Flash back: It is Sunday night, my senior year of college and I am curled over the toilet in my dorm. Chicken fried rice. I order it every Sunday, and every Sunday, I vomit it right back up. I live in this suite with three other girls, only one of whom was my friend. The other two were spit out by the university's computer. I wonder which of the three know what I'm doing in the bathroom. We're responsible for cleaning the suite but I'm the only one who cleans the toilet, presumably because I'm the only one who gets toilet water splashed onto her face on a regular basis.
I'm not bulimic, though. Just as, during my junior year, I wasn't anorexic. No matter that every weekend for the entire year I wasn't allowed to eat a single calorie until 2 p.m. No matter that I stole food from the school cafeteria, concealing the very fact that I needed to eat at all. I'm not bulimic, and I wasn't anorexic, because girls with eating disorders are thin. I'm just a girl who desperately wants an eating disorder. I loved eating disorders so much that I wrote my senior thesis about them, as if I thought I could get closer to having a real one if I just researched it enough.
Flash forward: the weekend of my 28th birthday, more than three years after the last time I made myself throw up. An image of Sethie, the protagonist of my new novel, The Stone Girl, pops into my head for the first time: A 17-year-old girl, solid as a stone, crouched beside a toilet, vomiting up her last meal. Not the skinniest girl; not a girl who would ever be sent to an eating disorders clinic, who would ever be force-fed through an IV, who would ever be 85 pounds. She doesn't want to be 85 pounds. She just wants to lose a few pounds, and then a few more, and as far as she's concerned, the only way to do that is by skipping meals, and vomiting those that she can't skip.
Flash back: my senior year of high school, when I tell my mother that my two best friends were accusing my of being anorexic because I'd started skipping lunch, because I'd started scheduling "fat-free" days when the only things I would eat were fat-free cereal with skim milk and Haagen Dasz fat-free vanilla fudge frozen yogurt. And my mother, looking at me critically, saying "The last thing you are is anorexic."
But back to my senior year at Barnard. I began going to see a therapist as the student health center. On my first day, I told her that I wouldn't talk about the throwing up. Not part of whatever problems had led me to come to her. Throwing up was frankly, part of the solution, because once I was thin, I'd be a lot less unhappy. Incredibly, she agreed that we wouldn't talk about the vomiting. Maybe she agreed to keep me coming back. Maybe she agreed because she could see, just as I saw every time I looked in the mirror, that the throwing up couldn't have been that big of a problem. I didn't care why, I just knew that I didn't want to talk about it; not because I was sick, but because I wasn't sick enough. Girls with eating disorders are skinny, and I was not. Clearly, I thought, the therapist agreed with my assessment; if she thought I was sick, she would have insisted that we talk about it.
In my favorite class, my writing workshop with my favorite professor, I wrote graphic stories about vomiting. There was one girl in the class who was actually anorexic. I could always tell the difference between a girl who was naturally thin and one who'd forced herself to be. When my professor asked me how I knew I said the secret was written on her face, not her body. A girl who's naturally thin doesn't have sunken cheeks, tightly-drawn lips, collarbones that look like they're clawing to get to the surface.
I spent most of every workshop staring at her and I was relieved when she dropped the class. She made me feel bad about myself: the girl who'd done what I couldn't. I always gave in, I always got too hungry. Some days I ate exactly what I wanted. Sometimes a full week or more would go by without my purging once. Some days I was the girl who avoided social excuses to eat -- I can't take a study break right now, sorry... I can't go out with you guys tonight, I have too much work to do... No, I don't want to get ice cream, I'm too tired.... I'll just keep my door closed and no one will come in... But some days I was the girl who sought out social excuses to eat -- My roommate got an A on that paper! My boyfriend broke up with me! Come on, we have to take a study break!
Girls with eating disorders didn't seek out reasons to eat. Girls with eating disorders didn't skip vomiting when they weren't in the mood, or they couldn't get to a desirable bathroom. I took as these inconsistencies as more proof that I didn't have an eating disorder. When a friend came over with Chinese food one afternoon, I refused her offers to share. I'd already eaten my lunch. After she left, I rifled through the garbage and ate every last bit of the spicy shrimp, the brown rice drenched in soy sauce. But afterwards I joked about it; a girl with an eating disorder wouldn't joke about it.
Flash forward: Current day, and my third novel, The Stone Girl, is about to be published. The book that I waited to write, and the book that I never wanted to write. I always knew that someday I would write a book in which the protagonist had some sort of eating disorder. People who knew me well would ask me, when they heard I was writing for teens, when and whether I would write about eating disorders; I always said no. I didn't want to write it; for one thing, I knew that if I did, I would probably have to talk about my own past, and I'm a pretty private person; and, at this point in my life, I'm certainly not proud of the time that I wasted with my precious body issues. For another, who wants to read another book about anorexia and bulimia? I felt like maybe everything that could be said about eating disorders had been said already, and by people much smarter than I am.
But then, an image popped into my head: a girl, still as a stone, crouched by a toilet. When I saw her, I suddenly knew everything about her. She wasn't an 80-pound anorexic. She was the girl who skates on the precipice of her disorder, not quite diving in; the girl who thinks she isn't anorexic enough, isn't bulimic enough, to merit the titles, to deserve to ask for help. She doesn't have the typical symptoms: no control issues, no overbearing mother. She's the girl who could so easily be overlooked by her friends, her parents, her teachers -- everyone knows she's obsessed with her weight, but no one is all that worried about it. After all, girls who are sick don't look like that.
My senior year, feverishly researching my thesis, I read every book and article about eating disorders and I never saw a girl who looked like me; I didn't have the right symptoms, didn't fit any of the molds. I was jealous of those girls with real eating disorders; I tried to be like them, I wanted to be like them. In The Stone Girl, Sethie has a similar experience, reading articles in the nurse's office: none of them say whether a girl is bulimic if she only throws up some of the time, if she's anorexic if she only starves herself some of the time. It's one of the reasons I wrote the book -- to talk about the girl who lives somewhere in between. There is a pernicious notion out there that there's a "right" way to have an eating disorder. I believed it, too: I never said that I had an eating disorder. I threw up; so I wasn't anorexic. I counted calories; so I wasn't bulimic. And unlike "real" eating-disordered girls, I wasn't skinny, my diagnosis wasn't written loud and clear on my body, but hidden somewhere underneath. In fact, I gained weight the more meals I skipped, the more meals I vomited. I would have been ashamed call myself sick; I didn't deserve to say that I had an eating disorder.
And I don't think I was alone. I think there are so many girls and women out there who think that they don't deserve to call themselves eating disordered, don't deserve to talk about it with a therapist, with their friends, their parents, their teachers. This only exacerbates their circumstances -- they're certainly not about to ask for help if they don't think they deserve to say they have a problem.
Flash forward: present day, and chicken fried rice for dinner. For a long time, it remained a tricky meal for me, and, for a few years, I didn't allow myself to eat it at all. I thought it would send me back to the toilet, the tiles pressing against my knees, the water splashing in my face, the taste of soap in my mouth because I always, always washed my hands before vomiting. But I honestly cannot remember the last time I made myself throw up. The last time was not momentous the way the first time was; when I did it, I didn't know it would be a last time.
Today, the meal no longer sends me into a tailspin. Today, I don't have to starve myself the whole day to earn the right to have it for dinner. Today, I have someone to share it with. Today, I can stop eating when I'm not hungry. Today, the notion of sticking my fingers down my throat seems anathema, disgusting, preposterous. Today, I am so far away from that girl that I can think of her and say: I had an eating disorder. It's not a title I had to earn, it's simply the truth. And, today, I can say: I am better.
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