This week I received a Google alert about eating disorders that led me to a comprehensive television clip about older women with eating disorders, particularly in the Raleigh, NC area.
On one hand, the piece was full of statistics and interviews with experts who accurately relayed why women over 35 are seeking help now – perimenopause, menopause, divorce, job upheaval, depression, and empty nest syndrome, for example, are triggering long-simmering body issues or starting them for the first time – but on the other hand, it did something that was subtle but powerful in its message: it communicated the extraordinary difficulty of getting into recovery at that age without providing a single role model who had achieved that goal, which might have ignited hope. In fact, the primary focus of the story was a middle-aged woman who has been cycling in and out of treatment centers for ten years, but wasn’t in a solid place of healing yet.
When “My Name is Caroline” was published in 1988, I had been in recovery for over four years and was grateful that Doubleday – my publisher – insisted that they wouldn’t publish or publicize my book unless I had several strong years under my belt. The reason for this stand was because they also published Betty’s Ford’s memoir, “A Glad Awakening,” that year, and she had educated the staff about the importance of the length of her recovery, and why she felt it would have been irresponsible to get in front of the public without demonstrated longevity in her sobriety.
I quickly discovered what she was talking about when I saw people observing me buying groceries at a local store, and when a reporter impulsively stood up during an interview and went to my refrigerator to inspect its contents without asking me if she could. Even at my very low level of recognition, the pressure of all eyes on me was daunting at times, and the strength of my recovery and healthy friends were invaluable in getting through the privacy loss and all that came with it.
When people go public with their recovery from addictions like gambling, eating disorders, alcohol and drugs, they become role models whether they want to or not, particularly if they are willing to discuss how they worked their way through the ups and downs they encountered, relying on grit and grace to keep going in the face of setbacks.
But what if you go public before you’ve gotten your feet under you and encountered the inevitable challenges of life, and then you fall down and relapse? What then? What is the message to people who were using you as a hopeful beacon for themselves? What have they learned from watching you? Will it instill hope in them that they ought to try to get better, too?
At one point in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a fixture on dozens and dozens of television shows like “Montel Williams” and “Sally Jessy Raphael,” where I shared my story and observations from the vantage point of a former bulimic. It was rare that I was joined on stage by someone who had long-term recovery or a hopeful story to tell. Instead, the focus was always on the dramatic downs and shameful behaviors, and more often than not I was asked to find guests to join me, but never someone who was healthy. “Younger and sicker makes for better TV,” one booker explained apologetically when I said I wanted the focus to be on hope, not misery.
Over the last two decades, I’ve watched the increasing trend of famous people and well-known celebrities march from rehab right to a microphone or talk show appearance. They are often joined by staff members from the treatment center they attended, who are eager for the publicity. It always feels unseemly to watch this dog-and-pony show because while the addict is delighted to feel better and undoubtedly wants to tell the world how wonderful life appears to be, it should be the treatment center’s responsibility to keep them away from the pressures that come from having all eyes watching you. Where is the concern for the patient?
In the last few years, a number of well-known celebrities like Demi Lovato, Portia de Rossi, Wynonna Judd, Lindsey Lohan and Stacy
London have described their eating disorder battles, but these eating disorders have rarely been in the rear view mirror for long. In fact, Sharon Osbourne frequently discusses her lifelong weight challenges and lapband surgery but admits to still being bulimic, while Stacy London – the subject of an admiring “People Magazine” story – told the reporter that she had recently experienced a fifteen-pound weight swing and was unhappy with her body. Again – are these people with tentative recovery, or none, really the people who should be sharing their stories and being featured on the covers of magazines?
As someone who once suffered silently and alone with an eating disorder, I want to put out a plea for broadcasters and celebrities to be more responsible with what they choose to put in the media. I desperately wanted hope that people got better and stayed better because I needed to know my odds of success. What if someone like me sees a star leaving a treatment center, talking about her newfound recovery, only to be disappointed by her subsequent relapse? Will someone like me risk embarrassment and seek help if we aren’t sure it’s worth the money and effort?
Maybe not. And I don’t think this is a risk we should continue to take. Think about this for a moment – if the point of giving an interview or being on the cover of a magazine is to prove that eating disorders are pervasive, regardless of your income or fame, that message is already out there. Been there, done that.
So let’s think about what other messages are being communicated when the recovery is half-hearted or tentative, and there is no proven record of getting through a holiday, a relationship change, pregnancy, child-rearing, menopause or other difficulties without surviving and thriving. Do we really need this? Can’t we do any better? What might happen if we lift up and celebrate people who have some recovery mileage – famous or not – and those stories become more the norm than what we currently experience?
Anyone who would like a personally inscribed copy of “Positively Caroline” mailed to them, please visit www.positivelycaroline.com and place an order there.