I have never shied away from writing about important topics. I believe a book is the distilled thoughts of a generation, the writer a wine-maker, crafting and brewing sedimentary sentiment until it can represent something tangible. A writer tries to say in many words what a few words cannot.
Eating disorders are a complex topic to tackle. There are myriad reasons behind each type of disorder, so many that even the word disorder is misleading. How can we glue down something that is so transitory and important to all of us as food?
A young person who is told they have a disorder feels they have some tumorous piece of brain growing from their face. But, without that piece, the rest would suffer, and so cutting it off is an almost impossible task.
When I was a young man, fresh out of school, I wanted to write something that my friends would find cool. Nothing more. This was before the internet (betraying my age here), and so I penned down the first draft for My Secret Family on a sweltering day (I remember because I thought I would lose a few pounds) in November of 1991, just a few days before my first year of college was about to expire for the summer. (The actual first draft was written on writing paper years before, but was more like sketches in writing form). I was a portly guy with absolutely no dress sense, but I didn't struggle to make friends at all. I found at college every type of weirdo imaginable and felt more-or-less at home. Only now the students were no longer the bullies, it was the lecturers who had become that icky butt-end of society.
I handed my then short-story to my friends, people who would be considered 'alternative' long before the fashionable clothing and cultured hair trends - these were proper grubby goths, and thought that was the end of it. As I traveled on in life I forgot about the story and wrote other things, until one day in 2007 when I decided to dig it out and give it a spring cleaning. We artists suffer from something called the Artist's Dilemma - by the time we've finished a piece we have grown our skill, and so must start again at the beginning, and this can repeat endlessly until we force ourselves to walk away.
Now that the internet had fruited and multiplied, it was easy to research, to add opinion to my already tricky tale. To my surprise I found that Instagram gave a warning popup... "Are you okay?" I was quite taken aback, having never been asked by any site if I was okay. I clicked ok (an ironic button), and entered what was a sort-of surreal universe. Thousands, no, millions of posts about My Secret Family, eating disorders, and the names of the characters in the book. I dug more, and found references in medical textbooks on neurobiological disorders, movies, artwork. It seemed to stretch out forever.
In school I had created the characters to personify each disorder, a metaphor, something I had learned only months before in writing class. It went like this -- Doctors will often use codewords for patients. You're not Mike from Ohio, you're an arm. A leg. "There's a pelvis in 3".
It's sounds dehumanizing, because it has to be. A doctor who gets emotionally involved with patients can no longer function, and so they tend to develop apathy as a coping mechanism. (this doesn't mean the loss of a patient won't occasionally make their legs shake)
I thought, perhaps, that psychologists might use the same device. Instead of saying, "Julie is here at 2pm and feeling suicidal", they might say, "You got a Sue at 2". Thus were born the characters of the book.
My writing teacher thought my writing was wonderful, actually she wouldn't stop going on about it, but I didn't take it seriously at the time, because I never felt that my writing is particularly wonderful or well engineered. I write odd sentences, and I'm always twisting around corners that other writers seem to stride around with well-versed ease.
If you google the book's characters, Ana, Mia, Debbie-Sue, and Sophie, you will find the little family of odd girls has grown somewhat. People have started adding their own experiences, giving their own names to disorders, or perhaps traits, that were in a way 'medical'. The book has taken on a life of its own.
I re-release the book periodically, keep things up to date, like how phones work (otherwise the idea of Sue waiting painfully for the telephone [dial] to clatter back to zero becomes comical), and the terrain, how apartments work (there were A LOT fewer locks back then) but people are pretty much the same.
This Year My Secret Family is 27 years old, in Hollywood this may mean a pitiful end, but I am overjoyed (if saddened) that the theme of the book is still relevant today. It should have been something we sorted out decades ago. We should all be happy with who we are and live according to our own standards and not those set by others, by bullies, by overbearing mothers or fathers, by asshole bosses who see us as nothing but a tool... but we're not. We're still the same fucked-up species trying to make sense of ourselves within the few years we have been allotted.
I won't go into detail about the book, because any detail is a spoiler alert, but do read it, if only to arm yourself for what lies ahead.
It's usually not your fault. It's a disease.
Young people need community. Taking away their community is awful, and letting them be around destructive people who encourage them is awful too. There's no being the hero here and that must suck big time, to know that one's child is battling themself and that it's not a battle you can fight for them.
I know there are those who seek community because no one else truly understands that eating disorders are not a choice, they are a brain disorder, like Tourettes or Alzheimers. Body dysmorphia is real, and I discovered this while studying art. Art helped me see truth through the distorted perceptions of my visual cortex. Art is therapy. Art is our first unselfish instinct.
I've been contacted by many people about this book, many positive, some negative, some just interested from an academic point of view.
I don't have answers, but I do know that talking about issues is a good first step. Reducing people to mere data and results may help on paper, but sometimes all people want is to be seen.
"Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434"
Using hashtags on social media like #ana #mia #sue #sophie #mysecretfamily is community, family. Family ain't always pretty, but sometimes it's the only people we got who get us.
Don't be too hard on people who appear to be 'doing it for attention'. Some do. That addiction is a often a byproduct of elation resulting from malnourishment.