In the waiting area, Dad picked up a magazine and rifled through its pages while I fidgeted with my hands and bounced my legs, not knowing what to expect from this. Dad had experience with counseling when Mom was struggling; but from what I understood, counseling never worked for her.
A tall woman popped her head out of a room. She had black hair, wore black-framed glasses, and dressed in slacks and a blouse. She reminded me of an owl. She called my name.
“I’m Susanne. Come on in.”
Dad and I rose from our chairs at the same time and followed Susanne into her office. It wasn’t large, just her desk with all her certifications hanging on the walls. There was a couch for us to sit on and a doctor’s office scale in one corner. No strait jackets in sight. Dad and I took a seat on the couch, looking expectantly.
Susanne took a seat at her desk and grabbed a file with a pen in hand. “So,” she began, owl eyes peering at us, “What are we here for today?”
“Well, my daughter thinks she’s fat,” Dad began; “But as you can see, she’s skin and bones.”
I rolled my eyes and let out an annoyed huff, “I’m not that skinny, Dad.”
Susanne stared at me in silence. I wondered if I was supposed to defend myself. “Do you believe you are fat?” She finally asked.
“I am fat,” I said flatly.
“She doesn’t get her period. She won’t eat. She exercises all the time. She has some odd habits around food.” Dad’s term, “odd habits,” made the hair on my arms stand up.
Another criticism. Like I am the only one in the family who had “odd habits” around food. What about you, going all day without eating a bite, binging on beer after you get home from work, then gorging on food while sitting in front of the television at night. But I’m the one with “odd habits” around food.
After a few more minutes of Susanne’s owl-stare, she said, “Let’s weigh you to see where you are right now.” I inhaled sharply and stepped on the scale. I watched as Susanne’s hand moved the weight indicator further and further down the balance bar, searching for equilibrium again. She spoke the number out loud and wrote it down. My face beamed with satisfaction. My state of mind depended on the number, and according to this scale, I had lost two pounds since I weighed myself last. From that point on it didn’t matter what Susanne or Dad said, I would have a great night.
“Do you know that you are underweight for your age and height?” Susanne asked. I shrugged; “Has she gotten a bone density scan yet?”
Dad shook his head, “Not yet but we are scheduled for one in a few weeks. Dr. Lambe, the doctor who recommended you, set one up. She thinks she is anorexic.” Anorexic. That new enigma of a word that entered my vocabulary only recently. It floated around in my head like a butterfly, light and graceful. The word was like a disease or an imperfection coming from his mouth. But for me, it was salvation.
“Has she seen a nutritionist?”
“No, not yet.”
“I recommend having her go to one to help her understand how calories work.”
I sat there, voice in my head racing. It was a constant thrum in my mind that no one understood. It was a creature with a pickaxe chiseling away, changing me into thinking and feeling differently from what I once did. You can’t eat that. You can eat that, but not too much. If you eat that you will have to run five miles afterwards. Whatever you do, you cannot gain weight.
The word, “fat” was the worst word in the world for me. It was viler than any other profanity I had ever heard. I winced each time I heard the word “fat” in passing, in writing, as a joke, or whenever the voice told me I was so. Now the voice rattled, If you see a nutritionist, she can help you lose more weight. Just go along with what they are saying. The easier you make it on them, the easier it will be on yourself. You know what you have to do to stay skinny.
When the hour was over, Susanne asked if we wanted to reschedule something for the following week. To my surprise, Dad said yes. I could see the skepticism on his face. He told me about Karen Carpenter, a young singer who died of heart failure because of her anorexia. But I knew he would not be able to make me eat or stop exercising even if he told me stories about dying. The thinner I was, the less I would be seen. I could be invisible. I could get lost. No one could find me.
When my mother was alive, she insisted that she heard voices in the house and saw people peering in the windows at night. I wonder if she also heard them in her mind. After my brother was born, she suffered from postpartum psychosis coupled with depression. The doctors said a few weeks on the mental ward, along with antipsychotic medication, would “snap her out of it.”
She agreed to go to the mental ward where they promised she could get help. But the place swarmed with people who had a broad spectrum of issues. People yelled. People sat on chairs in catatonic states, mouths open and drooling. People wandered around freely until they bothered one too many other patients and the nurses took them back to their room to drug them.
Mom wasn’t like those people. The ward just made her anxiety worse, so she came back home. She didn’t like taking meds since she knew, as a nurse, what the side effects were, so she stopped and hid them in her dresser. The autopsy revealed an increased level of adrenaline in her body. The official causes on the death certificate: cardiac arrhythmia, severe stress disorder, postpartum depression.
