Counting

Callie Henningsen | Blogger & Advocate, Where I Stand

There is a Netflix-sponsored film that was recently released entitled To the Bone about a young woman with an eating disorder. “X calories for the pork, X for the buttered noodles, X for the roll, and X for the butter,” states a dark clothed Lily Collins in the promotional trailer, as she surveys her food at the dinner table. “It’s like you have calorie-Aspergers,” the other character quips cleverly, providing what is presumably the comedic punchline of the conversation. The film aims to tell the story of a young woman diagnosed with anorexia- portraying her as a stereotypical, white, brooding, sarcastic young woman that is initially unwilling to recover. Is the clip from the trailer inaccurate? Not entirely. But I am willing to guess if you saw what else her character was capable of counting, you would know this superficial example is of neither significance nor importance when it comes to helping those outside of the recovery community understand that eating disorders are about a lot more than food.

True to stereotypes, my profile is not far from the main character in question. Sometimes it seems like I have been counting my whole life- some things surface-level and others far below. Yes, because of my eating disorder I have compulsively counted my calories and probably owned more scales than Walmart. But in uglier, more explicit terms, I have counted a lot more.

I have counted the number of residential programs I saw all the way through and failed, and how many times I have been to the ER in the span of 24 hours. I have counted my heart beats per minute when my body was shutting down, and the number of times I have passed out in the shower. I have counted the number of razor blades in each of the scars I have from self-harm, and how many times I promised myself I was going to stop. I have counted every handful of hair I have lost, and how many cheap hair extensions I have purchased off the internet in desperate attempt to camouflage their absence. I have counted the number of holidays and milestones I have missed while in a facility, as well as the ones I missed because I was too weak to be emotionally present. I have counted the number of times I tried to start over, and ended up even worse than where I had been before. I have counted how many girls I have been in refeeding with that later died from malnourishment, esophageal rupture, and organ failure. I have counted how many letters my best friend from treatment wrote to me before she jumped off a cliff, as well as how many others I have known and loved that passed away from suicide. I have counted the amount of times I thought my family and friends would be better off without having to worry about me and the number of nights I wondered if death was a quiet place. I have counted the number of times someone has told me everything happens for a reason and just how many of those times it took for me to realize there must be privilege in believing that.

To the Bone has a premise that had the potential to counter one of the biggest misconceptions of eating disorders- that behaviors such as counting merely act as a symptom of a larger issue. The precious lives I am lucky enough to have been touched by may have ultimately ended due to counting behaviors, but they are over because each were only desperately trying to cope with trauma that triggered a need to count in the first place. The root of any addictive behavior is a necessity to cope. The most common entity that requires a severe coping strategy is a traumatic event. Sure, counting calories was a commonality that I shared with many patients at every treatment center I spent time in. But under all of the numerical, type A, neurotic layers, it was a history with trauma that more than half of us shared.

Netflix, I do want to thank you for your recent efforts to both produce and purchase films/series featuring characters struggling with various mental health conditions. These are subjects that are not often touched due to their difficulty, and many companies are not willing to take that risk. In these challenging times of preexisting conditions and fears of losing health coverage, awareness is needed more than it ever has been. But Netflix, please understand something: If portrayed insensitively, an attempt to de-stigmatize can cause more problems than it solves. When it comes to topics that are already fraught with energy, there is such a thing as bad publicity. I speak for a large part of the recovery community when I say that with your recent material, you have really let us down. As if 13 Reasons Why wasn’t detrimental enough and missed the point by half a solar system, you have officially outdone yourself with To the Bone. As a multimillion dollar company with thousands of resources at your disposal, you are more than capable of producing/selecting both better researched and sensitively handled content. What may look like comedic “calorie-Aspergers” to you is an obvious, exterior symptom that merely scratches the surface of how I lost 10 years of my life and many others lost the rest of theirs. An exterior symptom that only begins to describe what thousands of intelligent, over-functioning, hurt people cope with on an everyday basis. We expect better from you.

