Full text: Interview with Brent Allard, “Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders.”

01/09/2014 at 19:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )


I approached Brent with the premise of this interview, on the back of a Twitter conversation. As is so often the case, a random fact dropped in had set off ripples; I had mentioned my (past and present) experiences with anorexia nervosa, whereupon he began to tell me of a former girlfriend who also suffered from its effects. Setting out a rough guideline of questions based around personal memories of behavioural patterns, and research into the study of eating disorders, I sought to frame Brent’s unique insight in such a way that would give a broader perspective of anorexia, and its effect upon relationships.

While my mother loves me by default (if I can go on assumptions here), her caring for me in those dark days might be considered a prerequisite of our familial bond.
Where my former partner, Jimmi, and Brent Allard are concerned, the responsibility originated from a different point of care.

1) How did you two meet: under what circumstances? Was it in a “neutral zone”, or through friends? Was she open about her illness, its symptoms, or did she try to conceal any parts initially (to try to appear “normal” / to keep two elements of her life apart) ?

We had a business writing class together (you know, memos, correspondence like that). One day we were told that our next assignment was going to be with partners. I didn’t know anyone in the class, it was always at the end of a long day walking around campus in Arizona, so I just wanted to get out and go home. When we were asked to pick partners I looked around the room and caught this girl waiting for my eyes to meet hers in the back corner of the room.

I never thought about dating a sorority girl at all, but eventually B and I would start walking out of class together and one day we finally decided to sit in the dining commons and talk. That’s when I found out she was from Hawaii and she found out I was from Massachusetts, and we found common ground being so far away from home and lonely.

Through her I learned a lot about snacking, that was healthy, she had good ideas, but getting herself to do the things was another. I learned a lot about health from her, and at times I thought it was too much thinking, like, we just needed to eat.

2) Was there a distinction between who she was as a personality, and the anorexia? How often did the lines blur, and what caused this to happen?

She was under a lot of stress. She became the sorority president (something her family pressured her into). When I met her she was a little overweight, but it didn’t seem to be anything unusual for being in college. I put on weight too, it happens. I didn’t know that she was recovering until she showed me the pictures of what she used to look like. She was always busy and took on so much to keep it that way. Most of the time I would see her after a long day and night and she’d be exhausted or high-strung, always on the move, stressing about a speech she has to make, all of her work, the sorority, and I’d kind of be there to take her away from it all. It was when our worlds outside crossed that it was no fun.

3) What was her behaviour like when with you? Did you live together, and form a “safe zone”? Were there any particular routines or habits she had, which affected your own behaviour (overly or subconsciously.)

She was a very picky eater, so when I realized that she wasn’t eating that much we started to talk about it. Being home more than her I would cook meals for her, always keeping in mind what she told me she liked. She went long periods without food, which was not normal for me. I began to eat healthier, but when we ate together it was like she was eating a fistful of food and I’d eat maybe three times as much as her. She told me that she was on a cottage cheese and fruit diet when she was really skinny, and she’d even count calories then. With me she felt comfortable and started eating better, but I wasn’t eating as much and felt weak.

4) Did her behaviour differ in public surroundings, from when you were alone together – particularly if food was involved? (e.g. attentive and affectionate, clingy and needy, standoffish, nervous, panicky etc.)

Yes. She was very insecure about herself in public with me. If my ex-girlfriend was around she would panic and get down on herself. I wasn’t drinking at the time, so going out with friends wasn’t something we were doing a lot. We were both healing, and in the middle of it we were helping each other in different ways.

I had no interest in my ex, but she was always convinced that there was something going on, even though there was nothing. She began going through my emails, and it wasn’t for over a year that my ex emailed me. I never saw the email, and I wouldn’t have responded to it, but she told me one night that she had deleted it… and another one from before. This became a recurring theme and ultimately was the reason we broke up. She never trusted me to be left alone even though I was trying to get into my writing and focus on being sober.

5) Were there any environments in which you were unable to engage as a couple, or in which it was difficult – family get-togethers, meals out, parties, etc? How did this affect your relationship?

