Reflections on a Starved Decade
My eating disorder was boring and pedestrian. Thinking it was something more only enabled my behaviour.
I get overwhelmed in the grocery store. Maybe it’s the florescent lights. Maybe it’s the overabundance of options. Maybe it’s the linoleum floors, chosen solely for their ability to be mopped, swept, and wiped down, my feet feeling like a temporary mar on something whose only function is to stay clean. I’ve always been picky. Picky with friends and clothes and smells and textures, and I realise that I have now been standing for twenty-five minutes in front of the grocery store bakery section, staring down the readymade cakes. I know what I want: chocolate frosting with vanilla cake. But the brown frostings look so unattractive, lacking the pastel adornments of the vanilla butter creams. I buy two packs of candles, twenty-four in total (though I’ll only need twenty-one), while trying to decide. I see the baker in her white coat and feel a twinge of sadness and guilt, persistently my emotional cocktail of choice. I know what I want. I’m not good at compromising. But I’ll have to—I settle for the marble cake, vanilla frosting sheet cake. It has roses around the edges, white piping lining its rectangular perimeter. I pay a little more than twenty dollars and carefully bring the cake into the passenger seat of my sedan, buckling it into the seat with all the tenderness I would give an injured animal or a drunken friend. The AC works, the speakers in the back seat are shot. I stare down the Beanie Baby rat on my dashboard and drive back from the grocery store.
My roommates are gone; Peter’s probably off at work at the plant store, Henry’s probably in Albany rehearsing for a gig. Peter always brings back cucumbers, Henry always brings back details of his bandmates’ interpersonal conflict that I find riveting. I sit at the table and notice the water damage on the ceiling for the first time. What is it about the plastic covers on sheet cakes that make them deafeningly loud? The rest of the house is so quiet, I feel like I’m ripping through some sort of intangible peace as I uncover the cake. With all the care in the world, I add twenty-one birthday candles one by one. They are spaced with the utmost precision, not in a line or a row but with a sort of curated abstraction that I want to seem spontaneous yet controlled. I am twenty-one years old. I think about Ancient Greece, rituals and divination. I think about candle lighting; Shabbat dinner at the house of a former friend who will never speak to me again, holding the candles with the round drip covers at vigils for tragedies whose violence and frequency only seem to increase. When I go to blow out the candles on this cake and all its suburban Americana perfection, only half are extinguished. Figures. A second breath kills whatever flickers of light were left. I let them burn long enough to see the wax drip and the wicks blacken.
It is not my birthday.
The fan in the living room whirrs. I can hear my pet rats squeak gently, soft bass line vibrations from cars pass by the windows. The old window air conditioners emit the smell of stale cigarette smoke from tenants’ past and I look up at the ceiling again, the bubbling paint an omen of a months-long ceiling leak that our landlord will never fix. I look back down at the cake. I’ve never liked my hands; despite being relatively tall myself I’ve always felt that my fingers were disproportionately short. I bite my nails until they’re nubs. Once or twice before I’ve managed to let them grow out for a month or two, but I decided that the temporary reprieve I get from biting them outweighs whatever aesthetic improvement comes from leaving them be. I stick my hand into the center of the birthday cake and squeeze. It is soft and cold and moist, I think of moss. I pull out a fistful of cake and roll it up until it is a shiny, oily, dense ball. I squish the ball flat in my hand and then throw it in the trash can. My hand is covered in frosting and oil and cake crumbs and I do not wash it before I put the cover over the cake and carefully open up the back door, making sure not to let the cat dash out.
Our trash bin smells like old, hot beer and cat litter and sits across from the house where six boys on the college lacrosse team live. I don’t think they like me. It doesn’t matter. I hold the carcass of the cake in my arms, the corpse of something I don’t have the words for. I reach my arms into the bin, they scratch against the raw plastic of the edges, but I want to be sure that I can lay my victim down upside-down, the opaque black plastic of the base hiding the evidence of my ritual. On Tuesday morning at 6am, the city sanitation workers will come and take it away, unaware of their involvement in my sacrilege. I don’t eat that day, I won’t the next. I go back into the kitchen, wash my hands, return to my room, and cry.
I lost a lot of weight that summer, I would continue to lose weight into the autumn and winter. I would gain most of it back by the following December. I was well aware of the fact that I was probably slowly killing myself. I have no qualms about my self-hatred, Notes App files filled with pontification on 1890s philosophy and the correlation between discipline and agnostic piety and self-torture, delusionally thinking that starving myself made me a poor man’s Saint Sebastian or Virginia Woolf.
When I was seventeen, my therapist told me I was a narcissist. I asked her how I could possibly be a narcissist if I thought that everyone hated me. She said I had answered my own question—I was convinced that everyone thought about me constantly, that people cared enough about me to notice how much I ate or the way I walked. She was right, of course, and I got that sort of therapy micro-breakthrough usually only found in terrible, smarmy suburban television. By that point, five years ago, I had been on-and-off with my eating disorder for the five years prior. What do you do when you are crippled by your own self-awareness? I cling onto control wherever I can find it, I attach all my self-worth to my intellect that is certainly no more profound or important than anyone else’s, probably because I got called precocious a few too many times as a child. As a result, I think that because I know when I am doing something terrible to myself, it is somehow less terrible. As if having a detached inner monologue vaguely resembling a mediocre twentieth century novel provides some sort of existential brilliance or romance to my life, as if any sort of vocabulary or artistic allusion changes the fact that I have cried over a single hard-boiled egg or held my head inches above countless public toilets, the smell of caked urine and Clorox burning in my nose for hours after.
