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Some form of stone or cement makes up each and every surface in this room. Someone decided to set the thermostat to an ungodly 62 degrees. Of course, I’m one to don a sweatshirt when the outside temperature dips below 80, but the way the air settles in the middle of the room must chill everyone to the bone, and I am only wearing a cami. I can’t get a great sense of the place through my constantly unfocused “dizzy vision,” but it doesn’t take a clear mind to see that the stagnant atmosphere and the tiny windows give this place the unnerving countenance of a prison. The magazine rack, potted plants, and scenic motivational photographs seem like a desperate (and entirely unsuccessful) attempt to cover up the general vibe of eeriness that bounces off the walls along with the frigid air. The dentist office-mixed-with Lysol odor doesn’t offer much help either.
Two other adults—both a little older than I—are in the room, plus one family. The man in blue plaid shorts furiously jabs his thumbs at some handheld connection device, comfortably detached from reality. As per an unconscious habit, I size up the woman who sits closest to the door. Her shoulder bones are all visible under the spaghetti strap of her—is it pink or red?—sundress. Her eyes dart like those of a mouse from the basket of old Good Housekeeping’s to the waxy, cheap-looking plant in the corner. The family huddles near the little box of vibrant Leggos, beady-eyed teddy bears, and picture books about families and pets. The mom and dad huddle around their child, a human shield. So I won’t bother them.
I forgot to check in. I mentally slap myself for missing that obvious first step of this whole process. I imagine how the receptionist must have stared at me as I analyzed the room and contemplated my ignorance. I feel the familiar tightening of my mind as it overdrives itself into decision-making mode. Should I go acknowledge my mistake or close the glass doors behind me, refuse to look back through them, and drive away in the pristine safety of my eco-friendly Honda? No, I’ll stay; my stubborn arrogance would never approve of me if I didn’t follow through with something. Ironically, though, that’s exactly what got me here in the first place.
The receptionist has perfected the art of non-judgmental looks; she gazes at me from over her little hole in the wall with perfectly placid eyes. It’s not a bored look by any means; it makes a simple statement: “You’re here for a reason and they pay me to check you in, not to diagnose, judge or attempt to console you.”
“Name please.” She gives the scripted, overused instruction. She says “please” with the accent of the quintessential blonde (despite the annoyingly perfect brown sheen of her bun), giving the word three syllables and putting emphasis on each vowel. It sounds less like a word and more like a Milk Dud she can’t get out of her teeth.
“Becca Lawrence,” my voice pales in comparison with hers. The woman rolls her eyes back for a moment to process the information I have equipped her with.
“Rebecca . . . ?” She questions. I cringe.
“Yes, but…everyone calls me Becca. It’s a…Ever since…Please don’t…just cross Rebecca out and write Becca. Please.”
“Thank you.” The first word jumps an octave in pitch and the last word rhymes with “ewe”.—Yee-ewe. I look down to make sure that she had successfully changed my name and sat back down.
When the family is called, I finally get a glimpse of the son. His straw curls have no relation to his parents’ closely matched black strands. Rather than running toward the nice lady calling him in, as boys are prone to do to any nice lady at any age, he holds onto his mother’s hand and looks at the ground with the manner of an angsty teenager. Following the line of their intertwined hands, I catch the mother’s forlorn face. The father messes with the collar of his wife’s oxford and whispers something in her ear. As much as I don’t want to think it, I’m relieved; there always seems to be someone out there with more problems than I and that’s comforting. After they leave I look around for something else to do.
“Becca Lawrence,” the receptionist steals a glance up from her call sheet and gives me a “Look what I did for you” look. As I push myself up with my hands, my arms shake, straining. I give my triceps a mini-massage as I follow the woman.
Someone was in this room earlier and they had strewn pillows all over the couch without any thought for pattern and order. The lamp has an obnoxious plastic bird hanging from its switch and the desk boasting the nameplate “Cheryl Phyllips, PhD, Psychologist” is a hopeless case altogether. I line the pillows along the back of the couch: beige, maroon, beige, maroon, etc. and sit admiring my work when the click of an opening door startles the peace I have just created.
Dr. Phyllips has no sense of accessory-to-clothing coordination. The gold college ring on her right hand has no right to reside that close to a silver-buttoned blazer.
“Becca.” I read somewhere that a touch of the hand is the first thing that forges an intimate relationship. The handshake, the bright smile, and the acknowledgement of my correct name make me like this woman in spite of all the reasons I have not to. “It’s nice to meet you. I know my nametag says Dr. Phyllips, but you don’t want to build a relationship with someone whose first name is Doctor, so please call me Cheryl.”
“Nice to meet you, Cheryl.” She brings a poufy ottoman out from behind her desk and takes a seat in front of it, using her desk as a back. I try my best to let that misuse of furniture slide.
“So,” she said. “Tell me about yourself.” What?!? No life-altering, magical advice or expressions of disapproval? This was a question I wasn’t prepared for, and yet I found myself telling her everything about the past three years.
“I can’t actually give you a defined moment of when all this started,” I began. “It’s a disease, for sure, but it’s not cancer or a virus; someone can’t hook you up to a beeping machine and diagnose you. I know what happened by stages, but everything started slipping in and out so seamlessly that I’ve forgotten the specific when and where details.
I just wanted to be healthier, you know, at first. I was in seventh grade—close to the point where women start looking at their bodies as more than vehicles for playing tag and pumping their legs on the swing set. My height had become a concern; every day I checked the tape measure, which still read below five feet. I thought all the cake, all the ice cream, and all the salty snacks I was eating had nowhere to go; surely my abnormally short torso couldn’t fit all that. So candy and soda were the first on my repertoire of unhealthy foods, a list that later started growing like a weed and spreading through my mind like wildfire. Cake, ice cream, and cookies begrudgingly joined the list, as did
French fries (eventually anything fried), peanut butter, chocolate, and a list of assorted taboo foods that only made sense to me.
