I received the opportunity to interview another author about their mental health writing! Dana Shavin is the author of the Body Tourist, a memoir of her recovery from anorexia nervosa. Her memoir documents the confusion of eating disorder recovery and how you can learn to navigate a messy world a little more successfully as you go. Here, she answers questions about the impact of anorexia recovery memoirs, the power of introspection, the relationship between depression and intelligence, and how your relationship with food affects your relationships with loved ones.
Anorexia memoirists are often criticized for seemingly glamorizing their illness and mentioning their recovery as an “afterthought.” What did you think of this criticism? Did you set out to fill this gap by focusing on your recovery in this memoir?
I was not aware of this criticism when I began writing The Body Tourist, so no, I did not set out to fill that gap in the literature of recovery. Having read a number of eating disorder memoirs, I have to say, none has made the illness seem “glamorous” to me. I am aware that there is criticism that these books can be “triggering” for people who are trying to recover, in that discussions of calorie count and exercise can potentially act as a roadmap to illness for those who are emotionally fragile or at risk of relapse. I don’t disagree that this is possible; I will say, however, that recovery demands we learn to navigate an entire world that can be triggering. We can’t shield ourselves from all discussion of, and exposure to, food and calories and exercise forever. Unlike recovering from an alcohol or drug addiction, you can’t just avoid the triggering substance. We have to befriend food, and learn to live in a world where it exists all around us.
If there was any gap I was hoping to fill in the literature of recovery, it’s the “What happens once you’re already ‘recovered’” gap. My book deals with a period of time not well represented in the literature, which is the post-recovery years. I really wanted to shine a light on that under-explored phase of recovery, & show what things look like a few years down the road from the illness phase.
What other reasons made this period in your life the story you wanted to tell?
First, I recall one day coming across something that said, “You have to write what you most don’t want to write.” The idea behind this was that your resistance proved it was the story you were burning to tell. I knew immediately after reading that that I wanted to write about my illness and recovery.
Secondly, my graduate degree is in psychology—I’m fascinated by human behavior—and so I wanted to do a deep dive exploration into the whole experience of illness and recovery.
Thirdly, I ached to tell the story about this series of houses I lived in while in my twenties, the unfurnished apartment, the quadruplex with the roof that crashed in, the almost uninhabitable house in the woods, etc., because they fascinated me and I did not know why. (In fact the book was originally titled A Better House: A memoir of Sex, Death and Real Estate.) (Don’t judge me! J) It was only in the writing of the book that I figured out the houses were a metaphor for the sad state of disrepair of my own body. As I got better, my living conditions also improved. Had I not written the book, I never would have seen that. I now have such an appreciation for the metaphors we all live out, how much they can reveal to us about our psyche, if we will pay attention, and how much they can guide our behavior, if we aren’t careful. Once I discovered this while writing, the whole process of figuring out what other metaphors were at work and waiting to be explored totally excited me—and still does!
At the beginning of your book, you highlight your habit of all-consuming introspection. You then make insightful comments about your psychological state throughout the remainder of the work. What is the difference to you between harmful self-absorption and healthy reflection?
This is such a wonderful question! I think what divides the two is the self-judgment we bring to the process. Often when we are self-absorbed, we are running our “stories” about the world and ourselves on a continuous loop. These stories are powered by the engine of our core issues, and they are the stories we believe even when there is evidence to the contrary. Self-absorption is thinking in a vacuum, and happens when we sit in our own head and spin our own narratives about the way we think things are and will always be. Healthy reflection, on the other hand, is the ability to take a step back from our tedious, generally flawed, narratives and see them for what they are. It requires a willingness to consider other perspectives and explanations for why things are the way things are, why other people act the way they do, etc.. Most of all, healthy self awareness means understanding that just because we think something doesn’t make it true.
You refer to mental health as a “moveable plot point,” which I find helpful in understanding recovery, especially, as you mention, in terms of anorexia, which stems from black-and-white thinking. How has your relationship with grey areas changed throughout your recovery?
I am still constantly coming up on my own black and white thinking! I think we all do it, and have to be on guard against it. I am at the point where I generally notice it more quickly now, before I get too far down the road of “either or.” And it’s always a huge relief, because living in the grey areas is so much friendlier! I became certified as a life coach a few years ago and it really taught me the value of what they call “both and:” the idea that there are always more options and other ways of thinking about things than you originally believe there are. The trick is to look further and deeper than “black” or “white.”
You make the connection between your mother’s disordered eating and your own anorexia. How has your relationship changed since your recovery? Do you still mourn your mutual obsession?
Our relationship has really flourished since my recovery. I am now older than the age she was when I was ill (she would have been in her early 50s then, and I’m 57 now). I don’t think I’d be very good at handling a child’s illness even at my age, and it has given me lots of compassion for where she was then. I do not at all mourn our mutual food obsession. I feel a little sick whenever I think of it, it was so unhealthy and the boundaries were so terrible.
Does her relationship with food still affect your eating habits? How do you set those boundaries?
