The Disease We Cannot See

She had a suitcase with her and put it in the luggage rack above my head, then sat down next to me. She looked normal: she had sleek hair, wore a winter coat, checked out her iPod Touch like any other human being would. She was a bit pale, but hey, I look like a ghost myself during the winter, so who am I to judge her for that? But the thing I couldn’t ignore, was the feeding tube in her nose. It was an earmark of the disease we cannot see.

Her story

Of course, she could have had it for any reason. The thing is, I happened to notice that she had kept track of her weight on her iPod — like I used to do — and that she had upcoming appointments to be weighed. Also, a few weeks ago I had passed an eating disorder clinic in the city where I study, and she had that suitcase with her. I could fill in her story without hearing it. About how she gets the weekends off, then has to go back for treatment and stay for the week. Getting weighed, getting therapy, being surrounded by people like her. People like me.

It could have been me

This was the most confronting realisation: that I could have been this girl. It made me feel uncomfortable, even guilty. It seemed so unfair that she had to go through all this, whereas I have always been at home, surrounded by the people I love, and who love me back, instead of psychologists that would prod my mind.

The mind

The mind is what makes this disease so complicated. Once you’re not a walking skeleton any more, people assume you’re doing better and if they have just met you, they surely don’t expect you to be anorexic or bulimic. If this girl hadn’t had the feeding tube, I would not have suspected a thing. Everyone looks a bit pale every now and then, and while she was on the skinny side, she did not look deadly skinny.

I understand

Precisely the absence of those things typically associated with eating disorders and the presence of the feeding tube was what made the invisible visible, and what emphasised that this disease is manifested in the mind, not the body. Being anorexic does not mean you’re skinny; that’s just a symptom of the mental disorder. It’s not about food — it’s about what our mind does with the food, how it is linked to our self-perception and body image. That’s what I wanted to tell that girl. I wanted to talk to her, let her know, reach out to her. Hey, I understand. I used to keep track of the numbers, too. But I know she has to discover for herself what these numbers mean, and perhaps more importantly: what they do not mean.

Photo by Danielle Henry (CC)

One thought on “The Disease We Cannot See

  1. Once you understand this disease, you start noticing it. I encounter these people at work and I feel tempted to refer them to your website. Beautiful story Laura, keep it up.

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