today, I have something a bit different to share… a little bit of creative non-fiction. last semester, I took a Non-Fiction 2 class that was focused on memoir writing and this was my final submission. It is not an exaggeration to say that the class changed my writing, and, honestly, my life… and it was not easy. In this class, I was pushed to ask myself questions that I did not really want to know the answer to and to look at my life though a different lens. as much as I have shared on this blog before.. there’s something about article-ish/diary type writing that feels less terrifying than this.. even if the topic is just as personal. There’s something about creative writing, both fiction and non-fiction that feels so deeply personal. It is something that I do not share with those I know. There’s also something about memoir writing that feels so completely and utterly self-indulgent.. there’s something about making yourself the main character of a story that makes me uncomfortable. Like, who am I to think I matter? That I am central? I’m not. But then again… shouldn’t we all be the main characters in our own life stories? How sad a fate is it to end up in a supporting role in your own life? And how many of us subject ourselves to that role, myself included? Anyway, not that that’s relevant…
What I want to say here is that, by sharing my stories in my own voice in the way that my brain remembers them… I don’t want to do so because I find my stories utterly unique or dramatic or important or interesting… they aren’t any of those things.. but they are mine.. and I want that to be enough.
**NOTE: Memory is a shaky thing. I hesitate to even post this on a platform in which those who were witness to this time will see because I am sure they have a different memory of it than I do. At the same time, I have learned through non-fiction writing that your memory of an event, even if the memory is false, is still valid — your memory shapes a part of you, regardless if the memory is 100% true. We all have truths, and none of them are identical. Still, they are fundamental in building us as people. Anyway, I’m sorry.
“Do you want to see your weight?”
My mind is moving too fast to understand what it is that the doctor is explaining to me. I hear the words emergency room, immediately, and danger. I hear my mom’s voice. I feel nothing. I feel everything.
I don’t know where I am going, but I do know where I won’t. There is no way that I’m going to the hospital. They can’t make me.
Well, I guess they technically can, I’m a still a minor. I haven’t even been sixteen for twenty-four hours yet.
Still. I need to get out of here.
I rush through the waiting room of the pediatrics office. Past the small, chunky television that’s probably older than I am, past the plastic red chairs full of runny noses and tired parents, past the statues of Snow White’s seven dwarves that rest on the shelf above the coat rack. and out the heavy glass doors. I run towards my mom’s car, punch in the code to unlock the doors, and throw myself inside. I try to catch my breath as I cover my face with my ice cold hands.
My fingertips are blue.
Still hyperventilating, I pull my cell-phone out from the pocket of my fleece and dial my home phone-number.
Upon hearing my dad’s voice, the dam that I’ve been trying to hold back my terror with breaks and the tears come flowing like a mighty river.
“They want to take me to the hospital,” I say.
“Well maybe that’s what’s best.”
I’m hysterical now, ugly gasping sobs rocking my entire body.
“I can’t do it,” I yell.
“I can’t!” I hear myself scream — my voice no longer sounds like my own.
“You’re okay,” Dad says. “Listen, just go. You won’t be there long and you’ll be home with me soon.”
My world goes black.
“Oh, happy birthday.”
I look up at the source of the unfamiliar voice — a man, maybe in his thirties, wearing scrubs and holding a clipboard.
“Thanks,” I mutter, trying to figure out where I am.
My fleece is gone. I’m in a blue hospital gown.
When did I change clothes?
I notice that I’m seated in a wheelchair and go to stand up.
“You need to sit back down,” the man with the clipboard says.
“I can walk.”
“It’s not safe for you to do that right now, you need to sit back down so we can transfer you.”
“I walk all the time,” I say, but sit back down anyway. “Where’s my mom?”
“She’s right out there,” he says, pointing through the window of the small room that we’re in, “in the the waiting room.”
“Waiting room?” I look down at my hands, they’re shaking.
“Yes, you’re in the emergency room. We took you back here for an EKG.”
“Oh,” I say, “I’ve never been to an emergency room before. I don’t remember getting here.”
