Interview with Shani on Being Ana
Why did you write Being Ana?
I felt compelled to write it. I couldn’t sit with all that stuff inside––all the questions and confusion. I wanted so much to understand what I had been through, to make sense of it and to get it out of me. I started writing after a dream I had about an anorexic girl dying in my arms. Obviously, I was the girl. I was two years into recovery at the time and I was ready to start letting Ana go. I was coming to terms with what I had been through. Then it took another six years to get it all down in writing. The book became the most important thing to me over the years––the one constant. I was determined to complete it; to show readers that there is a way out of the suffering labeled anorexia.
How long did it take you to write Being Ana?
From the very first words that I wrote after my dream of the dying girl to my final rewrite was almost seven years. I healed along with the book. I would never have understood what I do now had I not written the first draft during my recovery. I didn’t write full-time though. I became a freelance writer, an editor, worked on documentary films and lived my life but the book was the most important thing to me. I wrote in between and during massive mood swings and crazy travels and boyfriends. I started off by transcribing every single word I had ever written in my journals from age fourteen and that formed the basis of my recollections. But that was just the beginning. I wrote so many drafts. It kept changing. I cut things out and added things in and rearranged and edited and did massive rewriting until I finally decided to call it “complete.”
Do you consider yourself still in recovery?
Definitely not. I don’t believe that “Once an anorexic, always an anorexic.” It’s been fourteen years since I started recovery and somewhere along the way I let go of that label. I consider myself recovered. From the start of recovery I devised a five-year plan that I dedicated to healing. I worked hard during recovery to get to where I am now. I gave it all my energy. And I wrote about everything I was going through. I find it very sad that so many women still struggle with body/weight/food/self-esteem issues years into their recoveries. I believe if you can work through all the issues and emotions and get to the bottom of the deep pain and come through it, then you can let go of being Ana forever.
What’s it like to live without anorexia?
It’s liberating and empowering. It has gotten much easier with insights gained over time. It’s been fourteen years since I started recovery. The first five years or more were painful, raw, erratic and confusing. Now I’m just living and dealing with so much other stuff of life and I honestly don’t remember being Ana on a feeling level. So I’m glad I wrote the book while I was in the early stages of recovery because it’s too long gone now to remember it viscerally. It’s out of me. On the page. It makes sense to me now. It’s no longer a mystery. So there is nothing to lure me. I know where it would lead. I’m not immune, I’m just not vulnerable to it anymore. I have worked through my issues and put them behind me.
Definitely not. At least for me it wasn’t. For so many years during my anorexia, and even in recovery, I hated myself and blamed myself, thinking that I had hurt myself on purpose, out of hate, and the thought filled me with so much pain. But through writing the book I realized otherwise. In early recovery I went to a homeopath who asked me a brilliant question that no one, including myself, had ever asked. She asked me what anorexia gave me. My answer was: an identity, a friend, a mother, structure, success, strength and a sense of purpose. It blew my mind. I realized then that I had really needed it at the time. She explained that it was how my mind/body had tried to protect me and give me what I actually needed. I realized then that I had never meant to harm myself. I realized that I would have to forgive myself in order to let Ana go.
What would you tell girls/women in the grips of anorexia?
I would tell them that recovery hurts as much as their wounds but that there is no other way to a normal, healthy, happy life free of anorexia. It’s really hard to give advice to someone in that desperate, fearful, guarded mindset. I don’t expect my book to reach people in the grips of the disorder. The hardest part for loved ones is that there is nothing to say. The willingness to heal has to come from inside. If anorexics were to listen though, I would tell them that there is a way out of anorexia but it’s not what they would want to hear. It’s not easy or glamorous or mysterious. It’s not a quick fix. The way out is to follow a strict dietician-monitored meal plan to up your caloric intake, to dedicate yourself to intensive therapy and support groups, to eat according to your meal plan every single day no matter how you are feeling and to deal with all that ugliness inside. And this can take years and years. There is a logic to it. But if you can survive the pain of healing, you can be free of anorexia.
What would you tell anorexics’ families and friends?
I would tell them never to stop loving the anorexic as a person, and never to blame her or make her feel bad about herself or her behavior. I would tell them to try to talk to her only about how she is feeling and never about her food or weight. To focus only on how she is feeling, even if she doesn’t know or has no words to describe it. And to let her feel, silently and from a distance, that they support her and believe in her and love her.
Do you think you would still have written Being Ana if you weren’t a writer ?
Being a writer is what made me want to tell my story. I have always written and journaled and this was my way of expressing everything I learned and coming to understand it all. There’s a song by singer/songwriter Anna Nalick titled, ‘Breathe (2.a.m)’ and, for me, the lyrics of this amazing song say it all: “If I get it all down on paper it’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to.”
What makes Being Ana different from other anorexia memoirs?
I don’t blame society, the media, my dysfunctional family or my peers for being Ana. I don’t entertain the role the media plays in perpetuating the cult of thinness. I grew up in South Africa, with our media sanctioned under Apartheid, where I was not saturated with images of “thin” like Americans are by Hollywood and celebrities today. I was also not born into a household of dieters and weight watchers, and I was never overweight. So I was not your “stereotypical” candidate. At the beginning, I had never even heard of Anorexia. Also, unlike most eating disorder memoirs, I don’t ever mention my weight in numbers or the amount of calories I consumed because it creates an unnecessary and unhealthy comparison for readers who are easily triggered by numbers and perpetuates the falsehood that anorexia is just about weight and food––which is so not true.
To reach huge, raving crowds wanting to buy the book! No, seriously, my aim is that it inspires, encourages, educates and nourishes readers and that whoever reads it will know that they are never, ever alone in their suffering and that with enough support, resources and courage, there is absolutely a way out.
If you could have had one wish during your anorexia, what would it have been?
I just wish I could have seen my future and known that it could be as beautiful and as big as I wanted it to be. I wish I would have known then that I had the power inside all along to create an amazing life for myself and to be healthy and genuinely happy with my Self, my body and the world around me––that my dreams could come (and are coming) true.