I didn’t diet. I “restricted.” I didn’t feel fat. I felt “body conscious.” I didn’t binge, purge, starve myself, count calories, abuse laxatives, check the scale a dozen times in a morning, or run up and down steps until my feet bled.
I “engaged in behaviors.”
Anorexia was a word I was highly discouraged from using during my treatment for anorexia. Instead, the therapist gave me a book that recommended calling it “ED.” Like an acronym for Eating Disorder. It said I should imagine ED as an abusive boyfriend. Chapter one was called “Filing for Divorce.”
If I hadn’t felt like a victim before, I did then.
The treatment center where I spent the better part of 4 months had adopted these euphemisms as official rules of communication in both group and individual therapy sessions. They replaced “trigger words.”
Before entering treatment, I had never considered a word “triggering.” I knew that when I was anxious, the weird food thoughts got worse. The obsessions became more frantic. And the rituals became less explicable. But the idea that a particularly blunt phrase could send me spiraling into an uncontrolled diet-and-exercise fugue seemed ludicrous.
Or simply unhelpful. Like telling a depressed person, “You shouldn’t talk about being sad. It could make you sadder.”
But as much as I resented the condescension, this deliberate, calculated avoidance of certain terms by otherwise rational-seeming medical professionals started to make me wonder. Am I really that fragile? Like most girls at the center, I had hit rock bottom — the place where it’s impossible to deny that you’ve lost control. Somehow I’d gotten swept up in nonsensical thoughts that carried me, by way of months and months of self-harm, all the way through swinging emergency room doors. Maybe I wasn’t the best judge of my own stability.
I left treatment with heaps more triggers than I had when I entered. A whole, precious collection I could cling to when recovery demanded too much of my delicate psyche.
Developing this stockpile didn’t come naturally, though. My instinct was to talk. To explore. To understand. To describe. There was a gushy, unpretty reality that I wanted to address head on in some attempt to regain control. But when I tried to engage in that culturally heralded battle against disease, I was instead reprimanded for using triggering language.
I fear that damage is done to patients (especially women) by entrenching the idea of trigger words into treatment for eating disorders. They make patients appear weak and irrational. Eventually, they make patients feel weak and irrational. Being forbidden to talk about the feelings you have or the behaviors you have participated in does nothing but foster shame.
Eating disorders are multidimensional—genetic, neurological, and societal factors all play a role. Finding solutions to the first two is the realm of doctors and scientists. But the latter requires vocal, courageous agitators to unravel destructive ideals and expectations built up by our establishments. How are we supposed to shift a paradigm if we live in constant fear of hearing someone say the word puke?
Regulating language does not prepare you for life outside of rehab. Even if words do hold the power to “trigger” something beyond unpleasant emotions, learning how to avoid being triggered is far less valuable that learning how to cope when you have been triggered.
People talk about “safe spaces.” When I was seeking treatment, my safe space became the classroom. It was the one place where the words I used to describe my own disorder and my own trauma weren’t policed. But now even that could be changing.
Language is powerful. It can be moving and ugly and cruel and can conjure the most terrifying monsters. So imagine teaching victims to embrace all that power in language to tell their stories. To confront society with the foul reality of teenage girls with their heads bent over toilet bowls. To make society complicit in it. To wield language like a weapon.
In the kitchen of the treatment center, the walls were covered with happy pictures drawn in colored pencils by former patients. Inspirational quotes like “Fall down seven times, stand up eight!” or “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!” shone down on us as we tried not to mentally add up the calories in foil-wrapped ham sandwiches and fruit juice.
In the middle of the wall, one picture stood out. It had the phrase “You are bigger than your fears!” written in a speech bubble above a hideous, grinning cartoon whale. Trigger warning.
We wondered a lot about the girl who drew that. We hoped it was another girl like us, feeling frustrated and feeling silenced and feeling suddenly so scared of words. Embedding a tiny trigger into a sea of platitudes as an act of subversion. It gave us our own euphemism to use at morning check-in. Instead of feeling fat, we felt “bigger than our fears.”
-Kestrel Wolgemuth, Contributor
This is a contribution post.
Though not a Butch, Kestrel is a close friend of the TB Team. She’s in Ireland for the moment studying media, international politics, and the difference between ‘water resistant’ and ‘water proof.’ Enjoys writing and making things out of sounds. Long walks on the beach are tricky because sand gets in her Chucks. Follow her on Twitter: @_birdofdoom_