Friday, March 4, 2016

Elena Vanishing: A Memoir - Elena and Clare B. Dunkle

Summary:  Everyone thinks you're a big fat fake.

Seventeen-year-old Elena has a voice in her head that tells her what she needs to do in order to be perfect: Put on her make up.  Be charming and poised.  Make top grades.  Work two or even three jobs.  And never, ever eat.

You're an out-of-control, binge-eating whore.

This is the voice she calls her conscience.  And listening to it just might kill her.

As Elena's body starts to break down and she goes from one hospital to another, she comes to understand that her inner voice is her greatest demon.  And in order to defeat it, she will have to face a secret she's hidden for years.

This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety is artillery against herself, a girl battling on both sides of a lose-lose war, a girl struggling with anorexia nervosa.  Co-written with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena's memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this dangerous disorder.  (Summary from book jacket and image from amazon.com)

My Review:  First off, I need to own that I've never had anorexia nervosa, so as much as I will attest to this being the most accurate depiction of the disease I have ever read, I am not the expert on the subject by any means.  But for me this is the most accurate depiction of anorexia nervosa.  I have had many close people to me, some family members, that have fought this disease, so I do have a fairly good barometer on the depth of the torment.  Additionally, I've read many books, some fictional portrayals that were amazing (e.g., Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson), some more clinical write-ups (e.g., Reviving Ophelia by Dr. Mary Pipher), but none has really gotten into the head, the true tormented mind of an anorexic like this book has.  And I believe that's because this is a memoir, a real voice of someone who's lived the life and managed to survive.

Each person has a story, an individualized reason and battle that brings him or her to the point of anorexia.  And for this reason, each depiction of the struggle with this disease will be different.  But there are commonalities between the stories.  One of those commonalities is the wickedly vicious inner voice, the inner dialogue of the mind that beats down every good thing a person does or says or hears.  And that is a piece of this book that cut to the quick.  Elena's inner voice is painfully wicked, painfully critical, demeaning, and derogatory.  And this is the voice that Elena listens to most.  I've had a chance to talk with a few people close to me who've had anorexia and they confirmed that this voice is real, and can haunt them even after healing has taken place.

Another aspect to the book that I appreciated was hearing the words that were going on inside the mind of Elena during her conversations with everyone around her.  The lies her mind told her that resisted help and guided her further into disappearing; this is something I've witnessed first-hand.  There's a point in every conversation when you're talking with someone who struggles with anorexia where you know they're not listening to you any more and have started lying to you to get you to leave them alone.  I witnessed the facial shut-down and hardening of the mind that blocks out all input from others.  And now I've been able to hear what's happening behind the eyes.  Elena also allowed me to see the point in time where the realization of the lies her mind was telling her come full force into reality, managing to break down that barrier that she built.

If there was one quote from the book that hit me with the most force, it was this one:  "We anorexics, we cause ourselves pain every day.  We toughen ourselves to withstand any hardship.  We can deal with the physical torture, the anguish, and the emptiness, but the thing that kills every one of us is having to see what the others suffer."  If there is anything that can pull a victim of anorexia from the brink of death, it is this: they do not want to be the reason that others hurt.  If this cannot pull them back from death, I'm not sure what will.  The intense determination, persistence, and intellectual grit anorexics have can overpower any strong-minded, loving person trying to help.  They will win.  They will overcome.  And if you can shift this determination from negative to positive, he or she can overcome anorexia.

Another important message from the book is that if someone is suffering from an eating disorder, it is vital that they seek out and receive professional help.  There are many facilities and all are trying to help, but the first one you find may not be the one that will work.  Finding the right fit for your family member may take significant time.  Please don't give up.  For some it takes years to recover.  For almost all, the battle will be life-long.  It is a disease of the mind that will haunt the person until the day they die, but that doesn't mean they can't have a happy life.  Have hope.  Take heart from this story and continue to seek the help available.

For the sensitive reader:  I do not recommend this for young girls or boys.  Swearing, alcohol, risky behavior related to eating disorders, and briefly describes a rape. Anyone seeking understanding and wanting a realistic portrayal, this is your book.  But I do mean realistic; rose-colored glasses do not exist for Elena and therefore they won't be there for you either.

Rating: 5 stars

Sum it up: The best book I've read showing the authentic, raw, honest anorexia nervosa in reality.

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