You know that old song by Billy Joel? I know it well. It was a hit when I was a young child. The lyrics are timeless. The melody endures. Many of us would love to have a friend or a loved one who takes us just the way we are.
But is it always best to love someone just the way they are? Are there times when it’s unwise or unhealthy to take someone just the way they are? Obviously, yes, there are. My husband tried to love his ex wife just the way she was until he realized he couldn’t anymore. His own life was at risk by accepting her “as/is”. So they got divorced and he’s much better off for it. I don’t know if she’s better off. It’s not my business, anyway.
This topic comes up this morning after I read an admittedly bizarre “love story” in The New York Times. Adam Barrows wrote an article entitled “I Wanted to Love Her, Not Save Her”. The tag line read, “The first time we spoke, she was so weak she had collapsed. Why did that not alarm me?” When someone uses the word “alarm” in a tag line, you can be sure high drama is about to ensue. I was hooked.
So I read Adam Barrows’ story about meeting his wife, Darla. They were both working at a chain bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota when Barrows came upon his future wife passed out on the floor. Although they had been co-workers, he had never really spoken to her. He just noticed that she was painfully thin.
As Darla’s vision came back, she explained to Adam that she suffered from anorexia nervosa and hadn’t eaten in several days. He asked her if he could get her something to eat. She said no, and asked him to just sit with her for a minute until her strength returned. Adam sat with her and they developed a friendship. As they got closer and eventually “fell in love”, Darla continued to starve herself. Adam did nothing to get her to change her behavior. He writes:
I didn’t try to help her with that. I’m not sure why. It’s as if I accepted her struggle as a given, as a fact of her. I was struggling myself after a recent heartbreak and was trying to teach myself how to do basic things again: to think for myself, to walk properly, to hold myself upright, to sleep and to breathe.
To see her struggle to force down solid food, to watch as she spread a thin layer of butter on a saltine that she would chew to a paste before it would go down (this was her only meal some days) seemed not natural, of course, but also somehow unremarkable to me. I watched her starve and held her while she did it.
Some people might call that enabling. I called it love.
After months of traveling around the United States together, they ended up getting married. They had a son who turned 18 last year and, at this writing, have been together for 23 years. Adam writes that Darla eventually got somewhat better. She ate more and, over the years, put on some weight. He writes that before the pandemic struck, she was actually considering going on a diet, but didn’t end up doing it. While many people have gained weight during the pandemic, Adam writes that he and Darla don’t go to the grocery store much and that has had a “slimming effect”. I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll take him at his word that he and his wife are doing okay.
At the end of his essay, Barrows concludes:
Our married life has not been without conflicts. I have taken her for granted, put my needs ahead of hers, indulged my weaknesses. But I never have regretted the fact that I did the possibly irresponsible thing back then by not acting alarmed about her anorexia, by not pressuring her to do anything about it, and instead just loving her for who she was. She never wanted heroic intervention from me or from anyone else. She triumphed over her issues with food on her own terms and is happy for me to be sharing our story now.
I found this story kind of fascinating. I went to see what others thought of it. Most people seemed to conclude that Adam Barrows is some kind of an asshole. Here’s a screenshot of the first few comments. They are overwhelmingly negative.
Someone else wrote this rather scathing response:
Wow, less the confession of an enabler and more the confession of a narcissistic a-hole with a fetish for damaged, frail women. It’s so quaint to wax poetic about how deathly cold her hand was the time you found her after she fainted. It’s so sexy to talk about riding in the sleeper car with a starving person in desperate need of mental health intervention. You sound like a right tw*t.
I didn’t get that Adam Barrows is a “narcissistic a-hole” just based on this essay. It’s possible that he is one, but frankly, I kind of doubt it. Most narcissists I’ve known don’t have the ability to be introspective about their own faults. Adam openly admits that his wife had a problem. He also admits that he might have enabled her in her self-destructive habits by not insisting that she seek treatment. Some people would say he’s a bad person for not rushing her to a hospital or a rehab center.
On the other hand, there is some beauty in a person who simply accepts a person as they are. I didn’t read that Adam was encouraging Darla to be an anorexic. I read that he didn’t disapprove of her for who she was. He simply loved her. According to his story, she eventually got better. I don’t know how her improvement came to be. Was it entirely through the “kissing” treatment he writes of, or did she ever seek any kind of help? I don’t know… and I’m not sure if that’s the point of this story. It’s an article in the Modern Love section, which focuses on different kinds of love stories.
There are also people out there who consider eating disorders to be a “lifestyle”. I personally don’t agree with that viewpoint at all. But I’m just one person. As I’ve recently mentioned in other posts, there are a fuckload of eating disorders out there that never get any press. Who am I to say that one person’s eating disorder isn’t another person’s lifestyle. In fact, we don’t even know if Darla was ever diagnosed by a physician as having anorexia nervosa. We can only go by Adam’s description of her and her own declaration that she’s anorexic. When I was much younger, I used to go days without eating. I passed out a few times, too. No one would ever think of me as anorexic, even if I sometimes engaged in those behaviors.
