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On Meanings and Metaphor

Posted Feb 23 2009 9:35pm
Most anyone who reads this blog knows I am a huge fan of metaphor. I even have a whole category of posts tagged "metaphor."

One thing I don't believe, however, is that an eating disorder is a metaphor, or even that it has any particular meaning.

Let me clarify: our lives can have meaning- the meaning that we ascribe to them. And an eating disorder is part of my life, and if you're reading this blog, then I'm guessing it's part of yours, too. But my eating disorder has no, real independent meaning. It says nothing about me or my life except for my possible genetic background and the fact that I once lost a little weight and fell into the hellhole of anorexia. I don't find a meaning to cancer, or depression, or diabetes or any of that.

Nor am I saying that a sufferer's experiences aren't important. They are. They very much are. The experience of an eating disorder does not render a person's opinion on treatment and society and recovery irrelevant. Yet these experiences are also very much shaped by the philosophies of caregivers and clinicians.

So I was very intrigued when I saw two papers published this week about women's experiences with eating disorders. One, titled " Anorexia Nervosa's Meaning to Patients: A Qualitative Synthesis" was fairly inconclusive, although the premise was interesting. The authors undertook the meta-analysis "to provide insight into the patient's experience as a means to help clinicians recognize symptoms of anorexia nervosa." I fully support helping clinicians better recognize eating disorders in their early stages, especially since most patients' inability to understand that they are ill tends to hinder diagnosis. I'd be curious to see their exact reasoning.

The second paper, titled " Understanding women's experiences of developing an eating disorder and recovering: a life-history approach" simply made me cringe.

The development of the condition was attributed to a lack of control, a sense of non-connectedness to family and peers and extreme conflict with significant others. Recovery occurred when the women re-engaged with life, developed skills necessary for conflict resolution and rediscovered their sense of self. Rather than viewing the development of, and recovery from an eating disorder as separate and discrete events, the data from the life-history interviews suggest they are better viewed as one entity - that is, the journey of an individual attempting to discover and develop their sense of self. This perspective challenges some current constructs of eating disorders; it is not a condition in and of itself but a symptom of deeper issues that if addressed, when the individual is 'ready' to make that choice, will lead to recovery.

However, perhaps the increased connectedness is a symptom of improving health and not a means of improving health. Nor is an eating disorder a symptom of anything. Anorexia is not part of a journey of self-discovery, even if some self-discovery occurs during recovery. It's an illness. Period.

I don't think my eating disorder developed because I felt out of control (though that might have been true) or that I felt disconnected from people and society (though I always have) or even that I lacked a strong sense of self (I never really gave this one much thought and frankly still don't). My deeper issues? Only strange neurochemistry and a predilection towards anxiety. No, my eating disorder was more like being dealt a bad hand at cards, a hand I didn't know any better than to play. It wasn't in any supernatural being's Plan For My Life. I don't find my eating disorder to have any sense of worth in my life. My recovery is valuable because it's helping me learn to live again, and I am trying to give my recovery some sense of meaning through all of the blogging and writing and advocacy that I do.

I guess I just fundamentally don't understand the navel gazing that people do about the meaning of anorexia. Perhaps it's because I don't look at the illness as a social construct. And it probably don't help that I find no particular meaning in my own experiences.

But a focus on the meaning of an eating disorder seems somehow...meaningless.
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