Lynne resembled a life-size American Girl doll. She would have been cute for a pre-teen, but she was 21. Lynne’s porcelain face, with eyes that lit up absolutely nothing, was framed by dry, brittle hair too long for such a slight creature. I imagine if she could have gotten away with using that mop to cover her face like “Cousin Itt,” she might have.
Mousy and shy, to describe Lynne as quiet is beyond generous—she spoke in whispers—almost as if she felt unworthy of being heard. She was cautious in what she said, too, maybe for fear that her words might somehow be used against her?
I wondered what had shaped Lynne’s fragile weirdness … until I met her family.
They were not a worldly bunch. I don’t say that to be rude, but to speak to their inability to understand why their daughter was starving herself to death. They seemed to not get what was happening, or even know what questions to ask.
I got the sense that life hadn’t been a bowl of cherries for Lynne. It seemed like it had been pitty and sh*tty and I started to feel guilty for having led such a privileged life by comparison. I’m not saying bad things don’t happen to people who have money, but at least I didn’t want for anything. Lynne seemed to want for plenty of things.
In the bubble from which I came, where lawns were green and most people had bachelor’s degrees, material needs were met and often exceeded. We were not rich, but my parents worked hard, lived within their means and saved for the future. We got new shoes and occasionally new non-luxury cars; we took beach vacations and got braces when they were deemed necessary. I didn’t view those things as extras. Don’t get me wrong, I knew the entire world was not like my world; I had volunteered and had a sense of things beyond my bubble, but I’d never really been this up close and personal with a peer whose life experience was so different from my own.
One time when we were chatting she said, “Was you in college?”
In addition to my horror at her grammar, her query implied that college was some magical place that she had heard about on the news. She looked at me like I was somebody while she was nobody.
Then she said, “My sister got to go to secretarial school.”
She said it like post-secondary education was something about which she could only dream.
Lynne seemed certain she would never ever amount to anything. Why didn’t she realize that she could be so much more than a skinny, tragic figure? Why didn’t I?
No matter how different our respective realities, Lynne and I still managed to feel like we weren’t quite good enough to ever have it good.
In recent months Lynne’s life had consisted of watching her sister’s baby while the sister was off living the dream as a secretary. She survived on one Lean Cuisine a day and watched soap operas. The sister, who had just married, was already estranged from her husband. Lynne pulled out photos of their wedding day. To me, weddings meant big day and big deal: white dress, tuxedo, church, flowers, cake, limo, etc. These pictures weren’t anything like that. They depicted the kind of wedding you’d have if you “had to” have one. Also pictured in the album was the plump, plucky baby with whom Lynne spent her days. I couldn’t imagine Lynne having the strength to hold that little person on her non-existent hip.
One day, while looking me up and down, Lynne’s mother said, “What’s wrong with you? You look normal. Why are you here?”
My anger welled up fast and hard.
I thought: sorry I don’t look skinny enough for you to think I’m sick enough to be here you dumba**.
I said: yeah, I know, I look fine.
My jealousy of the anorexic girls who had been able to perfect something that I never could, was always close to the surface.
I saw Lynne’s mom as yet another Einstein who was all-too happy to shine a light on my failure. Instead of realizing that people who don’t have eating disorders don’t understand eating disorders in the way that people who have them do, which I’m pretty sure holds true for all diseases, conditions, afflictions and addictions, I wanted to hold Lynne’s mom—and the world—accountable for making me feel so misunderstood.
I felt more than misunderstood around Lynne’s entire family; they actually made me uncomfortable. They didn’t say hello or look me in the eye. It was like they were hiding something deep and dark. Maybe they were. I’ll never know. I also don’t know what happened to Lynne after she left the hospital. Something tells me that with her family behind her, there was no way she was going to make it. She was already a ghost.
My next new gal pal, registering as low on the self-esteem scale as Lynne, and even lower on the actual scale, was a young woman named “Kim.” She was a scary-skinny, chain-smoking bulimic/anorexic. I hadn’t had a cigarette in days.
If Kim had been an actual pariah, I still would have become her new BFF if only to get my hands on some sweet, sweet nicotine.
Kim smoked generics if memory serves, but beggars can’t be choosers. I swear to you, those cigarettes I smoked in that hospital were some of the most enjoyable I have ever smoked. I looked forward to the few short smoking breaks we got each day with giddy excitement and savored every puff. Just reminiscing about it now makes the addict in me want to go buy a pack.
