Guess what? I lost weight ... again. The pounds I had packed on at Penn State—the muscle and the fat—there was no sign of either of them. The scale told me that exercising, eating virtually nothing and smoking had worked like a charm. I had expected this downsizing would turn my frown upside down, but no dice.
Even though I had been miserable squeezing my fat a** into a size 12 just a few months earlier, whittling myself down to a size two was giving me no sense of victory.
I should have been ecstatic with my progress. I was where I needed to be. What good is a goal weight if you don't want to throw yourself a parade complete with a celery stick and lemon water buffet at the end of the route? I didn't feel like I deserved a parade; I didn't feel like I deserved a sugarless mint. I felt hollow and terrified because if skinny didn't equal happy ... then what would?
When I was engaged in "project skinny," everything made sense to me. It was a matter of "getting there is half the fun"—or in this, case all the fun. The pursuit of smaller clothing sizes, tinier wrists and a flatter stomach was real and tangible. It saved me from bothering with the noise and nonsense of daily living. It freed me from thinking about the future ... other than pondering how skinny and happy I'd be when it arrived. Well, the scale said the future was now, and all I could think was: maybe losing 10 more pounds would help?
Delightfully deceptive and ever intoxicating, the "skinny-cures-sad" lie had played me for a fool ... again.
Maybe I was a little high on the fumes of starvation, but I wasn't what any mental health pro would call "happy." I was in a dizzy daze of despair and unable to make peace with the fact that my expectations of skinny never quite matched its realities. Frankly, I was pissed; maybe even pissed enough to eat and puke ... or drink and puke ... or go shopping ... or running ... or just start crying in a ditch somewhere.
One by one, my high school pals started trickling back home from college. They were getting summer jobs and looking for places to drink at night. They’d all finished freshman year while I had been busy transforming myself from an orca to a minnow.
It was almost good to see them, especially since I didn’t feel so awful about being seen anymore. I imagined I could start hanging out with them. I was totally on board to drink the spring nights away … and then I fell overboard.
My first and only stay at a psychiatric hospital began in late May of 1992. It was bound to happen—I’m actually surprised that it took so long. I had 19 years of crazy behind me, and apparently, some time to kill.
Thanks to years of hindsight, during which I’ve had a chance to process my hospitalization and its role in shaping who I’ve become, I wouldn’t trade the experience for fame or fortune.
I tend to think that most people could benefit from a 30-day stay against their will.
I was in the midst of a week of heavy drinking when my One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest slash Girl, Interrupted adventure began. My parents were on a boat in the Caribbean. There was keg in my garage and a steady stream of friends and what was supposed to be … fun.
For whatever reason, all that freedom sent me into a tailspin. I knew I should have never smoked that weed! Maybe it was laced with something? It had been days since I had slept or eaten normally and my thoughts didn’t feel like my own anymore.
Naturally, I decided to do what any good anorexic, bulimic, depressed, drunk girl my age would: I drove my out-of-my-head self to the ER in the middle of the night. I did have the presence of mind to check in with my therapist prior to the trek. She told me which hospital to go to and promised to meet me there. I should probably mention that my therapist specifically advised that I not drive myself to the hospital. I agreed that I wouldn’t—and then I started the car.
It was spitting rain during the drive in the way that it tends to in the spring when it gets too warm too fast. I remember the rain because I was trying to smoke and my cigarette kept getting wet when I held my arm out of the car window to flick the ashes. Mildly afraid of being pulled over, because yes, I had been drinking, I spent much of the drive imagining how I’d explain myself if a police officer pulled me over:
Officer: license and registration, please. Where are you headed in such a hurry young lady?
Me: well sir, I think I’m having a psychotic break. I’m headed to St. Francis Hospital. I haven’t slept in days and I’m starting to lose my grip on reality.
Officer: have you been drinking or using drugs?
Me: yes, but not for hours. I’m sober now, which makes this so much more disturbing.
But what really happened is I made it to the hospital in one piece and my therapist was waiting in the ER when I arrived. She then assured me that I would get good care, but that she had to leave and I would be admitted.
This wasn’t college. I hadn’t applied for this. I was merely in a short-term crisis. Surely they could give me a sedative and after a good night’s sleep, a hot meal and a brisk walk, I’d be right back on my feet? Never did I think that driving to a hospital in the middle of the night would result in a month-long stay in a psych ward.
The first rule of the Eating Disorder Unit: don’t talk about food.
What? Here we are, too afraid of food to actually eat and digest it and/or too afraid of the world to face it without shoveling copious amounts of crap down our throats, and yet, this ironic rule: do not speak of food.
I would come to learn pretty quickly that there was a second, equally disturbing rule: you must eat everything that is put in front of you. You must do so without bargaining or b*tching.
Essentially, shut the f*ck up and eat.
“What were those other units that I had to choose from again?” I wanted to ask … because this floor was simply not going to work for me.
My first meal was a disaster. Blown away by breakfast, I cried like a like a baby for an hour. I muttered something about being a vegetarian, which was when I was made privy to “rule dos”: shut up and eat. The food was going to be the food. I would eat what I was given without negotiation and address my feelings at non-meal times.
But, I was not alone on this unit of crazy. There were a host of folks for whom food was a nightmare and I will tell you about many of them in due time. I have changed their names to protect their innocence, and because I don’t actually remember most of their real names.
Having finished my first nightmarish meal, it was time for group. Group was a circle of crazy complete with a social worker, very fat and very skinny people, some of whom were overmedicated … and me! After an hour in that room, mostly on the verge of tears, I knew one thing for certain: I had to bounce.
If you’ll recall, my folks were on a boat in the Caribbean, my siblings, who were all older than me, were off working all over the country, and my friends were trying to figure out what had happened to the awesome party at my house—it was time to return the keg after all.
First things first, I needed a change of clothes. I called my aunt and gave her orders to pack a bag and get in touch with my parents in the Caribbean. Can you imagine getting that call:
“Hi, I checked myself in to a psychiatric facility in the middle of the night. I need some underwear ...
Please call my parents and tell them to come home from St. Thomas or Croix or Maarten. I have got to get out of here ASAP. Please make sure someone returns the keg that’s in the garage. Talk soon.”
Later, I spoke to my parents who were at sea. They were mortified and trying to get home as soon as they could.
Meanwhile, I made some new best friends ...