The way that this forty-something-year-old blonde wearing turquoise cat-eye glasses thwapped my stomach – you’d think she was picking out watermelon. Her pinkish, Anglo-Saxon phalanges bounced off of my ballooned belly. I lay atop the medical exam table, under the singe of fluorescent lights, thinking about the belly I wanted back, the belly I had only a few hours before. A belly that melted into the interstices of my ribcage.
My eating disorder physician, the watermelon picker, is only one of four middle-aged, blonde ladies who would replace my friends and family as the people who know me best. Let’s call the watermelon picker Maurice, my therapist Rosa, my dietitian Sandy, my psychologist Sherry, and my Christian confidante Kimberly. Mondays at 5:00 p.m. are for Sandy; Tuesdays at 4:00 p.m. are for Rosa; Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. are for Maurice; Thursdays at 6:00 p.m. are for Sandy (again); Sunday afternoons are for Kimberly. Sherry fits in there somewhere – depending on whether or not my meds seem to work. I do realize how tragically laughable my social life is. If you’d even call it that.
I heard Maurice mutter something like “Mmmmmyeah, definitely constipated.” Ramen locks boinged about her nodding head, threatening to tickle the peak of my brow bone.
“Digestive system’s just not used to having food in it. Keep taking the Miralax – you’re doing that right?”
I spastically shook my head against the exam table, causing that god-awful paper to bunch up under my neck, forming a pokey mountain range (In Jesus’ name, I repent for using the Lord’s name in vain. Sorry, Kimberly).
Contrary to Maurice’s belief, I was only figuratively full of shit.
Just an hour before leaving my house for this Wednesday weight-check, I had chugged as much sink water as I possibly could – pacing myself in sixteen-ounce intervals. At Maurice’s office (Sandy also weighed me every Tuesday), I would don a wafer-thin hospital gown with “bra and underwear only.” Luckily, I didn't have to worry about the “bra” part. I never wore one for practical reasons. Occasionally I flaunted a lacy, halter-top bralette from Urban Outfitters (I wanted every status symbol of Westlake affluenza), but I was actually extraordinarily self-conscious. Would strangers think it’s weird – weird like a five-year-old strutting around in stilettos? But I was always cold, so I had to compress my raisin-nips somehow. Most of the time, I used NexcareTM Absolute Waterproof Tape. I had a backstock from my ballet days, when I’d use it to patch my blueberry-sized toe blisters. Very versatile. The raggedly torn tape edges were undetectable underneath most of my clothes, thank God. Fabric would drape over my collarbones like a kind of canopy, never grazing the valley of my chest.
I couldn’t wear the weight I was supposed to be gaining by following Sandy’s meal plan – which I wasn’t. So I drank it.
Eighty ounces divided by sixteen...yeah, about five pounds. I didn’t think a human stomach should hold that much liquid at once. I had heard somewhere that a thirty-ounce Big Gulp from 7-Eleven was overdoing it. I turned sideways across from my bathroom mirror and pretended to pose for a maternity photoshoot. Such a painfully ironic ritual of mine. I hadn’t had my period in years, and the chances of anything growing inside of my Saharan uterus were zilch – unless God willed it like He did for Sarah and Abraham, I guess. I didn’t even want to have kids because I was afraid of what pregnancy would do to my popsicle-stick-of-a-body. But I don’t think that would be a loss for evolution, anyway. The genes of a masochistic perfectionist who enjoys a slow death – not exactly conducive to long-term survival of a species.
My eyes traced the contour of my ballooned belly. The “Calvin Klein” printed on the elastic waistband of my tangas read more like “C a l v i n K l e i n.” For practical purposes, they’d serve as a kind of kangaroo pouch to hold my iPhone while I was on the scale. You never know, I had convinced myself, 6.63 ounces could make all the difference. My palms puttered against my underbelly as I imagined punching it. Which is what I would’ve normally done – had I not felt like puking the Atlantic Ocean at any given moment. Not to worry, you’ll pee it all out eventually. It’s just water. What’s more important was getting Maurice off my back.
As Mom and I drove to Maurice’s office, I kept my esophagus in mid-swallow position, determined to prevent the sewage of diluted stomach acid. It didn’t help thinking about the inky rings of mildew lining the mouth of my bathroom faucet, which I obviously never cleaned. I couldn’t risk Mom seeing me in the kitchen, drinking from the actual drinking-water tap. She had caught onto my water-loading technique last week, when I made the mistake of bringing my forty-ounce Hydro Flask in the car. I was surprised, and constantly suspicious, though, that she never said anything about the tub of cashew yogurt – which she bought at my request – that seemed to stay full forever. Or the countless meals she had pre-made for me, slowly congealing inside the kitchen trash can, swaddled in Bounty.