A few weeks later, Dad and I stood in the kitchen. The sun had disappeared, swallowed up by the winter’s short days. The soft, yellow glow of the kitchen lights illuminated Dad’s already pale face. It made him appear sallow and sickly, with his disheveled black hair and full beard. He wore his flannel long-sleeved shirt and navy-blue slacks, a beer belly poking over the rim.
He held a head of iceberg lettuce, which he would eat in front of the TV.
Dad’s glassy eyes indicated he was in the mood for a fight. Sometimes the booze did that to him. He knew what to say to push my buttons. He had done the same with Mom. “You look like a skeleton,” he spat, chunks of lettuce spewing out of his mouth.
Unbeknown to him I fed from these comments. They were the sustenance I needed to keep me in the throes of my eating disorder. If people told me I looked emaciated or skeletal or bony, it was the reinforcement I needed. But I played along, “No, I don’t! I’m enormous!”
“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? Look at your bones. Look at how they stick out of your shoulders and clavicle. Your hips and your spine. You look like a boy.”
“You think this is skinny?” I pinched a section of my arm to show him I still had a lot of fat; “That’s just loose skin. There’s no muscle.”
I watched him as he spoke, bits of lettuce rolling around in his mouth as he ejected the words. It was disgusting. I was disgusted by the way he ate. He had no will power like I did. I could go without food. He couldn’t even go a day without drinking beer. Finally, I had something that made me special, and it was all mine.
I sensed my sister and brother in the adjacent room watching television but listening to us. I couldn’t back down now, especially since the alcohol did most of the talking; “Shut up, Dad! I don’t need to hear this from you!” I fired my measly barbs back at him, trying my best to defend myself against his onslaught of what he thought were things to get me to “snap out of it” and eat “normally” again. It was not a switch I could just turn off. I could take medication. That could help.
But I didn’t want the voice to leave. It kept me thin. “And I stopped taking the antidepressants!” I knew that would hit him hardest. He would remember Mom did the same thing. I felt satisfied as I huffed upstairs to the solace of my room. Despite the shield I put up to make it appear I didn’t care, I knew deep down there was something wrong with me. I should have been out doing things normal teens did; instead, I was counting calories and adding up the hours of exercise I did each day. I threw myself onto my bed and wrapped my arms around my body, feeling the reassuring jutting bones of my spine, ribs, and pelvis. At least I could still feel them. My stomach gurgled and I liked it; the emptiness filled me up with something I couldn’t explain.
I pulled out the diary from my desk. It was where I poured all my secrets, the secrets no one knew. Secrets that became obsessions. It was where I kept my eating schedule and charts of the calories, carbs, fats, and proteins I ate. The self-flagellation went beyond depriving myself of food. I could not explain how powerful the monster’s voice was. I called it ED and it berated me relentlessly if I had one extra piece of bread that day or ate a baby carrot past 6pm. I scoured cooking and baking magazines with pictures of succulent turkeys, honied cakes, sugary cookies, and tasty looking cupcakes and fantasized about eating all of it. It was my way of eating anything I wanted without gaining weight.
I flipped to my daily food and exercise schedule and spent the rest of my night calculating the week’s meals and writing down my exercises.
In my 30’s the voice convinced me that I was eating healthy and exercising to stay in good shape. It wasn’t the same voice when I was a teenager. That voice vanished from my life when I grew up and got married. This new voice wasn’t a constant thrum any longer. It wasn’t waiting for me everywhere I went like a haunting. It was much more subtle.
I didn’t see ED as an addiction. Addictions were things you could see and feel and touch. Addictions were drugs and alcohol. Addictions trick you into thinking you have control. But that’s just an illusion.
Everything was conditional. The length of my workout, the calories burned, whether I felt tired or depleted afterwards. If you exercise this much, then you can eat this food. If you miss a workout, then you don’t get to have as much food. If I didn’t maintain or increase my personal best, then I was someone less.
When my husband left me, I realized I didn’t have control. I waited for him to come back. I wanted him to tell me he loved me and that he always had. After he left, even the voice abandoned me. My mind went quiet. The only sounds were the constant mocking of loneliness and depression, which are their own type of monsters.
The voice quieted the good parts of me that wanted to be found and loved. I wanted to be rescued. I lost my mother. My dad couldn’t be there for me. My husband couldn’t love me the way I needed. No one was coming to rescue me. Like in all hero stories, no one can finish the journey with the protagonist; she must eventually finish her journey alone. She must save herself.
When you lose everything, you have nothing else to lose. So, I became fearless. I write. I travel. I tell my story and in doing so, I heal. And the voice stays quiet.
Kaycianne Russell graduated with an MFA from Chatham University in 2009. Since she was young, she writes to let others know that they are not alone in their journeys. Her work has appeared in Tiny Buddha and Her View from Home. She is currently working on her first memoir.