The first time I felt “diagnosed” I couldn’t even walk up the stairs to my room to lie down in my bed. I just lay on the couch trying to stop the room from spinning. I waited for the dizziness to pass, for some relief of this spiraling headache and feeling of utter helplessness. I listened to the air conditioner clicking and my dad talking on the phone.
“She’s not eating,” he told his mother, as though he were just repeating the news of that evening: clear, precise, but there was just enough emotion to show that it was affecting him. It wasn’t true, though. I was eating and to my unfocused brain it was too much, much too much. In spite of myself, though, I also felt the warm, milky sensation of being wanted. Feeling like someone genuinely worried about me gave me something better than eating an entire carton of ice cream with all my girlfriends.
Despite that and other similar happenings, I managed to generally stay under the radar. Theatre, softball practice, and jazz band kept me busy; staying at school past nine at night didn’t phase me during that spring semester of my sophomore year. By the end of that time the infection had ceased to be a “diet” and was spreading fast, like an ink blot does on notebook paper. Fat, sugar, calories, partially hydrogenated oil—that was the pattern winding its way through my mind. All my conversations became series of words picked from behind the wall of this obsession; I put everything else on the back burner. It began to show in my grades, especially. My parents never outright said anything; I guessed they didn’t know what to say—and I thanked God for that.
I could have compared the sickness to a relationship at times because—and I can see this now—I was in love with it. It amazed me, it made me feel good, and I was willing to go to tremendous lengths for it. Yet it left when my head ached with emptiness and I tossed and turned at night because I could feel my exposed bones bouncing on my mattress. That’s how relationships go, isn’t it? You always feel even more broken after your significant other leaves and think about it long into the night, but it doesn’t matter because it always leaves you dehydrated for more? I don’t know from experience.”
“Becca….you don’t have to go on today,” Cheryl soothes. She hands me a flowery box of tissues and for the first time I touch my face and hot tears come away on my fingers. I’m ashamed; I don’t cry. I don’t need to cry. I shake my head vigorously. I have to go on. What does she think so far? I have to justify myself.
“Can I….I’m almost done.” I swear. A quick glance at her watch and Cheryl bobs her head in affirmation.
“Two years later, I had everything down to a science. Breakfast: 100; Lunch: I had a sandwich, well half of one, so about 300? Yes? Maybe less; Dinner: would have been only 550, but I had to have an extra helping, so we’ll round it off to 600—equals 1000. Half of your daily recommended amount. I had never been one for math, but I became a human calculator when it came to calories: those concrete, controllable numbers that dictated whether I would go to bed overcome with worry or sleep like a baby, reveling in success. I watched the Food Network and I researched. Apples became staples in my diet because I knew they had 80 calories; it was so easy to fit them in without much damage. The first thing I did after I got home from eating out was to Google the restaurant’s website and search for the nutrition facts of my entrée, soup, pasta, or salad. I wrote a lot, too, whenever the numbers got confused. I made notes on my arm and found myself forced to make up explanations when people asked.
Maybe that lack of emotional connection was the catalyst, the thing that finally brought me back to reality. I think relationships have that point too, you know? Isn’t there a point where you look back, trying to remember the something that made it special, but you turn up nothing? Plus I felt so exhausted; literally (by now, of course, I hardly felt the presence of disorientation and shakiness), but mentally for the most part. I could no longer endure people stealing sideways glances as I ate, waiting for that climax, the moment where the skinny girl by herself in the corner of the table put something in her mouth. I was sick of my sister badgering, asking how much I weighed (which I did always have a ready answer for) and running after me when she saw me gearing up for a workout around my block. Mostly, though, this turning point gave me guilt that I’d never had when my dad gruffed about my thin body or my mom’s eyes stared in a mingle of hurt and shock as I tried on extra-small bikinis at the mall. I understood heaviness, seemingly for the first time, and for once it didn’t seem worth it all.”
“So, what’s stopping you?” Cheryl interjected.
“From quitting altogether, cold turkey, right now?” I seize up and my mind hurls me a round of resounding “NO’s” like punches. I don’t know what to say; I don’t have an answer, but….NO, I can’t.
“I don’t know.” I say quietly, truthfully.
“Well, now we have a place to start.” Cheryl’s rose-petal lips stretch over her Colgate-whitened teeth in a smile.
“Now, you may think I’ve never heard stories like yours because an eating disorder is one of the most isolating mental issues we know of here. It feels like you always have to justify yourself and like no one really understands your reasoning. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything there is to know because I can’t without experiencing it myself. The truth is, though, one in every one hundred girls has one of them and you’re one of the lucky ones. You know that there’s something beyond this wall of calories, obsessing, and fear. Your stage is the hardest one, though. Now you have to decide if you want me to help you climb over that wall. So, my question is…yes or no?”
I stare at this woman, and I’m about to call into question whether or not she in fact did have an eating disorder at one point, even though she keeps insisting she didn’t. I’m reluctant to admit that she hit the nail on the head and now I have a decision to make—another one. A picture of me at McDonald’s, eating mindlessly without any thought to what a Big Mac could do to me, fills my mind and fear seizes me again. If I had known about my future:--the love I would find outside of this abusive relationship, finally feeling like a beautiful, if a little flawed, creation of God—I would have said “yes” immediately. Today, though, my hope gets caught up in my compulsive fear of the unknown and I answer with a tentative: “No, not today.”