Employees wore winter gloves in all seasons, facing each pint forward. I stopped to linger at the gelato case, admiring the fonts and bright colors, then grabbed my favorite, hazelnut, and walked to the check stand, where I knew the cashier judged me. Just gelato? Like you need it.
Sometimes I tried to hide behind bananas, meal replacement bars, spaghetti squash—things that didn’t get me noticed. This time, the cashier set the single pint on the check stand for everyone to see, and I smiled, pretending I wasn’t exposed. I paid and walked through the neighborhood as if my clothes weren’t already too tight.
At home, the creamy film coated the roof of my mouth. A slick cold passed to my stomach. It was a gift when I felt it trail down my esophagus, like a cool roadmap of my insides. Goosebumps rose on my arms, up my spine, down my legs. There was a moment of sated surrender before the trigger: a glass of warm water. Then the heave, the risk. I needed to feel as if I were nothing, to wipe the nothing from my mouth.
I was eleven years old when I started my first diet, SlimFast. A few weeks after that I began a new food plan that had been making the rounds at the hospital where my stepfather worked. When my parents offered it to me, they thought they were helping their chubby pre-teen. In the summer between elementary and middle school, I lost more than baby fat, nearly twenty-five pounds. Every morning, I weighed myself and catalogued the number on the calendar in my bedroom.
Like many young people, I was never comfortable with my body. When I was in high school, I sometimes found comfort drinking with friends. We’d find ourselves with whatever we could get our hands on: drinking warm Keystone Ice in Hamblen Park or Piña Colada Boone’s in someone’s basement. My girlfriends were always matched up in some way, conspicuously fondling new boyfriends under an afghan in someone’s living room or in the backseat of my car. But everyone knew not to touch me. I became part of the background, a bulky shadow that was always present, wholly separate. Even at seventeen, I often felt like the spinster aunt who was there to sober up early and drive everyone home. But sometimes, though I still drove us home, I got so stoned that I could forget who I wasn’t.
On weekdays, after school, I could shatter myself in the comfort of my bedroom. I’d binge, then purge, and hide it all from my parents, who were busy tending to my baby brother. They collapsed into the living room chairs, relieved to know they didn’t need to worry about me. But in secret I’d been binging on sloppy concoctions of dough since elementary school, trying to recreate a reasonable facsimile to gorge myself on before my mother got home from work. I was eight years old when she found my plastic baggie of brown sugar, with spoon, wedged between my Cabbage Patch Kids. In high school, when I wanted something soft and easy to bring up, I relied on what I knew: that sweet, flavorless dough or what I could pilfer from the fridge or pantry: mint ice cream, vanilla pudding, oatmeal, things my parents had bought for my young brother. Other days, I ate nacho cheese tortilla chips for their sharp, imperfect edges.
When remotely happy, I could bury the impulse in the bottom of my stomach, where it would lie dormant like a virus. I swore off all meat products, and began eating more compartmentally—food became easier to control once I designated items as either okay to eat or not—something I’d been doing in miniature since childhood. When my brother was young, he would eat pickles only on Tuesdays, something I learned could work for me. Categories of ingestion became my food norm.
At nineteen, I got a job at a gym, where I found a kindred spirit in a compulsive exerciser who calculated every calorie she burned, “so I can have a beer at the club,” she told me. Her behavior made me feel I wasn’t alone, and, even more, it bore the delicious taste of schadenfreude. From the front desk, I pretended to love my body. I smiled and flirted with the twenty-something guys, even the ones who weren’t very cute, and then worked out until the world went hazy. I mastered the spin class and walked around on powerful, bulky thighs that made me proud. In the free weight room, middle-aged men asked to spot me. I said I didn’t need help, but I relished the attention.
At twenty-one, I sat in the shrink’s office, too aware that my parents had finally found me out. I didn’t need the psychologist to write the word bulimia in a folder with my name on it or to send my parents a packet of information. Never again, I thought, will anyone get this close. As I lay on the hospital’s cold exam table in a gown that revealed the naked curves of my body, I drank barium sulfate and turned when the radiologists told me to turn. I didn’t care about what they might find.
In the dentist’s chair, however, I actually let it all sink in. “Your teeth look good,” the dentist said. “Only some minor enamel loss.” My straight, white teeth would remain my singular source of pride.
Soon after, I went vegan and joined a body image support group where I was the youngest member by more than ten years. The older ladies watched over me like dutiful mothers, but I knew they were grateful that they didn’t see hints of me in their own children. During my months of therapy, one woman’s husband killed himself while she was at our meeting. For a moment, I wondered if he’d hated her body, too. In those weeks, all of us could forget about the damage we inflicted on our bodies and give her the love we couldn’t offer ourselves. This was a start.
