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Perfect Illusions: Eating Disorders and the Family
Personal Stories
The first time I ever threw up, I had been hating my body, hating my body and hating my body-for years... I stopped watching TV, put down my bag of Fritos and just sort of, in this drugged stupor, walked downstairs and pulled back my braids and threw up.

This early established routine of eating until she was numb became an everyday after-school habit for Marya Hornbacher. At the age of nine, she began bingeing and purging steadily. Eventually she became so disgusted with herself, she all but stopped eating.

You start setting goals for yourself, "I want to get down to 100, I want to get down to 90, I want to get down to 80, and it just gets lower and lower and lower. I remember looking at the scale, and it said 63 and I went, 50!"

Her parents only learned of her eating disorder when they visited her at boarding school. She was skeletally thin. At 14 years of age, she had lost 25% of her body weight. This was advanced anorexia, and her extreme medical situation needed extreme measures. Full-time treatment in a locked institution was the only option left.

As with most families, the shock of discovery hit Marya's parents hard, as did coming to terms with the role they played in her illness. They never overtly put demands on her, but to Marya they were intellectuals: successful, beautiful, talented people, and she wanted to be them. She wanted to excel and achieve, to be good enough for them. The worst thing she could imagine being was mediocre. The precocious little girl exacted perfection from herself and tried curing the discord in her home, and her parents' unhappiness.

She may have gotten sick to bring her parents together; she may have gotten sick because trying to be perfect was just too hard even for a lovely, brilliant young woman. In family therapy, Judy and Jay Hornbacher looked long and hard at their own accountability for Marya's illness.

Judy Hornbacher:
I've had people say astonishing things to me that said they would not take a look at their family dynamic. And I would say that unless you do that, you have absolutely no hope whatsoever of your child being able to get better.

Jay Hornbacher:
The best thing you can do is accept the child as that child is.

They never gave up their love and support, but Marya wasn't getting better. Despite the hospitalization, the counseling, the medication and the nutrition, Marya just wanted to die. There is no simple reason why someone decides to get better. Marya rejected all attempts at any intercession until the day at Lowe House when a little boy gave her the first hug she allowed, and told her she could have one tomorrow too.

I made a decision that very few people make in this culture, which was to actually figure out what was wrong and fix it. I really had to go through a lot of hell to get better.

At the age of 21, Marya wrote her book, Wasted, telling the story of her life-long battle with anorexia and bulimia. This memoir has been described as "brutal and unflinching: a painful and soul-baring exploration" into Marya's own personal abyss, and of her journey back. There are no punches pulled here. Marya's intention is to shed light on the dark side of the eating disordered personality and the personal, family and cultural causes, underlying eating disorders. Her book traces her life from the first time she decides to vomit her food, to her complete collapse in college, five hospitalizations, therapy, and the loss of family, friends, jobs, and ultimately, "any sense of what it means to be normal."

Marya attended the University of Minnesota and American University, where she garnered awards in student journalism. At 18 she began traveling the United States addressing young women and men about the causes of eating disorders. After Wasted was published, she received the Women of Inspiration Award from the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association. She says the point of her book was, "how you go on with your life," but admits that the book nearly killed her. After a relapse in 1994, after completing Wasted, she resumed her fight against her eating disorder.


From a television interview with Marya:
The function of an eating disorder for a lot of people and for a certain extent of time, is to become numb. When you reach a certain nadir of numbness, it's called despair. It just feels horrific and then you have to climb your way back up and that whole process of climbing, that is a lifetime. That isn't just recovering from an eating disorder, that's learning how to be a grown up. It's learning how to live in the body you have and in the life that you have.

Marya is fortunate to be here. She had been told she would never get this far, but she took hold of her life. Over ten years of therapy and incredible determination, she is, as she says, the closest thing to being recovered.

When she talked her way out of Lowe House treatment center, it was a turning point, she knew she could get better, but also knew she could never diet again; like an alcoholic, she could never go back to that way of conducting her life. A big part of her still says she was never there, never in that condition. But she knows it was her and to be a wholly integrated being, she can no longer be one of those women constantly at war with her body.

She deplores our culture which doesn't seem to want answers, which doesn't want to change. "And you can't change an entire culture, you can only change yourself." Her advice to anyone suffering with an eating disorder? "Get into therapy. Start working on yourself. Read."

Marya continues her career as a freelance editor and writer. She writes for Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, is the winner of the White Award for Best Feature Story of 1993 for Wasted, her first book, and presently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband. She is at work writing her second book, a novel. It is about the nature of loss and acceptance seen through the eyes of a six-year old girl whose father has died. Set in a little town in Minnesota, in the early 1970's, a time and place where the Vietnam war still seemed far away; it is a story of finding redemption, in the small corners of the world.

For more information about Wasted and Marya Hornbacher, visit: www.fireandwater.com and the health section, where you can read more about her book, and e-mail Marya.

Here are some of Marya's book recommendations:

  • The Body Betrayed: A Deeper Understanding of Women, Eating Disorders, and Treatment, by Kathryn J. Zerbe
  • The Body Project, by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
  • Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, by Suzan Bordo
  • Appetites, by Carolyn Knapp (to be published May 2003)



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...I had been hating my body, hating my body and hating my body-for years. And since I was four or five, was the first time I remember deciding that I was fat.

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