Sometimes common wisdom is our worst enemy.
“What day is it?” I questioned while speeding home during lunch to walk the dog, but the answer didn’t really matter since every day routinized in pet care juggled with my seventy-hour-a-week job: a frustrating situation since my girlfriend worked less than twenty hours a week. Sympathy vied with frustration as I arrived and navigated our apartment disaster, mazed with furniture, junk, and garments from her hoarding that only worsened over time. The dog, unaffected by this disaster, bounced at my knees, ready for a walk and feeding. As I searched for the leash lost in the clutter, her voice called from the bedroom, causing me to cringe, knowing another round of the same questions awaited.
Am I fat?
Do I look fat?
Be honest, does this make me look overweight?
The relentless questions resounded like a song stuck in my head caused by three years of hearing “fat, fat, fat, fat!” The word grew into a meaningless term that served only to frustrate the way a child repeats a word incessantly, tying intrinsically to every aspect of life.
I entered the bedroom, still warming up from the air conditioning’s all-night operation to make the room an ice chest for sleeping, which brought vague thoughts of the enormous electric bill. She stared from the mirror on her makeup table crowded with applications, eye treatments, pens, powders, and many other aesthetic tools. “Could you make some coffee?” I agreed and left, thankful she only asked for coffee, and in another stroke of luck, noticed the dog’s leash on the floor by the bed before leaving the room.
My luck continued as I leashed the dog and left the girlfriend to her daily makeup routine, and the dog quickly finished her business, not desiring to stay outside long. Feeling pressure to return to work, I hurriedly entered the apartment, where the dog disappeared into the clutter to meet me in the kitchen. Luck ran out when feeding the dog and the cats when a search commenced for the can opener that somehow became buried under a dish pile in the sink.
Shaking my head as I rushed to get the pets fed, frustration grew seeing the plates accumulated since I washed them last night. Multiple times at night, my girlfriend entered the kitchen to binge on whatever she found. Her eating frenzies ended in haphazardly stacked dishes in the sink and empty food containers covering countertops, which shifted aggravation to worry, “Is she purging again?”
The plan to let her know I started the coffee maker and then timely leave for work failed as the coffee container stared with emptiness. Forgetting that tiredness kept me from going to the store the night before, I rubbed my face nervously in aggravation that stole my will. Exhaustion filled my body, making me want to crawl into the bed and sleep, but this held no possibility.
For a year, the king-size bed held only her because her nervousness advanced such that the slightest movement woke and barred her return to sleep. Worse yet, sudden waking induced panic attacks, avoided by retooling the bedroom into an icy, dark hole just for her sleeping. I slept on the expensive sofa ruined by her careless eating that stained and filled the cushions with crumbs.
I had to go. Out of time for making coffee and caring for the pets, the need to get to work morphed into a fear of losing my job, which I could not afford. Entering the bedroom to inform her of the coffee situation and my need to leave, I hesitated in the doorway, captured by her makeup repertoire. As she applied layer after layer of foundation covering her freckles, the person I loved disappeared. The person I cared about wore her freckles with pride, but this person hid behind Estee Lauder and camouflaged in Sephora.
The girl who brought home the kitten living under the church down the street and saved a cat from the pound vanished in this self-absorbed stranger who spent hours putting on makeup, choosing outfits, and endlessly worrying about appearance. Machiavellian about her looks, this person destroyed our home, starved pets, and placed us in financial peril all for appearance’s sake.
Sudden bitching returned focus to reality with her unfulfilled desire for coffee. As she ventilated hostility, my hands shook, and my eyes burned with tears in a loss of control. I just wanted a normal Wednesday where I went to work and came home. In a mindless rage, I stammered,
I guess it’s time to get yelled at again? You promised you would stop treating me like this! No, you can’t go a fucking week without yelling. It’s Wednesday, time to scream again! Why the fuck are you yelling at me? What the fuck did I do?
The moment snapped and reverted her to herself again, sitting her next to me as I slumped on the bed, crying,
I don’t know what to do. I love you, but I don’t know how to fix this problem. I’m living like a refugee, and I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.
