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Not Just Hungry
I remember in detail only one night of my six month illness- it was 2 a.m., my bedroom was being painted, and I slept on a bare mattress, lying on the edge breathing in paint fumes. All I had eaten that day was 14 almonds, for a grand total of 220 calories. I had done my sit ups, two rounds of 60. Mom, an ICU night shift nurse, was at work, and my step dad Ted was already asleep or on his phone or preparing a midnight snack. Frankly, I didn’t care. Check the mirror twice. Finish this bottle of water. I yawned, rubbing sunken eyes but denying myself rest. I needed to read 100 pages by fifth period tomorrow. I fell asleep then woke again at 3am. Something overcame me then, an anxiety so strong and demanding that I began to shake uncontrollably, uttering sounds of an injured animal, helpless and devastated. Something was terribly wrong. I thought of nothing. I called my dad, for no reason other than to hear his voice, desperately hanging onto each dial tone. Voicemail. I called again, knowing he wouldn't pick up.
“Hi dad, it’s me. I know it’s late, you’re probably asleep. For some reason I can’t stop crying and I can’t catch my breath and I don’t want to move or go out or be any place at all. Call me back when you get a chance.”
The rest is a blur. Formulating excuses for why I was skipping lunch for the third time this week. Going home each day and collapsing into bed. Missing my friends’ calls and staying in on weekends. There was satisfaction in denying myself; it meant I was disciplined, it signified an exceptional strength. It made me special. I could be the skinniest, I could be the best at something, I could be someone who could not be ignored. I hungered for a control and power that had so long been absent in my life. Each day bled into the next, unchanging; food intake was the only distinction, the only thing that mattered. I could transform, morph into who I was supposed to be. It became addictive, a fixation on eating and not eating. I’d look in the mirror and catch a glimpse of this different person: a prettier girl, a more desirable friend, a better person. My eyes glossed with momentary intoxication, a self realization, a fulfillment of who I was destined to be. It was heavenly, a spiritual awakening. Any sadness or shame or pain I had ever felt ceased to exist. But just as quickly, the euphoric state would dissolve, and I would be just as ashamed of myself as I always had been. I thought I was bettering myself, but it was only a cruel manifestation of self destruction.
It was never about being skinny. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, it just became impulse. Just as routine as checking the mail or a morning shower. The thoughts become a kind of competition. How low can I go? How loose can these pants be? How much longer can I go without eating? Could I be the last to finish the meal? Relatives would come over on holidays and speak in muffled voices about my recent weight loss. I took it as a compliment. I realized my behaviors were strange, I realized what I was doing was unhealthy, but it was worth all the suffering. After all, preoccupation with food served as a constant distraction from my mother’s remarriage, or the demands of school or the expectations of my father. Then again, I don’t think I minded bearing all of this; in fact, I grew to have quite an affinity for it.
My mother became increasingly concerned. She’d pull me out of school to see all types of doctors, who examined me like some foreign species. It was springtime and most kids my age were eager for the heat, occupied with juvenile drama. I envied them. Regardless of my efforts, I always envied them. They were happy, and social and alive, but most importantly they were not me. At least I was skinny, at least I could hold on to that. Here I sat in a doctor's office parking lot, early for an appointment, looking down at my backpack knowing that inside was an untouched paper bag lunch: a ham and cheese sandwich on rye.
“What have you eaten today?,” she interrogated. I stayed silent and turned the air conditioning vent in the opposite direction. She knew, maybe not every detail of my workout routine, maybe not how I had to drink no less than four water bottles before going to bed but she knew. She reached for my backpack, unzipping the top pocket, exposing the brown paper bag. I strung my arms out in defense and tried to plead with her. As she handed me the sandwich, I saw her eyes glossed with tears, her face a solemn red hue I had never known before. I felt something well up inside me then, and the two of us wept together for all we had lost. She had lost her daughter, I had lost myself and all we could do in that moment was mourn. Then, my mother split the sandwich in two, and we ate. Afterward, she made a call in the parking lot. Through the passenger side window, I heard the persistence in her voice despite fear.
“I think my daughter might have an eating disorder, when’s the soonest I can bring her in?”
Intake was overwhelming. The hospital stank of antiseptic and stale cafeteria food. The therapist accused me of being anorexic, I denied having any problem at all. I was interrogated by the nutritionist, then the family therapist, then to a physician. I stared at the tile floor, sucking in my stomach to undress. The hospital gown hung off my shoulders, the metal buttons down my back pierced cold against my skin. My index finger and thumb formed a circle around my wrist, trying to find some morsel of comfort. The nurse proceeded with the physical. She saw the color drained from my skin, the chills that ran down my spine, my numbing violet fingertips. There was no hiding from her.
“Step up on the scale, backwards. Don’t look at the number, please.” I reluctantly stepped back. By the pity in her eyes, I could tell the number had shown up. Her face had made this expression far too many times to far too many girls. She cleared her throat.
“You know we’re here to help you, right? The other doctors and I are professionals. You’re in good hands.”
I stayed quiet, but that did nothing to discourage her.
“Listen, she hesitated, “You don’t have to trust us, you don’t have to like us, you can resent us all you want. But you are in a crisis, and it’s obvious you’re not well enough to take care of yourself right now. We are going to help you. Our program is 40 hours a week, it will replace school for now. You’ll be in therapy.” She braced herself for my reaction.
“I guess you’ve all made up your minds then. What does it matter what I think?”
My first day of program was terrifying, I stayed quiet most of the day. I tried not to resist treatment, despite every instinct. Four girls met me in the waiting room for breakfast. Rachel was empathetic and almost too modest; she dropped out of school after her dad died but she is still one of the most intelligent and perceptive people I have ever met, a walking dictionary. Julia hummed show tunes and carried a sudoku book with her everywhere. Nechama smiled when she felt uncomfortable, a soft spoken perfectionist, timid and constantly reading. For the next six weeks, I saw these young women break down and cry and in doing so reaching greater personal truths and transcending the persona they had upheld for so long. It was miraculous. It was nice having them. None of us were allowed to close the bathroom door all the way, and we all shared the same pang of horror that struck at mealtime.
One meal in particular sticks out in my mind. We could hear lunch preparation from the art therapy room, and a collective dread shuttered through all of us. It was expected that we all sit quickly and start our meals, finishing within 30 minutes. I was immediately taken back by the increased portions of chicken parmesan on my plate, along with a piece of chocolate cake and 16 ounces of milk. The other girls had smaller plates, and sat down with relative ease. I stammered around my chair trying to avoid the meal staring up at me. Fear jolted through me. I thought of running, I thought of throwing the food tray on the ground, I thought of sitting on the floor in protest. Then I thought of nothing.
Unresponsive to each therapist’s urges, I froze. I stood there, paralyzed until something overcame me. A call of distress, then a whimper then a slow, hiccupping sob forced itself from my throat and I huddled over, clutching my stomach. One of the therapists, Katherine, put her arms around me and together, a bleary struggling mass, made way to a separate room to finish the meal. The chocolate cake stained my upper lip, tedious bites, lifting and dropping the fork again, distraught. My eyes wandered up to Katherine’s, to the ceiling, and down to my feet. She knew there was no way to console me, and in a way that was most soothing thing she could have done, just her presence, her gentle eyes watching acknowledging the struggle. It took me an hour and a half, fork over knife, tear stained napkins and all, to finish. There was no relief afterward, only shame filling my gut, only shame and chocolate cake, but I had finished.
We all made great progress within the next four weeks. Little by little we all emerged as fuller, healthier versions of ourselves, bonafide individuals. My contempt for the program quickly faded and I grew to love all of the staff. My pants became tighter, my stomach was wider, but I felt more alive than ever before. I remember the feeling, being wide awake in the nighttime when for so long I had been sleepwalking. Silent car rides home with my mom became heartfelt and humorous. Conversations lightened, jokes were told. Soon, I was enjoying meals, not just enduring. Therapists trusted me enough to close the bathroom door. Mirrors were just mirrors again, my physical appearance no longer had absolute power over me. I learned to appreciate my body for all it does and not to punish it for what it looks like. I had taken back my health. It was a physical resurgence of energy, into my bones, filling me up, making me whole again. Not only that, I possessed a renewed, irrevocable gratitude for life; the world seemed so precious now. Everything that once burdened me, lifted in perspective. I was here, walking around, Earth under me, living. Not living to an end, just living.