In Defense of Obsession
When I look back on my life, I am amazed by some of the things I did and said when I was affected by anorexia. During eighth grade, I became a vegetarian for half a year. While I told my parents it was for humanitarian reasons, it gave me an excuse to only eat the side dishes at meals. During ninth grade, I made exclusively PB&J sandwiches for lunch. Unlike cold cuts, which came in prepackaged slices, spreading PB&J with a knife meant I could control the amount of ingredients I used. Sometimes I had dinner early so I could lie about how much I ate when my parents asked me later that night. Other times I ate dinner late, so I could throw up after they were asleep. If I ate dinner with them, I found that too much time would elapse between eating and throwing up. Eventually when my mom made me drink a diet supplement smoothie, I would either pour it down the drain, into one of my mom’s vases, or onto the wooden floor behind the upright piano.
It’s hard not to be disturbed by those rituals. If they had continued, I would have been hospitalized. But I’m also a bit amazed by the sheer effort I directed towards my goal of a perfect body. I took advantage of my parents’ kindness and money. I lied without worrying whether I’d be caught. I took on ethical stances, like vegetarianism, for my own gain. And—I’m thinking of the smoothie-behind-the-piano trick—I concocted schemes, knowing that from the get-go that they would be completely ineffective.. that I’d be caught and I’d have to figure out some other plan. To be clear: I am not glorifying anorexia at all. Yet in this age of multitasking, it’s rare to have one goal with such concentrated effort.
While I haven’t dropped my obsessive personality, since graduating high school I have found healthier goals to direct it toward. In college it was schoolwork. As with my experiences with anorexia, I was obsessed with this, too. I spent weekends in the library studying for finals; Thanksgiving and Winter Break working through next semester’s reading lists. I cried when my papers weren’t good enough. All of the effort once channeled toward my body had been redirected to my schoolwork. I was being too hard on myself at the time. But then something magical happened. Rather than leading to the pediatrician’s office, this obsession led to new books and new ideas—books and ideas that made the experiences with anorexia more bearable.
The fact that roughly 1 in 20 people who suffer from anorexia will die from the disease should shock us. It should remind us that we must work toward recovery even when recovery may seem impossible; our lives are, quite literally, at stake. Yet experience has also taught me that, while anorexia itself may be an objectively bad thing, there may be something to be said for the obsessive personality that fuels it when applied in healthy ways. As I’ve seen and witnessed, obsession can turn into other, healthier, and unexpected directions. It can lead to lifelong interests, and maybe even love. So, I will continue down my path toward recovery. Yet as I do, I ought to remind myself that recovery might not involve fully “getting over” such personality traits, but may include retooling and accepting – and maybe even loving – the personality traits that make me, me.
Josh Bucheister is a 24 year old freelance researcher and editor based in New York. He has been struggling on and off from anorexia and bulimia since he was nine, and is interested in the various ways that individuals endure and combat their eating disorders on a daily basis.