Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Trick of The Light by Lois Metzger

"Anorexia takes a terrific person and turns him into a lying, moody, deceitful, self-centered manipulator."

Lois Metzger has written a novel that accurately and with great sensitivity, explores the world of anorexia and bulimia. A Trick of The Light specifically deals with a teenage boy who develops anorexia when his family experiences a crisis. Anorexia is a hidden disease among adolescent boys because it isn't as common among males and it also doesn't have the apparent physical repercussions that starvation has on the female body.

Mike Welles is a fifteen year old who lives in Belle Heights in Queens, New York. Mike's mom Regina (Gina) is a professional organizer and his father, Douglas, is a lawyer.

Mike and his best friend, Tamio Weissberg have just seen the 1933 version of King Kong at the neighbourhood theatre that shows only classics. Mike and Tamio met in sixth grade at Belle Heights Middle School and have been friends ever since. They share a love of stop animation or stop motion cinematography.

Shortly after this and before the beginning of grade ten, Mikes family begins to fall apart. His mom seems to spend alot of time sleeping and not going to work. When she does to to work she seems disorganized and struggling. At the same time, Mike's father is never home, instead focusing on working out at the gym. Mike enjoys eating but one day notices that he has been gaining weight, particularly around his belly.  When he asks his father if he can accompany him to the gym his father refuses, much to Mike's disappointment.

While out on an errand for his mom, Mike encounters a classmate, Amber Alley, who is a loner and bit weird. Athough Mike has no interest in her, the voice in his head tells him to talk to her. Mike goes into the flea market where he spies himself in a mirror. He looks fat and wonders how he got that way - at least that's what the voice in his head tells him. He decides to buy the mirror even though it will cost him all the money he has in his wallet.

The first day of grade 10, Mike's homeroom teacher, Mr. Clayton introduces a new student, Valerie Braylock. Mike thinks she's beautiful and discovers that she is a ballet dancer. He tells Tamio that he is in love with Valerie.  When he asks Valerie out a few days later and she refuses, Mike thinks she doesn't want to go out with him because he's fat. Later on he sees Valerie in the hallway talking with Tamio leading Mike to believe that Tamio has gone behind his back and that he and Valerie are a couple. Mike's day only gets worse when he arrives home and his father announces that he is leaving the family for a younger woman whom he met at the gym. This leaves Mike completely unmoored  - "My dad's mom's a wreck."

The voice inside his head convinces him that his parents don't matter, that he can be fit, he can be strong, that he can control the chaos.

"Strong body, strong mind, strong enough to master the chaos."

So Mike begins restricting his food intake, he skips breakfast and lunch. He meets up with Amber who seems to have a wealth of knowledge about food. Mike goes with Amber to the grocery store to learn about different foods. When he asks her where she gets her information from she tells him that it comes from her best friend "Anna".

Mike quickly moves from not just restricting his calories but also begins to exercise, running, doing situps and pushups. Since he's often left alone at home, he begins eating what he wants when he wants.

By October, Mike's mom notices that he has lost weight. Mike refuses to be drawn into a discussion about his weight. His mother begins making dinners again but Mike finds he simply cannot eat. Distraught that he has to eat dinner, he calls Amber who provides him with ways to lie to his mother about what he's eating. Mike's mom gradually starts to pull herself together- she begins doing the laundry and making meals again as well as seeing a therapist. But as she begins to heal, she notices that Mike is unwell, withdrawn, unhappy and that he's lost alot of weight. She also recognizes that he is wearing lots of bulky clothing and seems to be complaining of the cold.

At this point several people attempt to intervene in Mike's life. One of them is his friend Tamio who has never stopped begin Mike's friend and who is genuinely concerned for his friend. He confronts Mike about how he looks, showing him a picture of a haggard, skinny man. But Mike gives Tamio the brush-off. Another person is his mom who decides to take him to her doctor. But the doctor refuses to see anything wrong with Mike.Even his physics teacher, Mr. Clayton expresses his concern to Mike.

The turning point comes when Amber is hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat and other problems. By this time Mike too has lost so much weight that he is unable to concentrate, has little energy, is cold all the time and blacks out at home. His mother forces him into hospital to be treated.  He will not be released until he has regained 90 per cent of his body weight and he undergoes therapy.

Metzger had done a great job in A Trick Of The Light of capturing the typical thought processes that an anorexic experiences. Much of the cognitive distortion comes about as a result of starvation and that is why the first approach is to have the person regain as much weight as possible so the persistent thoughts about food and distorted views of themselves can be treated. A perfect example is given when the tiny voice inside Mike states "I think parents generally do their children more harm than good, and Mike's parents are no exception. They don't seem to care about him." And it is this voice, the anorexia, that narrates the story until almost the very end of the novel. Metzger is not the first author to utilize this approach for a novel on eating disorders, but she does an excellent job.

Like Mike, many teens with an eating disorder are high achievers, and they may also be perfectionists. The often think they are ugly, stupid and unworthy. Anorexia is a way to gain control in their lives, when things seem to have gotten out of hand. In what seems to be a paradox, the best way to treat an anorexic is to completely control almost everything about their eating, deciding what they eat, to portion size, and how much they eat. They must be treated like toddlers until they are able to relearn how to eat properly.

I particularly liked the therapist in the novel and how she explained what the eating disorder had done to Mike. She was able to show Mike how the eating disorder overtook his life so that the only thing that remains now IS the eating disorder. Very little is left of him. He must reclaim himself if he wants to get better.

Metzger includes an Author's Note at the back of the novel in which she describes reading an article about a boy with an eating disorder. She managed to talk to that boy and his doctor and family as well as other families of anorexics in order to better understand this deadly illness. It took Metzger ten years to write this novel. The author also provides a short list of resources in her note. I highly recommend James Lock and Daniel Le Grange's Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder. There are many causes of anorexia, and in some cases a number of factors may be involved. In Mike's situation, it is likely his family breakup contributed significantly to his illness. He was left to fend for himself emotionally and physically at a time when he was abandoned by both his mother and father. We may think a 15 year old is almost an adult, but in fact, he is still very much a young person in need of two parents.

In December 2013 my youngest daughter was diagnosed with anorexia. She has had problems with weight loss the last two years but because she lied about what was going on and managed to keep her weight up, the doctors thought her weight loss was due to anxiety issues and not body dismorphia. They were partly right - she is anxious about eating because she believes she is fat. It was this novel, which I brought home to read in December, and which she read instead,  that triggered events which led to me determining that she was scared to eat. Although she has regained all her weight, her thinking about her weight, about food and about herself continue to be distorted.This is going to be a long struggle. Although I knew all of the information Lois Metzger has incorporated into this novel, it will definitely be of help to parents who might not be so savvy yet, to the lengths an anorexic will go to hide their illness and to the siblings and friends of anorexics who struggle to understand this truly mystifying mental illness.

Book Details:
A Trick Of The Light by Lois Metzger
New York: Baltzer and Bray    2013
196 pp.

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