There is an important, and largely under-explored intersection between sexual assault and eating disorders. In celebration of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, EROC talked to Neesha Arter, author of Controlled: a Memoir a phenomenal book which, "illustrates the jarring reality of recovery from an eating disorder, which was precipitated by being raped at 14." Neesha was kind enough to share with us her experience and words of encouragement for those who might be able to relate.
EROC: Just to start off, can you tell us about yourself?
Neesha (N): I am a journalist living in NY. My memoir has come out, called “Controlled,” in August and I write for the NY Observer, the Daily Beast, and the World at the NY Times. I write a lot about women’s issues and international issues and then a mixture of other things. Lately I’ve been focusing a lot about this book because obviously it just came out so I’ve been promoting that and speaking at colleges and doing readings and things like that
EROC: Getting right into the book, in the book you provide a haunting account of your life following your assault and the ED that ensued. Can you talk about the two and how they relate in your experience?
N: Eating disorders are very complex and there are a plethora of reasons people develop an ED for me though it was very much a mechanism to deal with trauma. I was sexually assaulted when I was 14 and I didn't’ really...that’s the age where you don’t know who you are or what’s going on. You're just trying to figure out how to get through the day and I was on vacation visiting family when this happened and it was two of my cousin’s friends...when I was visiting my two cousins and my aunt and uncle. When they found out everyone blamed me, which was shocking and I didn’t know what to do because I intrinsically knew that this wasn’t my fault. I flew back to Albuquerque. When I look back, I was terrified for my parents to find out because I thought I was going to be in trouble but fortunately when they did find out they believed me and that was very very crucial in this whole process.
They really wanted to press charges so my 14-year-old freshman year life turned into legal case and detectives and lawyers and basically reliving this experience over and over and over when all I wanted to do was pretend it didn’t happen. So I turned to control and in many ways I’m searching for control in a world that I had none. In many ways it was a search for control of course but I think a big reason for it as well was a regression into childhood. And you know when you’re already so young and you lose something so inherently yours, you don’t know how to act. I think with trauma for people there will be repercussions no matter what. The trauma will affect you forever until you deal with it. I just coped as best as I could, and I created this world where...I didn’t want to be in the world I was in..so it was this way to escape, and it became this full blown eating disorder.
EROC: Thank you for talking about your story - your book is helpful to so many people. Can you tell us more about the role your family and friends played in your recovery?
N: The relationships are really important. I was very lucky to have my parents believe me and support me and I think it was a test of the times because I was so young and I didn’t fully understand what was going on but I am very grateful for them. It was incredible to have their support and have them believe me after the disaster of right after. I talk about the relationship I had with three of my closest friends in the book and I’m still friends with them all today. Once again, I think as a teen I was so young so it's very hard to say to put a blanket statement on relationships - friends & family at all ages because it’s such a trying time but it was very important and vital that I had those friendships and a lot of it we didn’t discuss the extent of it but having them there was really helpful. You can’t go through these things alone.
I think during the writing process I would say that I had some really great people in my corner from the beginning of this book that I didn’t necessarily know before. I wrote the book when I was 18 and then I moved to NY when I graduated, I was just 20, from college in California, and I’ve gotten some really great support. When I tried to write this book at 18 I was in a lot of therapy. I credit all of my feeling to that because there was a lot I had to deal with and work through.
EROC: Something that we hear a lot from both sexual assault survivors and those recovering from eating disorders is that their experience “wasn’t bad enough” -- violent or traumatic enough -- to get help, to get into therapy...have you encountered that and what is your response to that thought process?
N: It’s hard because eating disorders are things that people hide so well...I know I did. I think everyone - I don’t believe in that whole “it’s not bad enough” idea, I think everyone can benefit from therapy -- whether you have an eating disorder or not. I know some people who have had eating disorders all along the spectrum, people who have gone in and out of the hospital and treatments for years and years and I know people who figured it out on their own and worked through it through therapy. It’s whatever works best for you. At the end of the day you have to want the help. You can’t be forced into it. You have to have the turning point in your own mind that that’s you, changes - you want to change. You can’t force someone to do that.
EROC: From the book, it seems like the disorder was an automatic response to your assault...that the assault occurred and the restriction started. Did you recognize it as an eating disorder at first?
N: I don’t think that I really recognized that it was an eating disorder at first, no. I don’t know why I turned to that. I feel the trauma and my post traumatic stress, some people turn to drugs or alcohol or substance something like that - those kind of things didn't cross my mind. It was an automatic response. I don’t know why.
EROC: It seems like in a world where you’re 14 years old. You've gone through this horrible experience, which, in of itself, is difficult than adding the eating disorder on top, to put that on a 14 year old that seems like so much. Was it hard for your friends to understand what was happening and how did you navigate dealing with what, adult or not, nobody should have to go through?
N: It was definitely challenging. I think I’ve written pretty well about it in my book. That year was one of isolation for me. It was not really a time, I’m a people person so I was very different at the time, my comfort was found in being alone. I wasn’t being the social person and when the legal case ended I didn’t really talk about it until I wrote this book when I was 18. It ended when I was 15. I didn't’ talk about it again, which really wasn’t good honestly. That’s it. That’s how it happened.
EROC: And what would you say to 15 year old Neesha now?
N: I’m a dramatic person in that I do a lot of dramatic work and I’m very emotional. I think it’s just important to keep going. There is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why I wrote this book. Nobody talks about these things and I guess I would say you’re going to get through it. It’s going to be okay.
I have to hear that on a daily basis just in life at all times. It’s gonna be okay. Don’t worry.
EROC: What would you say if you had the opportunity to have a million one-on-ones at once. What would you say to survivors, those that are considering or in ED recovery?
N: Keep going. It’s important to know that this is a complicated issue that you can’t do on your own. I would encourage therapy, talking about whether it’s trauma or an eating disorder I would always encourage talking about it. You just can’t do it on your own.
EROC: Was there a moment that was particularly meaningful moment in your recovery that helped prompt you to go to therapy - maybe a moment of friendship? kindness? that encouraged you in your recovery?
N: I went to therapy in high school for the eating disorder and I think I carried it around the last years of high school. But it was honestly just very very bad during that year. when the legal case went away I got over it and I never went into treatment or working through it because I had to work through the trauma, because it was such a remnant of the sexual assault. It wasn’t like, oh my relationship with food, it wasn’t trying to reach x weight, it how I carried around the sexual assault if that makes sense.
They’re so complex. It’s tough to speak on these because with trauma I feel like people react dissimilarly. In ED there are so many reasons you can develop them and how you recover from them so it’s hard it’s a lot harder.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, please consider the resources provided by the National Eating Disorder Association, including the online or phone helpline.