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Hysterics and Hunger
The molecular threads of a mutilated sweet potato lay inert on the bare surface of a hospital serving dish. The yam’s orangey residue was now bloody and insipid from the stainless steel knife that maniacally butchered it.
An uncomfortable stillness befell the room as the virgin potato was blended with supper’s remains. A soft cry sounded as the heterogeneous mixture of chunky applesauce and amber yam seeped onto the cold linoleum. The cry was deafening. I couldn’t tell from whom the whimper came; both the potato and its consumer displayed distressed expressions. This situation was common in the ordinary heyday of the EDU.
I was being incarcerated for anorexia nervosa during the winter of â€˜05. The hospital smelled like a mixture of rubbing alcohol and latex gloves. A humid wave of air wafted through the ward as a shrink sauntered through the automatic doors. It was hell. The dim lighting of security cameras cast waif-like shadows on the concrete walls. A line of sunken faces and bodies fitted in baggy garments despondently marched into the dining room; it was feeding time.
Feeding time, from the perspective of a patient in the Eating Disorders Unit (EDU), was essentially a moment of extreme humiliation and anxiety. Despite the cracked walls of the room that oozed an invisible sense of teen angst, they were seemingly beautiful when compared to the patients’ nervous, ghost-like facial expressions. Indeed, to several inmates, feeding time was a game: a contest to see which anorexic could stash the most food from her Styrofoam plate and into her pockets in a matter of minutes. I could never believe how oblivious the nurses were to the highly visible grains of steamed rice leading from the feeding room to the patient sleeping quarters. Of course I, being the rebel of the ward, refused to partake in such a pathetic activity. I instead witnessed the food deception from the edge of the dining table and vowed to aide any of my fellow anorexics if a dire emergency were to transpire.
My help was needed at breakfast one morning. The concentration of the air in the EDU was more moist than usual and created a shiny surface on the brow of each patient. One of the few girls to whom I spoke, Amanda Winkman, was meticulously picking at her lightly-seasoned omelet. Strands of lactose-free goat cheese were dangling from her chin, which resembled the fuzz of an immature beard when looked at from a distance. She was obviously hoarding food into her oversized sweatshirt. If it weren’t for the carton of milk that was hurled from her dish and onto the linoleum floor, she could have gotten away with it. The nurses saw the milk-stained chairs and smelled the lingering stench of parasitic mildew. This was a dire emergency, and I was dead meat.
“Ally!” Amanda whispered, her hot breath burning like a fire in my ear, “Pick it up before they see!” She nervously fumbled her Prada glasses, as though stroking them would make her invulnerable (we anorexics were quite superstitious).
Like a fireman extinguishing a house set ablaze, I reached down, grasped the carton, and was about to chuck it across the room when I felt the heavy glare of Wanda’s eyes on me. Wanda, who was voted wickedest nurse of the ward by me and my fellow inmates, had a large mole plastered on her left nostril. She looked fiercely at my face to determine whether I was deviously scheming against her like the others. Satisfied, her frown transformed into a crooked scowl. It was my malnourished brain and poor eyesight that triggered the next episode: Wanda’s hideous mole was growing larger. The hairy birth flaw was pulsating; beating in rhythm with my racing heart. I saw it oozing a yellow puss and consuming her face.
“Miss Alexandra Henrietta Lefuge,” the evil nurse bellowed, stressing the eccentric placement of vowels in my last name. She raised her forefinger and vigorously mopped up the sweat drenching her forehead. The uncharacteristic winter air was unbearable, even for the hypothermic patients who lacked body insulation.
Wanda wiped her now sweaty finger on her white linen nurse’s kilt and pointed it in my direction. I knew what was coming: “No outside relaxation for the remainder of your captivity.” That’s exactly how she rewarded me for my “malicious” actions.
I accepted the blame, even though Amanda single-handedly committed the crime. It was my pledge to the newly-formed Sisterhood of Anorexics to aid any “skinny chick in trouble and with nowhere to go.” We’d help one another and hoped to one day obtain total power over the nurses. Deep down, I realized that only anarchy would yield such a fruitless goal.
As a detainee in the EDU, I was unable to join my fellow inmates in their twice-daily voyage outside into the real world. “Outside relaxation,” as portrayed by Wanda, was essentially a time at which the patients had the “privilege” of “rejoicing” in the overcrowded hospital parking lot. Although most individuals used the break as a way to release their teenage angst through smoking cigarettes, I saw it as a means through which I could flee. While the girls reminisced of their beloved boyfriends and archaic shopping exploits, I would crouch in a hazy, secluded crook of the parking deck and plot my runaway. I mapped it out dozens of times in my head, and was ready to employ it on the date of my punishment.
Despite the awful circumstances, I attempted to make the best out of the situation. Although it contradicted my ideology of oppositionally defiant behavior, I listened to the shrinks and wrote in my journal. As soon as my pen touched the ward’s violet, lilac-scented stationery, a stream of words exited my conscience and created a narrative of my life. According to the adolescent doctors, it wasn’t the prospect of gaining weight that troubled me, but something of deeper import; writing down my emotions would help evaluate the disorder. Nevertheless, I decided that I was going to make a run for it.
