The day I returned from my honeymoon, I weighed 88.3 pounds.The problem was, I didn’t know I had a problem.
Even when I passed out in the bathroom of our honeymoon suite, hitting my head and gushing blood all over the Spanish tile, I didn’t know I had a problem.
“I just got too much sun,” I said to my husband Phil. And I believed it.
I could admit that I obsessed over calories and exercise – but when family members used the word “anorexic,” there was a complete disconnect.
“I am just a picky eater,” I explained. I believed that, too.
At first, Phil supported me in resisting that label. But when my primary care doctor insisted that I enter an eating disorder treatment center, Phil sat silently, slumped over in an orange plastic chair lodged in the corner of the exam room. He looked so tired, so defeated.
Choosing a facility is like looking at colleges, except you are mentally ill and there are no football games. The first place was a psychiatric hospital. We drove up the long driveway, curving around the pastoral grounds. I half expected a deranged lunatic to come sprinting over the hill, chased by a band of orderlies.
As we sat in the waiting room, I reviewed the treatment options in the hospital pamphlet: Day Patient or In-Patient. “I’ll be a day patient,” I whispered to Phil, “but that’s it.” No way was I moving into this place.
The program director had other ideas. “It’s in-patient or nothing.”
“Why?” Phil asked. “Something is better than nothing, right?”
The doctor leaned forward; his relentless eye contact made me squirm. “It won’t work. She will fail.” He looked down at my legs, then back up at me. “Why do you think your feet are blue?”
I looked at my feet, corpse-like in flip-flops. “It’s cold in here?” I squeaked, more of a question than an answer; a little girl scrambling to cover her tracks.
“Come back when you’re ready,” said the doctor, standing up.
“Screw him!” we said, slamming our car doors. But indignation fizzled into silence. I glanced at Phil, his face ashen, his hands white-knuckling the steering wheel. “We’ll find a place,” he said.
He was right. A treatment center for eating disorders – a summer camp version of the psychiatric hospital – agreed to take me as a day patient on a trial basis. I was to show up at 9:00 and leave at 3:00 – and I had to follow the rules. Meals were timed and monitored. A schedule board listed daily activities: “Friendship bracelets at 11:00.” Friendship bracelets? I was 27.
My first lunch was lasagna. I sat staring at the tower of cheese and noodles when the girl across the table leaned in.
“You don’t need to eat it. You get a freebie on your first day.”
I nodded in gratitude. I pushed the lasagna around with my fork and read the rules posted on the wall: No Microwaving, No Bathroom, No Plate Clearing Until Approved. Some girls wept while they ate, others so sedated they dozed off, fork poised mid-air. The rest were robots: Open, chew, swallow. Repeat.
Tune out. Don’t think. Just Eat. These mantras got me through most meals. But foods with no nutritional value -cookies, brownies, donuts – made me want to come out of my skin.
“Some foods can be eaten just for pleasure,” said the cheerful nutritionist with a condescending wink. Sure. Tell that to the poor girl crying over a jelly donut.
I was ten years older than most of the patients. Some looked up to me like a big sister, despite the fact that I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom unsupervised. One girl liked to stop by my room to talk. She looked at the wedding photo I had on the bedside table.
“Wow, you were really sick then, right? I can tell by your arms.” There was admiration in her voice, as if looking emaciated at your wedding was an achievement. “Did you eat your wedding cake?” Her eyes narrowed, hungry for my response.
She wanted me to tell her that you can get away with not eating your own wedding cake; that you can fake being happy and healthy enough to fool people, even your own husband.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t eat it.”
She nodded, relieved. I felt sad. She didn’t know that having a husband just made things more complicated.
But I did. Everyday at 3:00, I exited the world of art therapy and guided journaling and entered my real world, with a husband and a mortgage and a house that needed to be cleaned.
It was impossible to transform from “psych patient” to “wife” in a short car ride, like Clark Kent entering a phone booth and emerging as Superman. So everyday, I stopped for a secret six mile run. I needed the repetitive pounding of my feet hitting the earth, aggressive music blaring in my ears, drowning out my thoughts. With each mile, the events of the day became more distant and foggy. Then I was ready to go home. To be normal.
One afternoon I stopped at the grocery store for some dinner items, still sweaty and dazed from my run. The automatic doors swung open; the blast of air-conditioning like a bucket of ice water. I felt disoriented by the fluorescent lights and crowded aisles.
I wandered around the store with no sense of purpose, and found myself in the bakery aisle. My hands gripped the orange handlebar of the shopping cart when I looked around.
I was surrounded by donuts: in the bakery case, on the shelves, in boxes arranged on display: Original Glazed, Boston Creme, Confetti Sprinkled, Double Chocolate Dip.
“Can I help you?” said the man behind the counter.
“Can I start a box for you?”
“Oh…no. No. Thanks.”
I pushed my cart away from the glass. The idea of “starting a box” of donuts was as bizarre a question to me as “Would you like to sample some arsenic?” I wasn’t someone who ate donuts.
But I was.
The memory came flooding back: the treatment center cafeteria, the saccharine smell of the chocolate glazed donut, the minutes ticking away. It was the only thing left on my plate. I should have eaten it first. Now I was too full.
Just eat it. The hard glaze made a cracking noise against my teeth. The inside was soft, like birthday cake. Bite, chew, swallow. The biting and chewing were actually exciting, like kissing a boy you shouldn’t be kissing. But the swallowing made it real.
“Excuse me!” A shopper was trying to squeeze around me, her cart tapping impatiently at my heels.
The din of the store was muffled in my ears; I couldn’t breathe. I have to get out of here.
I made a beeline for the Exit and escaped to the safety of my car. I sat with the windows closed; my body began to thaw from the arctic climate of the store.
This isn’t working.
My worlds had collided. I thought I was a normal person with some eating issues. But I knew a panic attack in the donut aisle wasn’t normal.
I am not sure how long I sat in that parking lot. I just knew I couldn’t leave. If I left, the whole scene would be pushed to the back of my brain, stuffed in a mental file labeled “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.”
If I left, I would drive home, go inside and make up a story as to why I never made it the grocery store. Let’s just order dinner, I would say to Phil.
I had to tell someone what happened.
I dug my phone out my bag and dialed the treatment center, then my therapist’s extension. Don’t pick up, don’t pick up. I had just enough balls for a recorded confessional; if she answered I would hang up. It went to voicemail.
“Danielle, it’s Jessie. This isn’t working. Being a day patient. It’s just…not working. I’m struggling.”
What do you call these moments? Grace? Seconds of sanity? It’s the truth slicing through the fog of lies you’ve been telling yourself. When time stops long enough for you to ask: What the hell am I doing?
I was admitted the next day and stayed for three weeks. Now, ten years have gone by. I have two beautiful daughters. I had setbacks early in my recovery, but I caught them early. The voice from the parking lot was more dominant. The more I listen to that voice, the stronger it becomes. Don’t go back to sleep, it says. Stay awake.
Jessica Braun’s writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, NEPA Family Magazine, and Literary Mama. She lives with her husband and two daughters in coastal Massachusetts. For more of Jessica’s writing, visit her blog at www.nocigarettesnobologna.