My hope for you, (to whom it may concern) at Netflix, is that you recognize the incredible power you have to reach viewers of all ages, beliefs, backgrounds, and circumstances. I hope you utilize mental health clinicians as advisory resources and follow through with their recommendations. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but a “recovered” director and actress duo do not count as credible or professional consults. Implement trigger warnings into your descriptions, and if you are writing about a character with mental illness, imagine that a person you love more than anything in this world is struggling with it. And I ask you to take a moment with me regarding this example:

Imagine watching that loved one self-destruct, and you feeling powerless to stop it or take away their pain. Imagine standing by them through treatment center after hospital after intervention, and praying this will be the time they get better. Imagine it being less than a month after they are discharged and that they have already grown worse than when they started. Imagine sharing a completely ordinary day with them, their body suddenly giving out, and you scrambling to call 911. Imagine pleading with the ambulance to hurry- that their body is already fragile from having been through so much. Imagine sitting next to their bed in the hospital, listening to the soft beep of a heart monitor, their shallow breathing, and the doctors telling you they are doing everything they can. Imagine you are not one to ask a higher power for things very often, but still pleading and even bargaining with one for a miracle. But imagine life is, as it so often can be, horribly unfair. Imagine that person that you love so much, dies. Imagine screaming so loudly you half-hope they will hear it on their way to heaven and turn around to come back for you. Imagine they never do – imagine they never can.

I ask you, Netflix, that the next time you attach your name to a film or TV series featuring a character struggling with mental health, you ask yourself if you would be comfortable with your deceased loved one being portrayed in the exact same way.

As I shared earlier in this article, this disorder has heartbreakingly harsh realities. If I think about it too hard, I have trouble comprehending why I am still here while so many others with the same severity of  diagnosis are not. I struggle with understanding how, after so many years, I can suddenly be doing miraculously well while so many others that I love are still in so much pain. All of that being said, I don’t want to give the assumption I have crossed some kind of finish line and my journey has been tied up in some kind of perfect bow. Even after all of my work, my recovery is a loosely tied ribbon at best. The knot’s integrity is solely dependent on the choices I make every day to eat exactly what my doctors have asked. It is based on choosing to admit the truth when I have screwed up and not been able to get it all down. It remains such only on the condition that I not give up on trying to get better, and acknowledge it is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. For some reason, living, something that is supposed to be somewhat straight-forward and autonomic for most people, has never come easily to me.

I think I will always be counting, but I have put everything in me towards counting what counts in my recovery. Some are technical: I count the number of clinicians that never gave up on believing I could get better, and the weight I need to maintain to be considered healthy. I count the number of days I have not been in a hospital or treatment facility, and how many doctor/therapist/dietician appointments I need to attend every week in order to keep it that way. I count the number of credits I will be taking in the fall, now that I have so much more energy. I count the day to day ordinaries I now partake in, like how much I actually grab lunch on my lunch break or the number of times I let my fiancé put nutella on my toaster waffles in the morning without me watching. Others are silly: I count the number of pizza points I’ve accumulated on a Domino’s app I never thought I would download, and how many couches we sat on in IKEA before picking one for our apartment. I count how many times we once ordered takeout from our favorite Indian place in one week, and the number of Bones episodes I have marathoned in an afternoon – enjoying it so much I didn’t even think twice about sitting down for that long.

Unsurprisingly, the best memories haven’t had any measure at all: Being selected for multiple traineeships at school and cheering on the rest of my cohort that has since graduated. Getting to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of a dear friend whose birthday celebrations I missed out on for years in a row due to illness. Gavin asking me to marry him and picking out our dream wedding venue for this coming January. Living my life the way I think I was always meant to live it and continuing to write for an incredible recovery platform with a team of kind, talented, and inspiring people.

To those I have met along the way, this olive branch from the universe I have received is being put to good use. I am going to fight for you and the representation your stories are worthy of until it is done right. I know the number of times each of you have deserved better than this, and it is countless. Please don’t ever give up – the world is counting on you. So am I.

My name is Callie and This is Where I Stand.