Stephanie Elliot is the author of the young adult novel, Sad Perfect, which was inspired by her own daughter’s journey with ARFID, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. She writes for a variety of websites and magazines on topics such as parenting, eating disorders, mental health issues and epilepsy. She is also a book reviewer and editor. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband and their three children. For more info, visit www.stephanieelliot.com
Christopher Lee: You write about ARFID and the character’s struggles with ARFID. Why ARFID and not Bulimia or anorexia?
Stephanie Elliot: My daughter actually had ARFID. I had never heard of the disorder, which stands for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. My daughter was 15 and we had spent her whole life trying to figure out what was wrong with her. Finally, at 15 she was diagnosed with ARFID. I wanted to write a story to create awareness on this disorder that was affecting our whole family. And to let others know that there was an eating disorder out there they might not know about.
CL: ARFID is constantly referred to as, “monster”. Why did you decide to make it a separate character in the book?
SE: Based on what my daughter experienced with her ARFID, there really was a ‘monster’ kind of controlling her thoughts on food, her anxiety, and depression. I don’t think I intentionally thought about creating a ‘bad guy’ character who was the monster, but I wanted to make sure people knew that with ARFID there was a psychological aspect that controlled parts of the disorder. That became the monster in her head who kept telling her what to eat, what not to eat, what to do, who to trust, who to love, who to avoid. The monster felt absolutely real to my daughter and it probably would have been a much different story had there not been the monster.
CL: The book is called “Sad Perfect” and we see the word, “perfect” repeated throughout the book. Why the emphasis on perfection?
SE: Here’s how I came up with the title, which was actually ‘born’ before I ever thought I would write a fictional account of my daughter’s eating disorder. We were at a group therapy session and the therapist asked all the parents to draw a picture of how they perceived their child. I drew a caricature of a girl with a blindfold on, and a red X over her mouth. And then I wrote the words “Sad Perfect.” This is how I perceived my daughter back then. She ‘looked’ perfect to me – most people who have ARFID do not have the same characteristic traits that someone with anorexia might have – how some people might look sick or emaciated. To me, my daughter on the outside looked perfect. The doctors for years kept telling us she was the perfect height, the perfect weight, etc. So while I thought she was perfect on the outside, I knew there was some serious heavy stuff going on in the inside, and she was a severely sad girl. The outside did NOT match the inside. Also, I still have that picture I drew that night at therapy with the words “Sad Perfect” written on it.
CL: You gave the character a romance in the book. Why did you decide on a romance as a key conflict in the book?
SE: I like young adult romance! And actually, the very first chapter was the start of a short vignette I wrote about how my daughter met a boy she started dating when she was 15. I thought the story was such a ‘meet-cute’… floating on the river in inner tubes, going through rough waters, eventually holding hands. I felt by adding a romance, there would be more to draw upon when writing the story about ARFID, and how an eating disorder like this can absolutely affect relationships.
CL: We might assume that a lot of people would be more like Alex than Ben when it comes to people’s emotional or mental disorders. However, Ben handled it so well. Did someone inspire Ben’s character or was there a reason behind this sort of perfect boyfriend?
SE: I just wanted to create a sympathetic character for Pea. She had been through so much, with Alex as her first boyfriend not understanding. I wanted her to have someone who really cared for her for who she was despite her illness.
CL: You wrote the novel in second-person point of view which is remarkable! But why the second-person narrative? How did you hope it would function?
SE: When I set out to write this story, I had no idea that I was doing it in second person and until about half-way through the writing of the first draft, I realized, “Wow, this is in second person.” It just really came naturally for the story. I think why I started it that way was because, as I mentioned earlier, this was originally just a short vignette based on how I perceived my daughter’s first meeting with a boy. So when I started writing it, I was essentially telling the story of my daughter, to my daughter. That’s why everything came out as “You” do this, “You” do that. I had no idea how it functioned—well actually, some people love it, some people do not connect with it. Some readers say the second person POV makes them think they are actually Pea as they read it, which I think is pretty cool. I can understand completely why it may be hard for some readers to ‘connect’ with that POV. It’s definitely a different type of read in second person.
CL: What kind of journey has Sad Perfect been for you and your family? How has it helped you to understand the disorder?
SE: So, writing Sad Perfect was immensely therapeutic for me when it came to my daughter’s ARFID. She was attending a 20-week outpatient therapy program that involved peer group, therapist counseling, nutrition, and group dinners. We were at the eating disorder center four times a week. Everything else in our lives was put on hold. On the days that she had to be at therapy, I went across the street to the coffee shop and wrote Sad Perfect. It was absolutely my therapy for dealing with what was going on in our family.
I am a huge advocate for ARFID awareness now because of writing the book. I have a website on ARFID http://stephanieelliot.wixsite.com/arfid and get several emails from parents of kids who have ARFID every month. I try to help them understand therapy processes, and offer empathy to parents because it is really a hard disorder to understand and treat. I’m just thankful that through talking about ARFID, more people are becoming aware, and more doctors, nutritionists, and therapists are learning about it as well.
CL: “Pea” is the nickname that the character’s dad came up with, but we don’t see her real name. Why is that? Why have her known as “Pea” instead of her real name?
SE: I love this question! Since the story is told in second person, it was always “You, you, you.” I knew she needed a name, but originally, I was writing this to and about my daughter. I couldn’t give the main character my daughter’s name (which is McKaelen). I don’t know how I chose Pea, but it’s pretty funny that a pea is basically one of the most hated foods of picky eaters. Also, Pea’s real name is actually hidden in the book! The only two people who know Pea’s real name right now are McKaelen and me. However, Pea makes an appearance in my next book with her real name so it will be revealed if that one gets published someday!
CL: What was it like for you to put yourself in the role of a young woman?
SE: I guess I just imagined the things I thought my daughter was going through and tried to put myself into her experiences as I was writing. It helped to have her there because if I was writing something and wasn’t sure of the language or if it sounded authentic, I could just ask her! I also have two sons and I would go to them with questions on what it is like to be a teenager.
CL: How do you think parents can better relate to their children and the disorders they may struggle with?
SE: For us personally, we related better when we offered understanding and compassion. When we were struggling to understand McKaelen’s eating disorder (that also included anxiety and severe depression), we tried everything – bribing, begging, crying, manipulating. None of that worked for us. I think a gentle approach of love and understanding is a better way to get through any difficult time.