Your memoir ELENA VANISHING, is a memoir that you co-wrote with your mother, Clare B. Dunkle, about your struggles with a life-threatening eating disorder. What makes your book different from other books on this topic out there already?
The motivation behind writing this memoir for both my mother and me was to bring the journey of the recovery process to the forefront. Many of the books on eating disorders that I sought out while in the worst stages of anorexia seemed either to glorify the eating disorder or to gloss over the actual stages of recovery. I wanted to bring to life the gritty, gut-wrenching side of anorexia and show the readers how long and painful the process can be. It is not as simple as deciding to start eating again. Many cases of eating disorders stem from trauma, and there is a lot of work involved in overcoming the self-hatred and loathing before progress can be made. The disorder is dangerous both mentally and physically, and through the book, we strive to show how long it takes to recalibrate the mental side before the physical side can be bettered. Recovery from anorexia is a life-long battle, much like alcoholism and drug addiction. Our book is different in that it shows both the initial fall into the disorder as well as the long uphill climb to try to reach a healthy mindset and body.
You call your book, ELENA VANISHING, and your mother's book, HOPE AND OTHER LUXURIES, sister memoirs because they describe the same events from two different perspectives. Which book is supposed to be read first?
Neither. Or either. It's up to the reader to decide.
We wrote the two memoirs for two different audiences. My book is aimed primarily at the adolescent or young adult. My mother's memoir is designed for adults--particularly parents. Because of this difference of audience, we don't expect that the two books will be read by the same readers. We hope each book finds the readers who will best respond to it.
Readers who come to the end of one of the memoirs and try to start reading the other sometimes report finding themselves unable to go on. That makes sense. It's a painful story, and starting over again at the beginning when you know that pain is coming is an experience one reader described as "way too crushing."
So far, two clever and involved readers have read the two memoirs simultaneously: a few chapters of one and then a few chapters of the other. Both have recommended this unusual approach as the best way to read the memoirs.
Was it difficult co-writing this book with your mother? Why or why not?
Yes, the book was difficult to write. Anorexia is a disorder that thrives on secrets and manipulation. When we set out to write the book together, we had to strip away the lies and deceit, and that caused many moments of pain and betrayal for both of us. The hardest part of the writing process was that when we started the book, I was still very deep in my disorder. There were times when my mother was sure that the book would only have one ending: my death. There were times when writing the book made both of us feel very hopeless and vulnerable. But as we continued to write the book, we began to treat it almost like a form of family therapy. My sister and father were involved in the book as well, and as hard as the entire process was, it allowed us to be completely open and honest with one another. We were able to analyze and revisit incredibly painful moments, but also the beautiful moments as well.
ELENA VANISHING targets the Young Adult audience. Why is this so important to you?
I was blessed with a very open and communicative family, but even for me, being in my disorder as a young teen was incredibly lonely. I sought out books on eating disorders, not to get answers, but to see other people out there asking the same questions I was asking myself. It was a powerful source of motivation to know that I was not the only one on this planet completely overwhelmed and consumed by a mental illness.
Anorexia and sexual assault are prevalent in young teens, both boys and girls. That feeling of confusion before the diagnosis of an eating disorder, as well as the terror of knowing that your mind is somehow different and warped compared to the average population, are things I will never forget. I hope that those adolescents out there who are struggling with the aftermath of rape or who are making their own personal journey with an eating disorder can turn to my book and find solace in the knowledge that they are not alone. I do not have many answers to give, but I am asking the same questions that many of them are asking themselves as they struggle through their isolating and terrifying illness. I hope seeing those same thoughts and behaviors on paper will give them comfort.
In the book, you bravely share how a rape at 13 set you on a path to starvation as a way of coping. You didn’t tell anyone about it for years, why?
I was very critical of myself from a very young age. After the rape, I was firm in the idea that I did not want the rest of my life to be judged on my ability to succeed after a rape. I only wanted to be seen as succeeding with no handicaps. The idea of being labeled a victim was something that I saw as taking away from my accomplishments, and I refused to let myself have that label. It took many years to realize that it would take more strength to step out and use my voice about my rape than it would to keep it hidden. A part of me was unwilling to accept the shame I was feeling and the loathing towards myself, the what-if's and the if-only-you-hadn't's, so I had hidden it all behind the idea of continuing life as though nothing had happened. But something did happen. It shattered me. That rapist changed my entire identity, my hopes and dreams, my personality, my whole self. And for many years, I let the rapist dictate my entire life. Only when I spoke out did I strip away the shame and self-hatred. Only then did I face the rape head-on and start to take back the self I had lost for so long.
You are now in recovery and say that you will be for the rest of your life. How does recovery from anorexia differ from other illnesses, such as alcoholism?
Recovery from anorexia is a unique process because it involves so much work on the mental side before the physical side can be properly helped. And the processes involved in that recovery are different from other types of addiction. With alcoholism, the recovery process is built around removing something toxic from one's life while building a core support group. With anorexia, the process is built around simultaneously bringing something into one's life that one deems very negative and toxic while also removing things from one's mental process. It can be very hard to work to overcome trauma when the coping mechanism is restriction of food. During recovery, the anorexic must learn how to work on trauma while radically changing that coping mechanism.
Having to face food multiple times a day is extremely challenging for the recovering anorexic. Unlike treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, there can be no avoidance of the “toxic substance” because the substance in not actually toxic—it’s food, necessary for a healthy body. But facing food like that after having demonized it for so long is terrifying. The frustration and overwhelming terror in the early recovery stages are brutal. It takes many slips and falls before the process gets any easier.
