There is a singularly American concept that success is measured only by being the best, extraordinary, unique. But I think the ultimate goal of this undue pressure is to be special. Our culture celebrates the accomplishments of the rich and famous and exalts these chosen ones to a class of their own. The communal desperation to be special has even transformed the American dream--originally known as hope and opportunity for everyone--into an all-out pursuit of wealth and fame. Taking this line of reasoning another fateful step, life is worthless without publicly admired success. Quality of life and meaningful experiences have been squeezed out by resume-building activities starting with children too young to understand. The underlying truth too painful for children and parents alike is that very, very few people find that kind of success in life. There is a fine line between the drive to achieve realistic goals and the absolute necessity of specialness at all costs. But for many, a moderately successful life has become simply mediocre. From what I can tell, many people believe mediocrity is a sad fate for us all.
There are few spots to fill in the elite world, and that reality starts to become clear to the adolescent. The weeding out of the undeserving begins in high school and college--a stage of life marked by the need for a concrete identifier, something that screams to the world who you are. The fear of just being you overwhelms any sensible judgment. The internal belief of immortality means no option is off limits. At a time of exploration and experimentation, the memories and experiences at this time of development often leave an indelible mark on a life but can also lead someone astray in the name of individuality and specialness. One surefire way out of the world of mediocrity is mastery of food and thinness. Nothing attracts the envious glares of other girls and the lustful stares of the boys as well. The attention is immediate and powerful and the message is clear: you truly are special. An eating disorder can catapult a teenager out of mediocrity into the promised land.
The real danger of associating an eating disorder with specialness is the effective merger of identity and illness. An adolescent grapples with a chameleon-like sense of herself. Being a teenager means putting on one costume after another, picking up bits of an identity along the way and hoping to find coherence in the end. These sudden internal shifts and endless string of poor decisions are laughable from a distance, perfectly reasonable to the child and terrifying to the adult trying to contain her. An eating disorder soaks up all the adolescent angst instantly by providing identity, specialness and coping mechanisms in a neat little package.
Many people can live in this bubble for years. The limited satisfaction and opportunities are routinely trumped by a powerful identity and point of reference. For years you really feel special by staying thin and by following your disorder. There are many pro-Ana sites that prove the power of that sisterhood. For some people the combination of a strong identity and sense of immortality sends them to the grave. Clarity never comes in time.
A moment of doubt in the eating disorder is a small step back into the terror of mediocrity. Teenagers who never experienced the liberating step into an eating disorder had to come to grips with their own mediocrity over a stretch of years. The recognition of strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, realistic goals and outrageous expectations all aid to create a solid foundation in adulthood. Specialness and mediocrity blend into a more nuanced view of the human condition. To the person trapped in an eating disorder, mediocrity and the subsequent loss of identity feel catastrophic. She has never had to struggle with the feelings of isolation and hopelessness. She has never had to manage the intensity of emotions and fear associated with both the process of life and its defined end.
The transition from mediocrity to a realistic view of one's life often originates in the therapeutic relationship itself. The relief of fully exposing the eating disorder and all its beliefs and flaws has two important consequences. First, the patient feels as if she can stand alone separate from her disorder. Perhaps, there is more to her than the number on a scale. Second, the desire to feel special shifts from the disorder to the therapy. This is the first time the patient actually looks outside herself for guidance and restarts the process halted years ago when the eating disorder solved all of her adolescent fears. Since her peers no longer face the same identity crisis she ignored for years, she could just feel so alone that she retreats back to the disorder. But therapy can provide the mirror and feedback to start this arduous but potentially fulfilling journey back to feeling whole--and, in a different way, even special--again.
These last three posts have addressed some emotional sticking points in recovery, reasons the eating disorder just won't let go. The last post in this series will cover the topic of trust both in treatment and in life.