Wheelchair skinny.

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The task of pinpointing Angela's age was daunting. Was she 30, 50? Gray from skin to spirit, it was as if she'd been embalmed in sadness and shame and the mortuary cosmetologist had failed to slap blush on the bone where the apples of her cheeks were meant to have been.

All of the sharp lines of Angela’s internal structure were trying to escape through skin that was too brittle to care.

She wore slippers as shoes, which made me so sad. They were slightly silky, like gloves for feet, but with a thin tread. Of all things, those fashion faux pax slippers gifted me with a hushed, haunting wake-up call:

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
It’s death, you silly girl. Angela might not make it. Like, for real. See anything glamorous about that? She’s the color of ash with the personality to match. Angela's what winning looks like. Do you want to look old when you're young and wear slippers as shoes? Sometimes being the best at something is the worst thing that could ever happen to you. Let Angela win this one, kid. Walk out of here in real shoes and don't let summer slip away. Do all the things that Angela can't do anymore and savor every single one. Fight for that. 

After a few days of gathering Angela intel, I learned she was diabetic. I knew as much about Type I diabetes as most non-diabetic teenagers, which is to say pretty much nothing, but I could tell it was complicating her situation. Angela had sores that wouldn’t heal and a stomach that wouldn’t digest. A nurse on the unit once said, apropos of Angela, and perhaps all of us patients: there comes a time when a body's been through too much for too long and you can't simply snap your fingers and make it all better.

I received that information loud and clear as it pertained to Angela and others, but believed I was thus far largely unscathed by whatever it was that I had been doing to myself. Drunk on a toxic cocktail of teenage invincibility, stupidity and denial, the occasional rush of fear that “ohmigod, my insides hurt in ways that they probably shouldn’t,” was fleeting.

All those things that could happen to people who binge and purge, starve and run excessively and drink and blackout would surely never happen to me. Just because Angela’s body had failed, didn’t mean that mine would. My issues weren’t on par with her issues. Angela's anorexia was on the back nine of Augusta and headed for a green jacket, while mine was playing putt putt on a course with shitty water features. It was possible that some shiny object would yet capture my attention and I’d simply choose to quit playing this stupid game entirely. It's funny that I thought I still had the choice to turn in my putter and go home. 

I’ll give Angela this: despite the ravages of starvation plopped on diabetes, she was working her non-existent ass off to get better. She’d sit down to a tray full of food at every meal and steadily plow through it. Sometimes she’d fall short because she'd get physically ill, but she remained heroic in every attempt. If I rooted for anyone to make it, I rooted for Angela. That doesn’t mean I wanted to get to know her, and I for sure didn’t want to touch her. The thought of embracing Angela was about as appealing as reaching into a stranger’s coffin.

Alive, but dead, but alive, Angela was what I came to refer to as “wheelchair skinny.”

Maybe I coined the phrase, maybe not, but what it describes is a person so underweight that they must be wheeled about to conserve calories. 

The runway-model version of anorexia that ran ‘round my head was neither wheelchair-bound nor crypt-keeper looking. My aspirational anorexia, though edging toward emaciated, always walked on its own two feet.

While I had never set my sights on wheelchair skinny, there was something strangely fascinating about the commitment that Angela and others like her exhibited. I’m also less than thrilled to reveal that the love and care that the staff heaped on Angela gave me a twinge of some sort of feeling. Did I have to be teetering on the edge of death to accept that kind of support? I sure as hell didn't know how to ask for it. Angela, with an absence of both pretense and body fat, seemed to have found a way to let all the love in.

When she wasn’t wheelchair bound, Angela shuffled around in her slippers at a snail’s pace. I don’t know if she was exhausted or in pain, and I didn’t ask. I was of normal weight and free to walk around as I saw fit. I was not, however, allowed to exercise obsessively in my room. I was also not allowed access to:

  • Magazines that glorified unrealistic representations of women (so, magazines)

  • Razors (because while I was not suicidal, other folks might be, or there were “cutters” around, or let’s just keep blades away from crazy people, shall we, because this is a psych ward, and we don’t really need to give you a reason)

  • Food

Okay, I understood the magazine and food thing, but no razor?

Sure, they would give me a disposable razor, but a nurse had to be present while I shaved. God, could this possibly get any worse? I was willing to bet a Snickers that it could.