Notes from the Brother of an Anorexic
I am writing this in the dark. Past midnight. Downstairs. Tucked away behind my bedroom door. And I can hear my older sister rustling through the pantry in the kitchen. This probably wouldn’t be unusual in most other houses. I’d like to think it’s pretty commonplace, in fact. But for me, in this house, I am terrified to even breathe too loudly.
Because this is the first time I have heard her eating in months.
To be fair, I know she eats. She wouldn’t be alive if she never ate. That’s a pretty common myth regarding anorexics—they never eat. At least, that’s what I used to think. Looking back, it’s a pretty silly notion. But I swear for the last three years it seemed to be pretty fucking true.
My sister has anorexia. Well, two of my three sisters do. One younger, one older. One is in full recovery. She’s a teenager—angsty, smart, and healthy. The other.. well, she’s in the kitchen secretly nibbling on Kix cereal.
Maybe I should have said this before, but this might end up being a pretty problematic post. I know that. I know that, and yet I really need to write it. Because while I’m sure my sister’s world has been hell inside of her head, it hasn’t been easy for any member of my family. And I am sure it isn’t easy for any member of any family that has experienced an eating disorder. So, to make sure I do not appropriate her pain, I am writing about mine. This is not about what it’s like to have an eating disorder. It’s about what it’s like for a family to survive one.
I am scared of my sister.
Not that she’ll hurt me. She weighs 77 lbs. She can’t really hurt anyone. Except herself, maybe. But she’s been doing that for years now—it’s pretty much her mode of operation. Although, on some level, my sister has hurt us. She has hurt my family in the way that people with different addictions hurt their loved ones—by lying, by being self-destructive, by blaming everyone around them for their problems, everyone except themselves. But no, that’s not why I’m scared of her. I am scared of my sister because it does not feel like she’s my sister anymore.
Everything about her, sadly, feels like the disease.
The way my sister watches me eat feels like the disease watching me eat. The way she asks where I’m going with my friends because she stopped talking to all of hers feels like the disease. The way she screams at my parents for causing all of her pain (they didn’t). The way she takes my little sister out to eat fast food every day even if she isn’t hungry so she can eat through her. The way she sneaks around the kitchen at night drinking liters of water to stave off her hunger. The way she talks about exercising and running marathons she’d never survive, let alone finish. None of it feels like my sister. And I wish it wasn’t.
But on some level, it is my sister.
When someone is deep within their disorder, it’s pretty much the only topic they ever talk about—because it’s all they can think about. It’s their “friend” or “protector” or “guardian.” Ed. Ana. Mia. Like they are people. Like they are demons floating around the empty nest my sister’s soul abandoned for a weak heart rate and acid stains on her teeth. And for us? We either have to accept that Ana and Mia come over for dinner (or, I guess they don’t, but they sure don’t let my sister come for dinner) every night or we leave my sister to her mental abusers. I’m not going to lie—we have done both.
There are many times I have wished my sister dead. I know that sounds awful. It is awful. But having to wonder every day when I wake up, Is this the day? Will this day become an anniversary of something terrible for my family? Will I go to sleep tonight with only two living sisters instead of three? Which one of us is going to check if she’s still breathing today? Is this that day? Is it finally over? Can we rest now? That gets exhausting. It gets unbearable. And she’s in pain. That’s fucked, right? The only person who can save my sister is my sister but she won’t do it because this disease, this addiction works for her right now and so she suffers because she won’t eat and the more she won’t eat the more she suffers and the more she suffers the more this addiction, this disease works for her and if it works then she won’t save herself and she’s the only person who can save herself. I mean, that’s fucked, right? But it’s our reality. It’s hers, too.
I am tired. I say that a lot. I am tired. And I am. Tired. I am tired of medical bills from programs that my sister never finished. I am tired of seeing my parents blame themselves for something they have no control over. Tired of lending my sister The Beauty Myth, Judith Butler articles, and Jessica Valenti literature that might inspire her only to find them all collecting dust on her shelf. I’m tired of cleaning vomit stains off the toilet. Of realizing spoons have been disappearing from the kitchen and then finding them stashed away in her room inside empty boxes of cake mix. Of the lies my sister tells about her “recovery” on Facebook every day and the clueless and well meaning people who like and comment on and believe her lies. I’m tired of Ana. Of Mia. Of Ed. Of everything. I am tired of being tired.
Clearly, I am angry with my sister.
As much as I’ve been through all the lingo and therapy and lectures with this disease, I still know what sits at the end of it: personal responsibility. My sister has just as much responsibility as a drug addict, a sex addict, or an alcoholic to get help. This disease is treatable. For me, I have felt an enormous amount of guilt around this topic. And mostly, it comes from people who do not understand: Why don’t your parents do something? Why are you mad if she’s sick? Don’t be upset, just tell her to get help. It’s not her fault, you know. You should be more supportive.
My sister describes a lot of what she feels as being invisible. And I am sure it is true that she feels that way. But I know from the experience of living around an eating disorder that the person with it often becomes the only visible part of a family. Since my sister has been ill, my parents stopped calling me at school. Every conversation upon coming home from college was about my sister and how she was doing. Every song and movie had to be stopped or turned off if it triggered her. We were not allowed to talk about anything but her disorder at the table because it made her feel invisible—except if we asked her about how she was feeling then we were judging her for being sick. No one cared if I was depressed because so was she and she was sick and I was not. It was not important that I became suicidal while studying abroad because my sister had left the hospital again and maybe this time she wouldn’t go back and might really die. These were all concessions my family made to ensure my sister’s survival. The great irony of all of these behaviors and sacrifices is that it nearly compromised my own.
Nobody has ever asked me or anyone else in my family how the disorder has affected us. It does affect us, too. My relationship with food and diet culture will never be the same. It’s hard to look in the mirror and wonder if I could ever have the will power to stop eating (I don’t and I wouldn’t, but the thought comes up). Living at home is living two lives—one that’s quiet and detached when the disease rears its head and one that actually involves laughter when my sister isn’t around (we can’t laugh too much when she’s around, because then we aren’t taking her situation seriously). But nobody asks about this, about how we’re doing. And the self-guilting part of me says they shouldn’t—that my sister is the one truly suffering and mine pales in comparison. But how can anyone know that? How can anyone tell anyone that one person’s suffering is not equal to someone else’s? Is that measurable? Whether or not my sister has the capital, we have all suffered because of her disease—and I think that’s important to acknowledge.
I think it’s also important for me to say that I love my sister. I do. But I am losing her. And that hurts. And it hurts not just because I miss who my older sister used to be, but because as her disease gets worse, it silences my family more and more. To be the sibling means not talking about your own issues to make space for theirs. It means being perfect in a corner because the disease has taken up the whole room. It means that while understand I will never truly know how my sister suffers, it is essential for my survival that somebody—anybody—knows that I do.