Family get-togethers were the toughest. Her parents wanted me to have a drink, and that’s when I noticed her eating habits the most. Her father was very judgemental, and those were the times when I realized the pressure she had on herself. Steaks, hollandaise sauce, cheese, potatoes, alcohol, eating out at country clubs and canoe clubs a lot of nights, her father saying that every girl “could use a boost in the world” when referring to her breasts. Those were the toughest times.

I relapsed around her father and wanted to break up with her immediately, but a part of me understood her pain and that she needed me. I also needed her because it was a safe place. We were both recovering. When other people became intertwined in our lives, that’s when it got messy. I lost best friends over my decisions, I pushed a lot of people away, and at times it was really not healthy, the amount of time we spent alone, but I think we both needed it. I know I did.

6) Did she have particular habits surrounding food and eating; what were the symptoms that were peculiar to her? Was she strict about calories, counting them out; were there “good” / “bad” foods? Did she allow you to cook for her, and if so, how much control were you allowed to have over what was prepared?

She told me a lot about counting calories, and we began shopping together and focusing on healthy meals we could eat together. At first it was vegan, then sushi was introduced on occasion, then we moved onto eating chicken and veggies, and even would go out for a hamburger once a month. She wasn’t putting on weight, but she was healthy. She trusted me to cook for her, which she said was rare, but I also understood what she would eat and what she wouldn’t. She expressed having “tactile” issues as a kid, like if something didn’t have the right texture, she wouldn’t eat it.

7) Was she actively seeking help from professionals, from family, friends etc.? Were you involved in any therapy together? How did this affect your relationship? Did her mindset / behaviour change over the progression of your relationship – relapsing at times of stress and upset, improving when comfortable, happy?

I never noticed her relapses, but would see when she was stressed that she was high-strung and not eating as much. We did not seek any help. She had wanted to be a nutritionist when she first came to college, but went into marketing. She was very controlling about getting help, and I think it was her friends who helped her through it, but being in a sorority I could tell was not the best thing for self-image.

Ultimately we broke up and that was when she went back into a relapse. She had been going through my emails and there was one I had sent with a few friends who were wondering how to go about asking a girl out. I said, it’s not a big deal, watch this, and I was on MySpace, and sent a girl a message. In my mind there was nothing that was going to happen, the girl was leaving soon, I was sending a message that had no feeling to it, didn’t sound like me, I was merely showing my friends that it wasn’t a big deal.

Well, she went through my email, called my mom, freaked out, but she was 6,000 miles away, had left me when I said I just needed two more months to save up and we’d move back to Hawaii. She became very controlling over those two months and I was alone for the first time in years. We tried to talk about it, she said she was starving herself, I said that I’d quit my job and come be with her, I didn’t mean it, it was something stupid I was doing with my friends. One contention she had with the girl I messaged was that she was “fat” anyway. She took it very personally.

What I felt was unhealthy was that her support network were co-workers and old friends from home. There was never a neutral voice in the help she sought. Every little thing I did would be scrutinized without my side. Things became divided and whenever I met someone from work, it was like I was being judged. I never got a chance around them. Mainly they were older women.

I finally sought professional help in my late twenties, I don’t know if she ever did or if she did. She was good at keeping secrets, whereas I was an open book.

8) Did she have plans for the future, either with / without you? What did she choose to engage in – hobbies, work, relationships other than yours, to keep a “normal” lifestyle? How much were you involved in these aspects of her life?

A lot of her social life was through work and the sorority. Things with the sorority didn’t work with me, so her sisters began telling her to break up with me, but I knew she wanted to get out of it so she wasn’t going to break up with me. She attended work parties, none of which I would go to, but she became more dependent upon me for everything. She ended up hanging out with my friends, was in my home space (before we started living together) a lot, when I told her I needed space to do my work and writing, she would take it very personally, so I’d sleep at her place to put her at ease even though I loved my place much more than the sorority.

Eventually she had me move with her out of a place I had lived for over two years and kept it a secret from her parents. I didn’t know this, she did this again when we moved to Maui.

9) What were the reasons for your breaking up (if any) – did her illness have anything to do with it? Were there any particularly “bad episodes” in your time together, related to the illness? Do you still keep in contact with each other? Has her behaviour / mindset changed at all?

