Back in college, I was bulimic and borderline anorexic. It was a difficult time, all the craziness of the undiagnosed bipolar disorder and my perfectionistic, driven nature and college life colliding into one confused person’s head; it was almost inevitable that I developed an eating disorder.
Even early in the battle, I wanted help. For me, help meant knowing exactly what beast I was battling. Knowing meant researching. Researching meant reading books and articles and internet sites. Reading meant more information on how other bulimics do it . . . and put ideas in my head. I have to be deliberately vague on this, but there were certain things I did that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I became more adept at destroying myself.
Keep in mind that none of the books, sites, etc., were pro-eating disorder. These were not pro-ana, pro-mia sites. This information was designed to help recovery, help promote understanding, and help, period. But my warped mind took the information intended to help and twisted it.
Thankfully, I’ve recovered. But the experience sometimes makes me wonder how information can help or harm us, and whether my experience is at all typical, not just for eating disorders but other disorders, too.
I just finished reviewing two novels. Wintergirls deals with eating disorders. The Stormchasers tells about an unmedicated bipolar man and his normal twin sister. Both are well written, well-researched, and engaging stories. I walked away with a greater understanding of two illnesses that I have experienced; other people, healthy ones, would probably learn a lot about bipolar disorder, bulimia and anorexia if they read these books.
If you asked either author what their intent was (besides writing a fabulous novel), they’d probably say that they wanted to understand these diseases and help others understand them, too. If someone asks me about my novel, dealing with suicide and mental illness, I would probably say that I want to help others find hope, help others understand what a bipolar person deals with.
But does it really help?
I’ve wrestled with this in my novel. Will a reader walk away from my book with a greater understanding of mental illness? Or will my character reinforce an unhelpful stereotype about bipolar people?
If I write about my eating disorder in fiction, will readers understand what goes on in the mind of a bulimic or anorexic? Or will some young woman find ideas for hurting herself? Or will the work be a trigger for someone wrestling with this problem?
To a certain extent, this is out of my control. I can’t control who picks up my book, how they choose to respond, or how they perceive my intentions. I’m responsible for writing the best possible book that I can.
But part of this responsibility is knowing the possible ways others may respond, being mindful of my audience. (This is why I choose to stay silent about certain aspects of my eating disorder; I don’t discuss the numbers or techniques unless the situation calls for this information.)
So here’s where I need some feedback.
Writers, how do you handle issues like this?
Readers, when you read a novel, how do you react to the portrayal of characters with serious issues? (Think, eating disorders, mental illnesses, alcoholism, etc.)
- Do you think stereotypes are reinforced?
- Do you understand the problems better or worse after reading the book?
- If you’ve dealt with that issue personally, did the details/actions/characters trigger memories or cause you to backslide in your recovery?
I’d love to hear from people who have issues like mental illness, eating disorders, etc., but I realize that privacy is a concern. Feel free to comment anonymously or email me directly. (See “contact” tab at the top for email info, or to message me on Facebook.)