**Content warning: sexual assault, eating disorders**
It started with grace and order, the way you wallpaper a house. One section, then the next. An alarmingly well-cut patterned square, soft petal-colored seashells or bloated sea creatures the hue of nougat, flush against the corner of a wall. A process you first give all of your thoughts to - is it this way or that? - then, suddenly, a luxurious giving out, an exhalation. Something you could do without thinking at all: the act of self-starvation.
I remember what I ate, but not necessarily why. There was a hint of something adolescent. I wanted to be thin, yes, but it was also something much more corrosive. I wanted to disappear altogether, wanted to erase my humanness, blot out my stringy hair and my flushed cheeks, my fleshy legs and my warm saliva, the sheer and unresolved weight of me.
I didn't think of the night with my back smashed against the sink faucet, a grape-colored bruise the shape of a croissant that didn't leave me for weeks. I didn't think of his mouth, that bright and gaping hole.
So I did this for a few years, gradually carving myself away. The people around me balked. Something wasn't right, they whispered to each other as I shivered and shrank, succumbing to rule after rule after rule.
I landed in a treatment center in Arizona. They had horses and magic markers, mayonnaise and worship songs. On the final day, I sat in my therapist's office and was told that I had been raped.
"But I didn't fight," I whispered.
"Have you heard of fight, flight, freeze?" She suggested, shifting in her armchair. Dust circled in the air, animating the space where there should be nothing. The desert had a funny way of moving.
I hadn't. I knew nothing about consent. I didn't understand the complexities of this unearthing theft, this territorial catastrophe.
So I left, burying this strange accusation deep within me, the pit of a peach, and tried to move on.
I swallowed pills and powders, gulped down potions and elixirs. I threw out my heart irresponsibly, loving clownish Midwestern boys with long limbs and crooked haircuts that could never love me back.
And my eating disorder morphed. It transformed, marked with the grandiose spectacle of eating like a hurricane, devouring stale breads and soggy, limp meats, rounding the soft matter into balls and stuffing it, crazed, into my mouth. And there was the other side to the ritual. The release.
There were other bruises. There were other mouths, bright and gaping.
I didn't connect my eating disorder to sexual assault for a long time. All things told, I suffered from anorexia and bulimia for twenty years, oscillating between the two disorders. I didn't recognize that there might be a link between my strange behavior and the things that happened to me, a gilded thread that starts and ends within my own body.
From the research I can pull, 30-65% of eating disorder sufferers are sexual trauma survivors. Body shame is seen as a connection, where it might "trigger habits geared toward destroying the body of which the victim is so ashamed, resulting in starvation, purging, or binge eating, depending on the manifestation of the eating disorder." The body, as a site for violence, becomes the focus of self-annihilation as sexual assault disorients an individual's sense of safety, space, and serenity.
In particular, bulimia is noted as a coping mechanism for survivors of sexual abuse. One report states that "roughly 60% of bulimics have experienced some form of sexual abuse." In an article titled "Trauma, Sexual Assault and Eating Disorders" by Caitlin Hamilton, Dr. Timothy Brewerton describes the function of binge eating and purging as a coping mechanism: "In much the same way as substances of abuse are used to self-medicate, binge eating and purging appear to be behaviors that facilitate 1) decreasing the anxiety associated with trauma, as well as 2) the numbing, avoidance and even forgetting of traumatic experiences."
Bulimia's numbing qualities, the hypnotic effects of the binge and purge ritual, can seemingly emancipate the self from the body. For a brief moment, I feel separate, split, transcended. I am hovering above myself, watching someone else commit these horrific acts. Only the relief doesn't last; it comes crashing down and, with it, comes the unbearable weight of memory.
An eating disorder does something for the sexual assault survivor. At least, it did something for me. I can literally shed weight. I can feign control, sliding in and out of trance. I play at the great gesture of hollowing out, of releasing, of emptying entirely. I maneuver my compulsions like little dolls, folding their rough hair into braids. I starve, I binge, I purge.
However, to say an eating disorder is caused by sexual assault is not wholly accurate. While there is a relationship there, one does not directly cause the other. Did my experiences generate the eating disorder? Or did I stumble into it, supported by a host of other contributing factors, and find it functioned as a decent coping mechanism for awhile? It's more likely I stumbled, as I often do.
Although an eating disorder does work to an extent as a coping mechanism in that it might allow the self to, in some respect, leave the body it feels trapped within, it is not actually a truly effective coping skill. What happens here is sleight of hand. Having an eating disorder does not, as it promises, free you from your body in the end. This is merely an illusion. In fact, you become ever more twisted up in it, compulsively attached to it, the sorry end of a one-sided love affair. You get a few moments, yes. You get to hover, to detach. But freedom? No. It shows you its belly then slithers away.
For us to relocate this sense of self, to find the body again, we must reach back and pull out our stories. We must search for our bodies through thoughtful care, through steady nourishment and consistent loving. We must circle back to our voices, once snipped and trapped, and re-engage them, sharing with each other what stirs and trembles deep within our forgotten parts.
We cannot believe that the momentary bliss of an eating disorder will heal us, for it will not. It will never redeem us from the great atrocities that once split us and carried us away, giving us the notion that there was another self: one that was meant for taking. This was the great lie. There is no such thing as a self meant for taking. The eating disorder will merely reinforce this by continually splitting, disorienting, and separating ourselves from our bodies.
But we may wander split for some time, narrowing ourselves into corners, hoarding the crumbs off of plates. This is okay. This can be recovered. This can be found again. We are, in fact, a whole self. We can reclaim ourselves.
In a sense, the dynamic between eating disorders and sexual assault is a call and response to the tragic dismembering of the body, an utterly physical commentary of attempted reclamation. The desire to transcend a bitterly human state, one that can be replete with gruesome and theatrical violence, is perfectly normal. That we attempt to do this using our own bodies as medium, that we take it out on our own flesh (which was once devastatingly, viciously separated from us through theft), is no coincidence.
What is possible, through acknowledgment and analysis of this link, is a greater awareness of our troubled relationship with the self and the body. What is possible, through the sharing of our stories and the creation of our art, is expanded compassion and education. What is possible, through this revolt of mine and yours, is a new and pregnant landscape where bodies are honored, truths are heard, and brokenness is cradled.
I am in recovery from my eating disorder today. I'm also clean and sober. I am loved, deeply, by a considerate and dedicated man. I spend my days questioning the meaning of my existence. I know, I know, I know. I wonder about career choices and talents - do I have any? I eat big soft bagels covered with cheese. I lay my head down on my dog and stroke, stroke, stroke his muscular little neck. I read devastating novellas and write horrible experimental poetry. I wear the wrong shoes when it rains. I'm messy; my desk is piled with cheap plastic toys and other ephemera: a Spiderman lamp, a stuffed turtle wearing a plaid winter cap, a glitter-covered plastic pickle.
I still struggle with my body and its specter era. What made me into an item, a good, a thing? I still have problems staying put in there, like my body is an uncomfortable rain slicker I can't zip. I'll just hurl it off. Leave it on the sofa. The sky looks clear.
Making sense of this isn’t simple. I've turned the matter of my eating disorder and sexual assaults into many things: a sestina, a series of oil pastels, a one-act play, a seven year high, a stint in detox, two years living in my car, abusive relationships, a lucky rabbit's foot, and years of therapy. It's not over, but I'm wearing the rain slicker. It's not zipped, but it's on me. For me, this is okay. This is a pretty good start.
After all, what can we do but spill out, testimony dripping from our bones, our stories the catalysts for fresh perspectives, double takes, rewritings?
I can think of nothing better than this seemingly small, infectious action.
I tell you. And you believe.
For more information on how to support a survivor struggling with an eating disorder, please read Be a Friend: Supporting Survivors in Recovery.
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.