Eating Disorders in Literature – Another Look at Borderline Insanity (an FBI thriller by Jeff Miller)

So, a few weeks ago a friend and fellow writer released the second installment of his FBI thrillers about his heroine, Dagny Gray. I wrote a review of the novel on my writer’s blog.

If you don’t want to go there and read my review, that’s OK, I’ll let you know what I think here. I loved the book. I a big fan of Jeff and his writing and I love the Dagny Gray character. Part of the reason I love her is that she feels like a complete person. She’s flawed and driven, and in some ways, broken. And yet, she does what we all do…she gets up every day fights. She fights against the bad guys in her job, and she fights against her own inner demons. Jeff has written a character I can fully identify with on many levels.

But this post is not about Jeff. This post is about my reaction to reading about a major character struggling with an eating disorder.

I was lucky enough to be included as a beta reader for Borderline Insanity and receive an advanced copy. I did not share my feedback with Jeff, in part because I was so deeply affected by Dagny’s struggle. After reading about her deeply emotional difficulty with eating, the guilt, the shame, the stress,  I cried off and on for a couple of days.

I was struck by Jeff’s ability to so clearly articulate those feelings. I really felt like he had intimate knowledge of what that struggle is like. It felt as if he reached inside my head and pulled out my innermost thoughts and fears and put them into words. It affected me deeply to read my own thoughts and feelings on the page.

Dagny suffers from anorexia nervosa. Of course, I have often argued that anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and morbid obesity are all parts of the same illness. I still feel that way. And after reading this book, I am even more convinced. I’ve often argued that anorexia and bulimia are the acceptable illnesses per our society because most of the patients affected by these diseases are very thin.These illnesses have long been treated medically while the morbidly obese have just been told by doctors to “lose weight” and you’ll be fine. Anorexia, bulimia, they are illnesses. Obesity, a character flaw. It’s only in recent years, say the past 15 or so, that surgery and other medical solutions have been offered to people trying to lose weight. But I digress…

In Borderline Insanity, Dagny is forced into therapy by her boss as a condition of keeping her job. She is not open to being helped at all. Also, a coworker, in an attempt to be helpful, asks her from time to time if she’s logged her calories on her Weight Watcher’s app.

Dagny uses every excuse to avoid facing her problem. She throws herself into her work.There are many instances in the book where she looks at her app only to be reminded that calorie count is zero. More than once, to meet her calories for a day or two, she sits in her car at a drive through, eating a high caloric meal and cries.

Oh I know this feeling. The first time I read this scene, it was like a punch in the gut. The number of times, mostly pre surgery, that I did something very similar is a lot. I could eat an entire frozen pizza and a big bag of chips. The first couple of bites, I was usually OK, but as I continued, bite after bite, the guilty and shame became overwhelming. I would literally eat until I became sick and cry and cry.

Post surgery is a little different. I cannot eat the same volume of food in the same amount of time. I can eat more than I could immediately after the surgery, but that is normal. I can eat most of a small meal. And I’ll repeat it again, because I think it needs to be said. That is normal.

What’s not normal is some of the bad behavior I have fallen back on. While I cannot eat a whole pizza, I still find it hard to stop once I start. Granted, the pizza is much smaller than the pizza I would have eaten pre surgery. And I might make that pizza the only thing I eat all day. But I will finish the entire thing over the course of a day. I might through 70% of the crust in the trash, but I will still eat the whole thing until it’s gone. And by the time I’m done, I feel just as guilty if I had eaten in all within 30 minutes.

I cannot eat a whole big bowl of popcorn, but if I buy a jar of kernels, I will have popcorn for as many meals as I can for as many days in a row as I can until the popcorn is gone.

Of course, the answer to the above problems is simple. I do not buy popcorn or pizza. Not normally. But when I’m in the throes of the crazy thoughts that go through my head, which are usually triggered by some kind of stress or something else that I cannot control, I tell myself the lie.

The lie being, I can buy this and have just one pretzel. Just one slice of pizza. The lie is the first step to giving into the binge. And at first I do have just one. But the truth is, that is not where it ends.

Dagny had to force herself to eat and I struggle to not overeat, but the emotions, the sense of worthlessness, guilt, and shame, are the same. Seeing her struggle on the page, my own thoughts open for the whole world to see, really opened my eyes to the fact that I cannot do this alone. That is why I sought the help of a therapist and nutritionist. It hasn’t been easy, but I just take it one day at a time.

I am going to wrap this post up with a quote from Jeff’s book, which he borrowed from the bible. I’m not normally an overly religious person, but I think this quote aptly summed up the way I feel a lot of the time.

“When Rebekah was pregnant with Isaac’s twins, the babies jostled within her. She asked the Lord why this was happening and he said, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples within you will be separated. One people will be stronger than the other, the older will serve the younger.'”

I often feel as if I am at war with two parts of myself. The self that I try to portray every day, the strong, confident woman who knows her place in the world versus the insecure, self conscious, out of control crazy person who hides from her problems by binge eating.

I took steps a couple of years ago to try to reign in the latter, but sometimes I feel as if the former is losing ground. Seeking help through therapy is my way of trying to bring those two parts of myself back together.

I love that Jeff wrote a book where the main character has an eating disorder. I have never read a book outside of self-help or teen books that addressed eating disorders and the psychological effects. I think Jeff did a great job.

I hope he makes it big, really big. Like JK Rowling big. The world would be a better place for it.

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