There were several instances when I realized that she was starving herself. Sometimes she would pass out standing up, but I’d see it coming, therefore becoming her “hero,” but I’d make sure we’d talk about it, although at that point I couldn’t say much because I had relapsed several times in our time together. I wanted out, told her many times that there’s someone out there for her, but she kept by my side even though her father didn’t want us together because I wasn’t going to make enough money, and I’d argue with him about everything, from politics to the way he treated women.

That’s when my drinking became more severe, and that is when I realized her habits. We were both serious athletes when we were younger. There is a lot of pressure on you to perform in both the classroom and in your sport, and some people become health nuts, obsessed with calories and such. I was just hungry all of the time, so I’d eat when I could get it, never had a problem with weight until I quit sports. We were both very proficient, captains, stars, leaders, it was serious for us.

We began eating more Mediterranean meals, we went grocery shopping together, shared recipes, made meals together. Those were the nice things. When it came to other people it would fall apart. She lost her sorority friends when she chose to be with me, basically, it was drama. She was president, figure that’s what happens in that kind of environment. They all thought she was going down a wrong road, but I was under her control, it was up to her. It was always up to her. Her family didn’t want us together, I knew it was not going anywhere, but she kept hanging on.

When we lived in New England together she put on weight, but it was truly the first time I saw her as healthy. She felt awful, and before fall and winter came around she left to be with her grandmother, or at least that’s what she said.

I remember her talking in Europe about all the food she was eating, how unhealthy she felt. This time it was the opposite. She was not eating, and when she found that stupid MySpace correspondence, it had already been two months of being apart, and I screwed up, but nothing came of it, except my girlfriend said she was now starving herself and that if I didn’t come out, it was over. She went to my mom first, which showed she didn’t trust me anyway.

The last time we talked together, we met in a mall food court. She told me that she was starving herself because she was getting breast enhancements. I said that I thought there was no need, she’s lucky to not have back problems, but she had money, so I wasn’t surprised, and all of the pressure from the sorority, her father, Hawaiian beaches, media, it all made sense, given what I know about her. She said she couldn’t change it, she already put a down payment on them.

I shook my head, said the obvious things like, “Starving is not the way to go about this. You look good.” She said I was the only one who thought like I do.
In the food court she began to nod off, and I caught her, for what was the third time. I don’t know how many times I told her to lie down, but I remember the falls. So I held her by my side, told her I was getting beans and rice, and then we ate. She felt better.

On the way to the airport we stopped at the health food store. She looked at the food in the raw bar and said, “We should’ve eaten here.” I told her, “You wouldn’t have made it. Sometimes you just have to eat what’s there.”

We don’t talk anymore. I saw her on Facebook being friends with all of my friends, my brother, his fiancé, and I knew she had told everyone what I did. I got mad at her because she wouldn’t friend me and told her she couldn’t be friends with my family and friends if she wasn’t going to be mine and I called her out on some things like inner-beauty, how her father rules her life, she needs to let go of things… you know, I laid it down. She reported me to Facebook authorities for harassment, even though it was just a long message or two. Shortly after I got a call from her dad telling me to leave her alone, that I’m a nice guy, I just wasn’t for her. That pretty much summed it up for me and was closure.

Even if she was contacting me, it was my decision to break up with her after a month. There was nothing to be jealous of, other than the fact that she was skinny (from drug use and cigarettes, drinking, and not much food). She couldn’t see that I didn’t want that and be confident being my girlfriend. I remember a time when she was away and came back to find out that I watched a pornographic video when she was gone. It was always something. Then she told people at work, friends, about my porn habit, and although it was obsessive, I was a young twenty-two year old spending all of time at home while my girlfriend is on the road. Holy crap, call me crazy, I have flaws. Every flaw was scrutinized, and made to be the worst thing ever.

It was truly maddening.

The good thing I took from it was the time alone. We loved going out to eat healthy food, doing yoga, taking walks after meals, going on weekend hikes, drinking lots of water, making teas, recycling, keeping things simple, but it would brink on obsessiveness. We’d go to movies, concerts, explore towns and take day trips. I wouldn’t drink, that was more of a social thing with us, but she didn’t see my relapses as relapses, so I guess I didn’t see her relapses either.

We were caught up in our own worlds of healing. I don’t look at it as a bad thing at all, but I feel like she doesn’t want to face that point in her life because it is rife with failure for her. Flaws. I embrace them, she doesn’t.

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