When a Good Book Takes a Toll
**This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist as needed.
Katie Monsewicz is an avid writer and practicing journalist who has been through The Emily Program’s residential treatment program. She wants to help others who have struggled with eating disorders and those who are still struggling through her writing and as an advocate for eating disorder recovery.
When we are young children, our imagination plays with our reality. We watch a movie and suddenly we start reflecting on what happened in the movie. Saying movie quotes, naming our pets after characters, and maybe playing the movie over again in our heads, answering the question, “What if I were a character?”
I remember, when I was very young, my favorite board game was Candyland. Because what 5 or 6-year old child wouldn’t want to live in a world made of all that sugar!? I started to pretend that the world around me, my reality, was made of candy. But the candy was invisible – nobody could see it or eat it except for me and my friends when I let them in on my little secret world. We’d shove mouthfuls of invisible candy into our mouths in the middle of a spelling lesson and giggle at one another across the room.
Is it not surprising that, as adults now, our imagination STILL plays with our reality. Still, every day and every night, our minds are gathering the threads of our imagination and spooling them together, eventually fabricating this masterpiece of what reality looks like to us, with our thoughts, emotions, and actions, and showing how we reflect the world around us.
When I was little, it was movies and games. As I got older and grew in school, it became books. I’ve always had a love affair with literature. I call it a love affair because first, I used to believe I could write wonderfully without ever needing to touch a book (big mistake), and second, I learned that some literature hurt me. And by hurt me, I mean not only made me feel miserable but actually made me do things to myself and to others that I never would have imagined doing.
This is how themed books about eating disorders, fiction and nonfiction, have hindered my success in recovery.
We pick up the celebrity’s autobiography on her struggle with bulimia or anorexia nervosa with the thought that it will make us better. That it will help us understand ourselves by trying to understand others going through the same experiences. We hope that reading the words of one who is recovered will help us recover too. But here is the thing about books like that: more than half of the book is NOT about recovery. A lot of the book is recalling past behaviors and instances and memories when the eating disorder took control of that person’s life. As you read along, you start putting yourself into the author’s shoes and ask questions like, “What would I do in that situation?” or “Would I ever have the guts to do that?” or “Wait, does that really work?” And we begin to reflect on what happens.
I recently read a wonderful, five-star autobiography by a woman whose eating disorder started at the age of nine and has really taken a toll on her family, friends, and opportunities in life. She offered marvelous insights about why those with eating disorders might act the way they do. The book felt like a godsend to me. I wanted to share it with everyone I know and everyone who I love and who loves me. I wanted them to read it to understand more about eating disorders and what life is like battling one. The problem is that, as I read the book, I started to develop habits and started to relapse. Old eating disorder habits started popping up again. Luckily, I’m good at telling myself when I do something wrong, and after I finished the book, I finally explained to my husband what had been going on. I stopped taking medication and started diminishing my caloric intake. I weighed myself, which was something I hadn’t done in almost two years. But he talked me through it, even with my constant insistence that he read the book I had been reading. I considered the consequences of hurting my family and him especially. And I finished the book a couple of days later, trying to remember why I chose to read it in the first place and why I kept going.
I had bought the book a year ago and didn’t read it until recently because I didn’t think I was in the right place in my recovery to be reading it. I thought I might relapse. Lo and behold, I did exactly that when I decided to pick up the book again. But I kept reading it because I resonated with the author so well.
This isn’t the case for all those with eating disorders who choose to read these types of books, but I have heard on a lot of social media accounts of how many books can be “triggering.” I’m not saying you should steer clear of themed books about eating disorders, but I am saying that perhaps it is best to consult your counselor, psychologist, or therapist before making the step into reading that type of literature and staying invested in your recovery.