Under the Cover: The Presence of Eating Disorders in Young Adult Books

May 4, 2016 by Breanna Fischer

The Canadian Mental Health Association has dedicated the first week of May to encouraging people "to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health." To add to the conversation we're sharing a story-behind-the-story about a book that features a character that is on a bumpy journey to self-love and strength. In Small Displays of Chaos, the debut young adult novel from Breanna Fischer, 17-year-old Rayanne Timko should be feeling the excitement of finishing high school but instead she is struggling to overcome anorexia. This struggle is something Breanna Fischer has personally experienced; she kindly shared what it was like writing about a topic that was so personal.

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The Canadian Mental Health Association has dedicated the first week of May to encouraging people "to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health." To add to the conversation we're sharing a story-behind-the-story about a book that features a character that is on a bumpy journey to self-love and strength. In Small Displays of Chaos, the debut young adult novel from Breanna Fischer, 17-year-old Rayanne Timko should be feeling the excitement of finishing high school but instead she is struggling to overcome anorexia. This struggle is something Breanna Fischer has personally experienced; she kindly shared what it was like writing about a topic that was so personal.

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It seemed that the first advice I received in terms of creative writing was write what you know. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, then, that my debut novel is chilled and melancholic. While penning the first draft, that was what I knew.

I’d never wanted to write about my mental illness. Becoming a published author was a shuttered dream I’d harbored for nearly my entire life, but I made the conscious decision that I wouldn’t write a story about eating disorders, or anybody who has one. Because it would be too personal, and for God’s sake, after so much therapy and effort it would be nice to have one thing in my life that wasn’t about this illness or the recovery.

There was one more monopolizing reason: I was certain it wouldn’t be accurate.

What a silly thought. I had been experiencing disordered eating since I was fifteen, was twenty-one at the time and recovering from my physical health’s poorest point. I had a very present, valid experience of an eating disorder. How could it be wrong?

For each moment, or symptom, or thought that I felt the itch to write down, there would be a countering voice in my head. What if someone else didn’t experience this? What if they didn’t feel this way, or do this for that reason?

Would all I’d written be wrong?

In the end, my instincts to write won out. I began to create, always in secret, a story in my head where each of the biting feelings and sensations of my eating disorder could be let free. And I fabricated for them a family and life all their own. Rayanne’s story isn’t my story; we have completely different triggers, schemas, and emotions behind our behaviors. And I began to feel the intuition that the fact that I was writing about one girl’s eating disorder – whether or not it was anyone else’s experience – was incredibly valuable.

In therapy and treatment for a mental illness, I very rarely felt like I was being heard. My interactions with professionals were often narrowed down to symptoms. If I spoke honestly about my experiences or inner processes, I was often disregarded or talked down to – as if, at the end of the day, I couldn’t be trusted with myself. I feel this is common in the treatment of eating disorders, where professionals and family disregard an entire part of us as “the eating disorder”.

The personification of ED’s is something of a fascinating topic for me. No other illness has been so dutifully crafted into an identifiable entity, one often used to spur the illness on. It’s something I explore in my book, even if (or maybe because) it was an element I found discomfiting and challenging. But even there, that entity remains personal to my main character.

Even as someone with an ED, I’d only ever read one novel in which the main character has one. I was terrified of finding out my own experience didn’t line up, or worse – that it did, and that I was in some way doomed to a fate already experienced by others with ED’s. A fate I would surely find at the end of the book.

The process of writing Small Displays of Chaos became cathartic when I made peace with the fact that it would never be representative of eating disorders, everywhere. And I don’t want it to be. Mental illnesses are as unique and complex as the people who have them, and the best way we can make people understand this is if we tell our own stories – as complex, contradicting, and discomfiting as they are.

Small Displays of Chaos isn’t a book about eating disorders. It’s about a girl, who has a family and friends and hobbies that pull at her heart, and what happens when her life is interrupted by mental illness.

If ED warriors read this book and know it isn’t their story, I will still rest easy. Because it will hopefully have cemented what is their story. And we – the ones who experience these illnesses – should tell our stories in any and every way that makes sense to us. We should share our experiences through writing, music, art, tattoos. And if no one else experienced this symptom this way, who are we to judge ourselves?

Small Displays of Chaos isn’t a book about eating disorders. Because we can’t be confined to 25,000 or even 75,000 words; and maybe we shouldn’t be. This isn’t everything that happened; it isn’t enough to make sense of a disease that turns lives upside down. It’s a window-peak into what having an eating disorder meant for one girl, during one winter of her life.

It’s only a few small displays of chaos.

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Thank you to Coteau Books, especially MacKenzie Hamon, for connecting us with Breanna. And thank you to Breanna Fischer for sharing with us a little bit of what writing Small Displays of Chaos was like.


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