I’m inclined to take this essay at face value. It wasn’t intended to be an in depth look at Darla’s eating disorder. It was a story about how Adam and Darla came to be in a relationship. I don’t think there’s enough information in this story to determine what kind of person Adam is. But that’s not stopping some people from judging him. One person wrote:
This is problematic in a variety of ways. The sentence about how Darla was actually considering a diet before the pandemic is particularly disturbing. This diet is apparently supposed to be proof that she triumphed over her anorexia, but it is not. Recovery is not about achieving a certain predetermined weight, it is about rediscovering comfort and joy in your body and the food that nourishes it. The author does not address this at all. He also minutely describes his wife’s eating patterns and ED rituals. The romanticization of theses behaviors is very triggering and could push ED survivors who read this article towards relapse. His wife’s battle with anorexia is ultimately just used as the backdrop for his coming of age story.
The only description Adam includes of his wife’s eating rituals is in a paragraph about how she would spread a thin layer of butter on a saltine cracker and chew it up until it became paste. He writes that some days, that was her only meal, adding “I watched her starve and held her while she did it.” I agree, that last sentence sounds awful on its surface. But looking a little bit deeper, I think it’s possible to see his perspective. It’s practically impossible to save people from themselves. It all comes down to deciding what you– yourself– can tolerate. It sounds to me like Adam accepts Darla as she is. And just based on his essay, I don’t get the sense that he necessarily encourages her to be anorexic. I think many people are making that assumption because he admits that he never tried to force her into treatment.
An argument could be made that a person who is extremely underweight and malnourished lacks perspective. But, unfortunately, when it comes to mental health care, a lot of Americans are shit out of luck. Mental health care is neither easy to afford nor easy to access, especially right now. Moreover, thanks to our civil rights laws, it’s pretty tough to force someone into treatment for an eating disorder. Even if someone is about to starve to death, our laws emphasize self-determination and the right to refuse care. It appears that Adam and Darla may be living in Canada now, as Adam is reportedly teaching in the English department at Carleton University in Ontario. I can’t comment on Canadian laws regarding the treatment of eating disorders or other mental health issues. He makes it sound like perhaps she no longer needs treatment, anyway. Does she need it, having apparently never received it? I honestly don’t know. All I know is what he’s written, and even that is pretty subjective.
One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that, in the vast majority of mental health situations that don’t involve some kind of biological issue, treatment works best when a person decides for themselves that they will cooperate. When it comes down to it, a person with an eating disorder needs to decide for themselves that they need help. They have to be motivated to get it. Perhaps if Adam had told Darla that he would be leaving her if she didn’t seek treatment, she might have found the motivation to get help. However, it’s my guess that she might have just as easily become resentful and angry about it. She may have seen him as trying to control and manipulate her. A lot of the angry women commenting on this piece would probably fault Adam for that, too. I think a lot of women blame men for most everything.
I told Bill about this piece and asked him what he thought. I know that if he were in this situation, he would have a really hard time watching. He would want to try to rescue. But he also tried to do that with his ex wife and he failed miserably. Eventually, it became too much for him to tolerate and, when she finally dramatically presented him with a divorce ultimatum, he took her up on it. Divorce was not what she had wanted. She was simply trying to be manipulative in a humiliating way. But he got tired of the bullshit and, ultimately, saved himself from her craziness by getting out of the marriage. He’s reaped the rewards and managed to stay alive, too.
Having recently watched a bunch of episodes of Snapped, and having witnessed my husband’s own dealings with a woman who is, frankly, very disturbed, I understand that this is a really tough situation to be in. Not knowing either of these people personally, I can’t judge if what Adam did was right, or if he’s a good person. A lot of people negatively judged Bill and me when I shared how Bill’s story eerily reminded me of an episode of Snapped I watched years ago. It was about a woman named Jessica McCord who, along with her second husband, murdered her first husband and his second wife over custody of their kids. I remember my blood running cold as I watched that episode. I dared to blog about how Jessica McCord reminded me of Ex. I ended up getting a shitstorm of negative armchair quarterback comments from people who wrongly characterized us as bad people. No… we aren’t bad people. We simply didn’t want to end up dead. And I believe Ex was capable of going that far. She threatened to kill Bill on more than one occasion.
Should Bill have tried to get his daughters away from his ex wife? Personally, I think so. In fact, I often encouraged him to try to do something about that situation, even though it wasn’t my decision to make. But, the fact of the matter is, we didn’t have the money or the time to wage a legal battle. It would have been very difficult to convince a judge to grant custody to Bill, especially since the girls didn’t indicate to us that they were unhappy with their living situation. It would have been great if he could have tried to get more equitable custody, but we live in reality. The reality is, it probably wouldn’t have worked. At this point, I’m simply glad he survived, and I don’t apologize for his decision to save himself. His daughters are grown now, and one of them has apparently forgiven him after confirming that her mother is mentally ill. The other remains estranged, but she’s almost 30 years old. She can reach out if she wants to. She chooses not to. As an adult, she has the right to make that choice for herself. Bill loves her anyway.
That’s kind of what I got from Adam’s piece. He loves his wife the way she is. Is it a good thing that he doesn’t press her to get treatment for her eating disorder? I know what most people would think. For me, it’s not so cut and dried. There’s something to be said for a person who loves someone regardless. And despite some people’s potentially erroneous assumptions that Adam prefers his wife “sick”, I get the impression that he had simply determined that he couldn’t be her savior. Moreover, it wasn’t Adam’s role to try to be Darla’s savior, simply because that’s what society deems is correct. What I got from Adam’s story is that he and Darla love each other and, against the odds, their love has survived… and so has his wife. I wish them well.