Title: The Art of Starving
Author: Sam J. Miller
Release Date: July 11th, 2017
Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy
Page Count: 384 pages
Rating: 9.0/10 (Champions of the Genre)
Trigger Warning (for the post and the book): Depression, self-harm, starvation, and eating disorder.
I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to post this. Because maybe it’s a bit too much. Because I’m running a book blog, for Christ’s sake, and I doubt anyone signed up to read one of my sob stories. But The Art of Starving is a brutally honest, personal tale and I think it deserves nothing less than an honest and personal response.
There are some artists whose work I can only describe as something ripped out from the deepest crevice of their heart that’s then handed to me on a platter with a quivering smile and the words, “I hope you enjoy.” Raw. Intimate. Uncomfortably honest. And you can’t tear your eyes away. That’s more or less my experience with most of Sam Miller’s short stories. His debut novel is no exception–for several reasons.
The Art of Starving is a YA Fantasy/Contemporary story starring a teenage boy named Matt who has an eating disorder. Except he doesn’t. He’s fine, really. It’s not a problem. Then one day he discovers his hunger is the gateway to unlocking a slew of superpowers–enhanced hearing, smelling, bending time and space, and even pig wrangling. And with them he’s determined to seek out the people who have hurt his family and make them pay. But for that he needs to eat less. He needs to stay hungry.
It’s a story I’d been meaning to read
since it came out a year ago, but somehow couldn’t make the time. But I very much loved Sam’s short stories, and the book got nominated for the YA category in the Nebula Awards, so I finally caved in.
As I started reading, I thought to recount to myself some of my own experiences with food so I could later add it to the review–a bit of personal anecdotal spice. It’d be fun and completely innocuous. I would begin with something like, “Food is a passion for many people, for many different reasons” and talk about “foodies” and namedrop some reality cooking/baking shows.
But then I had to pause–both the reading and the recounting. Because I was getting uneasy. Because some of my accounts were sounding very, very familiar to what was written on the pages of this book.
“This whole thing is not easy. It’s a fight, most days. Me vs. Food.
Food usually wins. My body, that traitorous thing, makes me cry Uncle. Drags me to the cupboard and makes me frantically scoop peanut butter out of the jar and into my mouth with my finger until I gag on it.”
“I thought about puking up all those sandwiches once I saw what I had done, but that’s a line I won’t cross. If you make yourself puke, you have a problem.”
I eventually stopped reading altogether. My brain felt rattled. I started flipping through my memories and started putting pieces together, while realizing that they were pieces of the same whole. And the whole wasn’t looking pretty.
Then I continued.
I arranged my roughly-assembled thoughts next to Matt’s.
And what I saw was a mirror image of my own thoughts and experiences.
The term “eating disorder” was one I never once associated with myself. I knew I had an antagonistic relationship with food but I never felt it was anything to write home about. And it certainly wasn’t a disorder. But throughout this past week I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the fact that, yes, I have an eating disorder, and tracing my behaviour back, I’ve had it for quite some time now.
This book prompted me to write it all out–a rambling of my relationship with food and my perception of my body, from teenage years to now. This is the (slightly) shortened version.
One night, when I was 15, I sat sobbing for hours at the dining table with my forearms stretched out in front of me because I’d just noticed how fat they had gotten. That was when I first decided to start counting calories. I asked my mom to stop making my school lunch every morning. My argument was that I was old enough to start doing it on my own when, really, I just wanted decrease my food consumption as discreetly as possible. And so peanut butter and banana sandwiches became my staple diet. I started exercising copiously, sometimes to the point of being sick–had everyday workout sessions on top of swimming and competitive tennis. It got to a point where I broke out in tremors at the mere thought of skipping a session. All of this eventually led to four months of missed periods, which I couldn’t bring myself to ignore and prompted me to return to a normal diet.
Then, a year later, I watched my friend grow thinner and thinner until they had to be hospitalized and undergo surgery. That was a major scare. I told myself I would no longer care about what I ate–junk food, healthy food, I’d enjoy them all. I told myself I would never do something that dangerous.
I never thought of this period as the result of an eating disorder–the notion hardly ever crossed my mind. I viewed it as a dumb phase I went through as a teenager. It didn’t help that every health guide and documentary I’d ever seen described only three types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Well, I wasn’t rail skinny (I still had a roundish face, my thighs still felt gelatinous, my waist was still too thick, and so on and on…) I didn’t starve myself for prolonged periods of time. I didn’t go on sudden eating sprees. I didn’t vomit out what I ate. I didn’t resemble the girls in those 20/20 features about eating disorders.
I just didn’t like the feeling of being full. It didn’t matter that I had massive fights with my mom throughout the rest of highschool because I hated–so hated–the words, “Do you want something to eat?” It was a love-hate relationship I had with food, nothing more.
Then came university. During my freshman year, I was, for the first time, happy. Truly happy. Everywhere I turned I saw possibilities and knowledge and reasons for being alive. There was no limit to what I could achieve and I had friends and a loving partner by my side to support me through. And I ate regularly. Well, as the year went by, I did start skipping most dinners (I hid my annoyance whenever one my friends sighed and said, “she’s not eating dinner again.”). But breakfast and lunch were well-balanced meals and my weight stayed more or less the same, at around 110 to 112 lbs.
Then, between year two and three, relationships fell to pieces and grades started to plummet and, consequently, so did my mental health. If the first two years were some of the best days of my life, the last two were some of the worst.
