The first thing that comes to mind is what Heather said today about getting her period for the first time in three years and not knowing what to do. It happened over the weekend. She was in the upstairs bathroom of the house she grew up in while her parents entertained guests downstairs. She saw the blood and ran panicked into her sister’s bedroom. Ten years earlier, she had explained the use of tampons to her younger sister. I do not know if there were demonstrations. That was before the sickness. In this reversed situation, her younger sister talked her through it. Poor Heather. It is such a loss of dignity. I think she is the sickest. She is the most bulimic. I thought she would throw up or cry at dinner, even though she smiled her pearly smile most of the day and talked about her plans to become an oral hygienist and did not talk about her plans to throw up in the Starbucks toilet later that night. As she forkspeared her peas, one by one, I could not help but visualize each one tumbling partially digested back out of her mouth in the inevitable purge that would follow. I saw her delicate fingers, dry and big-knuckled like a skeleton’s, and imagined how she might use them to scrape against that eroded throat one more time just one more time like a get-out-of-jail-free pass to revoke the pasta primavera. A transgression reversed. Her period was cause for celebration, yet she was still defying biology according to Pam, the red-haired fat lady in the green shirt who takes care of us here, because Heather remains too thin despite the 3,800 calories they make her eat each day, packed into the span of six hours and packed into that overtaxed stomach like a mechanical discovery. I like Heather’s haircut, a chin-length bob, which I imagine must be unwieldy during her purges, since it is too short to put up in a ponytail, or if she could manage, the most vulnerable strands in the front would undoubtedly come loose. I live among women now. I live among women who are nothing like me. Their disorder is not my disorder, these bulimic cheerleaders. I shook their hands.
No. Melissa is the sickest one. A thirty two year old teacher from Memphis Tennessee. All the middle school boys want to bang her, and the parents gossip in hushed voices about that skinny English teacher who, rumor has it, was forced to go on leave when the janitor heard her heaving in the bathroom after lunch. She was in the program before, apparently, and is now returning after 12 weeks in the hospital. To look at her, to really look at her, would be to break her. She is too fragile. She is too beautiful. I feel bad for her, a real adult, trapped among adolescents, still struggling with the illness that has gripped her since cheerleaderhood. Yesterday, the therapist officially labeled Melissa’s mother “unworkable.” I think it was a relief to her. She has not taught a class since April. She has not had a period for seven years and this is one of the many reasons she will never be a mother, despite her gentle nature and her patience. She is married, and I imagine this must be very difficult for her husband, being 300 miles away from his bulimic wife. It’s worth it though: worth it for the valleys between her ribs, her protruding hip-bones, the thighs he can wrap with the fingers of one hand during sex. When we entered the kitchen, she took a long time to sit down. She paced around with tears in her eyes, eyeing the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and pile of gummy life savers that had been stacked there for her to eat. They tell us that we don’t have to enjoy our food, we just have to eat it. We have to eat every last crumb and get our plates approved by a staffmember before standing up. If the food includes any kind of sauce or moist component, we must scrape the last remaining goop from the plate with a spatula and lick it clean because we are starving and it is for our own good. They tell us to eat the food mechanically. Take it like medication. You cannot negotiate here. You cannot talk your way out of anything. You can cry, if you want to make a scene, or you can sit in silent agony and eat politely but not too eagerly so the other girls know you really deserve to be here and really do have a problem and really do need help. That’s what I do. There’s also Claire, who, all day yesterday, went on and on about how glad she was that she was finally leaving, that her last day had finally come. And all day, all the staffmembers furrowed their brows and shrugged their shoulders and wondered if it was really true this time, if it really would be her last day. Apparently, no one takes her seriously anymore. I think she means it as a performative utterance: by saying it, she can make it so, since the staffmembers do not always communicate with one another directly.
In skills group today, Dr. Wohlers (Walrus) led a discussion of opposite emotion reaction or some string of abstract nouns along those lines. The idea is that there are seven basic emotions, each with a hard wired behavior that we do in response. In order to alleviate an emotion, you must force yourself to perform the opposite behavior. In the case of fear, the tendency is to run or to avoid. We fear food, we are told. Therefore, we must do the opposite of running away from food. We must run toward food. Aly challenged him on this, saying that she wasn’t afraid of food and that food on a plate was completely harmless. She was wearing this shirt:
Something I forgot to mention: when I got here, the first thing I did was make my bed with the twin extra long sheets my mom had washed and folded for me. There were two mattresses in the room, and I chose the one closer to the window. On it were written the words “One meal at a time” in black sharpie and a crude drawing of a flower. The mattress smelled faintly like vomit.
