The Body You Keep

“I can’t watch this,” my wife says, a familiar panic in her voice.

We have made ourselves comfortable on the couch and are deep into Simply Complicated, Demi Lovato’s recently released documentary, a highly anticipated premier in our home. Kaitlin is a huge fan of Lovato’s music and considers her an inspiration when it comes to eating disorder recovery. The honesty of the film, filled with details and interviews about the pop star’s life from her days on the Disney Channel to her issues with drug use, makes it especially intriguing. It isn’t until Lovato shares a personal moment with her manager, Phil Mcintyre, on eating disorder relapse that my concentration switches from the screen to my partner.

“It’s so weird to talk about this on camera…I relapsed with eating and throwing up, binging and purging,” Lovato says nervously. You can see the disappointment, the defeat on her face.

The moment of regret precedes a montage of images, clips, and commentary digging deep into the earliest and worst memories of her eating disorder, followed by workout footage of Lovato in what seems to be present day. Her face is shiny with sweat as she punches at the air in slow motion. She looks happy, relieved almost, as the scenes switch between flashes of her boxing gloves and her jiu jitsu uniform. It’s at this very moment my wife throws the blanket from her lap and practically leaps off the couch to leave the living room.

Maybe it’s a flashback to her 4:30 mornings, getting a head start at speed walking her daily ten miles on the treadmill. Maybe the talk of food obsession brings her back to dissecting salads, ingredient by ingredient, and eating them with her fingers. Maybe it’s the image of the workout pants hugging the tight curves of Lovato’s legs, now muscle where fat may once have been. Whatever it is, it pulls a fierce trigger and she refuses to return to the living room until the workout scenes have ended.

Kaitlin has loved Demi Lovato since the performer’s beginnings in Camp Rock. She has bought every album, been to every tour, and followed news about the star’s eating disorder closely. As a celebrity publicly in recovery, Lovato has had a crucial influence on Kaitlin’s desire to better her own mental health. However, over the past couple years, while we have continued to buy her albums, attend her concerts, and DVR every late night show performance, Kaitlin has grown overly aware of and annoyed by Lovato’s body and self-published workout routines. When it comes to the pop star’s recovery, she often chides more like a critic than a fan.

At first she claimed to be “worried” about Demi; worried she was getting too skinny and working out too much. Worried her means of recovery might actually lead her to relapse. Then, she was concerned about Lovato’s followers. Concerned that if she continued down this path, all of her fans who look up to her would get the wrong idea about what recovery and being “healthy” actually mean. The truth is, Lovato’s recovery is different than Kaitlin’s. It’s foreign to her, and so at first glance, it was wrong.

Kaitlin was nineteen years old when she first realized she might have an eating disorder. At the time, she was refusing to make plans with anyone because she couldn’t give up her time spent on the treadmill, or the two hours she spent eating the same exact salad every night for dinner. Recognizing such behavior as problematic, she decided to seek therapy. It didn’t take long before her therapist declared that she was suffering from Anorexia.

Her Anorexia, however, didn’t fit the familiar definition (an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat). Rather than refusing to eat at all, she restricted herself to a few specific healthy foods, for which she knew the calories and nutritional value by heart: Special K cereal for breakfast, a yogurt parfait with granola for lunch, and a Salad Works salad for dinner. An added piece to her diagnosis was an obsessive, hyper-focus on exercise. Her entire day revolved around particular meals and miles on the treadmill. If either of those rituals were interrupted, she could hardly function.

She put all emphasis on her body, now shrunken down to a mere 97 lbs. Not only had she lost weight at a rapid pace, she had begun losing her relationships, her passion in her interests, and most importantly, her mind.

Around the same time, I came into the picture- first as a friend, then as more. It’s true that I will never fully know what it’s like to have an eating disorder. I have never personally experienced a fear of food, horror incited by a glance in the mirror, or the hell of forcing yourself to exercise when your body is begging you to stop. But living in close enough proximity to Kaitlin in the depths of her eating disorder, I know it often felt like a plague infecting the both of us- a plague that might single handedly wipe out any chance of a marriage, a family, or a future.

Because I have dealt with anxiety my whole life (my own and that of my family members), I may have been slightly more equipped to handle the outbursts and breakdowns that would occur as a result of my wife’s eating disorder.

In the beginning, every day, multiple times a day, the eating disorder called for reaffirmation that I loved Kaitlin for who she was, no matter what she looked like. This was not by means of a cutesy “I love you” every once in a while with a peck on the cheek. These were serious sit-down conversations after having helped her catch her breath from another anxiety attack, often stemming from the obsessive thought that she was not good enough for me, or anyone for that matter.

When she began to acknowledge her cravings again rather than suppressing them, I would try tirelessly to coax her into listening to her body. If she wanted ice cream at 6 p.m., I spent hours urging her to get some, and by 9 p.m., I was grabbing my keys and running out the door to get it for her before she could stop me. Sometimes it was a hamburger, not only because she hadn’t eaten one in three or more years, but most likely because her body was naturally craving nutrients it was now sparsely receiving, like iron or protein or normalcy.

There were nights we spent on the floor of my bedroom, her body sore from having thrown herself around the room like a ragdoll. The deepest, darkest parts of the eating disorder would claw at her mind when small arguments occurred, to tell her she was ruining our relationship, ruining everything. These thoughts manifested as ugly, unbearable fights- each one lasting until I had let go of my own frustration and looked through the disorder to the person trying to crawl out of it.