Clipboard Man smiles at me, “You’ll be transferred soon.”
An hour or so later I am sitting on a cot with my mom. I hear the squeaking of non-slip shoes moving quickly across linoleum. I hear laughter, crying, hushed voices, frantic tones. I hear the mechanical beep beep beep of monitors.
There are papers in front of me with names of foods and words like exchange and supplement. There’s a nurse standing before me, telling me that I’m supposed to check off the foods that I like best out of every category: meal, snack, drink, treat. I have to write in any food allergies I have (and then provide documentation or proof of some kind that I am, in fact, allergic to dairy).
My mom is sitting next to me with her hand floating beside my shoulder, not touching me, but still there. I’m confused and terrified and tired and really freaking cold.
Something they don’t tell you about starvation is the cold — the all-consuming cold that no amount of blankets or hot baths or space heaters can combat. It feels like your bones have been turned to ice and your body is being frozen from the inside-out. It’s a kind of cold that makes it that you can’t even think straight, there is nothing but frozen fingers and stiffened joints. Every small movement is met with biting pain.
Here, in my open-backed hospital gown and paper thin hospital blanket, the pain is all I know. My mom talks to the nurse. I hear her mention my dad’s stroke and stress. That I’m this way because of the stress.
I want to scream. Please don’t say that this is because of my dad. This has nothing to do with my dad. I’ve always been like this, it just didn’t matter because I was fat. It’s only real now because you can see my bones.
The nurse hands me three foam-like adhesive pads and shows me where to stick them, one in the center of my chest, one on the right-hand side of my lower ribcage, and one one the left. I stick them on, the nurse sticks a wire into the pads, each producing a distinctive click. I’m handed the grey box that the wires are attached to, I am told something about the wires and my heart and the IV that’s in my arm. The nurse walks away and I stare at my hands.
Eventually my mom has to leave, visiting hours are over and I need to stay here on my little cot in the middle of the busy hallway of the Long Island Jewish Hospital’s pediatrics ward until a room opens up.
My mom hugs me and I feel her run her hands lightly up my back in the motion that I have come to know as The Rib Count — both my mom and my dad have been doing this for a while now, hugging me out of nowhere just to get a feel of my bones. Seeing how many there are, how much they stick out.
Seeing how bad it’s gotten.
The morning after being admitted, I am taken to the ward’s Day Room — a large room with a big rectangular table, cabinets full of art supplies, kids toys, a couch, a television, a sink, and three old boxy computers — for breakfast. There, I meet R, a tall sixteen year old with fluffy dark hair and a bright orange bracelet that reads: FALL RISK. I meet L, a seventeen year old ballroom dancer from Queens, and T, a fifteen year old with hair the color of sand and a feeding tube up his nose.
Food is brought to the table by a member of hospital staff — and we are off to the races. We are given thirty minutes to finish everything in front of us, even having to go so far as licking our margarine containers and overturning our juice cartons to prove that there is not a drop left. The hospital staff member watches each of us like a hawk, frequently calling us out for acting out “behaviors.” No, you can’t eat any of your cereal dry. No you cannot cut up that banana and put slices of it in your cereal. Take bigger sips of your milk. Stop looking at your apple like that. If you don’t eat that last bite, you’re going to have to drink an Ensure.
After breakfast, we are told that we can’t leave the room for twenty minutes. R goes over to the art cabinet and grabs some beads. L stays at the table. I sit next to T and pull out my Nintendo DS.
“What ‘cha playing?” T asks, leaning over to look at the screen.
“Cool! Can I watch?”
“Yeah of course.”
Later that night, at dinner, T is seated on the couch again, watching the news while L, R, and I are forced to eat real food. T’s lucky, he just has the calories flow into him — he doesn’t have to think about it. Although, I think that would freak me out too. Not having any control over anything I put in my body.
Not that I really do now.
