Last Friday while at the Vaults Festival, London I was approached by Joanne McNally and invited to see her award winning, one woman comedy show Bite Me about her personal experience of having Bulimia.
The play begins with Joanne talking about her mental health “when you lose your mind, you are always the last to know, it is like your mind leeks out of your ear and goes on vacation and leaves this shit brain behind, the intern. And you don’t notice. So you ask your mind “is this ok, what I’m doing?” and the intern just shrugs and says “I don’t know… yeah sure”.”
At first, Joanne does not believe she has an eating disorder. She is just trying to reach her perfect weight and have the body society tells her she should have. She is happy to play along when other people try to physically prevent her from binging and purging but she always finds ways to sneak out and do it when they are not watching.
She is sent to see a therapist who asks her to picture and talk to her eating disorder. After considering the gender and whether the eating disorder looks like a goblin, eventually the face of Louis Walsh arises -innocent but with a glint in his eye.
The therapist then uses the empty chair technique. Imagine the part sitting in the chair, what do you want to say to them and then what do they reply to you. Joanne suggests they need to get the vomiting under control and Louis agrees and recommends from now only they only eat food which won’t lead to any weight gain such as lettuce. Switching back to Joanne she is pleased that Louis was so reasonable and easy to talk to.
The therapist is not happy and tells Joanne she should be hostile towards the eating disorder instead of letting him wear the trousers.
I get mixed emotions as a dramatherapist, watching scenes of therapy sessions. I love the exercise above, visualising the part of Joanne, tuning into that voice of Louis, speaking to him and listening to him. Where I cringe is when the therapist expects Joanne to be hostile to this part of herself.
Our parts exist for a reason, they try to protect us in a way which they believe will help. There may be an absolute logic for the therapist in seeing the Louis part as bad, in need of controlling and deserving of hostile judgement – this part is literally making Joanne sick. But this does not look at the wider impact of the Louis part. Maybe the part is desperate to feel accepted and beautiful, maybe it believes that is required in order to be loved by others. Maybe the part has felt out of control of everything in life and therefor feels the need to be in control of the food and weight. Maybe the part is judgemental about the failures of another part and is just trying to make Joanne perfect instead of a failure. Eating disorders are very rarely just about food appearance, the parts motivation will include a desire to help Joanne.
In the play, we see Joanne choose to side with the Louis part and become angry and defensive at her therapist Bríd who could not possibly understand her need to be thin.
Sometimes people talk about family arguments but still standing up for their family against criticism from outside – I think it is similar with parts of ourselves. Perhaps in our head we can admit that things are not very balanced, that our thoughts are self-critical or self destructive, that our moods can be volatile, but that does not mean we want someone else to think we are crazy or to judge us. How can anyone else judge when they have not lived our life?
The play goes on to explore how the eating disorder has a growing impact on Joanne’s life, the binging and purging behaviour happens more often, she is caught stealing food but still denies she has a problem “I’m just on a diet”. She does things which she knows will hurt her family but she can’t stop herself. Louis message is loud, persistent and irresistible.
Eventually Joanne admits that she needs help and reaches out to her family. It is only after deciding this that her therapist is able to point out the damage Louis is doing to Joanne and what the eating disorder has taken away from her. Joanne is ready to listen but the message makes her sad.
In the next therapy session shown, Brid asks what purpose Louis serves. Does he help Joanne with work? With relationships? With friendships? Joanne thinks he does but on further questioning it appears that actually Louis has a detrimental impact on all of these areas of Joanne’s life.
Joanne imagines Louis being killed on the floor in the therapy room as the therapist finds all the wholes in Louis arguments. This image makes Joanne sad because despite everything she loves Louis and they have been together for a long time, but she acknowledges it is time to let him go. As he takes his last breath she burst into tears.
I wondered about this ending. The behaviour of parts can change but we can’t kill off a part entirely, it may help to imagine that we kill them as it can transform the way we think about a parts power over us, but killed parts will be resurrected. Louis may one day repeat his message that maybe Joanne should be thinner or that she needs to be purified from what she just ate. Does Joanne have other parts which can resist Louis call? What about the underlying motivations for Louis behaviour, the quest for love or control or perfection or whatever it is for Joanne, does the symbolic death of Louis remove the need for those things? If Louis behaviour is triggered by a feeling of rejection or an experience of being unloved then who is going to care for Louis and help him to heal so that he does not need to use eating disorders to control Joanne. The ending was powerful for the play but I wondered about the unspoken second act. In 12 step recovery programmes, admitting you have a problem is only step 1 on the journey.
The text of these therapy scenes have been published in the Irish Times along with an interview with Joanne.