The Hug Emoji

Many of you know my daughter Elena as the protagonist of her memoir about adolescent anorexa nervosa, Elena Vanishing. And some of you write to me occasionally to ask how she’s doing. I thought I’d bring you up to date.

Elena’s recovery is almost a miracle. At death’s door eight years ago, Elena is now a busy wife, hospice nurse, and mother of two. She is involved in the lives of everyone and everything around her, from her husband and children who come to her constantly with every sort of query or need and the dogs who follow her around all day long to the crows and robins who gripe at the window when their feeders are empty and the squirrel who swears sleepily at the dogs each morning from its cozy home in an old birdhouse. Elena is interested in all of them and constantly relates to us their ups and downs. Even the plants she has rescued one by one from the last-ditch sale table at the local supermarket and nursed back to health have their own tastes and habits. Many have names.

Flower with garden gnome

Of course, Elena has fish. Of course! It began with the betta she and her husband rescued from its prison in a filthy coffee cup at a relative’s house. But we all knew it wouldn’t stop there. And it hasn’t.


Elena has handsome purebreds in her tanks, but the oddballs are welcome, too. There’s the gorgeous silver goldfish, pulled out of a tank of feeder fish as a gift from a store employee. And there are the crazy catfish dudes, four small dark spotted anomalies that showed up in a pet store’s shipment of new cory cats. Purists would rush to destroy such unwelcome hybrids. Elena volunteered to take them home. We have no idea what their pedigree is, but the cories love them, and the pleco loves them too. They often join him in swimming lazily upside down.

(Update: the breeder later contacted the store and said that bag of fish had been sent by mistake. It was supposed to go to an expert. The breeder thinks the crazy catfish dudes are pictus catfish/cory cat hybrids and was sending them off to find out their pedigree. Elena says the breeder is welcome to contact her about them, but they’re tremendous fun, and she has no intention of giving them up.)

Weird hybrid cory cat

Elena’s fish kingdom is constantly expanding. Her fish don’t just eat, poop, and die sideways-drifting deaths like the fish of the rest of us do. No, in one of Elena’s tanks, they find life good. Pretty soon, the most unbreedable fish start digging nests and guarding eggs, and in weeks, improbably minuscule fry are darting about, doing their best to avoid the hungry grown-ups. Elena doesn’t interfere in this process: “I just let nature take its course.” This means that only the occasional youngster makes it. Elena celebrates life, but as a hospice nurse, she celebrates life in its full circle.

The circle of life is going on right now in one of Elena’s “empty” tanks. The fish from that tank moved up to a larger tank, and Elena threw some ghost shrimp into the old tank to clean it up. The tiniest feeder guppy fry imaginable made it home with the ghost shrimp and has since tripled in size. Now the shrimp are “laying” eggs—which isn’t what shrimp actually do. Actually, they fling their hatching eggs out onto the current to struggle through infancy as best they can. A few tiny clear shrimp babies are now doing just that, looking very much like little exclamation marks with eyes. Meanwhile, the other shrimp are living out their tribal existence, which seems to involve much more slapping than I would have expected.

Ghost shrimp resting on a plant

Elena is delighted, of course. She keeps us all updated constantly on how the baby guppy and baby shrimp are doing. So far, they’re surviving quite well.

“But what will you do with a hundred ghost shrimp?” I wrote her, dismayed.

“Nurture them!” she wrote back. And at the end of the message, she added the “hug” emoji, a smiling face and open arms.

That fits. Elena welcomes everything with open arms. That’s how she welcomes life itself.

Text copyright 2017 by Clare B. Dunkle. Photos copyright 2017 by Elena Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

This entry was posted in Anorexia nervosa, Daily life, Elena Vanishing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Hug Emoji

  1. New reader of your blog here. Glad your daughter is doing well. My wife battled anorexia when we were younger in high school. The grip it has is strong and, sadly, often deadly.

  2. Clare Dunkle says:

    That’s so true, Jeffrey. We’ve lost a number of friends, and those patients and families were trying just as hard as we were. I’m very happy to hear that your wife is walking the path of recovery, just as Elena is. Elena and all of us in the family remain vigilant–that path of recovery is lifelong.

  3. Jenny D. says:

    I just finished reading Elena Vanishing. I chose it for a project I’m doing for my school psychology graduate classes. I am focusing on giving my classmates a brief overview of anorexia and we are working together to discuss how schools could better support students who are suffering from it. Do you guys have any suggestions for how schools could better support these students?

    Thanks again for writing the book.

  4. Clare Dunkle says:

    That sounds like a wonderful project, Jenny.

    I think one thing to recognize is that, possibly because of the difficulty of early adulthood and the challenges of adolescent and early-adult life (large, crowded schools, constant testing, etc.), many students engage in disordered eating. That was one of the things that fascinated me as I wrote the book: many of Elena’s “normal” peers were restricting, purging, or performing odd rituals with food. That was unfortunate because it made Elena feel “safe” in her disorder. But it is important to recognize that not every student with an eating disorder is an anorexic. Only a professional can make that diagnosis.

    Another very important thing, I think, that schools can do to support anorexic students is to recognize that many teens like Elena, with full-blown anorexia nervosa, have suffered some sort of serious trauma. I think the number I read was one out of two, and when Elena was in treatment, it seemed higher to us: it seemed that just about everyone there had gone through something severe. Either there was a real crisis of identity, such as the gay teens who were struggling with coming out and the bullying that came with it and the sometimes heartbreaking problem of what and when to tell their families. Or there had been a car accident, or an unexpected death of a loved one, or severe bullying, or child abuse, or in many cases (as in Elena’s case) sexual assault. It’s easy for schools to fixate on our society’s problems with unhealthy body image and assume that anorexia nervosa is just another diet gone wrong. It’s easy to put together feel-good campaigns about loving your body the way it is. But that wouldn’t have helped Elena’s anorexia nervosa at all, nor would it have helped her fellow patients. Until their underlying traumas can be dealt with, it’s hard for many anorexics move forward and embrace life.

    We know from statistics that getting anorexics into treatment and therapy really helps. A therapy session or two won’t do it. Anorexics need long-term support from a care team. And we also know that the earlier adolescents get help, the better the outcome. So that’s another very important thing schools can recognize about helping their anorexic students: they need to coordinate with parents to get these students into treatment–preferably from psychiatrists, therapists, and medical doctors who really understand anorexia nervosa. As you know from the book, anorexics can be quite unexpectedly secretive and manipulative. It’s not their fault. It’s just part of the full-blown disorder. But they can trick even doctors and therapists, not to mention teachers and fellow students. Anorexics need care from an experienced treatment team.

    I would say that another absolutely vital thing for everyone involved to learn and discuss is that anorexia nervosa is a killer. It ends 20% of the lives of its victims, and that number rises for certain demographics and under certain circumstances (such as an anorexic who also purges, which can trigger a fatal electrolyte imbalance.) That’s why even school counselors need to recognize that it’s very important not to keep secrets for an anorexic, and it’s very important not to become the person responsible for trying to make that anorexic eat. That’s a losing proposition. Anorexia nervosa thrives on isolation and on secrets. While confidentiality is important, it shouldn’t stop anyone from saving a life. A full-blown anorexic needs help! Bring experts into the discussion. Shine a light on the problem. Even if that action threatens to end a friendship or a counseling relationship, it’s worth taking that step.

    I would just add that NEDA’s website can be very helpful:

    And so can ANAD’s website:

    They have great resources to help anyone trying to help an anorexic survive.

    Good luck with your presentation!

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