Suddenly T jumps up, and rushes over to the sink, he retches violently, vomiting up whatever little sustenance his emaciated body contained. Was he making himself do that? Could you even purge with a feeding tube in? The hospital staff-member watching us jumps up and grabs him. There is more commotion, other staff-members are brought in, and T is escorted out of the room.
L, R, and I sit in silence. We can’t finish our meals, it’s too overwhelming. L stares at his tray until time is up. R has tears in her eyes.
I never see T again.
“I heard he got transferred to Princeton last night,” R tells me.
Our sitter-of-the-day gives R a look that says, watch it.
“Princeton?” I ask.
“It’s a super intense inpatient facility for eating disorders,” R continues, her voice a bit quieter. “I mean, you’ve gotta be really bad to wind up there.”
I feel a twinge of jealousy.
Later that day, I examine myself in the mirror of my hospital room. I lift up my sweatshirt and stand on my tippy-toes to get a good look at my body from the waist up. I see bones that I didn’t even know I possessed covered in yellowed skin. I see a head with sunken eyes and a chapped mouth, both of which are far too large for the face on which they sit. I see dirty-blonde hair hanging limply over a skull, the hair-line is receded and patches of it are missing all together.
Is this what I actually look like?
I shut my eyes tightly and open them again to a completely different reflection.
The creature in the mirror is no longer a human skeleton with skin, in fact, it doesn’t even look human. I see cheeks, bulging and drooping like a bull-dog’s. I see mis-matched eyes on what looks like a melting face. I see boxy shoulders on a stocky-frame. I have never seen another human being that is shaped like this. It is all so fundamentally wrong. It’ is disgusting. I am disgusting.
I don’t know what I look like, not really. I have never known what I look like. I will, for years to come, go to my mom and ask her to explain to me what I look like. Am I wide or narrow? What shape is my face? What do I look like? Please explain to me what I look like. My reflection is never the same.
I have a vivid memory of myself at around seven or eight balancing on the ledge of the bathtub in my parents’ bathroom. Standing like this is the only way that I can see most of my body. I look at my naked body and pinch my thighs. I punch my stomach. It’s all wrong. I don’t look like a person and it scares me. I can’t recognize what I’m looking at.
I step down from the tub’s ledge and lean against the sink to get my face as close to the mirror as I can.
“You don’t exist,” I say to the thing in the mirror.
My body has never felt like it belonged to me. I feel like I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be — somewhere that it’s wrong to be. I am too aware of it because it doesn’t feel like it’s mine, it doesn’t feel like it’s me. This body takes up too much space. It has always taken up too much space. This body is too big and I am too small. I am a giant — the mere existence of this body is an imposition on the world. I am a speck of dust — the world is too vast for someone like me. I try to scream, but my voice is too small to carry. I’m right here, please notice me. Please. Don’t you see me? Wait, no. I don’t want you to see me. Not like this. Not at this size. Please look away. I’ll be back when I get rid of this body.
I have another memory of myself, one where I am nine and in hysterics on the living room floor.
“I want to go home,” I scream. I scream this again and again and again.
My dad calls me dramatic. Tells me to stop with the theatrics. I’m making no sense. I just want attention. I need to stop being weird. People won’t like me if I’m weird.
I bang my head against the floor. I’m aware I am, in fact, home. I know what I’m saying makes no sense. I also know that I can’t stop. I’m homesick for a place that doesn’t exist. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t exist. This isn’t real. I need someone to tell me that it’s okay. That I’m okay. I need feel someone’s arms around me to prove that I am real.
Since I am admitted on a Friday, I have two days before I need to start Day Program. It is explained to me that Day Program is where I will spend the day with other anorectics, both the two that are currently inpatient with me, as well as other who have been released to outpatient. The day starts with “school” (wonder how that’s going to go), then lunch, cognitive behavioral therapy, snack, and more group therapy.
“Sometimes,” R says. “We get to go outside for like, fifteen minutes. It’s nice. You can’t stand though. We just have to sit there. Apparently standing is burning calories.”
The first day of Day Program arrives and I am seated at a long wooden table with six other patients. I don’t say a word during Program, though R and L both attempt to make me a part of the conversation. I hear sad stories, real reasons for people being here. There is M, the eleven year old with the bushy hair and the past of abuse. There is V, the thirteen year old who screams during snack, throwing her muffin across the room — her background is one of extreme parental neglect. L has his dancing, and the pressure of staying thin in the dance world while also needing to maintain “being a real man.” R is an athlete.
And what am I? What reason do I have to be here? What am I supposed to say? That my family loved me too much? That I had too good of a childhood?
I have no past trauma, I have no good reason. No real right to have to feel the way I do. I had a happy childhood, I just wasn’t a happy child.
I was always unhappy and I had no right to be.
Don’t you know how much better you have it than most people? Stop it. There are people with real problems. I know, Mom. I know, Dad. You guys have told me so many times. Every time I broke down. And now I’m here. I’m here with my made up problems and I’m making you sad.
My mom visits me at the hospital that night. She gets here with just thirty minutes left in visiting hours, the kind nurse at the desk tells her that she can have an additional ten minutes with me.
It looks like my mom has aged ten years since I last saw her. She’s pale, and there are dark circles under her eyes. She’s been trying to get here every night, but it’s been hard. My dad went into the hospital just hours after I did. I don’t know much except that the hospital he’s at is in the city.
My mom’s entire life has become hospitals. She works as a nurse in one, then spends her days off dividing her time between two more.
“I’m so sorry that I haven’t been here more,” Mom says, laying next to me on my hospital bed. “I’ve been a bad parent and I’m sorry.”
I hate when she says things like this, when she uses the tone that tells me I’m hurting her. All I do is hurt her. It would be better if I didn’t exist.
I think back to last year when she finally saw all of the cuts on my arms. I had never seen her so angry.
“Why are you so mad?” I asked my back against her locked bedroom door.
“Because you’re hurting my child. No one is allowed to hurt my child.”
“It’s really okay,” I say, smiling. “K’s been here every night. We watch movies and she brings crossword puzzles and I’m getting really good at them!”
My mom hugs me again.
“You really don’t have to come here at all,” I say. “I’m okay. I’m doing really well.”
I meet Madison on my fifth day in the hospital.
I first see her in the hallway, a tiny girl in a hospital gown with twig legs, and bare feet. She holds on to her I.V. pole like she needs it to hold herself up as she is guided down the hallway by a nurse.
The nurse seats her across from me at the breakfast table. I smile and say hi, she just looks at me. Her blue eyes look cloudy, like there’s no life behind them at all.
Madison is eight years old, the same age as my little brother. She hasn’t eaten a solid meal in over three months.
She drinks her strawberry Pediasure through a straw. I hear the thwp, thwp, thwp of her tongue hitting against the straw, stopping the flow of liquid between each miniature sip. She drinks in the same manner that one would expect a newborn drinking from a bottle.
She drinks in the same manner as me.
How can someone be so sick at eight years old?
I think of myself at eight, smiling in pictures with my hair falling in ringlets down to my waist. Of the Central Park Carousel, of curling up next to my dad every night to read Harry Potter. I think of the little girl who had no reason in the world to ever be sad.
I think of myself at eight with my finger down my throat on Easter Sunday. Screaming. Beating myself over the head with an encyclopedia until I saw spots. Begging for someone to actually see me. I think of a little girl being told how much worse other people have it, of the fact that she had no right to be miserable.
I look at Madison and wonder what things have been like for her, how she got here. How she, at eight years old, came to wear her pain.
There comes a point where anorexia can no longer be ignored. When it can’t be written off as a result of stress — when it can no longer be about anyone else but yourself. Our internal pain is worn on the outside — our protruding bones dripping with sadness and desperation.
Anorexia is a disappearing act. It begs to ask a question — a final desperate plea.
Will you finally see me if I disappear completely?
Upon finishing my meal, I head over to the art supplies closet to grab some construction paper and crayons. I write “GO MADISON!” in big bubble letters and hold it over my head.
“You can do this!” I say, jumping up and down.