Something else I forgot to mention: yesterday, at dinner, Natalie was freaking out for the second time since I got here. The first time, it was about the mayonnaise in her chicken sandwich. This time, it was about the three chips ahoy cookies on her plate. She could not get up until she had finished them. She could not substitute them for anything else. She cried quietly throughout the rest of her meal, vegetables first, then pasta, then chicken, until finally, the dreaded cookies were all that remained. Aly sat on one side, and Val, a member of the staff, on the other. On both sides were voices telling her she could do it, and in front, just the blank visage of the cookies, which she had crumbled into pieces with her fake plastic nails. Val noticed something suspicious, and asked the girls if they were passing notes, which they weren’t. After dinner, Natalie thanked Aly for helping her sneak one of the cookies out of Val’s sight, and Aly said you’re welcome but now since I did that for you, you have to do me a favor, okay? Don’t purge tonight. Don’t purge when you get home. Okay, Natalie said, I won’t. She would.
I guess I’ll write about myself a little bit too. Today, I had a meltdown at lunch. There was bacon in my pasta carbonara. My mouth filled with nauseated saliva as I smelled the unmistakable smell. I was getting “the swallows.” I tried to pick out the biggest pieces with my fork and wipe them on my napkin when no one was looking. I put my napkin on my lap to be polite and so that no one would notice. I got away with it, because the kitchen was still bustling with activity as the other girls finished preparing their meals. I shoveled down the pasta, trying to ignore the salty burn of bacon infused into the cream sauce. Why am I eating this. Why am I eating this. Why am I eating this. Why am I eating this. This is so forbidden. I am not even enjoying this. This is making me fat and I’m not even enjoying the taste. When all the girls had taken their seats, including the kitchen staff supervising us, I knew that I could not get away with wrapping another forkful of bacon in the napkin on my lap. I left the remaining meat in a neat pile on my plate, and asked Val to please come over when she had a moment. She came over and crouched beside me. I expressed my anxiety about the bacon and asked if I could maybe substitute something else instead to get those last few calories. Maybe some pretzels or even a gummy bear? The good news, she said, is that I had already eaten most of the bacon since it was mixed into the pasta so I should just go ahead and finish it. I stared at the pile of fat on my plate and started to cry. Quietly at first, but the more she talked to me and tried to soothe me, the more worked up I became. She told me to take deep breaths, which I could not do. My breath came sharply, in great panicked gulps. I vaguely sensed that everyone in the room was staring at me, still the new girl, crying over a stupid piece of bacon. Val asked if I would like to step outside, which I did, so she took me to the conference room nextdoor, where we discussed the bacon and she handed me a box of Kleenex because there was mucous everywhere and it was difficult to talk.
Every day, a girl comes crying into the group room because she has just been told that she is getting a calorie increase. The girl with the most calories per day right now I think is Amy, on 4,800, but she keeps losing weight. She’s hypermetabolic. She has the nicest smile, and doesn’t open her mouth very much when she talks, but I could never tell if that was how she normally was or a result of the skin graft surgery she had on the inside of her mouth a week before I arrived. I don’t know why. Amy never ate poptarts before this program, but now she’s on at least two per day. Debulking is what they call it, choosing foods that pack a large amount of calories into a small volume of food so you don’t feel like you’re eating as much. Some girls want to debulk, but not me. And not Jordan. If I’m going to be gaining this weight, I want to enjoy every last bite. I want to eat the foods I’ve been fantasizing about every night for the past two years instead of thinking about sex or good grades. I will get mealplanning privileges next week, I hope, and when I do I will never again drink juice or eat walnuts. Don’t even get me started on beef. They have this list of common “fear foods” that you have to work through before you are allowed to plan your own meals. The list includes beef, chicken, fish, ice cream, chips, cakes, nuts, cheese, sandwiches, and so on. My roommate doesn’t like sandwiches, because she doesn’t like the smushing together of separate ingredients. Sandwiches freak her out. Each component alone is unthreatening, but she does not feel comfortable taking them all on at once in a grand army united against her thin waist and protruding shoulderblades. They have a software program that you use to plan your menus during downtime, of which there is a lot, because I’m starting to think the only thing that really matters in this program is making us eat. Everything else we do is just filler in between meals. They have to keep us entertained somehow, and they can’t just give us our thousands of calories in a single sitting. We consume everything in the course of six hours, whether or not we are hungry of course, and then it’s a long wait for the next meal the next day. I have been hungry here, I will confess. I accidentally mentioned that to Doctor Wohlers when I told him that one of my goals was to stop chewing gum. Or at least to chew less. I have used gum as a substitute for food. Orbit bubblemint is the one I use the most. I was spending hundreds of dollars per week on gum. I couldn’t get enough and chewed several packages at once sometimes, making it hard to breathe. But it was also a thrilling puzzle to be worked through by my facial muscles, and I had to convince myself that the calories were negligible and would be burned off by the chewing anyway. Jordan chews gum