I got up earlier than usual the next morning. The nighttime dew left a pattern of water droplets cascading down the hospital window. The glass mirrored my sunken eyes and protruding cheek bones. I quietly shuffled down the dimly-lit hall, trying not to stir the patients from their deep dreams or the night nurses from whatever they do when we sleep. When I finally reached the pair of automatic doors situated at the end of the hallway, I saw a light flash from the corner of my eye. Although my peripheral vision had decayed with the loss of my menstrual cycle and the minor disappearance of my hair, I could make out a vague figure turning the corner from the weighing room. As it neared me, the image became clearer. It was definitely a night nurse, as I could tell by her distinct green kilt and pill-box hat, which were pieces of attire associated with night nurses, though I found this specific individual relatively unfamiliar. Her chocolate-colored skin seemed to sparkle in the softly-lit corridor.
I scurried across the weighing room and into my sleeping corridors, vigilantly closing the heavy oak door behind me. I could make out the hoarse whisperings of the night nurse, who was still lodged between the wooden door and a concrete wall leading to the EDU’s private eatery. Her voice, though partially drowned out by the titter tatter of water droplets hitting against the fiberglass of windowpanes, screeched, “girlie, girlie.” She hadn’t seen my face! I could possibly blame my roommate, a bulimic, for defying the rules of the EDU. I quickly tucked myself under the covers and breathed heavily, as if in a deep sleep. I nervously ran my fingers over the rough texture of my crocheted comforter. The irritating “swoosh” of the nurse’s loafers rubbing against the linoleum got increasingly louder as she neared my room. She gazed though the door. She was so close that I could see a gleam of light reflecting across her pupils. I could smell the lingering remainder of fish burritos on her breath. When I felt her hand shake my shoulder, I knew the end was near.
I flew out of my mobile cot, tossing the covers to the floor. At the foot of my bed stood the nurse, poised like a scarecrow with her hair chaotically teased in several directions. She was weary and winded from her sprint, but still displayed warm eyes. I gently picked up the comforter, examining the now creased and grimy textile that adorned my room. I watched as the nurse grabbed hold of it and wrapped it around her plump fingers.
“I’ve seen you here before,” she whispered.
“I’m sure you have! This marks my sixth week here as an inpatient,” I sarcastically rejoined. “Technically, I have seniority over all the girls.”
“It’s odd how you don’t socialize with them.”
“Why would I find the need to?”
“Well, doesn’t it get a little boring just sitting here and reading all day?”
“No. My life isn’t the least bit pathetic.”
“You poor honey.”
An eerie sensation came over me. The familiar urge that always forced me to restrict my food intake now made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted to vanish, bury myself under the parchment pages of my journal.
With tears flowing from my eyes, I sat myself down on the linoleum. The nurse took me in her arms and tenderly rubbed my back, as if soothing a baby. My cries got louder, though I had no idea why I was sobbing.
“Let it out, honey,” the nurse murmured. I looked into her deep, emerald eyes in search of meaning. I longed for depth in the face of my stark existence. Like a hypnotist, she stared back at me. She was analyzing my thoughts, and I hated it. The psychiatric therapy to which I had become so accustomed was overwhelming.
I pressed my back against the cold tile floorboards. The all too familiar stench of putrid vomit drifted in from my roommate’s garbage pail. To my right sat the nurse, her green eyes now sunken and uninspiring. She grabbed my arm and held it in her hands, as though she was reading my palm. With beads of sweat forming on my temple, I lowered my arm.
“You have to stop blaming yourself,” the mysterious woman whispered in my ear.
If only she could suffer my pain. I recognized my disorder and understood the reason for its existence; however, I refused to reveal these truths beyond the pages of my diary.
From the corner of my eye I could see the fluorescent fuchsia of the ascending sun. Its rays penetrated the room and created a montage of opaque, high-intensity illumination. I was confined within the depths of my own consciousness.
“You’d never understand,” I retorted.
“I guess we’ll have to see that for ourselves.” The yellowish-brown light that shone on her face gave her smirk more depth. I tried to convince myself that her benevolence was all but a veneer, and that her inner, psychiatric self was breaching my spirit.
The prospect of an existence without subdued emotion was hard to come by, however. Was I unconsciously killing myself, like they all said? Would the mollification of my grief heal my unrelenting pain?
I pondered the possible consequences of the situation, analyzing each of Kohlberg’s five stages of moral developmentâ€”the phases my shrink had enlightened me with during our previous session. I could feel my heart pulsating, my blood thickening; my face heavy from the weight of the Vaseline-like sweat that drenched my temple. The nurse gawked at me with Wanda’s eyes, their fiery pupils burning a wound at the epicenter of my tempestuous psyche.
It was too overwhelming. I inhaled the musty air of the EDU in preparation for the earsplitting wail I felt approaching.
“Ugh,” I moaned. I felt my energy being drained, the way a helium balloon deflates after being pricked by a pin.
I coldly stared at the nurse. Her emerald eyes were once again dazzling; I found their intensity intimidating.
I positioned myself more comfortably on the linoleum. A warm tear slid down my cheek. “Okay, I’ll tell you.”
She took my hand and kindly held it between her palms. My voice was like a whisper: “This is how it all began…”