In my experience, it’s harder to suffer when you don’t feel alone.
Back when I was in middle school and struggling with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, I felt very alone. I had a pair of loving, involved parents. I had a handful of close, trusted friends. I had teachers that I admired and that I knew cared about me. But like many (maybe even most) tweens and teens, I was neither willing nor equipped to fully open up to any of those people in my life.
Fortunately, I was a reader, and my middle school had a library – one with plenty of contemporary, high-interest books and a dedicated librarian there to serve the students. I didn’t open up to my librarian about what I was dealing with, either. But like a lot of the educators and librarians I’m lucky enough to meet, she proved to have a sixth sense when it came to her students, and was aware that something was going on with me.
My librarian plied me with books, and by paying attention to the ones I was spending the most time with, I think she began to get a clearer sense of just what was going on in my life. Unfortunately, there were very few books that addressed what I was going through. And the ones that did, had a couple of important things in common: the kids suffering from such issues were always extreme cases, and they were always girls.
To be completely clear: there was, and is, nothing wrong with those books I read back in middle school, and I’m glad they were, and are still, in print. If anything, we need more such books. For me, however, they proved dangerous – and were instrumental in my decision to make A Work in Progress.
Let me explain . . .
Disordered eating and eating disorders can have certain things in common, but they differ in some important ways. An eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis. Disordered eating is a broad term that can include all kinds of “abnormal” eating patterns or behaviors. The most pernicious thing about disordered eating, to my mind, is that, while it can do a great deal of harm, it can easily go unnoticed, or even be perceived as the exact opposite of what it is – as a set of benign or even beneficial behaviors. In our culture, people who limit or even entirely deny themselves food are regularly celebrated and glorified.
Back in middle school, I was definitely exhibiting a lot of disordered eating and other associated unhealthy behaviors. But the whole world, it seemed, was on some diet or other, and what I was doing wasn’t as bad as the kids in the handful of books about eating disorders that I was reading. Because yeah, sure – I was eating less and less by the day, and exercising more and more. But I was eating, so wasn’t technically anorexic, and I wasn’t making myself throw up after eating (I’d experimented with it a few times, but couldn’t manage to do it), so I wasn’t bulimic, either. All I was doing was being careful about what I ate and getting lots of exercise. Weren’t those good things?
I could only lie to myself for so long, though, especially as my behaviors grew increasingly extreme. Eventually, I knew that the thoughts in my head weren’t healthy, and that what I was doing wasn’t okay. I was in trouble – but I had no clue how to get out of it.
There was some guidance to be found in one of those novels my librarian had given me. In the book, the protagonist, suffering from a vicious case of anorexia, is compelled to open up to a friend. The friend is concerned, and shares what she’s learned with her mother, who gets in touch with the protagonist’s mother. After a dramatic confrontation and an attempt at denial, the protagonist breaks down and opens up to her mother. And so begins the protagonist’s path to recovery.
But for middle school me, there was a problem with this example of relief and recovery: the protagonist was a girl. As was every other I’d ever read about who struggled with body image, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, or an eating disorder.
At this point in my journey, I was feeling doubly terrible. Not only was I incapable of having a snack without suffering a panic attack, but apparently the only other people in the world who were dealing with such stuff were girls. I was messed up – and messed up, it seemed, in a totally abnormal way. I decided – no, I knew – that I couldn’t admit any of what I was going through to anyone. It was too humiliating. What I needed to do was what the other boys I knew were always telling each other to do any time a boy showed the slightest hint of emotional “weakness:” man up.
So I continued to suffer – alone.
Fortunately, before I got to a place I couldn’t get myself back from, I became desperate for relief, for a change, and stumbled toward a better relationship with my body, food, and eating. Nowadays, I choose to think of myself as “in recovery.” I’m okay. I can eat and look at myself in the mirror without being inundated by negative thoughts and/or overwhelmed by the urge to do something drastic. But it took a great deal of work here to get here. And I still have to always be on guard. A bad night of sleep, an irritable mood, too much time spent watching certain shows or consuming certain content – I know such things can lead to a bad day, or worse.
I can only imagine that if I’d been able to open up and ask for help, if I’d had an example of a kid who was suffering similarly to me doing something like that, the road to here would’ve been significantly shorter and a lot less bumpy. And in many ways, that’s what compelled me to create A Work in Progress.
For years now, I’ve felt both a longing and an obligation to tell this story. It’s a story that I’ve known I was capable of telling – even though I knew it would be incredibly difficult to do so – and a story that I knew needed to be told, so it’d waiting there for the next kid who needed to read something just like it.
The greater the variety and diversity of stories we have, the more likely it is that every kid will have exactly they sorts of books they want and need.
To say it another way: the more stories we have, the less likely it is that any child will feel alone.
And in my experience, it’s harder to suffer when you don't feel alone.
Author-Illustrator Jarrett Lerner is the award-winning creator of the EngiNerds series of Middle Grade novels, the Geeger the Robot series of early chapter books, the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover, The Hunger Heroes series of graphic novel chapter books, and the Nat the Cat series of early readers. Jarrett is also the creator of the illustrated novel in verse A Work in Progress, as well as several as-yet-unannounced projects. All of Jarrett’s books are published by Simon & Schuster. In addition to writing, drawing, and visiting schools and libraries across the country, Jarrett co-founded and co-organizes the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects, and regularly spearheads fundraisers for various reading- and book-related causes. He is also the founder and operator of Jarrett Lerner’s Creator Club. He can be found at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his wife and daughters in Massachusetts.