Madison looks up at me, her expression unchanging.
This little girl probably think I’m out of my mind, but there’s something in me that can’t leave her alone. I want to hold her close and hear her pain. I want to hug her an never let go.
I dedicate the rest of my stay to Madison. I finish my meals with time to spare and cheer her on as she tries to finish her Pedicure within the thirty-minute window. I talk about her during Day Program (for some reason, she doesn’t join us downstairs), and draw her pictures. I am now The Perfect Patient and Dedicated To Getting Better. I tell my doctors that I don’t have anorexia, that I’ve just been really stressed out since my dad’s stroke in January and lost a lot of weight.
I am “totally better.”
And I am totally playing the system.
Despite my making a fool out of myself on the daily with my signs and cheering and jumping around, Madison has not said a word to me. Occasionally she’ll look up from her Pediasure, and sometimes she’ll even give me a small smile. I am doing my best to try and appear better for her — to help her. She doesn’t deserve the hell that is an eating disorder. She deserves to be a normal eight year old. She deserves to be happy.
On my tenth day, I sit in Day Program and draw manatees and talk about how I’m going to Florida in two weeks.
“It’s my favorite place in the whole world,” I say. “Once I’m there, I’ll be completely better. Everything’s okay when I’m there. It’s just the winter here, I get so depressed.”
L raises his eyebrows at me.
Erin, you realize you’re not getting out of here by then, right?
Suddenly I’m crying.
It’s true though, isn’t it? I look around the table, at R and L and M and V. None of them have been here for any less than three months, and none of them seem to have any reason to believe that they’re getting out soon. I want to believe that I’m different. I want to believe the lie that I’m the weight I am because of the stress following my dad’s stroke. I want to believe the lie so badly yet that lie makes me angrier than anything. That lie is what my mom told the doctors when I first got here. I wanted to scream. No, this has nothing to do with my dad. I’ve been this way for years. This disorder is mine. No one caused it. It’s no one’s fault. It belongs to me. It is the only thing that truly belongs to me.
On my thirteenth day, after breakfast, I am told I am being discharged — and not only that, I am not required to continue with Day Program as an outpatient.
“Wait, you can’t be serious.” I wait for my doctor to tell me she’s kidding. I had begged my mom pretty much every day since arriving here to ask that I be taken out of Day Program — that being around other anorectics did more harm than good for me. I was told no every single time, that it was a requirement for both inpatient and outpatient.
“I am,” my doctor says. “Your cousin will be here to sign you out after Day Program.”
K’s going to sign me out? That’s weird. We had to lie and pretend she was my sister just to make it so that she was allowed to visit me when I first got here. I’m surprised that they’d let her sign my discharge papers.
I spend the rest of the day on cloud nine. I tell R and L that I’ll miss them and that, even though it’s against the rules, we should all keep in touch once. At lunch, I smush up most of my brownie and hide it in a napkin. This is the first time I’ve actually hid food since being here — but hey, I’m getting out anyway. I wouldn’t eat this stuff at home anyway.
When there is about an hour left in Program, I get a text from my mom.
Daddy has cancer. K and B will bring you to hospital here when pick u up.
And just like that, I learn the real reason why I am getting out after only thirteen days (apparently the fastest release they’ve had here), and why I’m getting out of having to go to Day Program as an outpatient. Did my doctors know about it? The Programs staff? How long have they known? Why is my mom telling me this now? And over a text?
“Erin, no phones,” Lynette, the main sitter for Program snaps.
“My Dad has cancer.”
And now everything is dead silent.
R reaches for my hand, I pull away.
“C’mon guys,” I grab the “Apples To Apples” box (a game we finish most of our days with), “let’s play.”
When I get back to the pediatrics ward that evening, K and her husband, B, are already in my room. They greet me as they pack up my clothes, laptop, and schoolbooks, into one of B’s old yellow camping bags.
I wonder how long they’ve known.
K comes over and hugs me. I tell her I’m okay and thank the two of them for picking me up. I need to be stronger, I can’t break now.
