Monday, May 25, 2009

Thinner: an allegory

Elliot Smith--"Ballad Of A Thin Man (live)" (mp3)

Here's a conversation that I haven't had yet:

Bob: You know, you and I aren't that good of friends, so I'm going to say something to you and then you're probably never going to speak to me again.

Him: silence.

Bob: Your wife is incredibly anorexic, she is really, really sick and you need to act now or it's going to kill her.

I don't know where the conversation goes from there, but I am assuming that he will say something that ends the conversation permanently.

Now, before you start playing a guessing game about who I'm talking about, let me assure that it is no one you work with, no one you know, no one whose husband you work with, someone you've probably seen, okay, maybe someone you work with, possibly someone some of you know. It really doesn't matter. Although I have a particular person in mind, bear in mind that I don't know who is reading this or where. I think this is a conversation that we all have been avoiding.

If you look back over my proposed discussion with this husband, you'll notice something very damning. The conversation I hope to have the next time I run into him is not going to cost me very much because, indeed, I truly don't know him all that well. He did help me change a tire on Signal Mountain one time. I run into him at Panera and sometimes at school events.

But all of us who see his wife must share the same shock: she used to be an attractive woman, but now she looks gaunt and skeletal.

I remember my first encounter with anorexia. It was 1976 and I was living in a coed dorm at Penn and my roommate liked this girl Marian and even asked her out and got turned down. But what we really couldn't process was how thin she was, especially her arms. We didn't know what to think about her, we didn't have a name to put on her.

And 33 years later, I'm not sure any of us have progressed much beyond, except that now we have the name. And we even get a kind of smug satisfaction in being able to point one out: "Wow, she's really thin" or "Annie." It's like spotting gays or a rare state in a license plate game on a long trip.

So back to the damning part: I think most of us are not willing to confront anorexia when we see it, especially if it is close to home. There is a woman who runs past our house in the mornings at the slowest pace I've ever seen a human run and she is little more than a stick and what she is exercising for only her disease knows, but all we know to do for her is to chat with her and welcome her to come and cut roses whenever she likes. We don't know who she is or exactly where she is.

But what if I knew her? What if she were the wife of a friend? Would I treat her gently and let her pet my dog, or would I confront the sickness that is slowly killing her and escalating? I know it's more complicated than that. You can't just walk up to someone, friend or not, and say, "Hey, you're anorexic" the way you would point out a piece of food stuck in someone's teeth.

Back to my planned conversation at the top. If I bring up this woman and her condition to anyone who knows her, they quickly confirm it. But none of us really want to do anything. We want to keep things easy, to hope it could go something like, "Hey, you're wife's really anorexic, but you probably know that and are working on it, so, hey, we're going to play doubles on Thursday, are you in?"

So, what is it with us? I mean, what is our obligation here? Are politeness and respecting privacy and maintaining friendships and easy relationships the most important considerations? I'm afraid that's how I act, except for a failed intervention last year and the imaginary conversation above that's in my head and will probably stay there. I am also far too much of a "heal yourself" kind of person who doesn't much go for therapists, and so, I'm caught up in a simplistic, blaming perspective of 'Why doesn't he do something to fix it?'

But out there in anorexialand, the person with the disease (hey, men can have it to!) doesn't know he or she has it and the spouse may be drowning, too, and the only lifeline, at least for now, may be that confirmation by someone known and trusted that he, too, thinks there is something wrong. Probably, in the context of a marital relationship, one partner's anorexia is, on one level, yet another negotiation that two people engage in to get through the day, not realizing how quickly those days have added up. You think you see an improvement one day and that gets you through the next five, or the next two weeks. And, way back when, for some brief window, thinner was better.

I wonder if that husband, after I had steeled my courage and approached him, would look at me with disgust and say, "Do you really think I don't know that?"

Elliot Smith's version of the Dylan classic is available at Cover Me, a fine covers blog. Check it out.

1 comment:

Daisy said...


I have had the same conversation in my head many times. Anorexia is a mental illness and I think living with someone who is mentally ill must take quite a toll and impair your perception of normality. Other than that I can't offer you an answer just my empathy.