This is not meant to romanticize eating disorders or any mental illness for that matter, as there was nothing romantic about these moments. The repetition of the same sentiments day in and day out started to lose meaning. Constant talk of food wore my patience thin. So thin that, at times, I feared I might go crazy, or give up on our relationship completely. Those nights spent on the bedroom floor, trying to pull her body back up to the bed while both of us cried, were some of the worst of my life. There is nothing romantic about watching the person you love suffer and hardly being able to drag them out of the depths of their own psychological hell.

Recovery was a slow, and often painful process, necessary for Kaitlin to get her life back. Recovery meant learning to stop counting the number of cereal flakes on the spoon. It meant not finishing everything on the plate just for the sake of finishing it. It meant going out to eat spontaneously, without a week’s notice, without reading over the entire menu beforehand. Most of all, it meant weaning off the treadmill little by little and living a life where exercise wasn’t the center of everything and gaining weight wasn’t the end of the world. So when Demi Lovato’s recovery seemed focused on the opposite as she began frequently posting about exercise and sharing photos of herself in which she had clearly lost weight, resentment set in.

When we become familiar with one person’s experience with a mental health issue, we subconsciously and unintentionally assume all people’s experiences with that issue will be similar. But the truth is, an anxiety attack for one person may look completely different for another. The manic episodes of one person with bipolar disorder will never fall exactly in line with another. And every person with an eating disorder will differ in some way, whether it be through their thoughts, habits, or steps necessary for recovery.

It was difficult for Kaitlin not only to understand, but to accept that recovery for someone else, let alone her biggest inspiration, was completely different from her own. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this struggle was the comparative nature of her eating disorder. Kaitlin, along with many others who suffer from disordered eating, are in the habit of constantly comparing themselves to other people. In a lot of ways, they are in secret competition with the rest of the world about who looks the “best”, which is often a synonym for “thinnest”. It seems only natural then that such a comparative nature, in combination with perfectionism (another common trait among people with eating disorders) would carry over into recovery. Having first judged her body by comparing it to others’, Kaitlin was now judging her progress in recovery by comparing it to others’.

To assume recovery is the same for everyone is to assume all people with eating disorders are the same. Often times, when people think of eating disorders, they bring forth an image of an emaciated person, outlines of bones poking out from behind skin. Research, however, shows that this assumption does not prove true for all, as 35% of people with Binge Eating Disorder and 30% of people with Bulimia are medically obese. Males, who are rarely mentioned in reference to disordered eating actually represent 25% of individuals with Anorexia and Bulimia and 36% of those with Binge Eating Disorder. The differences in the nearly 8 million reported people with eating disorders in the U.S. are vast, as are the differences in their recovery processes.

The National Eating Disorders Association (better known as NEDA) asserts that while recovery could take months for some to accomplish, it can take years and years of struggle for others. There are several different “paths” to recovery and a large number of factors to determine which path any given individual should take once they seek treatment. For instance, some may require in-patient treatment at a facility specializing in eating disorders, while others may work through their issues solely in counseling or therapy. Physical, behavioral, and psychological factors must all be evaluated before beginning the recovery process. Many will face relapse, brought on by triggers specific to them as an individual. Some will have a support system to help them in times of need; others will not.

I am no eating disorder specialist, no doctor, but I would venture to say that of the 1 in 8 people who seek treatment for their eating disorders, no two share the same exact experiences in recovery.

It has grown dark by the time my wife comes back into the room, by the time Demi Lovato and those closest to her have finished talking about her recently developed workout habits. Shortly after, Simply Complicated concludes with Lovato in the studio, belting out notes for a song on her new album. The room is lit only by the glow of the tv screen as Kaitlin turns to ask me what I thought about the documentary.

“I want to hear what you thought about it,” I counter.

“I want to talk about it, but I feel like I can’t without crying,” she says as she begins to catch tears from the corners of her eyes with her fingertips.

One of the first things she manages to say comes out as a question: “Why does she get to recover and be skinny, but I had to recover and gain weight?”

The purpose of recovery, I tell her, is to be healthy, and in turn, happy. Demi Lovato, who suffers from Bulimia, has traveled and continues to travel a long, bumpy road to recovery. The difficulty of navigating this road and the strength they gain from it is something Lovato, a famous, wealthy musician and Kaitlin, a dedicated, small town elementary school teacher, share. Their versions of healthy and happy, however, are different.

Lovato has found peace in physical activity which allows her to release anger. Following the breakup of a long term relationship with actor Wilmer Valderrama, she is learning to live on her own for practically the first time in her entire life. Making music and exercising have become outlets in her recovery to help her avoid binging and purging. Kaitlin has discovered the bliss that is relaxing and eating snacks on the couch after a long day of work, and can now allow herself such simple pleasures without guilt. We got married; we built a relationship and have spent countless hours together making memories that she would have otherwise spent alone with the treadmill or food. She is able to distract herself now from obsessive thoughts about exercise and indulge in aspects of life that bring her joy: family, teaching, ice cream. She is learning slowly, but surely, that recovery looks different for everyone and that’s okay.

Sometimes I still catch her grimacing at her body in pictures or at her reflection and to this day, it’s difficult to watch. For so many suffering with eating disorders, the body is the central focus- never thin enough, always morphed in the mirror, always compared to the bodies of others. Sure, when you recover, you are forced to keep your body, no matter how much it has changed. But at its core, the body is just a home for what’s truly important. Recovery begs a shift in focus from the body to what is healthy, what is happy; a shift in focus to the soul, and to the heart.

One thought on “The Body You Keep

  1. You have the talent to write a book about Kate. You have a heart which truly loves her and a grasp on her suffering that few people can ever grab onto. Please remind her that I love her too, and Al loved her equally as much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: