Close to my age and on the dangerous side of slim, Erin was tall and naturally attractive. She possessed what I had always considered to be the “right look.” Her ensemble, timeless, weathered Levi’s, a white t-shirt and Birkenstocks seemed to say, “I’m not trying hard at all. I don’t even have to.” Her lack of mascara and un-styled hair seemed to whisper, “This is what I look like when I roll out of bed.”
She had the look that would attract the “right guy,” whatever the hell that meant. I imagined he would be tall, smart, kind and sensitive to all of her issues. And you better believe that she had her share. It should go without saying that he would be naturally good looking as well. The moral to this story is that I thought pretty, skinny Erin had no business being miserable, for she was far too attractive. Destined to find a guy who would complement and fix her, the Ken and Barbie duo would find happiness and live in a white house with black shutters and a red door. If you couldn’t get all of that just by watching glum Erin walk down the hallway, then you weren’t paying attention. I saw it plain as day.
Erin was also just the right shade of bronze for the early days of June. What a f*cking b*tch.
I soon learned, from Erin’s own lips, that she had taken a bottle of aspirin and then decided it was a good idea to call her therapist. Usually, you call first, but who was I to judge?
Anorexic, sad and apparently suicidal, Erin ended up on this floor, but was hoping to be moved to the Mood Disorder Unit because “there was no way she was going to eat all the food they made us eat.”
I’m surprised I didn’t get a concussion the way I shook my head in agreement with her assessment of the eating situation. Still, it wasn’t lost on me that people who felt the way we both felt about eating were in precisely the right place. We were sick, but I wasn’t sure if either one of us, or any of us, was all that ready to get well.
Erin left, which sucked because she turned out to be cool under all that pretty. Later, when I graduated to eating off the unit, I would see her in the cafeteria, drinking coffee and diet soda. I was totally jealous when I would brush by her with my dining tray, which was weighed down by what I considered to be a copious amount of f*cking food.
Erin would probably learn how to get happy on the moody-person floor while still maintaining her figure.
It was only a matter of time before she would meet her Ken. D*mn Erin to hell. I was going to get fat and more miserable than ever.
The thing about the Erins of the world: it was far easier for me to make assumptions than actually get to know them. I judged Erin’s insides based on her outsides and placed her in a pretty-girl box just like I had the Penn State sorority girls. Erin and I were actually quite alike. Most of the time, we wanted to be alone with our sadness and our shame … our Diet Coke and our cigarettes. Self-destruction seemed best played as a one-woman show.
But apparently, sometimes girls like Erin and I wanted help. She did call her therapist after taking the pills, and I did drive myself to this nuthouse. We had our moments of desperation, sure, but we always seemed to want the reins back upon realizing what relinquishing control of our f*cked up lives would entail.
Months after I left the hospital, I saw Erin from afar as she was leaving the track at my old high school. We were both there to run. I don’t know if she noticed me. Seeing her at that track was not unlike seeing a person on oxygen smoking a cigarette. I thought to myself, “She probably shouldn’t be running. She has no business being here. Wait, I have no business being here. We have no business being here.”
Then I ran long and hard in the blazing sun.
When Erin left for the Mood Disorder Unit, a bed was freed up and “Gary” arrived. Some people you just like, and I liked Gary. He was a gentle giant whose large frame was in stark contrast to his unassuming, humble persona. But don’t think for a second that any nice-guy compliments sat well with him—Gary hated Gary.
He said as much, too, “You don’t know me at all. I’m not normal. Trust me, you wouldn’t like me if you really knew me.”
Another thing I liked about Gary: we employed a similar self-deprecating sense of humor to mask our self-loathing.
Gary said he had megalomania. I had to look that one up. Actually, he suffered from bipolar depression, which in his case meant he'd spend large chunks of time shut off from the light of day. He’d experience paranoia, delusion and rage. I didn’t see evidence of any of that during his stay, but his shame about his mental illness was deep and dark and he’d been using food as a panacea.
After we were both discharged from the unit, Gary mailed me a wood carving that he’d made. I think the word peace and the image of a bird were engraved on it. I can’t be sure—that was 26 years ago. I immediately tossed it. I didn’t want a single memento of my time on the unit. Not even from a nice guy like Gary.
After Gary’s arrival I got wind of something that had been totally off my radar thus far: many of my fellow patients had fought hard to get their insurance providers to allow them to seek treatment in this facility—there was a waiting list to get in.
People all over the tri-state area were lobbying with doctors and insurers and wading through heaps of red tape to get the okay to come here. Some bastard bureaucrat, whose face so many critically ill skeletal and ginormous people would never see, was going to decide if they were worthy of this help. And me, I waltzed right in one rainy night because I was “an emergency.”
Only Erin and I had been emergency admissions. We were the only two who had shown up here and been given beds right away. Okay, Erin did have that suicide thing, and on the night of my arrival I was in pretty dire straights, but now I was like the least f*cked up person here.
Why didn't anybody see that?