Too emotionally distraught to return to work, I called, making an excuse, and she also stayed home, helping me clean the house. We walked the dog together in the afternoon, and when we left to get dinner, she didn’t cake on her makeup or histrionically devise an outfit to wear, allowing lunch and dinner to pass in normalcy. The word “fat” never entered the conversation, having become herself again on that Wednesday.
The peace ended the next day when entering the kitchen revealed a sink filled with plates and trash on the counters. Whatever hope felt the day prior abandoned me as I realized the depths of her sickness while walking the dog in the early morning hours. Whatever help she needed, I lacked: an understanding that filled me with futility. What do you do? You don’t leave someone you love because of sickness, right? No, you stick by them because commitment means sacrifice. Clinging to memories and her moments of clarity reinforced my belief she would eventually overcome the eating disorder.
When we met, she told me she suffered from an eating disorder but had control. At some point in the relationship, she relapsed with the sickness manifesting in increasingly negative behaviors. All that time, she saw a therapist, went to groups, and took medication. She talked about positivity, spoke of gratitude, had faith, and spewed motivational adages. All the while, she killed herself as I destroyed myself trying to cope.
In the end, she left, spiraling my life into hate for her and eating disorders. Drained of all empathy for people with these diseases, I avoided discussions and interactions with anyone suffering from them for several years before developing a new understanding.
Seeing in a mirror an unrealistically warped reflection of yourself or some aspect of yourself challenges comprehension. Unlike disease or physical injury, cognitive aberrations defy understanding in the seemingly inherent control of faculties. Without a visible injury or cause, we form unreasonable expectations for the person to snap back the way one would from sadness or frustration over a circumstance like a death in the family.
Coping with someone’s mental illness can form a mental illness.
Lack of understanding mental illness sent me down a road that enabled and made me a partner in her sickness. Expecting her to magically see herself normally in a mirror formed the worst and most insane course of action for her and me. Understanding this opened wide the flaws and difficulties concerning mental illness.
Society doesn’t equip us with the proper insight into mental illness. Knowing her depth of condition now illuminates her need for more effective care, not a relationship curative. This ignorance deepens in the faulty thinking that reduces mental illness to a personal decision to get better. Adages and common wisdom dictate that “people need to want to get better” and “you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help.” Yet this uncritical way of thining drove the same assumptions that made me an anorexic’s enabler: “love requires sacrifice” and “you stand by the one you love.”
I don’t know the cure to mental health problems, but I do understand decision-making surrounding sick people often causes more problems, mainly to the sufferer’s detriment. Rather than providing a means for her recovery, I escalated her illness: a sin I would not have committed had I known how to deal with anorexia or any mental illness.
The right path to aiding someone forms by admitting ignorance and striving to get that person the proper, most effective help possible.
Mental illness affects millions of people, and ignorance of the problem is pervasive, rendering most people incapable of proper coping. The same terrible, common wisdom that makes enablers of loved ones permeates the mental health communities where people attend psychiatric meetings or group therapy while binging, starving, drinking, and obsessing themselves to death. They do this in society’s roll of the dice for them to suddenly wise up and want to get better. Does this hope work? Sure, sometimes, because people are resilient, but the time needed and the damage done actualizing hope buries under more of the trite wisdom that declares, “she just wasn’t ready to get better” or “he had to drink every drink to find sobriety” or “I’m grateful for every experience I have, even starving myself,” and so on.
This retrospective wisdom rings with positivity, but if it were true wisdom, we could access and manipulate the knowledge to help others overcome illness, not merely repeating the same messages hoping their resilience kicks in. Twelve Step programs, group therapy, forms of psychoanalysis, and many other areas of mental health care overemphasize self-efficacy, spirituality, and faith-based solutions. This description of healthcare does not begin to assess this problem that forms a self-help industry. While I lack the cure to mental health issues, I know expecting someone with a cognition problem to think or pray their way to health is as insane as expecting my partner to stop purging by trying to be a good boyfriend.
At the minimum, society needs to reconsider what we believe is good therapy and advice.
While my ex’s life eventually normalized, allowing her to thrive, for the many lost in dysmorphic visions and relentless, negative, false self-perceptions, we hope the dice land in their favor.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash