I’m writing a book about eating disorders. A book where my main character gets sick and goes to treatment. A book where she questions whether she wants to recover and struggles with her friends moving on without her. A book where she pushes back against the counselors and keeps her true feelings to herself. A book about shame and loss and fear and love.
It’s not my journey; my main character is eleven years old. She’s in seventh grade and has a little sister with a chronic disease.
When I got sick, I was eighteen and in college. Those seven years make all the difference in the world. We come from different backgrounds and different family structures. We have different emotional needs that weren’t met by our families. We did different sports, thought different feelings.
My journey is different than Riley’s.
So much is still the same, though, and Riley is becoming so real to me.
One of the biggest pieces of advice for writers is to “write what you know.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that every book should be an autobiography. The joy of writing comes from research and using your imagination, delving into how others may experience the world and what we can learn from them.
This book isn’t autobiographical, but it’s the closest one of my books has come to being who I was. Who I still am in so many ways.
I’ve left a piece of me in all of the books that I’ve written: my love of crossword puzzles and my summers on Cape Cod. My sadness over friendships that have fallen apart. My questions over what it means to be a female in this society. My doubts about religion.
This is the book that is the most me, though. I still have my journals from when I was in treatment, a stack of books filled with scrawls and scribbles about my deepest darkest fears and the hope that I would someday find my way. I have the binders of handouts we got in treatment, the notes about proper nutrition and the cognitive therapy exercises we did so often.
I remember so many of the people I was sick with. They’re reflected in this book, bits and pieces of each melded into new characters. I remember the nurses and the counselors, from the elderly Southern woman who drove us all crazy with her motherly attitude to the novice staff member who plain didn’t know how to deal with a house full of anxious young women.
2003 and 2004 weren’t so long ago. In some ways, that period of my life feels like forever ago. In other ways, it feels like I was just there, curled up on that couch, girls knitting and crocheting around me, a DVD of My So-Called Life playing on the television, my journal in my hand.
I remember meal-planning and the threat of Boost drinks.
I remember feeling like a lion in a cage, with no way to roar the way I always had.
I remember being scared to tell anyone the truth about how I felt.
I’m telling the truth now. Or I’m trying to. It’s interesting tapping into all these old memories, then morphing them into an entirely different narrative.
This is Riley’s story, not mine, but parts of me will forever be entwined with her.
That’s why it’s scary. Because this is the book and the story that I believe I was meant to tell. I want it to be good. I want it to reassure girls that they’re not alone while not being didactic. I want a story of hope that’s still a story that’s good.
I remember being in treatment and being amazed that other people felt the way I did. That I wasn’t alone. That I wasn’t the only one.
Some girls don’t get to go to treatment. They spend way too long feeling alone. They may spend forever feeling alone. I want my book to speak to them, for them to see themselves in Riley, just like I do. They won’t get to meet her until 2018, but I’m getting to know her now. I like Riley. She’s vulnerable and strong and so, so brave.
I’m writing and I’m feeling. I’m reliving and writing and editing and feeling for the girl blossoming on the page. Riley has a long road ahead of her.
We’re walking it together.