One thing that appears to have gotten lost in the political fracas surrounding the life and death of Terri Schiavo is the cause of her current non-responsive state. In point of fact, Ms. Schiavo’s condition is the result of a potassium imbalance triggered by an eating disorder. To be more specific, Ms. Schiavo was bulimic, meaning that she forced herself to regurgitate whatever nourishment she took in, so as to maintain the slender silhouette so ubiquitous in the mainstream American media and so coveted by the American public. That’s right: The thickest slice in this whole ironic roast is that this woman who voluntarily malnourished herself into a vegetative state is now being force-fed in order to maintain it.
To quibble over whether tube-feeding is “natural” or “unnatural” is to miss out on the true tragedy of the situation: that a once-vibrant young woman was willing to sacrifice — albeit unwittingly — her health and, ultimately, her very will to the false god of glamour. Starvation is indeed a heinous death. And despite what Hollywood would lead us to believe, it isn’t a terribly pretty way of life: that waiflike figure may look sexy on camera, but the symptoms of starvation — dulling hair that comes out in clumps, sallow skin, brittle teeth and nails, excessive body hair growth, breath like something crawled in there and died and loss of bladder control, just to name a few — are not the least bit attractive.
And yet, tragically, starvation is precisely what Ms. Schiavo chose for herself in what was to be her final act of free will. Morality aside, force-feeding is quite apparently inconsistent with the choices Ms. Schiavo made for herself while she still had the capacity to make them. Then again, perhaps she forfeited her right to make decisions regarding her own welfare when she vomited her way into irreversible brain damage.
Now, lest you think me unsympathetic to Ms. Schiavo’s plight, I should explain that I barely survived an eating disorder myself. As a posse of my friends and family forcibly dragged my 86-pound, 5’5″ frame to the hospital, I told myself they were jealous of my phenomenal self-discipline. At first I lied through my acid-eaten teeth to the doctors who tried to tell me that, in the absence of nourishment, my body was consuming itself and my organs would soon begin to fail, just as a car with no gas will eventually break down.
Lucky for me and for all those who care about me, I did come around and escaped with only acute hypoglycemia, rather than brain damage or a heart attack (as was the case for some of my fellow in-patients). Nonetheless, when I look at the helpless shell of Terri Schiavo, I see the path I nearly took, a path taken by far too many bright, talented and intelligent people every day. As a survivor, I am invested in making sure that this aspect of the Schiavo tragedy is not forgotten, particularly by those who are most likely to fall prey to dangerous dieting: young women.
So ladies, take note: There are better ways to get famous than by becoming a political pawn. Rather than starve yourself into a pathetic existence, tube-fed or otherwise, nourish your body as you would a loved one. It is, after all, the only one you’ve got. And let this furthermore be a reminder to each and every one of us to live our life in such a way that no one is ever in a position to argue over how, and whether, we ought to be living it.
Adrienne MacIain is a graduate student in dramatic art.