Her relationship with food has changed since then too. She’s had colon cancer, plus she is about to turn 90 (!!), and so she can’t be as rigid as she used to be—has to eat more grains and things she used to restrict. She’s still concerned about her weight, which can still annoy me greatly (not to mention amaze me!), but I don’t engage with her over it. Also, I live two hours away, and we only eat together a few times a year. When we do eat together and she does restrict, or when she talks to me about skipping meals to save up for a big dinner, I try to let it go in one ear and out the other. I’m not without a few leftover obsessions, so why hold her to that standard, especially as she’s no longer in charge of me?
A number of lucky suitors appear in your memoir and you reflect deeply on the relationship between the men you sought out and the needs your psyche was filling by doing so. What do you think of the common phrase, “you need to love yourself before you can love anyone else?” Can someone struggling with themselves ever maintain a relationship anywhere near “healthy?”
Aw, first of all, thanks for calling my suitors “lucky.” I think most of us are always struggling with ourselves, whether we know it or not. I don’t think a healthy relationship turns on whether or not you’ve ceased to struggle with yourself, but on how well you know yourself, how well your partner knows him/herself, and how well the two of you navigate your respective core issues, i.e., the baggage we all bring to relationships. So yes, I do believe it’s possible to be struggling and to also to be in a healthy relationship.
During your relationship with Andrew, your “too” happy-go-lucky boyfriend, you highlight a correlation between depression and intelligence. Do you still hold this belief?
I do not hold this belief at all now. It came from the idea that when you are depressed, you are very inwardly focused, so you must be thinking deep thoughts. And sometimes you are. But I know now that deep thoughts can also be had when you are not depressed, and in my experience, my thoughts were a whole lot clearer and wide-ranging once I was no longer depressed. Also, at some point I realized that for all my “deep thinking,” I hadn’t completed a single piece of writing—all I had were filing cabinets full of fragmented ideas, and journals full of thoughts–but nothing crafted, nothing made into a piece of writing that could go out into the world and stand alone. As getting something published was my biggest dream, this realization had a very big impact on me.
How do you reconcile a pursuit of wellness in the face of this belief (that depression = intelligence?)
I had to admit that not until I was on the other side of depression could I begin to use my intellect to its fullest. I think that the “depression = intelligence” fallacy was probably invented by depressed people to make themselves feel better, and for a long time, it worked for me! What’s sad is that, because I believed this so fervently, I was reluctant to give up my depression for a long time.
Is it possible for intelligent people to avoid conflating misery and success?
Yes, I think it’s very possible. I don’t think intelligence is what makes people conflate; I think it’s a lack of that healthy self-awareness we were talking about earlier. If you don’t have healthy self-awareness, it’s very easy to fall prey to the common tropes: misery = success; depression = intelligence; artist = emotionally unstable…writer = drunk, etc. With healthy self-awareness, you see yourself as you actually are, and you don’t let society or culture dictate your actions or behavior.
Your relationship with your father plagues you throughout your memoir and it seems that as you come to understand him, you come to understand yourself. He had a deep impact on your life. What does your father mean to you now?
Unfortunately, my father and I missed out on the opportunity to really know one another. That’s the sadness I carry with me every day. When I look back, I get why I was angry with him at the time, and why it was so hard to connect to his dying. I don’t fault myself, so much as I’m sorry for both of us. I recently won a national award as a columnist –my father was a columnist his whole life—and I think about how cool it would have been to share this with him. Still, the award is a connection I have with him that feels special, even though he is not alive.
I recently wrote and published an essay about my continued struggle to understand what the impact of my relationship with my father was on my depression and eating disorder.
You can see it here (and also a photo of me with my dad when I was little.)
I like what a therapist told me years ago when I told her I was tired of my old core issues and wanted some new ones. She laughed and said we don’t get new core issues, but that our life is like an ascending a spiral staircase: from every step, we see our core issues from a new angle and a new perspective. That’s where I am with my dad—always looking at the relationship, always seeing him—and me—and us—from a new perspective.
What is your advice for anyone struggling with their mental health who must continue on in the face of such monumental loss?
For people who are already struggling with mental health issues, who then experience a great loss, my advice is to double down on what works for keeping your head in the game. See your therapist. Don’t play with your meds. Talk about your feelings, rather than trying to suppress or hide them. Be wary of the temptation to revert to dysfunctional behaviors to cope—things like restricting food or over-eating, drinking, cutting, whatever it is that’s brought you comfort but also brought havoc into your life in the past. The pull to revert to negative, damaging behaviors can be so strong, especially when you are sad and angry and feeling that things are unfair. Acknowledge that you are struggling, find the people you trust, and let them help you through this difficult time. Things that helped me were journaling, cleaning the horse barn, and being with my dogs. Find your things, and use them.
Thank you Dana!
Check out the Body Tourist here.
Dana Shavin is a freelance writer, public speaker and published author. She is a national award-winning columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a community newspaper editor, and the creator of TheHowl.co, an animal advocacy site. She has her own blog, and you can check out her website, Instagram, and Facebook for updates on her work.