anorexia, appetites, and avoidance

gaining by aimee liu is a fascinating book. it’s about surviving anorexia and bulimia, and about and for survivors of these eating disorders. however, it’s so well written, and such a great mix of scientific information, journalism and autobiography, it would be a joy to read even for people who are not primarily interested in the topic.

one of the experts mentioned in the book is harvard psychiatrist david herzog. i was particularly intrigued by what he says about appetites – and he talks about appetites of all sorts, anything we might hunger, yearn, even lust for. here are some of his thoughts on how people with anorexia experience appetites:

“appetites are scary for them. emotions must be tightly controlled. to do that, my anorexic patients in particular convince themselves emotions are unnecessary. i don’t need anger. i don’t need delight.”

herzog talks about a woman who was so disconnected from her body that she did not know she was pregnant until she was in her 7th month. she and her child are fine now but she remains in therapy because achieving emotional intimacy with her son is a challenge. “the fear is that sensation will overwhelm me.”

an appetite is a desire. a desire is a pursuit, a going-after, a grasping.

what herzog describes is avoidance.

i think now of the buddhist middle way: neither pursuing pleasure nor avoiding pain. and for all things: neither pursuing nor avoiding.

what a very difficult thing for us humans to do, and how greatly misunderstood it can be.

a person who is anorexic seems to not only avoid but also to crave, to pursue the avoidance (incidentally, the chapter in liu’s book that contains these quotes is headed “avoidance”). the need to avoid the fear, the fat, the appetite and all the feelings and sensations becomes overwhelming. nothing else seems to matter.

“appetites are scary for them. emotions must be tightly controlled.”

i think we all have appetites that scare us. we all try to control emotions. sometimes that’s a good thing. it’s called civilization.

and once in a while, someone is driven too far by those fears and makes the conscious or not-so-conscious choice – influenced by genetics, society, a particular family environment, or perhaps by a combination of them – to seriously restrict what they eat.

too much avoidance could equate, then, too much civilization? too much avoidance of the wild beast’s appetites?

is part of the task of the person who wants to recover from anorexia to become a bit less civilized?

and where does everyone else in this civilization, in this well-tamed society of ours, need to become a bit wilder?

2 thoughts on “anorexia, appetites, and avoidance

  1. Emi

    I read “Gaining” back in April and loved it but was also scared by it. I don’t want anorexia to be haunting me all my life. And I’m not sure about becoming less “civilized”. An anorexic friend of mine (definitely the “bingeing type”) was all appetite in so many ways. At one point in my recovery I also met some Latin American women who were anorexic, and they were pretty wild in some ways.
    So I think it’s not the appetites themselves but how I feel about them, how my body feels and reacts to taking in a lot of food. It’s not feeling the emotions but how I feel about having felt and expressed them. Some of that’s my Japanese heritage, I think, but some of it’s me. It’s kind of iterative (or recursive if you like that word). I feel that I feel that I feel… and somewhere in there I do some real feeling. But I ruminate about it all, and am very sensitive/perfectionistic too.
    I think a key thing for my recovery from anorexia is really paying attention to my own needs and wants and desires, from animal urges to subtle feelings, honoring all of them, embracing them, and acting on them in a way that doesn’t hurt me.

  2. isabella mori

    emi, thank you for your comments.

    about not being civilized. i know i was going out a bit on a limb there 🙂 this is, of course, different for everyone. but for the perfectionistic/restrictive type, reflecting on how much he or she has covered herself with “the veneer of civilization” might be useful.

    and of course it’s not so much about the appetites but how we feel about them – and how we react to those feelings. i imagine a few scenarios here:

    “what? you’re hungry AGAIN? geez, you can’t get enough, can you. no more food for you today, missy!”

    “you’re hungry again? geez, you can’t get enough, can you. — ooops, that was the disease talking. ok. deep breath. what’s the best thing to do now?”

    “oh, interesting. i guess that’s hunger. hm. that feels like … both a sensation and a bit emotional. interesting. let’s eat half a banana and see what happens.”

    this might illustrate a progression towards recovery – what do you think?

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