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The Brood: Mother and daughter pen memoirs on life with anorexia

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Clare Dunkle and her daughter Elena Dunkle (L to R).
Jenna Noelle Photography
Clare Dunkle and her daughter Elena Dunkle (L to R).

Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common psychiatric diagnoses for young women, but the causes and the complicated recovery process are often misunderstood.

Anorexia nervosa is among the most common psychiatric diagnoses for young women, and also one of the most misunderstood illnesses.

It's often difficult to understand its causes and full effects. Plus, there is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to treatment. 

Elena Dunkle and her mother, Clare, wanted to help families gain a better understanding of anorexia, so they wrote two books. One is a memoir about Elena's struggle with anorexia called "Elena Vanishing." Clare has also written a memoir from her perspective called "Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother's Life with a Daughter's Anorexia."

The two joined Alex Cohen for a conversation about the impact of anorexia on their lives and their relationship.

To hear the full interview, click the blue audio player above.


            I wake up in a panic, and acid churns in my stomach. A nurse has walked into my hospital room. I was asleep. How long was I asleep? How long has it been since I last reached for the makeup bag under my pillow? Does the nurse see a girl with a bright future ahead of her? Or does he see a sweaty, tearstained mess?

            As it turns, out, I don’t need to worry. All the nurse sees is my lunch tray. “You didn’t eat any of this,” he says. “You didn’t even unwrap it.”

            I like this nurse. Yesterday he yelled at me, but I could tell he only did it because he was worried. Now he huffs, “Anorexia! You and my niece. Two beautiful girls, destroying your lives over a diet!”

            I take careful note of the comment: beautiful. This nurse is the fifth person in the last four days to call me beautiful. But worry poisons my relief. What do I weigh now? I need to know the number that’s made me beautiful.

            As soon as the nurse is out of sight, I double up in agony, clenching my teeth to keep from groaning out loud. If I make a sound, I know he’ll hear me and come rushing back to help. And I don’t want anyone’s help.

            Anger and bewilderment are forms of admiration. It’s pity I can’t stand. Pity wraps you up inside your problem until the problem is all people see. Did you hear what happened to her? they whisper behind your back. Can you just imagine? No wonder! And when you do something amazing, nobody’s jealous anymore. They hug you and cry and call you brave, when what they really mean by that is damaged.

            So I lie still and take deep, quiet breaths. Pain doesn’t bother me. I’m not afraid. I’m used to living with pain.

            He saw you looking like a mess, warns the voice in my head. You weren’t careful enough. You let down your guard.

            That’s my conscience. We all have one. Mine never lets me settle for second best. There’s no place in life for losers.

            So, even though the pain in my stomach still has me clenching my teeth in agony, I pull the little makeup bag out from under my pillow and touch up my face in the compact mirror.

            Perfection. That’s what I want people to see when they look at me. Nothing but perfection.

            Anger is honest. Hatred is a backhanded compliment. Envy is the best gift of all. But let them turn you into a victim and you’re labeled for life.

            Pity is the sea you drown in.

© Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle from Elena Vanishing. Published by Chronicle Books.

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