Years of starvation and other self-destructive behaviors led to serious, irreversible damage to your body. Can you speak to this?
My body has taken a severe beating from my abuse over the years. I still have to deal with severe osteoporosis and have broken bones, including my hip, because of it. I have fertility issues because of the many years of restricting, and my husband and I still do not know if my body will ever be able to support a full-term pregnancy. I have damaged nasal passages and taste buds, enamel corrosion, a damaged esophageal sphincter, and gastroesophageal reflux disease from purging. I have neurological problems that have affected my long-term memory. My digestive tract has many problems with proper digestion, and I have to battle bloating, cramps and constipation continually.
The most frustrating part of the recovery process was realizing how much damage I have done to my body that will never be able to repair itself—damage that causes pain and prevents me from living completely normally. It is another reason why anorexia is not something that disappears completely once progress is made. The effects are there. The human body cannot recover fully after years of improper nutrition and purging. It is a constant reminder of how dangerous and deadly this disease can be.
Do you think the medical community (healthcare companies included) have a handle on this disease? Based on your experience, what are they failing to do to treat and protect patients suffering from eating disorders?
I am not an expert on anorexia and not a professional in the medical community. I think the treatment is constantly evolving as new research brings different aspects of eating disorders to light. The rate of relapse in anorexics is very high, which means that treating an individual with an eating disorder is very expensive. Many treatment stays have to be crammed with therapies and meal plans before health insurance runs out. It is very difficult to try to treat the mental side of anorexia before the body starts to recover because often, the body has deteriorated to a point that any normal thought processes are impossible. This means that starting rigorous therapy when the body is not at a point of retaining information can be somewhat futile. It was not until I was on my third stay in a treatment center that I was physically at a point to be an active participant in the therapy process.
Also, many health insurance companies base coverage for anorexia treatment on physical instead of psychological factors, so most patients are sent away from treatment centers as soon as they reach a certain weight. The problem is that this is just when their bodies and brains have recovered enough to begin taking part in therapy and learning new coping skills. They get sent away before they can really begin to change the psychological part of this psychiatric disorder. I think this is the reason why so many anorexia patients relapse. They haven’t had time to learn new habits. They to revert back to old habits, and the cycle repeats. I know I would have benefited from treatment much earlier if I had been allowed to stay after my weight reached a healthy point, instead of being denied coverage. Both the physical and mental sides of the disorder need to be treated. The body needs to be healthy first before the mind will have the ability to gain any benefit from treatment.
Some sobering statistics that you’re familiar with about eating disorders include: 1/3 of those who’ve suffered won’t ever recover, 1/3 will relapse, and 1/3 will be fine. The relapse rate is 65%. How do these numbers effect you?
I have seen these numbers come to life. Many of the beautiful, lively men and women I have met during my recovery process have joined the statistics of those who will never recover. A number of them are dead. The dangers of an eating disorder are very real. I have had to have the discussion with my family and my husband about the possibility of another relapse. For the rest of my life, I will have to be vigilant and aware of my daily habits to prevent myself from falling back into unhealthy patterns, and the slope is very slippery. And I myself have relapsed multiple times. Anorexia is a deadly disorder that takes control very quickly and quietly. It is hard to see the warning signs before it is too late. And newer research shows that even those who are fine for decades can have a relapse.
The danger of death and physical harm to one's body are both very scary and very close to any anorexic. It is painful for many families who are just starting out with a loved one in treatment to learn that this will not be a quick and easy process. The thing to keep in mind is that early intervention is key in increasing an eating disorder victim’s chance of survival.
How is life today?
Life today is much brighter than it was just a few years ago. I am happily married to my best friend, and we move all over America as part of his work. We have a sassy four pound chihuahua named Mimsy who is the perfect travel companion. I am still in the process of recovery and always will be. But the years of work on adjusting my mental process and facing my trauma have allowed me to really began working on myself physically. There are some days that are better than others. There is still an internal battle waged before each meal. But my ability to continue to work against my negative coping mechanisms has become stronger and allowed me to see life from a more healthy perspective.Maybe one day I will be able to sit down to a meal without any guilt or shame or loathing. Maybe not. But I am constantly working towards not letting those thoughts prevent me from treating my body and my mind with the care they require to help me live a fulfilling life.
What do you want readers to take away from ELENA VANISHING?
I hope that readers come away from ELENA VANISHING with a deeper understanding of how devastating an eating disorder truly is. Each time this book is read, I hope it erases the stigma of anorexia being a superficial, temporary disorder of vain, vapid model-wannabes. I hope that readers can find comfort, understanding and strength from reading my journey and come away with a greater feeling of empathy and respect others, and even for themselves.
Sexual assault and anorexia do not just affect one individual. They are like atom bombs. They hit, and entire families crumble. The process of reclaiming one’s life afterwards is painful. It takes years, and it may never go back to the way it was. I am still in the process of rebuilding mine.
I want this book to start conversations. I want teens to be able to read this book and talk about it. The more rape and anorexia are discussed, the less stigma and shame they will have.
And most of all, I want anyone who is feeling confused and agonized to find solace in this book. To see that I may not have any answers to the questions that keep them up at night. But that I asked those same questions to myself in the dark. And I hope beyond hope that that will bring some comfort to all those tired minds desperately seeking it.
If just one reader can see himself or herself in my story and feel less alone and confused, then the whole journey that led me to write this book will have been worth it.
"i am tired and drunk and angry and embarrassed and a little bit amused rite now so i will leave my 'saving the day' my carpe diem my revitalization till tomorrow since there is always a blood-dripping screaming tomorrow waiting under my bed to wrap itself around my ankles anyway."