Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain

Nursing Book Club

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain

The mystery of anorexia

By Portia De Rossi (Atria Paperback, 2010)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

During nursing school I rotated through an eating disorder unit at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C., when deliberate anorexia was a brand new diagnosis. I have to admit that I, like a lot of the medical personnel there, was completely baffled by these adolescents who refused to eat. Even though I still come across anorexic and bulemic patients today, I’ve never been able to understand how they think. Portia De Rossi sheds valuable light on this subject.

Unbearable Lightness is the story of her anorexia, how it began and how it changed her. Without directly saying “this was the cause” we learn about her past — how she was raised by a single mom in an affluent area while they struggled to make ends meet. She entered the modeling profession in an effort to leave behind the classmates who didn’t seem to like her and early on realized that perfectionism was always her goal. Years later when her husband left, she began to deal with the issue of her sexuality. De Rossi entered acting and seemingly effortlessly advanced her career into a recurring character on the  popular television show “Ally McBeal.”

Except that it wasn’t really effortless. Dealing with the wardrobe department on her first day she realizes that she doesn’t have a perfect figure, and actually overhears the seamstresses complaining about how to make the pencil thin skirts fit her muscular legs. Not wanting anything to compromise her rise to the top, especially because of something like her body which she should be able to control, she embarks on a diet and exercise regime that no healthy person could sustain. Soon her work to fit into small sizes becomes her secret compulsion and is more of a chore than her acting.

What the author does very well is describe what she is thinking in the moment. She helps us hear her inner demons and we know what she thinks about the people around her. She admits that when her weight is down to 89 pounds she “barely has time for anything else.” At 82 pounds she is still trying to get rid of her belly fat. She indirectly shares what she believes might be some of the emotional battles that brought her there.  She provides more insight into the workings of an anorexic mind than I’ve found anywhere else. What is less successful is finding out how the anorexia is finally addressed. We, along with probably all her friends and family, want to shout “Portia, get help.” But it’s only while filming an action movie that her too-thin body finally fails and she acknowledges that she needs medical care.

What we don’t learn about is  her recovery. We know that she is in a better place now, happy with her animals and a positive relationship with her famous partner. What might be helpful is if instead of only looking inside, she could have added a chapter for those still struggling. Of course we are all transfixed by the car wreck as we drive by, but most of us want to know what happened next and how we might have given aid if we’d stopped. Maybe in a follow-up memoir De Rossi will share what outsiders can do to be encouraging. She drops a few clues: “I highly recommend inviting the worst-case scenario into your life.”

    Nurses dealing with eating disorder patients can use this personal study to understand just what those patients are going through emotionally, but they’ll have to look elsewhere for how to get them help.  

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.


This article is from workingnurse.com.

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