If Mary-Kate Olsen wants to seek solace in music while she’s getting treatment, she could do well to curl up with the collected works of Alanis Morissette, who has shared her recovery from an eating disorder in many of her songs.
In fact, Morissette has shared so many of her struggles that her lyrics sometimes read like self-help books. (She plans to write a real self-help book one of these days but said the project is on the back burner for now.) Critics complain that songs like “Perfect” on Jagged Little Pill, “Thank U” on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and “This Grudge” on her latest album, So-Called Chaos, are full of psychobabble — but her fans love her recovery rock and say it helps them heal too.
“Someone’s response to what it is I’m writing about is really an opportunity for them to define themselves,” Morissette said, “so if they themselves aren’t into doing inner work or healing themselves actively or consciously, they’re going to hate the fact that I’m doing it so publicly. And then equally, another person, if they love doing inner work, if they love reading philosophical books, if they love a certain kind of humor, they’re going to enjoy it when I’m expressing it. A lot of times I can tell immediately, based on whether they love or hate my music, what kind of person I’m chatting with.”
Morissette said her body-image issues started as a teenager, when, like Olsen (see “Mary-Kate Olsen Seeks Treatment For Eating Disorder” ), she was also a child star. And though she has hesitated to name him publicly, “Full House” co-star Dave Coulier has had no qualms about fessing up to being the boyfriend who dumped a young Alanis as chronicled in her hit “You Oughta Know.” She’s never blamed him outright for her body issues, but Morissette has acknowledged that comments made by an older ex she dated during her teen years (which she wrote about in “Hands Clean” on Under Rug Swept) got her questioning whether she could ever be thin enough and, by extension, good enough.
“As a young girl, I felt demeaned, and that hurt me,” she said. “I made that to mean that I was bad and terrible. There was a lot of focus on what the external was, and God bless him and God bless society on some level for having that take, but it was definitely at odds with my take. I struggled with eating disorders all through my teen years, and some of it was because of that, and some of it was just because of magazines and society and messages and family and school and everything.”
Getting over this, she said, took a lot of work. She found herself trying desperately to be the opposite of what she thought she was perceived to be, but that method just “kicks your ass,” she said. She only learned to stop struggling when she learned to accept herself as she was.
“I can love the fact that I’m very stupid and very smart, that I’m brilliant and an idiot, vulnerable and powerful and everything in between,” she said, “and then I’m much more peaceful, because I’m not fighting against any part of myself anymore. The struggle is gone. The struggle of resisting certain parts of myself, trying to hide it, is gone.”
She caught herself and added, “Well, it’s going away, it’s not entirely gone.”
It wasn’t an easy process, she said. She had to go through a lot of therapy and has even been training with life coaches like Debbie Ford, author of “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers.” And writing songs, of course, has helped a lot, she said.
On So-Called Chaos, for instance, she writes about the futility of being forever angry at her tormentor on “This Grudge”: “Fourteen years, 30 minutes, 15 seconds I’ve held this grudge/ Eleven songs, four full journals, thoughts of punishment I’ve expended.” She eventually decides in the song to ask for forgiveness herself. And in “Eight Easy Steps,” her next single, she dispenses with the wish for a personal quick fix — self-improvement, she decides, is the “course of a lifetime.”
“That song is really about busting my own chops,” she said. “It’s really about taking some of the more difficult experiences in my life and getting the gifts from them. A lot of times I think of it as, since I struggled with eating disorders as a teenager, then if I’m talking to a young woman or if I eventually have a daughter, I’ll be able to share with her, or at least listen to her in a way that’s empathetic. Sometimes I don’t realize why something happened until I get the gift of it. Sometimes I get it within an hour, sometimes 10 years later. The sooner version,” she said with a laugh, “would be better.”