The Center for Eating Disorders is indistinguishable from other houses on its street, save for a small sign in front of the driveway that reads “Therapist Parking Only.” The sign seems like classic Ann Arbor kitsch, but the cement patch it rests on grows shrink cars like steel weeds on weekdays. I walked past it earlier this evening while meandering my way to meet friends for dinner. I almost forgot it existed, which is strange because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time in my life when I used to go there almost once a week. I’m hungry for answers — answers I tried to find at the center and even before that, since the first time I pushed back the flesh-pink trigger and wondered at the weakness of my fingers, buried so far down my throat I couldn’t even taste the salt on my skin.
I was 16 the first time I made myself throw up. My mom was upstairs and I’d just eaten a whole grocery list, one item after the other, until my stomach felt like there was a blue-ribbon hog rolling inside of it. I’d binged before and it was getting to the point where I was tired of going to bed sugar-sick and ashamed. There may have been a moment of decision, a long silence at the doorway of our small downstairs bathroom. More likely, however, I knew as I was eating that despite every public-service announcement or guidance-counselor lecture about the evils of bulimia, I had been destined to flirt with the disease since the first time I’d looked in a mirror and thought “ugly.”
Do you know what bulimia is? Bulimia is getting used to toilet water splashing up on your face. It’s learning to return to the dinner table, or class, or birthday party like nothing happened, daring others not to ignore the smell of vomit wafting off you like curdled perfume. It’s looking at food as a test that can be failed. It’s the specter of beauty pageants past, present and future. It’s a subplot in a Jodi Picoult novel. It’s the chubby skeleton in the closet. It’s suburban tragedy. It’s self-hate and the pursuit of happiness.
There are people out there starving, eating dirt, dreaming of a little sweetness. There are people who toil until they bleed in order to provide all the sustenance they can for their families. There are people for whom food is (as the nutritionists will urge) simply fuel. There are people who overdo it sometimes, underdo it other times, love cookies and carrots and complain about their waistlines. Then there are people who devour and expel like I did, as if it wasn’t our fault, as if they poisoned our nachos, as if Grandma’s cookies were filled with bones.
I love you like a fat kid loves cake, I say to my reflection. There’s snot pooling with chocolate stomach acid on the crease of my upper lip. There are tears of exertion in my eyes, but I’m not crying. If I was going to cry for anyone, it would be my mom, sitting upstairs watching late-night TV in blissful ignorance. I’d cry because her hugs are soft and warm, and when I ask her if I look ugly she says, “Sweetie you look beautiful.”
It’s been a year since I last made myself throw up and about four months since I last visited the Center for Eating Disorders. I won’t tell you about what goes on in there, that’s for the people who need to know to find out. Suffice it to say, there are good people inside and a warm, dimly lit waiting room that’s perfect for a quick, pre-appointment nap. If you want literature about unhealthy relationships with food or how to chew properly, they have it there. There are no scales in the bathrooms. They do not send you e-mails about herbal supplements that will make your waist shrink two sizes for only $15.99. I appreciate that.
I’d tell you how I learned to chew, but I don’t have enough words for that. The few I have left I’d like to use on one of the only answers I’ve found through my experiences to which I can hold fast — whether it’s alcohol, food or kisses that you use to Band-Aid the wounds of memory, their gauze will only make you feel more lost. You’ve got to get help, not succumb to your unhappiness like it’s something you deserve. You’ve got to let those injuries breathe. Why? Because even when life’s ugly, sweetie, it’s beautiful.
Sophia Usow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.