Confession: I have a demon. I was reminded of it as I watched a new E! series, “What’s Eating You: True stories about food, fear and obsession.” The first episode features two 20-something girls suffering from anorexia. The cameras followed them through their lives, therapy sessions, as well as interactions at home and work.
Warning: Watching a show like this is not like watching the old “After School Specials” some may remember from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s less scripted, more raw and real. Viewer discretion is advised.
It was devastating to watch one girl being told she “didn’t have to come to work anymore” as a dancer because she had failed to get the help she needed–the breaking point was when a customer complained that she was “disturbing” to look at. Her body fat was a mere 8%–normal for her age is 18-25%.
As the second girl sat stone-faced in a therapy session, refusing to come out from behind her Hoover dam holding back gallons of raw emotion, my throat closed up and I thought, I know exactly what that feels like. I flashed back to adolescence and the late teens/early 20’s, that time when everyone says you have your whole life ahead of you, only it didn’t feel like it. Not one little bit.
We all have our personal demons.
In 1983, when I first faced mine, there were no words for my demon, let alone reality TV shows about it. Only a handful of people outside of my family knew. People didn’t speak openly about their demons then. At least, not at my house. Even now, I can’t bring myself to tell you specifics.
While my demon was not anorexia, it was a coping mechanism that I used to relieve emotional pain, to escape from an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and deep sadness that made my bones ache. It was not acceptable to be anything less than happy or perfect growing up and I was really, really good at pretending for a very long time.
My family didn’t know what to do, so they did nothing. Therapy was not as common then as it is now, at least not in my Midwestern community. Our family prided ourselves on being stoic and self-reliant. No better “therapy” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Except…I’d lost my boots.
When I saw my own pain from years ago reflected in the eyes and faces of these girls as they struggled with their “affliction,” I wondered how seeing a show like this could have helped me back then. How it could have helped a lot of people. While some may argue that programs like this could influence, say, a young girl to consider anorexia. I say the seeds of that demon were already there.
Demons thrive in darkness, pain and secrecy. Programs like this turn the lights on so demons can’t hide anymore. Watching others struggle, we understand more and judge less. We see their pain. Hopefully, we learn to spot the first signs of demons in our loved ones and in ourselves so we can fight them sooner, harder. Demons can’t thrive in truth and light and love. Wish the same were true of cockroaches and mold.
Are you feeding the demon?
But it’s never too late. One therapist on the show pointed out to a mother how she had inadvertently passed down a pattern of self-criticism to her daughters. She was feeding the demon and she didn’t even know it. It reminded me that I too must be vigilant. I must pay attention and listen closely to protect my children from…me. They will have demons of their own to contend with in life.
As for me, life did get better. It took time. I got help. I learned about boundaries and what I could control and what I couldn’t. Every challenge I survived taught me that there is light at the end of every tunnel. I grew up, I moved out. I remember my first night alone in my very own apartment. In the quiet, I could hear my heart healing.
If you’ve fought a demon and lived to tell about it, then you know what it’s like to claw your way back to the surface after being buried alive by raw emotion, dysfunction and fear, and to emerge–victorious, grateful–like the rescued miners in Chile, and say, I survived. It’s never easy, but demons can be tamed. They can be overcome.
Update (Oct. 18, 2010): Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project popped up on my radar as a relevant link for those who are interested. While the videos are primarily to give hope to gay and lesbian youth that life does get better after adolescence, when bullying is often at is peak, it’s inspirational to hear the stories of others who have been through it and emerged on the other side, strong and happy.