, but there are some common traits that I have observed over the years and most notably during my recent involvement in the art auction, and this unknown mother hit the nail on the head in trying to succinctly sum them all up.

Let me address the selfish label first, because that's the word most likely to bristle readers, but I knew immediately what she meant.  And it's not what you think.  I did say to Kelsey, more than once, I'm ashamed to admit, "The problem with you is you don't think outside of yourself."  or "It's all about you."  She did seem, to me on many, many occasions so completely self-absorbed that no one else on the planet really mattered.  In point of fact, that was far from true.  Or at least it wasn't strictly true.  As with all things concerning this disease, it's horribly complicated and not easily quantified.  Hence the problems inherent with successfully treating it.  But, like anyone possessed by a demon, once it takes hold, it's a little hard to hold onto one's world view.  The disease, and how it impacts you, becomes like a vacuum, sucking all the life out of the air around you.  And the family dynamic gets sucked into the gaping vortex as well.  Relationships, jobs, hobbies, advocations, all of it will get swept up and eventually swallowed up by this thing.  Ironically, while I can't speak for all victims of ED, self-esteem issues are rampant.  Kelsey may have acted like she was totally self-absorbed.  She may actually have even been that way, but she didn't have a good sense of self.  She didn't truly believe in the good things people told her about herself, but totally bought all the bad ones.  She could put on a front sometimes, but that's all it was.

Which borders on criminally sad because she had a natural, effortless intelligence.  And that is a common trait that I have seen in almost every member of the eating disorder community.  They are smart, really smart, but caught up in something that people outside of it would call very dumb choices.  And many of them, like Kelsey, are highly gifted.  Many I have met are artists, writers, musicians, or talented athletes.  And many, most particularly Kelsey's dear friend Leslie, are highly empathetic.  I swear if I get a paper cut, that young woman probably feels it all the way in Pittsburgh.  She is highly attuned to other's emotions and in trying to please them.  So much so that I worry she sublimates her own needs and hence, the eating disorder was the result of that conflict.

And, honestly, the individuals I know who are open about having an eating disorder are generally women.  And, in general, they are Caucasian.  Men are not yet comfortable in accepting that this impacts them as well, afraid to speak out in a society that considers this an effeminate disease.  And, despite us being well into a new century, some old gender prejudices remain.  Men are taught to internalize their feelings, not discuss them, and to hide their "flaws" as a sign of weakness.  I would imagine the racial lines I've seen drawn would be for the same reasons.  Cultures that teach their children to strive for perfection will not foster an atmosphere wherein a person can feel comfortable saying they have a problem.  Just a guess.  So, that leaves the women I have met, who are able and willing to be open about what they have experienced.  And are experiencing.

When I was working on the auction, I was constantly struck by how beautiful and intelligent the women I was working with were.  And I was struck often by how it was pretty clear that not all of them knew or believed that about themselves.  Even the one or two women who seemed to possess a strong sense of self in one arena (career, as an example), skidded on thin ice in other areas.  On some level, it's baffling because you want to ask, "Don't you know how awesome you are?"  But, of course, it's not like I haven't seen that same conundrum played out in my own house.  No, they really don't.  They struggle.  Every day.  And that was the other thing I was so constantly struck by.  The auction was a challenge to plan because volunteers flowed in and out, depending on where they were in their recovery process.  Many of the women I met initially who seemed to have it together and were well on their way to recovery would eventually drop out of the process because they began struggling once more with the disease.  Once the Beast has you, it really does not want to set you free.  If I am totally blunt, I think the women were often triggered by others in the group.  Almost as though they believe in this common cause, but they can't be around one another to work on it.  Maybe that's just a leap on my part because Kelsey was that way.  She would not have been around someone she felt was thinner, prettier, or more talented than herself without feeling very threatened by it, which would have been just about everyone.  But, then she would have tried to cover that up with a false sense of bravado.

Finally, I hope that family does indeed celebrate their daughter and her recovery.  It is well worth the use of that word.  I am constantly struck by how very hard to completely shed this thing is, so if and when it is completely left behind, it is definitely worth a big celebration.  But, for the people I know who continue to fight it, it is so worth the fight because they are worth fighting for.

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