too. I am probably the most similar to Jordan, of anyone here. We are anorexic, not bulimic like the adolescents. Jordan is finishing, or would be finishing, her senior year of high school. The trouble started for her when swim season ended, six months ago, when for some reason she decided to eat only carrots and light Catalina dressing for a month. When her mother brought her to the outpatient clinic at Strong, they wanted to admit her to the hospital that day. She was orange, lightheaded, and slurred in her speech. But she said she was happy. She was finally thin, finally able to wear shorts, finally proud of the hip bone protruding from underneath her extra small cardigan sweater. She doesn’t wear anything like that now. Her mother is a nurse, and every day Jordan wears blue scrubs, baggy and disguising of her figure, and a too-large sweatshirt which disguises everything from the neck down. Her big thing was chewing and spitting, or “C ‘n S” as she calls it. One weekend, her parents went out of town. Jordan watched the car roll out of the driveway and immediately went to the kitchen, threw open the cupboards, and chewed and spat everything. The most relaxing activity imaginable to her would be to park herself in front of the TV, with yet to be chewed food on the left and a bowl for spitting on the right. One time, when she was drunk, she accidentally ate an entire box of mini wheats and forgot to spit. Jordan has a twin, sixty pounds heavier. The twin has been in jail twice, once for beating Jordan on their birthday when Jordan was invited on a boat trip and the twin wasn’t. During the assault, Jordan called home, and the entire struggle was recorded on the home answering machine. Jordan is jealous of her twin. Once, someone referred to her as “the boring one.” And Jordan started crying the day she told us about that in group therapy. Jordan loves her eating disorder. She does not want to let it go. The minute she gets out of here, she plans to hop back on the scale and get back into the pool. Once, her father saw her ribs through the back of her t-shirt and said she was too thin and she was flattered.
Doctor Wohlers has a daughter. She used to be a basketball player in college, and her pictures and trophies are still displayed in his office. She comes in Tuesday mornings to help with clerical tasks. She is tall and thin. There are rumors.
The new girl now is Rebecca. They dragged her in like a cat to water, clawing and howling in protest. She doesn’t look like these girls. She is not one of these girls. They tried to get her to eat pizza her first day here. I don’t know how she got away with it, but she managed to scrape off the cheese and hide it in her sock. After the meal was over, she stuck the cheese on Dr. Wohler’s door. It stuck there all afternoon. One of the rules in the kitchen is no negative food talk. They don’t even bother to enforce that rule with Rebecca. Although they claim that the daily seating assignments are random, I suspect that they put her next to me on purpose. She looked at the granola bar in my hand, crumbly and maple-sweet, and said it looked like horse food. She couldn’t stand the smell of the Doritos in my bowl. And she tried to sneak her own food onto my plate. I’m not eating her fucking calories. She’s afraid of sandwiches, because she doesn’t like the idea of different ingredients being smushed together. Peanut butter and jelly would be the worst. She is also a vegetarian, and lactose intolerant. Her second meal was a cheeseburger. Jordan told me that Heather takes 100 laxatives a day, or she did at one time. Jordan only takes four, in addition to the miralax she mixes into her drinks. Jordan had never purged before entering this program, but has been throwing up involuntarily almost every day. She claims it is her body rejecting the obscene amounts of food they force down her throat every day.
Another calorie increase. Every day, during group, the door opens, and Lisa peeps in, scanning the room, making eye contact with her victim, pointing, gesturing. She takes a girl into her office and tells her that she is getting another calorie increase. Half an hour later, the girl comes back to the group room sniffling and red in the face. Everyone hates Lisa, the nutritionist. She lumbers on pale, jiggling legs, talks through yellow horse-teeth. She is fat. She became a nutritionist in order to make others fat, fatter maybe than herself, because truly she hates being fat in a world of thin women like us. All of the staffmembers, in fact, are fat. Dr. Wohlers is morbidly obese. He is tall, yes, but has a belly the circumference of a hula hoop. I feel bad writing this about Dr. Wohlers though, because I find him gentle and forgiving. He leans back in his chair and listens with an expression of compassion and gives us a break and does not flinch at the mention of menstruation. Not everyone likes him though. Rebecca wrote in the suggestion box “More Doctors with combover” which Dr. Wohlers read aloud to the group during the weekly community meeting. The adolescents call him “the creeper,” a nickname that Jay came up with. The adolescents have themed dress days, and Friday was “dress like Dr. Wohlers Day.” Also Jay’s idea. She went all out. She came in wearing a baggy, gray men’s button-down shirt, a belt and trousers. There were lines all over her face and arms, which I at first assumed to be her artistic rendering of wrinkles like the kindly crinkles in Dr. Wohlers periphery. I got a closer look at snacktime, though. The lines were carved into her own skin, by her own fingers or the screws she held in them. I am told this has something to do with her drug habit, but I do not understand exactly. I do not know what Jay was trying to say with her cutting, but if I were Doctor Wohlers, I would be scared of the fact that a fifteen year old girl dressed herself up like me and then mutilated herself. No one said anything about her cutting, but I saw Doctor Wohlers helping Jay rub Neosporin on her arms before lunch.
