Nature metaphors are over-rated, especially when they ask us to model ourselves after feral, instinct-driven animals.
My racing thoughts on this topic began after a friend sent me this tweet, which looks like it’s from @JenAshleyWright (careful attribution is essential in this day and age):
People talk about caterpillars becoming a butterflies [sic] as though they just go into a cocoon, slap on wings, and are good to go. Caterpillars have to dissolve into a disgusting pile of goo to become butterflies. So if you’re a mess wrapped up in blankets right now, keep going.”
That’s innocent enough on the surface, and I get the sentiment (though I personally haven’t encountered folks who think caterpillars just slap on wings). However, when one (hypothetically a reference to me, as I hold up my index finger didactically) gives too much thought to these things, the whole “be like a caterpillar” thing falls apart.
Scientific American describes what happens in the chrysalis as a process in which “the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues.”
This starts to feel like a serious existential exploration. Is the eventual butterfly the same being as the caterpillar? Is the caterpillar actually transformed into something else, or does something more sinister and miserable happen — less becoming beautiful and more becoming, say… dead? Does the caterpillar really want to turn to goo so that its DNA can be recombined to become a butterfly? Can you imagine feeling a compulsion to EAT YOURSELF AND DISSOLVE YOUR TISSUES? Is this a good go-to analogy as you lay wrapped up in your blanket feeling bad about things?
* * * * *
My kids went to a nature preschool at an Audubon center, where they discovered many dead things. One year a coyote died near a little pond on the grounds, and there its body lay rotting for many months, and then the bones lay there for some more years. The kids visited the site often and observed the progression. I loved the teachers because they didn’t make any moral statements about it; rather, they taught observational facts. The coyote died. Its body fed many other things that are essential to the food chain. The bones slowly disappeared.
There were enormous dead trees that went the same course, named things like Grandpa Tree and Grandma Tree. They lived and then they eventually died. As they lived and died, birds and other creatures fed on them, lived on them, raised families in them. Eventually everything crumbled to fine bits of organic matter and fed the earth.
The kids would hunt and find death everywhere on their hikes. Parts of animals — entrails, brains, piles feathers, bits of bone, owl pellets — and occasionally the real treasure, an entire dead animal. There was mostly curiosity on the trail, not a lot of dread. The teachers would get sticks and let the kids poke, teach gentle informational lessons. Is there evidence that tells us how this animal died? What does the pellet say the owl ate? What type of bird do these feathers belong to, and what type of creature ate the bird?
There was life too, of course — lessons on transformation and birth, the 2-year life cycle of dragonflies, the patterns of leaves on different types of trees, when and where different wildflowers bloom, how to spot poison ivy, the connections between bees and butterflies and everything else, the role of prairies, finding edible plants, and on and on. But underneath the beauty, the truth is that feral nature is an absolutely brutal place; a bitter and painful battle for life awaits most wild creatures, followed by a bitter and painful death.
D.H. Lawrence wrote this haunting little poem called Self-Pity:
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
How does D.H. know it didn’t feel sorry for itself? Maybe, right up to its death, it was afraid and filled with impotent rage — wondering in its little tweety bird brain why it had to be so f*&#ing cold this winter.
* * * * *
But everyone loves an animal metaphor, and since I’m working very hard on being popular these days, because I like people so much and I want to spend lots of time with lots of them, I will now use an animal metaphor. I will make it plain and simple, because I am not sophisticated.
Anacondas are these mostly large, scary constrictor snakes. They are non-venomous, but they are still bad news. They lurk, camouflaged, in the murky waters of steamy jungle rivers, waiting for hapless prey to stop by. An anaconda will wrap its muscle-bound length around its meal and squeeze the living hell out of it, either suffocating or drowning it, or stopping blood to the brain and causing ischemia. Once the prey is dead (so kind of Mr. Snake to wait), the anaconda swallows that meal whole.
This, as far as I can tell, is anorexia in a nutshell.
When Jesse was first diagnosed, the kids couldn’t remember the label.
“I have an eating disorder. Something called, um, Anna-rook-sa.”
“Jesse has a thing, I think it’s called ano, ano, anna… um, I don’t know. Mommy, what’s it called?”
I should have told them to call it anaconda, they would have remembered that.
Like an anaconda, anorexia lurks in the brain, hidden behind other labels and tucked carefully in the armpit of low self-esteem. It sits camouflaged behind all the dumb-ass cultural norms that objectify the human form, especially the female one, and ask girls to build their self-esteem out of how they look instead of who they are and what they do.
For Jesse, it slithered up behind the weight gain and then the weight loss she experienced from trying a medication for her mental health. It masqueraded as her body’s adjustment to med changes until it started crushing the life out of her, denying her brain and muscles the energy and mass they need to grow and thrive.
