NOTHING FOR BREAKFAST. A diet soda for lunch. Maybe a little lettuce with low-calorie dressing for supper. Or once in a while, when everybody has gone to bed, a binge on ice cream, which you get rid of in the bathroom later. Relentless exercise. Obsession with food, cooking great quantities of it for everybody except yourself. In time you come to look like a victim of Dachau—the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, the marionette arms and calfless legs. If you are a woman, you stop menstruating. If you are told your life itself is in jeopardy, it makes no difference, because not even dying is as fearsome as getting fat, a view that the combined industries of fashion, dietetic food, and advertising all endorse. In every respect but this, you may be as sane as everybody else. In this, you are mad as a hatter. 

Anorexia seems to be a modern disease, but old phrases like pining away and wasting away suggest it may have been around unnamed for a long time. Nobody seems to know what it's all about, though there are endless theories. Young anorexics want to strike free of parental control, they say, and where does it assume a more elemental form than in "Take a bite for Mummy, a bite for Daddy"? So that is where they draw the battle line. The more desperately they are urged to eat, the more desperately they resist. Their bodies are their last citadel, and they are prepared to defend them literally to the death. Yet on the other side of it, of course, they desperately need Mummy and Daddy and are scared stiff of the very independence they are fighting to achieve. 

The craving to be free and independent. The craving to be taken care of and safe. The magic of the sickness is that it meets both these cravings at once. By not eating you take your stand against the world that is telling you what to do. By not eating you make your body so much smaller, lighter, weaker that in effect it becomes a child's body again, and the world flocks to your rescue. Is something like this at the heart of it? 

Most anorexics are young women. Feeling that a male-dominated world has given them no models for what full womanhood means, do they believe that the golden key to that Wonderland garden is to make themselves as little as Alice had to in order to pass through the tiny curtained door? Who can say for sure? 

But at least one thing is sure. By starving themselves, anorexics are speaking symbolically, and by trying above all else to make them start eating again, their families are in their own fashion speaking back the same way. Far beneath the issue of food there are, on both sides, unspoken issues of love, trust, fear, loss, separation. Father and mother, brother and sister, they are all of them afflicted together, acting out in pantomime a complex, subterranean drama whose nature they are at best only dimly aware of. And so, one way or another, are we all. 

"So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members one of one another," says the author of Ephesians (4:25), and that is the heart of the matter. 

"I need you." "I need to be myself." "I am afraid." "I am angry." "I am in pain." "Hear me." "Help me." "Let me try to help you." "Let us love one another." If we would only speak the truth to one another—parents and children, friends and enemies, husbands and wives, strangers and lovers—we would no longer have to act out our deepest feelings in symbols that none of us understand. 

In our sickness, stubbornness, pride, we starve ourselves for what we hunger for above all else. "Speaking the truth in love" is another phrase from Ephesians (4:15). It is the only cure for the anorexia that afflicts us all.   

- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words

To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.