We hit a speed bump. I heard belly water clap against the roof of my stomach. It sounded like a xylophone. Good thing Mom was blasting 80s on 8.
The nurse at Maurice’s office led Mom and me into an exam room. The awkwardness became even more palpable as we passed by another mother-daughter pair and a mother-son pair. I think I have those shorts from PacSun. His carrot-tip elbows look like mine.
I almost laughed when the nurse asked me, “How are you?” She and I both knew that Maurice had threatened to hospitalize me last week. She knew my deepest struggles, the realities of anorexia nervosa, more so than my closest “friends” at school. More so than Mom, who’d built an invisible wall around herself. It was made out of something impervious to my tears, apparently. I don’t blame her. A fucking cumulonimbus, I was.
I predicted that the nurse would hand me the same ol’ orange pee-jar and tell me “to prop the door open when you’re ready” to step backwards onto the scale, which she’d roll into the room. You could hear the goddamn wheels schlucking from Mars. Mom would scramble to get a look at the numbers, as if she’d suddenly realized her chair was a frying pan. That did wonders for my anxiety.
I knew the drill.
I told Mom, “Don’t look” in a nasally manner, which definitely came across as brattiness. While she was presumably inspecting her Facebook feed – and hopefully not my sallow skin, stained with self-inflicted bruises – my thirteen-year-old twiggy arms flailed around, trying to peel off my Brandy Melville tank top. Yes, the one with those dreadfully ubiquitous rainbow stripes.
I skittishly scraped off my Lululemon leggings, dreading the moment when that icy, hospital-scented air scorched my skin. I snatched the white gown on top of the exam table and helplessly waved it around like a flag. When the fucking origami puzzle finally decided to let out, I tied it around myself as tight as possible, but I could still feel a draft of AC wafting over my unleavened chest.
In the blur of limbs stripping other limbs, my fingers made sugar-plum swirls. I looked down at my toes, which were purplish, too. I would eventually learn why: my body had nothing to eat but itself. My heart had physically shrunken and rationed its pulses. So my poor extremities only got a little taste of oxygen-rich blood. I hated my heart for being so resilient. Sometimes I still do.
I tried filling myself with lots of other stuff, too. Just not food – willingly, at least. Take, for instance, the Holy Spirit. I’m not being entirely sarcastic here. Ever since this absolutely tear-duct-wrecking meltdown during Fall Term of freshman year (I was convinced that I had burnt away all of my muscle after purposefully overexerting myself on the Versaclimber), my Mom shipped me to Kimberly’s house for Sunday prayer sessions.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled. In fact, I was furious with God – for forcing a bunch of uptight, middle-aged White ladies into my life. All at the same time. And I’ve already got an uptight mother whose name happens to be Karen. He had thrown a wrench in my plans. I had dreamt about living alone for the rest of my life, so that I could engage in all of the anorexic behaviors in peace, no questions asked. I have since realized that He was doing the exact opposite: saving me from my own self-destruction. But for the most part, I had only known God as some White patriarch to whom my feisty, Korean grandma prayed at 4:00 a.m., every day, for some reason.
Kimberly is the wife of a pastor who used to lead the super-White Evangelical church I grew up attending (As of now, I no longer attend). I try not to think about some of her problematic political beliefs (Don’t ask) – in part because I believe our connection through faith is what’s most important. And I’ve lost too many neurons thinking about why someone so loving refuses to wear a mask during a global pandemic. Regardless, spending time with her makes my self-image a little more bearable. She leads me to believe that I’m loved.
Eventually, I would volunteer to spend two, three, sometimes even four hours with Kimberly. I would leave her house with the imprint of her leather couch on the backs of my thighs and a legal pad of her scribblings. I still meet with her, via FaceTime due to the pandemic. She’s just as surprised as you are.
A “prayer session” could entail a lot of things. I realize this. You might be thinking, Does she speak in tongues? Any self-flagellation rituals? Fasting? No. And fasting certainly wouldn’t be helpful. I would be good at it, though.
In her cozy family room, Kimberly sits on the same, yellow-mustard upholstered chair with a mug of coffee that reads “Best Mom Ever.” My collarbones are practically glued to my knees, so as to avoid falling into the chasm that is her unnecessarily deep-seated couch. Our conversations start out with the mundanest of the mundane.
“How was your week?”
“I’ve got a lot of schoolwork, but I’ll power through it.”
I hear her pen scrawling. After an hour or two of introspective digging, a bunch of conversational details always bloom into terrifying epiphanies.
“In Jesus’ name, I renounce the lie that ‘with a strong willpower, I can do anything.’ I repent for intentionally starving myself, thinking that it would make me stronger, instead of turning to God for strength.”