One time Kim and I sat and discussed our eating disorder histories in the unit’s makeshift smoking area. Those were the days when you could still smoke inside—even in hospitals! The smoking lounge, pushed off in a back corner, had two uncomfortable plastic chairs and an ashtray. There was no fan or filtration system—let’s be honest, the non-smokers had to hate us. Anyway, it was when we were puffing away that Kim revealed that she used to weigh nearly 190 pounds … I believe I made an audible GASP! Kim was probably 75 or 80 pounds now—literally less than half of her former self. She had gone from a girl who stuffed herself with food to one who shunned or eliminated it. She was a symptom switcher. I’d been there, done that, but not to the degree of difficulty Kim had achieved.
Kim felt comfortable revealing some of her habits to me, which included eating tons of food, throwing up, promising herself it was the last time she was ever going to do it and throwing the leftovers in the garbage. Later, to her own horror, she’d get the food out of the garbage and do it all over again. She was dumbfounded that she would always do it all over again even when she swore up and down that she wouldn’t.
Addicts are funny people. We really believe: this is the last cigarette, the last donut, the bloody last beer … this is it d*mmit, I don’t need this sh*t anymore. I hate living this way, so I’ll stop. Kim couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop.
But even when I could sort of stop, why did I always still feel so awful that I’d eventually start doing what I had stopped, or start doing something else, which eventually proved to be equally as destructive? I guess because I’m an addict?
Kim’s cycle of eating and puking was costing her a fortune and her fast and furious weight loss was interfering with her ability to hold a job. She had to go on disability. I remember thinking: why can’t your family help you? It didn’t occur to me that maybe Kim’s family was done coming to her rescue—that maybe they had moved on to practicing “tough love.” To me it just looked mean and selfish to let your twenty-something daughter go on welfare. I had lots of feelings about other people and how they chose to navigate their family situations. It was way easier than looking at my own issues.
After Kim’s “Come to Jesus” moment where she spilled her guts to me, a chick who she had just met, she was embarrassed, but mostly she couldn’t believe that I didn’t bat an eye at what she had confided. There was no shame in her game as far as I was concerned—Kim was just doing what bulimics do. Apparently, I was willing to give everybody else a pass on behaviors that I considered abhorrent when I engaged in them. It appeared I held myself to a higher standard. I felt like there was no good reason for me to behave the way they behaved. I didn’t come from a broken home and my parents weren’t abusive. I had been living an upper-middle class life in the comforts of suburbia.
If anyone was to blame for me being such a f*ck up, it was the person I saw when I looked in the mirror.
In addition to the deep resentment I had for myself, there was a guy named Joe who became a target for my growing hostility. From the moment I laid eyes on Joe, I wanted him gone. I didn’t want to be lumped in with someone like Joe, who was by all accounts, really mentally ill. He appeared to have auditory hallucinations and it didn’t help that he was a large, unpredictable character. I couldn’t muster an ounce of compassion for him either; the only thing he inspired in me was contempt.
I made it my business to communicate my concerns to the staff. For some reason, I fancied myself the spokesperson for my fellow eating disorder sufferers. I would be their champion and do my best to get Joe evicted for the sake of the common good.
My concern for the common good, however, was actually quite small. I really only cared about what was good for me … and it wasn’t Joe.
In my best, most articulate and well-intentioned tone I said, “Erma, there has to be a better unit in the hospital for Joe. He’s scary. We’re afraid of him.”
“Joe’s a patient here just like you are,” Erma replied. “He definitely has an eating disorder. He may have other issues, but that doesn’t mean he has any less of a right to be here than you.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” I said, “but his eating disorder is like nothing compared to the other stuff he’s got going on. Why is he here?”
Then Erma, patience wearing thin said, “Look, Joe is here because we have nowhere else to put him at the moment. Get over it. What happens with Joe isn’t up to you.”
Didn’t she see I was the voice of reason and right thinking? Me, the girl who couldn’t feed herself or function in the world. This girl.
They eventually found a bed for scary Joe on another floor. I gloated. I knew I was right; he didn’t belong on the same floor with me. Joe was not my people. Hell, the other eating disorder patients weren’t even my people. I didn’t really have any people. I just had a big mouth that spewed self-serving nonsense about Joe and other things that were none of my business.
I didn’t realize it then, but Joe was a danger to himself and others, and they were going to find a bed for him in this hospital even if that bed was on the Eating Disorder Unit. Erma probably didn’t want him on the unit any more than I did, but unlike me, Erma knew what was and was not within her jurisdiction.