That’s a pretty good metaphor.
Onward: One of the only animals that can take out an anaconda is the mighty and beautiful jaguar.
I am a jaguar, mighty and beautiful. (Intone it with a proud stance and a fist in the air, for full effect.)
Like the jaguar, I have stealth, speed, claws like ginsu knives, and a bite that can crush bone. This is how I will take out the anaconda, aka, Jesse’s anorexia.
No no no no no. And this is why animal metaphors are of limited use in real human life. I am not a jaguar. I am not stealthy, speedy, or bone-crushing. I am just a human mom, and Jesse is just a human girl, each of us trying to make it to the next day without squeezing the joy out of each other.
* * * * *
I will say this though. Life with a child who is anorexic feels very wild and feral. My world is a brutal place: a bitter and painful battle for Jesse’s life awaits me each day, as I try to protect and extract her from the anaconda inside her.
I wake up slightly terrified and already exhausted most mornings, wondering if today is a day when Jesse eats enough. Is today the day I take her to the ER? Is today the day her weight finally goes so low that her body starts attacking her heart?
I know each morning she looks in the mirror and sees her distorted self, fat and hideous in her eyes — but in reality, hungry and hollow. Still so beautiful. But I can’t fix that for her. I can only feed her, hoping that her brain someday has enough energy to sensibly process fact and fiction, emotion and reality. I slouch downstairs and plan her day’s meals in my mind. I eventually make breakfast and call to her.
Many days — though not always anymore — she comes down yelling, sometimes with a charge and a few slaps thrown in for good measure. WHY DO YOU MAKE ME EAT?? WHY??? WHY CAN’T YOU STOP CARING ABOUT ME, LIKE OTHER PARENTS DO? YOU WON’T BE SATISFIED UNTIL I’M FAT!
Onward ho, with moments of misery and yelling scattered through the day. Many days, I fail to keep my cool and yell back. Some days, I do better. I know — somewhere deep down that I can’t reach in the moment — that I’m yelling at the anaconda, not my daughter. I want to kill it so bad. I want it to stop squeezing the life out her. I would do anything to make it stop.
But how is she to know that? She only knows that my yelling is directed at her. So we battle all day long about food and about her body checking, and she grows more and more sure that I hate her. In my world, that’s what love looks like when an anaconda attacks your child.
* * * * *
On a day when we’re trying to have fun — it’s summer after all — we hit the pool at the gym. We walk in the main doors and Jesse is all over me, loud and proud with her anger and distortions. I CAN’T PUT MY SWIMSUIT ON, I’M TOO FAT. WHY DIDN’T YOU BRING [whatever item she refused to wear last time] SO I COULD WEAR THAT?? WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME THAT WAY?? WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SO ANGRY!!
She chases me down the hall, hitting my back with her fists.
I try to calm the anaconda, try desperately to hold onto my equanimity as people stare and my discomfort grows. We make it to the family lockers and Jesse goes into a dressing room alone. We can all hear her yelling at her image in the mirror, random animal noises of misery. I walk in to try to move her forward, and I fail. Instead I end up lecturing her about how embarrassed I am by how she treats me in public, and as I grab her wrist to stop her from flailing she screams out, STOP HURTING ME, YOU’RE HURTING ME!! I step out of the room into a central area, where two parents and four kids are staring at me, unblinking. My son Nick has already escaped to the pool.
I ignore the strangers. I gaze down in utter humiliation and fuss with our pool gear.
Next time, I’ll shrug, look them in the eye and say, “There’s a large constrictor snake in there. I was just trying to get it off my daughter, but she doesn’t want my help.”
* * * * *
It’s been nearly a year since the anaconda joined us in the kitchen and in Jesse’s body. It is a relentless predator, but I hope that I’m more relentless. I go through so many emotions. Fear, anger, desperation, humiliation, confusion, contrition, frustration. I weep every day at least once, often after walking into a closet so my kids won’t see me. I wish I could find acceptance and peace, but this is a hard ask in the wilderness.
When Jesse’s tics are coming on, sometimes I say a thing to her. It’s the same thing I say to myself when I feel the rage coming on — if I’m able to slow down and find the space to say it. This feeling, this need inside you, it’s just one piece of you. You can send the rest of your mind to the little space inside you where that feeling is. You can observe it there, accept it without judgment. You can look at it from any angle you want. Then you can say no to it. You can put it in the parking lot. You can tell it to wait. It’s not all of you.
Some days I succeed, some days I fail. As for Jesse’s anaconda, it’s still wrapped tightly around her after a year.
But it hasn’t killed her yet. The battle is still on.