Kimberly asks the Holy Spirit to “speak to Natalie’s heart, replacing Satan’s lies with truth.” She tells me to listen for His voice. That part’s always a little weird. I can’t really tell if I hear God’s voice in my head, or if it’s just my own thoughts. Or worse – Satan’s?
Unphased, Kimberly furiously scribbles on the legal pad, smiling like she won the lottery.
“Natalie, do you see it? Do you see it?”
I’m half-wincing, half-smiling. “Instead of my own willpower – with God I can do anything?”
“Yes! Yes! I wrote it down here, too, before you said it! You can tell it’s Him because he always speaks the truth.”
My wince-to-smile ratio goes down to about one-to-four. I believe it, and yet I can’t help but think that any remotely attentive, Sunday-school-going child could’ve pulled that out of their ass. I guess they say faith is a journey for a reason.
Some weeks are more epiphanic than others. Anyway, I transcribe all of Kimberly’s legal pads into my Notes app. The note is titled “Truth." I like to think that God gave me these little nuggets of wisdom. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure what else to think.
I am so bad. No. God is so good.
I am so weak. No. God is so strong.
I am so alone. No. God is with me.
I hate myself. No. God loves me.
I am unloved because of something I can change. No. I am loved because of something I can’t change.
Kimberly has taught me how to “break all soul and spirit ties” with Mom, Dad, my older brother Matthew, my grandparents, diet culture, the patriarchy, Versaclimbers, Maurice, and Korean food. Anything and everything I’ve associated with trauma. We “give back to them what’s theirs and take back what’s mine, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.”
I know to text Mom “I’m done” when Kimberly asks,
“Father, is there anything else You want to say to Natalie’s heart today?”
“That I love her.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I am still figuratively full of shit. With a crew of Karens breathing down my neck since the eighth grade, with God hand-feeding me wisdom-nuggets, with four months under my belt at an eating disorder treatment center – you’d think it would be easier to just follow the damn meal plan. Thinking about “how far I’ve come” just reminds me of how utterly fucked I still am.
I gulp down the last of my 4:00 a.m. dose of cold brew concentrate. I wish I didn’t need to sleep, so I could get more homework done. Caffeine makes my heart rate go up, which makes Maurice happy, which means I only have Wednesday weight-checks every month instead of every week. At 4:00 p.m. I’ll have another dose of concentrate before drinking my sink water and driving over to Maurice’s office. Mom finally let me get my license after I got discharged from the treatment center. I’ve got to get the caffeine in my system first so that I don’t dilute it all.
I know the drill.
I lean into my standing desk, belly first. Remember, sitting down means that muscle cells atrophy by the millisecond. I make the corner of my desk slide into an interstice of my ribcage. My pinkies tremble as I try to find the right words. If only my “recovery” ballooned into a classic story-arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But I guess there is some dynamism going on here. I’ve added some Holy Spirit to the mix, on top of all the lies and self-loathing and masochism and stubbornness and denial. That’s gotta count for something.
Baby steps. Right? At least I renounced the vow I made in seventh grade to only eat salad or nothing at all and realized that hunger is an extension of God’s love for His creation. I know what’s true and healthy for me – but just in a purely intellectual sense.
I believe that God can help me recover 100%. But then, as of right now, perhaps I’m at negative 127%. Somewhere around there.
I believe in Health at Every Size and that all foods can fit in moderation. Yet, my heart does somersaults over the fact that my jeans from middle school are still a size too big on me. And even if I lived in a vacuum, I wouldn’t voluntarily eat a donut.
I know that I shall never again wear a Fitbit. I must admit, though, that I secretly check the Health app on my iPhone after school. If the step count isn’t up to snuff (snuff being totally and completely subjective), I’ll make myself go on a walk and tell myself it’s self-care because everyone needs fresh air. I genuinely enjoy myself during those walks, but that just makes it easier for me to gaslight myself. God and I both know why I’m really taking that extra loop around each cul-de-sac.
I believe that I’ll be able to self-love as easily as I self-hate, eventually (maybe). Still, when I engage in self-deprivation, self-abuse, and self-sacrifice – for all the wrong reasons – I feel like I’m flirting with my deepest crush. My brain is trying to sit at the right hand of God while my heart is throwing a wager in the river Styx.
The “people who know me best” are generally aware of my mind-heart disconnect. At the same time, no one in my crew of Karens has ever heard me curse aloud (Except for that one time, when a gust of wind so ungraciously attacked me while I was wearing a flowy miniskirt. I said, “shit” under my breath – to Mom’s horror). If Kimberly read this, she’d definitely tell me that I “have to repent and renounce” – for about ninety-nine percent of what I’ve written. I’ll take Kimberly’s hypothetical advice with a grain of low sodium salt. Quite frankly, the fact that I am full of shit is my truth.