After all, this is all my fault. It has to be. I was supposed to die, but now I’m not, so obviously God decided to take my dad instead. It should be me. Things would be better without me around. My family needs my dad. My brother needs a dad.
Suddenly, I remember Madison.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell K and B before heading to the nurses’ station.
“Hi. Sorry. I know it’s dinner time, but would it be okay if I said goodbye to Madison.”
When the nurse opens the door to the Day Room, Madison is sitting next to a blonde woman who I assume to be her mother.
In front of her is a tray of food. Solid food.
“Um, hi,” I say, trying to hide my excitement. If I comment on the food, it’ll probably make Madison not want to eat it. “I’m Erin. I know you probably don’t know who I am, but I’m getting discharged and I just wanted to say goo…”
Before I can finish my sentence, Madison’s mom’s arms are around me.
“Maddy talks about you every night when I come visit,” she says. “You’ve been like a big sister to her. Thank you for being here for her. Thank you so much.”
My eyes well up, I don’t know what to say. I had no idea, Madison still hasn’t said a word to me in the entire time she’s been here.
“She’s been like a little sister to me too.”
Madison’s mom writes her phone number down on a piece of paper and tells me to keep in touch.
Before I leave, Madison’s mom hugs me one more time.
“Take care of yourself, okay?”
The moment I exit through the heavy doors of the pediatrics ward of Long Island Jewish Hospital marks the end of my first life — the Time of Denial. I have lived my life in a state of denial, trying so hard to deflect my own pain. I’m fine, I tell them. I’m okay. Please don’t worry about me. Other people have it so much worse, my pain isn’t real. I have denied my own needs — the need for a kind of love that I didn’t deserve, the need for acceptance, the need for sustenance.
The need to stay alive.
One of my final and most precious memories of my dad is that of a conversation that we had just days before I went into the hospital.
“You know Erin,” he said, holding onto the doorframe for support. “This isn’t your fault. You didn’t ask to get sick anymore than I asked for this bleed in my brain. It’s the same thing, and it’s neither of our faults.”
My second life will be the Time of Mourning — of mourning the loss of my father, the one person who was finally starting to see me — the me that is not the smiling girl in the photographs nor the diagnosis written on my medical records. I was just Erin, a regular human being, and that was okay.
In the years to come, I will mourn many things — I will mourn the loss of my identity, my anorexia. I will hold my dad’s hand in the hospital and make him a promise that, at the time, I don’t even know that I want to keep.
We’re both going to get better and be home together soon.
I will mourn the loss of my disorder in the way it once was — my own little cocoon keeping me in, and the rest of the world out. I will slip and fall often, but I will always get back up. I will find myself in limbo, not quite sick but not quite recovered — and I will feel worse than I had in the deepest of my disorder.
I will mourn the years that I have lost, and the years that I will continue to lose to my disorder.
I will mourn the girl with the protruding bones.
I will mourn the girl with the melting face.
I will mourn the sad eight year old with her fingers down her throat.
I will mourn the girl whose dad told her that she’d be home with him soon.
I dream of living in a world that is more than black and white — where there is not just skinny and fat, happy and sad. Where perfection is not the goal, where being a human being is okay. Where I am me and I exist and that in itself is enough.
There will be days where the simple act of picking up a spoon will feel life-threatening, and there will be a days the voice in my head telling me to starve is completely silent.
The will be days where I want to end it all, and there will be days where I will take in this incredible world of ours and wonder how I ever wanted it all to end.
I will try my hardest to stay a float, and I will try my hardest to forgive myself in the times where I start to sink.
**Memory is a shaky thing. I hesitate to even post this on a platform in which those who were witness to this time will see because I am sure they have a different memory of it than I do. At the same time, I have learned through non-fiction writing that your memory of an event, even if the memory is false, is still valid — your memory shapes a part of you, regardless if the memory is 100% true. We all have truths, and none of them are identical. Still, they are fundamental in building us as people. Anyway, I’m sorry.