I was ready at twenty-four to restart my life. I transferred to a university in Seattle and began anew. By this time, I’d returned to vegetarian living, and for a while I only ate Caesar salads and red licorice from Trader Joe’s. As I slinked up the stairs to the bathroom of my college house, a friend who knew the warning signs tackled me as if she were a linebacker and not the dancer she was. I thrashed beneath her like a bellowing sow, knowing I’d have carpet burns that would mark me for days. Her knees bored into my fleshy arms. Although I must’ve weighed thirty pounds more than her, she held me down easily. Eventually, she unpinned me. We sat together on the landing for hours. Our other roommates came home. No one asked either of us any questions as they stepped over us, and we offered no answers.
For a few years after, I was better. Recovered. I began running and joined a running group that made me feel like I used to at the gym. When I ran through my neighborhood, I could erase myself on muscular legs. Two miles. Three. I would find out later that I ran a 12k with a bulging disc in my lower back, then a half marathon, then a 5k. I carried it with me everywhere I went, and grew used to the sharp, electric pain that extended spine-to-ankle. Finally, the orthopedist poked pins in my calves. “You’ve lost feeling,” she said. “No more running.”
During this time, I was dating someone who seemed entirely out of my league. At first, I saw myself through his eyes, and for a while, I liked what he saw. I made myself better, for him. But when he got close, the shame I felt for my body wedged itself between us. I wanted to give myself to him, but I couldn’t return the love he gave me. I still regret it. When he said we were over, I spent four months trying to put myself back together. On a whim, I applied to a graduate writing program in Boston, a city three thousand miles away from him. There, I could distract myself from my feelings. After I was accepted, I left the life I’d created in Seattle and boarded a red-eye. In Boston, I pretended I was gregarious and affectionate. I went to school, clinging to the bars of the T each morning, and listened to weight loss hypnotherapy recordings, envisioning myself overlooking Elliott Bay. Some days, I could almost feel the salty brine in the air of those subway cars.
After months of debilitating depression, I was ready to let my sadness go. But I only swallowed it down, letting it ferment beneath the veneer. I patched together a self I could use, one that ate gelato, but not for the old desire. Instead, food restored me. I fed what lived down in the depths. I ate until I gained back what I’d lost, then more, as if I carried another person with me, under my skin. I couldn’t stop eating.
Eventually, I found myself in Baltimore, trying to establish myself as a writer. Every morning, as I walked down Broadway to the bus stop, a man would evaluate my looks. You should smile more, one said from his front stoop. Just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are, said another. Another licked his lips and said, Girrrrrl, you sexy as a motherfucker, as he spun around to watch me walk by.
In Boston, I’d been whistled at, but I’d never been objectified so directly. I was supposed to reject these overt, nasty examples of hypersexualization, and I mostly did. But, on the inside, these men boosted my waning confidence. I’d been drinking the Charm City spring down with Pimm’s and rum and rye whiskey, spending my time with a man who called too late at night and slept the days away. I’d been working out and had given myself over to Paleo, a diet that was compartmentalized enough to be sustainable. But he pointed out other bodies—the slim frames, the long legs, the things I wasn’t—and systematically chipped away at my repairs. How could I expect to be enough for a man who struggled to get through a night without a bottle of rum?
I lay on the bathroom tile, squeezed between the sink and wall, cheeks splotchy with vomitus and mascara and blood, when it hit me. It wasn’t that I realized I was enough. I wish I could say I had that kind of turning point. The simple fact is that I was finally scared. I stood to face myself on shaking legs. The mirrored me ran its fingers along its belly, its neck, its thinning hair. I considered what it couldn’t see: my esophagus, my teeth, the slow decay of myself. I didn’t want to die. Even more, I didn’t want to die in Baltimore. I thought of my body in a box, traveling across the country. I thought of my mother having to hire someone to ship that body home.
That was supposed to be the last time, but the ugly truth is that I did it again a year later. I never told anyone, because I felt too ashamed.
I always say the last time was the last time, and I always mean it, but I’m scared I’ll relapse again. That’s why I take precautions. Most of the time, I eat so that I blend into the background, as I did when I was a teenager. I avoid talking about and eating the catered fare at social engagements. I make my own meals and bring them to holiday gatherings. In these spaces, I don’t want to talk about the special arrangements I’ve made, but I always stick out like a bloated belly.
Do you have food allergies? How long have you been eating like this? So what can you eat?
I haven’t the heart or the candor to admit my faults to acquaintances, especially because saying the words eating disorder is not proper social decorum. Plus, I feel an expectation that a thirty-seven-year-old woman should have her demons sorted out by now. My answer is simply to make small talk, bite-sized chunks of conversation that go down smoothly and satisfy enough to get by.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.