In the past few years, from my 4th year of undergrad up to now, I started using food as a new weapon against myself. In my worst hours, when I was roiling in a miasma of disgust and self-hatred, I deliberately, methodically starved myself as punishment for the mounting failures I’d perceived I was collecting. A savage glee consumed me as I deprived my body of the one thing it was clamoring to receive. Because I deserved it, the piece of shit that I am. Because here is a thing that I can control.
Four months ago, there was a particularly long, particularly bad episode during which I starved myself for nearly a week–because I felt pathetic and wanted to punish myself or feel something more than the weight of the void pressing against my chest or both. One night, when I’d had enough, I reached into the fridge and pantry and pulled out whatever my hands could grasp and started eating and choking, crying and hating myself. And that too was an act of punishment.
A day later I stepped onto the scale for the first time in years because, I don’t know, I wanted to feel vindicated–to know all my work made some kind of dent on my body. But I just ended up standing there in shock, blinking down at the screen, because it read ’92 lbs.’
And that couldn’t be right.
And later all the BMI calculators on the internet were flashing “severely underweight” and that also couldn’t be right (for context, I’m between 5’4 and 5’5).
After the initial shock and fear wore off, I wish I could say that it triggered me into some kind of action. But it didn’t. I just didn’t care enough. The reason I starved myself in the first place was to punish my body, and well, 92 pounds was sufficiently punished. There was also a tiny eager voice telling me to see how much lower I can go–“C’mon, let’s try to hit 90!” But that scared me enough to shove it into a dark corner.
Even then the words “eating disorder” never crossed my mind. So what if I occasionally starved myself? So what if I mostly scrounged by with one meal per day? So what if my insides twisted with anxiety and fear at the thought of bumping it up to three meals? It was just my depression acting up. Depression was making me hurt myself. Depression was making me lose my appetite and my body didn’t get the memo because it was still constantly begging for food. I just sometimes–most of the time–didn’t like food. That’s it. That’s all it is. Why don’t they understand?
You might ask, “How did you not know?”
It’s amazing, the sheer depth of false belief your brain will drag you into. How you so effectively blind yourself to truths you don’t want to see. And it becomes hard, sometimes nigh on impossible, when you’re on the inside looking out, to recognize a problem as a problem. Things turn hazy on the inside. The narrative you see is a whole different beast than the one others see.
But there’s a clarity that comes with being on the outside. It’s always easier to recognize the flaws and strengths of others than to spot them in yourself. And with books, it’s easier, at least for me, to swallow them when they’re presented in the form of fantasy. That’s how it was with Matt from The Art of Starving.
I said before in my Robin Hobb post that it’s easier to latch onto a fictional character, your own creation or someone else’s, and forgive their flaws and understand their struggles and just love them in a way you can’t do for yourself. Well, I loved Matt and my heart broke for him (and myself). I recognized my behaviour in his and understood his lies and silences, though they pained me.
Despite that, for about 3/4 of the book (after I’d assumed reading), I thought I was doing pretty okay, emotionally-speaking; there wasn’t anything too triggering. But then I came across this one chapter and this one particular passage:
“I don’t think this is a rulebook at all. It might be what the therapeutic professions call A Cry for Help. It might be a road map to how to get to where you know you need help.
I started out thinking I had so much to offer. But I’ve got nothing to share but the hope that my pain can be helpful to someone.”
And I just crumpled. Broke down, utterly and comprehensively, into wrenching sobs. And again, I had to stop.
There’s a feeling of purging–all the toxins you’ve built up throughout the day, the week, the month, trailing out and away from you–when you encounter someone, real or fiction, whose pains mirror your own. Like your respective wavelengths colliding, kissing and merging into one.
It’s the feeling of being known. It’s the feeling of being told, “I see you. I see all of you. Your fractures and your breaks. The coiled, terrified, trembling thing inside of you. And I know you. Because you are me and I am you. And we are not alone.”
Right then I felt as though someone had taken my hand, that I didn’t even know I was reaching out with, and pulled me out onto shore, shivering and gasping and alive.
And I said aloud to myself for the first time: I have an eating disorder.
And that was that.
The Art of Starving not only depicts the haziness of the boundary between truth and perception better than any other book I’ve read in recent memory, it also examines the cracks in ourselves that we so desperately try to hide from others. Alcoholic mothers, closeted teens, abused teens. With his newfound powers, Matt is able to see through their pretenses and disguises and yet still finds himself unable to help them.
What can you do for someone who doesn’t want to be seen? the book asks.
Sometimes nothing, it answers.
There are some battles that can be yours to win, but you have to be the one to take that first step.
Well, I’m not here to make grand promises. To set down goals and long-term resolutions. In a way, I’m still processing things. And even now I can barely believe it. There’s a loud voice in my head saying that this is just a stunt to draw more attention to myself, to collect morsels of pity from strangers because that’s the only way I can feel validated. And about a quarter of the time, I believe it. But most of time my brain tells me, with profound apathy, So what? So what if you have an eating disorder? Nobody cares; you certainly don’t.
And that’s probably the one that should scare me the most.
But there’s another voice now. One that says, “Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.” And, “You are never alone, no matter how alone you think you are.”
And I’m hoping to feed it until it grows large and strong and the other ones slink away in shame and fear.
I hope Sam Miller wins a shit ton of awards this year because while I don’t like throwing around adjectives like “important” and “life-changing” too often, this book is both.
I hope it helps boys and girls with ED to come to terms with themselves and seek guidance.
I hope it reaches a wide audience, young and old, because we are all, in one way or another, waging wars with our own bodies.
And I hope it saves lives.
Because–though maybe it’s just me being dramatic and maybe it’s too early to say–it’s pushed me one step closer to saving mine.