And Heather, who fainted today before dinner. I didn’t see it happen. At first I thought maybe she was faking it to get out of eating. They called an ambulance and everything. She had a “bad” weekend, meaning she had symptoms, meaning she restricted and binged and purged and exercised. Or: a good weekend. Good is bad when you have an eating disorder. Or at least when you’re in recovery. You feel guilty if you don’t exercise, and if you do. You feel guilty if you eat, and if you don’t. When they took Heather away, the girls in the kitchen dumped their mashed potatoes down the garbage disposal, since there are no garbage cans. Thanks, Heather. You really took one for the team.
And Tiffany, who is a member of the kitchen staff. She’s new, which means you can get away with things. Mixing pretzels with my pudding, peas with my applesauce. Val would never let me get away with that. I know Tiffany notices, but I think she’s afraid to say anything. Sometimes I feel bad.
Chara is someone I don’t understand. She has been here before. At that point, she says, she was 40 pounds lighter, which is unimaginable to me, because she looks like she is made of broomsticks. Her jeans look like a doll’s clothing, and they are too loose. She is only 21, two years older than I am, but she looks about 35. Her skin is blotchy and weathered from years of tanning. She smokes and used to drink. Her heavy cloak of perfume almost manages to cover the smell of cigarettes. She prays before every meal. She cuts her food into tiny pieces, and never eats anything bigger than her thumbnail. I don’t know how long she was here before, but apparently she was cured when she left. She was happy somehow. Now, she’s back, but not as sick as she was before. Her kidneys are iffy. She is a Barbie doll that has been put through a washing machine and left in the sun to dry. Every day for the past ten years. But, to be honest, she retains a natural beauty which no amount of abuse has managed to squelch. She talks constantly at meals to avoid eating, which can be exhausting if you’re sitting next to her, and she always asks for reheats. It takes her a long time. She eats her yogurt by dipping the spoon and licking it slowly, thoughtfully, as if it were a sacred or painful ritual. She comes off as ditzy when she talks and giggles and reacts with too much enthusiasm. She comes late, or not at all, to groups, since it takes her so long to finish her meals. Everyone asks everyone about their calorie increases, but such questions are not fair game to Chara. At lunch one day, Blaire the social worker told Chara to eat her food in bigger bites. Jordan asked Chara how many calories she was on. Chara sat back in her chair, shut her eyes, and swayed her head slowly, trailing her bleached, straightened hair through the lasagna on her plate. Blaire removed Chara from the kitchen, and then Jordan cried, and we all told her that Chara had already been upset from what Blaire said, and that Jordan shouldn’t blame herself for Chara’s upset. Today, Chara revealed a monster. She had managed to finish eating in time for Body Image group. Pam had us start out by journaling about body image, or grieving the loss of our anorexic bodies. Here’s what I wrote:
I’ll miss my ribs with the flesh stretched over.
I’ll miss my shoulder blades unfolding like wings behind me when I reach.
I’ll miss the pain of a hard chair.
I’ll miss those tents of flesh pitched by my hip bones, one on either side.
I’ll miss the verge of infinite lightness.
I’ll miss the reflection in the windows as I walk by the biomedical building, noticing how my collar bones beautifully sink when I exhale.
I’ll miss the delicately visible machinery of strings mounted over the backs of my hands, making my fingers dance like puppets.
I’ll miss the cold, the feeling of closeness to the air.
I’ll miss the nuance of my spine, the sinusoidal surface of my back.
I’ll miss my feet like bird-bones.
I’ll miss the compliments, the questions, the shocked faces, the looseness of clothing, the silliness of muscles, the textured spread of bumps and grooves.
I’ll miss my wristwatch sliding up and down.
I’ll miss the gap between my thighs when I stand erect with my feet together, the hollows of anatomy.
I know it isn’t very good, but when I read it aloud, everyone ate it up with a spoon. I might turn it into a poem which I will entitle “Recovery.” Here’s what Chara wrote:
Was thin, now fat, hate body.