This Ain't My First Rodeo: How Dr. Phil Got Anorexia Wrong

7 years ago

This post was originally published on my personal blog, Surrender, Dorothy. I appreciate any help you can provide to share this message with a broader audience. The misinformation about anorexia needs to stop.

My DVR contains a little Dr. Phil. I'm particularly obsessed with the eating disorder shows, having recovered from anorexia and bulimia about ten years ago. Last week, Dr. Phil interviewed two families with 26-year-old anorexics.

Dr. Phil got Meagan, a 26-year-old anorexic, in his chair, and he basically read her the riot act.

It's the same thing he did to 26-year-old Jennifer a while back. Jennifer left treatment.

How's that working for you, Dr. Phil?

You've got it wrong. You have clearly never suffered from anorexia. I'm going to set the record straight.

You're right. Anorexia is a serious mental illness. Accusing an anorexic of being manipulative and controlling of her family hands the reins back over to her disease. Telling her she's tearing her family apart pushes her back to the chaos of her own mind.

Chastising an anorexic works about as well as telling your teenaged Juliet not to take Romeo to the prom. You never made Romeo look better until you told her he was bad news.

This summer I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg, a severe schizophrenic who recovered with the help of therapist Dr. Fried. Dr. Fried helped Deborah Blau, Greenberg's doppelganger, see that the kingdom of Yr was a creation of her own mind. I thought for a long time after reading the book that Dr. Fried could have helped me: She convinced Deborah that Yr was a creation of her own doing. And that is what anorexia is.

An anorexic truly believes that different rules apply to her than apply to the rest of the world. An anorexic -- no matter how she got there -- has created an alternate reality for herself, one in which she can't eat normally, she isn't allowed  to eat normally. Anorexics are not pleased with these rules. They are infuriated by them. I was. I wore my anger like a shield. And anyone who tried to change my behavior bounced off that shield like paper arrows.

What worked, what finally worked, was realizing that I myself had created that alternate reality, that kingdom of Yr. I had created those rules. 


Me at my senior prom. Probably around 30 pounds underweight.  Heart palpitations.

Just as no one else in my life really gives a shit whether or not I ever publish another word, no one in my life cared if I gained weight once I was healthy -- except me.

I was the enemy. Not them.

But the way to make an anorexic see that is not to come down on her, to bash into her head in about how much she is hurting those around her. No good person wants to see their loved ones hurt. But anorexics live in their heads -- they can't fathom the hurt around them because they don't see an alternative. The rules won't bend, no matter how much they hurt anyone else. The way to combat anorexia is within the mind of the anorexic.

It's not a pretty disease. There's often laxative abuse, restriction and vomiting, an inability to retain calories for fear they will destroy all the hard work the anorexic has done. There is a sense of purity in hunger that can't be explained to anyone who hasn't gone through it.

And clearly, Dr. Phil's methods aren't going to work. They aren't.

The fear is too real. The fear is as great as the kingdom of Yr.

The mind is a powerful tool.

Anorexics aren't stupid. We know -- I knew -- that I was unhealthy. There were days when a heavy door would take me out, and I would think, "Oh my God, I might die today." It wasn't something I wanted.

I read cookbooks relentlessly, trying to imagine what the food would taste like. Every bite I did eat was both a blessing and a curse. I knew I needed the food, but the food felt like a sin.

How do you explain this to someone who never experienced it? How do you explain the voices in your head that tell you everything you've ever done will come undone if you ingest a "normal" amount of food?

And anorexics aren't blind. We see other people putting food in their mouths like it's no big deal. We wonder, honestly, why we can't exist in this world where other people function normally.

Other people see us as vain. They think we diet to look better than them. Dr. Phil's guests described their daughter Meagan as "evil." The mother wondered aloud if it was a bid for attention.

This makes me angry. Would we describe diabetes as a bid for attention? Heart disease?

When will we acknowledge mental illness as a disease?

Meagan's sister describes her as a "monster."

And all I could think of was my senior year of high school, when probably everyone who loves me thought that of me -- me, who is now recovered and a rational human being who has spent the past fifteen years overcoming anorexia and anxiety disorder that threatened my life and almost killed me. I could've been Meagan. If I hadn't recovered, that could've been me, instead of the me who was me at 26, engaged, happy, recovered.

A girl in my hometown died this year of anorexia, and it hit me really hard. She could've been me. I thank God every day that somehow, some way I was able to see that I was the only one who was creating these rules, creating Yr, and that it might be possible to relax those rules and see what happened. To see how bad life would be if I just gained a little weight.

If you are reading this and you are suffering from anorexia, please e-mail me at I do understand what you are going through.

Here's what happened: I started eating more normally, and I immediately gained 20 pounds. I needed to, but it was terrifying. I spent 11 years as a vegetarian, seven as a vegan, to avoid eating anything with animal fat in it, thinking that would make me fat. I continued to gain weight at a very rapid rate because my metabolism was so messed up. My metabolism didn't correct itself until I got pregnant at age 29.

Pregnancy brought back all my fears about gaining weight without a governor. I was certain I'd continue to gain weight until I weighed 300 pounds. I gained 45 pounds with my daughter despite working out four times a week for 45 minutes each. I ate healthy foods. And still it packed on.

But -- wait for it -- I made myself view it as temporary, and it was temporary. It was. The weight went away. You may gain weight, you may lose it. It's okay. It's okay.

After childbirth, I started exercising again after six weeks. I tried Pilates. I joined Weight Watchers. And it came back off. I found I could eat "normally" for the first time in 15 years without immediately gaining ten pounds. I've been within my BMI and pretty stable for the past seven years since giving birth.

I'm recovered.

Rita arens recovered

Photo by Yvonne Marie. 143 pounds, healthy, 5'6". 

My psychologist tells me only about 20 percent of anorexics make a full recovery. The rest relapse over and over throughout their lives, experience disordered eating or die of complications. I could've died, but I didn't, and I want to spend my life helping other girls and women recover from the grips of anorexia and bulimia.

It is a miracle that I saw my Yr without outside help.

If you want to help your anorexic child, don't tell her she's selfish. Don't tell her she's manipulating your family.

Ask her what it would feel like to live under the same rules as everyone else.

Then ask her why she can't.

Help her understand she's created Yr, and it only exists in her own head. That life is there for her taking, but she's the only one who can seize it. That you love her, but you will watch her die if she doesn't see her constructs as purely her own.

That food isn't poison.

It won't be easy.

When an anorexic starts to recover, the weight gain will be rapid. The metabolism is shot. The body will grab on to the calories. The anorexic needs support through this period. It is beyond painful to go through this weight gain. Think of a heroin addict going through detox. Yep.

It won't last forever. The body will reboot. You must be patient, and this is the most important time. Gaining weight after anorexia is as terrifying as losing a limb. Anorexia is a mental illness -- the physical manifestation is just a symptom of what is going on inside. Only the mind can decide to eat or not to eat.

Treat the mind, and the body will follow.

I'm sure it is difficult for the family. I feel horrible for my family for what I put them through, but I know they now understand I did not do it to them out of malice. I was sick.

I thank God every day my family and friends stood by me and still love me after the hell this disease wreaked on us.

But Dr. Phil, this ain't my first rodeo.

You're doing it wrong.

Related Reading:

My debut young adult novel is The Obvious Game, published InkSpell Publishing. The Obvious Game is based on my experience with anorexia. I'm represented by Eric Myers of The Spieler Agency.

The Obvious Game is available in paperback and ebook (all formats) online at Kobo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, InkSpell Publishing and Indiebound. If you are a librarian and are having trouble finding my book, please write me at to purchase the book at the 40% author discount price.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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