I feel an immense political guilt in my desire to be thin. I do not want to want to be thin. I have read all the literature, I understand the classist and colonial underpinnings of institutional and interpersonal fatphobia, I see it as a necessity of any good radical politics to tear down our current conceptions of fatness and embrace body neutrality. I watch the gazes of my friends as they ensure they eat less than everyone else, I eat more in hopes that they are able to do the same. If I know what I’m doing is a phalange of a system I resent, why can’t I stop doing it?
Maybe I’m haunted by this image I’ve constructed, the image of a brilliant artist or writer, hunched over and obsessed with their craft, living off cigarettes and jazz records. I resent that I never got to be mousy, knobby-kneed, the type of strangely beautiful gifted to some girls that inspires songs and photographs and Milan Kundera romances. These lithe women are always posited as more beautiful and more insightful than their curvier counterparts, perhaps the result of some kind of Madonna-Whore pathology that labels some women as curvy therefore sexy therefore slutty therefore stupid, the Enlightenment-era desire to define eros as antithetical to rationality, the waif exempted. Maybe it’s cultural or just a product of my own fucked up internalities, but it seems that there is a general equation of thinness with brilliance, the oddball Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell, so caught up in the divine urgency of the things they have to say and do that they have no time for mortal habits like food or sleep, instead simply folding their thin legs underneath a typewriter chair, eyes growing bigger as the rest of their faces shrink. And I know that this image holds no material truth, I know that the smartest people I know vary in size and shape. I know that anorexia is all-consuming, there is no time to form cogent thoughts when you are eaten alive by a need to further your own disease. I know that I live through a voyeuristic gaze turned in on myself, living out of my own body so that I can witness it in black and white 35mm film. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it, and in truth I’m simply still reeling from the psychological impact of growing up in a house of Fiber One bars for dessert and the blinding bright teal of the South Beach Diet cookbook in the kitchen.
Using beautiful and forlorn vocabulary to narrate your own self destruction does not change the fact that you are destroying yourself. We are not privileged to exist in well-lit vignettes framed by cinematographers or paragraphs composed for the undulation of their prose, instead we must navigate a space that is boring and gross and sweaty and expensive and whole. I used to sit in front of therapists and councillors and friends, recounting my struggles and pains for the sole purpose of impressing them with my self-awareness. I could self-psychoanalyse, I could dig down to the root of my problem and explain it with sharp prose and dry wit, I could explain exactly what I was doing wrong and what the solution was. I could do anything except feel my own feelings for what they were, rather than as reference points for some future self-reflection I imagined having.
I think I’m better composed now, but maybe I’m just in an off period of what may well be a lifelong, chronic illness. I do know that it gets easier to detach yourself from that sort of romanticism when its unromantic consequences become fixtures of your life: an overreactive intestinal track that causes plenty of embarrassment, a list of relationships damaged or ruined when friends become kindling in your own self-immolation. My teeth are stained yellow from years of replacing food with coffee and digestion with vomit. I don’t have much of an immune system. I want to feel strong and healthy, I want to do things and make things, I’d rather spend my conversations with friends present and alert than daydreaming about the two rice cakes I will allow myself to eat in the evening.
I had convinced myself that I was thinking of myself all the time because I was special. I thought of it as the necessary tragedy of having smart things to say. There is this cultural conception that smart people are unhappy because they can see the world with some sort of cynical illumination not granted to plebeians, the logic that follows is that one must be unhappy to be smart. Maybe I read too much into Franny and Zooey or accounts of 1950s Beatniks and Oscar Wilde in high school. What I needed, what I still need, is genuine, unrestricted honesty: to be told that my problems were no more interesting or compelling than anyone else’s, that the ways in which I am flawed are not uniquely tragic or infectious, that the only unique facet of my unhappiness was how I had chosen to believe in its profundity.
There is something profound in sharing joy with other people. There is meaning outside of misery, in hand-holding and borrowing T-shirts from people you love and sitting in the park with your friends, sandwiches and sodas in hand. I don’t think I was ever that smart to begin with, and maybe I’m dumber now that I’ve stopped intellectualising every terrible thing I want to give myself permission to do. So what? If I want to find poetic minutia, I can find it in sunburnt noses or old family quilts or grocery store carnations, crossword puzzles and discarded shopping lists and the perfect pink of pickled red onions. Maybe it’s not as artistic or inspired or bohemian, but it’s an awful lot more enjoyable.
“What I needed, what I still need, is genuine, unrestricted honesty: to be told that my problems were no more interesting or compelling than anyone else’s, that the ways in which I am flawed are not uniquely tragic or infectious, that the only unique facet of my unhappiness was how I had chosen to believe in its profundity.”
thank you thank you thank you for telling me exactly what i needed to hear rn
This is so beautifully written I’ve read it twice already.
As someone who grew up in an environment that did not reward outward displays of emotion and relate heavily to intellectualising your feelings instead of just feeling them, I had to see numerous counsellors, and was proud of myself every time they were astounded by my self-awareness. I would spend a good chunk of my days in self-absorbed introspection, and although I now try to devote my energy outwards, I am still guilty of catastrophising every aspect of my life for some non-existent ever-present audience.
This romanticisation of anguish and the superiority complex associated with thinking of oneself as the sole sufferer of humanity is a trap that is so easy to be caught up in, especially when endlessly confronted with depictions of tortured intellectuals who suffer under the weight of knowing unadulterated reality. Overcoming the belief that suffering is somehow sacred and unique to me is something I’ve been working on for a while, and you managed to articulate so well the truth I’ve needed to hear.
Thank you for this touching piece and sending you strength in your quest to find strength and happiness. Sorry for the long comment!