How Reading The Secret Garden Helped My Eating Disorder Recovery

Brass sign with the words the secret garden etched onto it.
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In this op-ed, Caroline Hurley explores how reading The Secret Garden during quarantine helped her eating disorder recovery.

The time I first read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden, I was no longer a child, not technically, anyway. I was 18 and high school had just ended unceremoniously over Zoom. The first summer of quarantine stretched ahead of us, but I didn’t mind the stay-at-home orders. After two years at boarding school, I missed home. A virus that hadn’t yet made itself familiar upturned a new part of the globe each day. I welcomed the prospect of holing up in my childhood bedroom. This state of mind — seeking comfort in uncertainty — was what drew me, finally, to pick up The Secret Garden.

It was a story that arrived in my life both much too late and right when I needed it. I had been in recovery from anorexia for a mere two years when quarantine began and was still in the midst of reaching a healthy weight. Having restricted my food intake on and off since I was 11 years old, my connection with my body was severed in ways I was often unsure that I could repair.

With a hazy memory, I tried to remember what it felt like to be healthy. Back when I was young, really young, what did it feel like to move without thinking about burning anything off? I tried to recall what it was like to climb a tree just to see things from high up. I was a compact, muscular kid. I could give my sister a piggyback ride even though she was three years older. I was proud of my strength.

At 18, I wanted that energy back. Even in recovery, even after the insomnia eased up, I still spent most of every day tired. I knew changing that required gaining weight, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still terrified of the scale going up. And why wouldn’t I be? Although anorexia gave me a more extreme aversion to gaining weight, mainstream culture encouraged that aversion at every turn. For my entire life, in the media I saw and in the conversations I heard, weight gain was associated with ugliness, laziness, lack of control, disgust, and embarrassment.

Until Mary Lennox: “I’m getting fatter and fatter every day,” she said quite exultantly. With one word, the 10-year-old protagonist of The Secret Garden showed me a view of weight gain I had never seen represented. Exultant: triumphantly happy.

When the book begins, Mary is described as underweight, jaundiced, and sickly. She is an unhappy, bitter child who has recently lost both of her parents and has little hope that she will be happy with her new life, staying with an uncle in England. In the beginning of the book, she refuses to eat her meals and declares that she doesn’t know what it is to be hungry.

As I read this description of Mary, I began searching the internet. Was Mary meant to have an eating disorder? Articles upon articles about the novel came up online. Scholars discussed the book’s problematic depictions of disability and race (the novel is certainly not without its issues), its themes of friendship and nature, its representations of motherhood and much more. In all these analyses, I could find none that discussed eating disorders — and I understand why. Mary’s relationship with food is a relatively small, incidental part of a plot that mostly centers on the power of positive thinking and gardening. But among these larger narratives, between the charming and the harmful aspects of the book, I saw small glimpses of a story I needed to hear.

As Mary meets new friends in England and becomes curious about an abandoned garden on her uncle’s land, she begins spending more and more time outdoors. The mystery of the garden and enjoyment of companionship transforms Mary. As her excitement about life increases, so does her appetite. She and her friends are soon eating porridge, tea, buttered toast, hot muffins, crumpets, eggs, potatoes, honey, and milk with a renewed hunger.

Sitting in my bedroom, I read the descriptions of the children’s food with an unexpected swell of emotion. Mary, now hungry, meets her meals with eagerness and unbridled enjoyment. Here was the vitality I longed to remember in myself. I wanted to read the book all in one sitting, longing to hear more about Mary’s newfound energy and strength. But more than that, I wanted to savor it slowly, hoping that wrapping myself in this narrative could repair some of the damage done by every negative portrayal of weight gain I’d ever seen. I made it a ritual to sit down with some food — often a warm, buttered muffin, as if I was right alongside Mary and the others — and read a chapter or two at a time.

Throughout those first months of quarantine, I continued to gain weight. In a period of social isolation, when relapse is all the more likely for people with eating disorders, this change in my body could have been devastating for my mental health. While it would be an overstatement to say that The Secret Garden saved me from that danger, I can surely say that reading Mary Lennox’s narrative was an important part of my self-care in that time. I took bits of her dialogue and turned them over, reveling in the almost certainly unintentional revolutionariness of Mary’s joy at gaining weight. When Burnett wrote of a young girl who rejoices at “growing fatter,” could she have known how unheard of this would be in a century’s time?

I ate buttered toast and eggs, I drank tea with milk and honey, and I kept reading. My mom and I shoveled out the space for a garden in our backyard. I spent my energy outside and came back into the kitchen hungry. I didn’t weigh myself. I pressed flowers in wax paper and baked more muffins. I struggled with my body image and turned to Burnett’s words for comfort.

“I’m growing fatter,” said Mary, “and I’m growing stronger. I used always to be tired. When I dig I’m not tired at all. I like to smell the earth when it’s turned up.”

My recovery is much longer and less simple than Mary’s fairytale arc. I am 21 now and I have reached a healthy weight. I am still often tired. The damage I did to my body and my mind is long-lasting. I am still finding out how to be in a healthy relationship with food and movement. When I look in the mirror and suspect I’ve gained weight, there’s still fear there. It’s quieter, though, and it’s not alone. I find hope there, and a burgeoning pride. I want to feel strong again. And when I am, I will be exultant.

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