the healing muse

Volume 9, 2009

Disappearing Act

Kayleen Wilkinson

           The summer between tenth and eleventh grade I lost 30 pounds. At the beginning of June, I weighed in at 110; by August I was down to 80, maybe even less. They say people with anorexia are trying to be in control. They say a lot of the time it starts when life gets overwhelming, so people try to regulate the food that they eat. That way at least not everything slips away. You build up a tolerance to hunger; it becomes an addiction or contest with yourself where you see just how little you can get away with eating.
            I suppose that's how it started with me. Throughout the duration of my disorder, I was plagued with serious family upsets requiring lawyers, judges and courtrooms; I joined a new gymnastics team and began training forty hours per week to prepare for nationals; I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and clinical depression. I guess I had a lot to deal with.
            When the body first begins to shrink, everyone praises you. On a trip to the mall with my grandma, we walked into a store where two teen girls sitting on a bench looked up from trying on shoes and stared at me. I tried to ignore it.
            "See that?" My grandma whispered down my neck. "They're jealous."
            Between the praise and the delusion from low blood sugar, I developed a wicked attitude. I snapped at everyone. Part of the reason for the mood swings was probably because of how fast I lost the weight. When my sophomore year ended, I was fine. When summer began, I was already too skinny. I don’t remember the process. I just remember it like a slide show: in this frame, we see the healthy, happy girl. And in the next slide, we see the sickly, gaunt girl.

            I never relaxed. If I was sitting, I was sitting up tall, either leaning back with my stomach muscled tense or lifting my legs over and over. Sometimes on long car rides I didn't even sit in the seat, I hovered slightly above it, squatting the entire time. At night after I got home from a four-hour practice, I would stay up for hours doing sit-ups, leg-lifts and push-ups. To me, it was just another obligation, like walking the dog or turning out the light. I would sit down for a minute, and then think, oh shoot, I forgot that I need to do 1000 sit-ups right now.It might slip my mind temporarily, but I always rolled out of bed reluctant to just lie down and sleep. Every muscle in my body was as defined as a professional body builder's. My skeleton was equally visible. I could have been used for medical students to study anatomy.
            I weighed myself constantly; it was a routine practice that became a mindless compulsion. I had learned one of the nuances of my bathroom scale is that the little red dial will bob above and below the number that is your actual weight, before settling still. One day I lifted myself onto the scale and stared down, waiting for the red hand to stop, it barely made it past 80. I was startled and jumped off. It was more than five pounds lower than the day before. I never saw myself as any smaller than anyone else on the streets. I didn't look at myself and think I was fat, but I didn’t register my smallness either. I truly saw myself as quite average.
            I was sitting at a table by myself in our family friend Big Dave's apartment while his daughter Lindsey and my mother sat at the other side of the room chatting with each other. For some reason they were talking about body fat percentages and the BMI scale. I felt no compulsion to jump into the conversation.
            "Between 18 and 24 percent is normal," my mom stated.
            "So what would like two percent look like?" Lindsey asked curiously.
            My mom threw a disdainful nod in my direction, "You're looking at it."
            "Eew," Lindsey said. She and my mom stared at me, as if I were "figure 3b" in a medical textbook.

            For a while I was at a point where I wasn't even hungry anymore. I didn't even like the taste of food, and chewing disgusted me. But eventually I got hungry. When I did, it felt like my insides were turning to clay, and I was getting pushed to the ground, laden with confusion. I ate so little that a doctor once guessed that my stomach had shrunk down to the size of a walnut.
            My body ached. Sitting in the hard desks in school I felt a pain all over, like the one convicts feel when handcuffs are slammed around a bony wrist. I had dull cramps in my lower legs that were so bad at times I would have to be carried to my bed, where I would lie awake writhing in pain, my eyes open just enough to let the tears fall down onto my pillow.
            At night I fell into a deep, solid slumber and had such vivid dreams, it felt like all of my senses were engaged, and I was in constant motion. I dreamt that I was flying. I could feel my hair flitting back, the brisk air on my face, and a rush of wind that lifted me through the clouds, soaring above the earth. Their realistic quality made my frequent nightmares all the more terrifying.
            One morning I woke up, and I could not move. I tried to lift my head, but it stayed still. I tried to bend my legs, nothing. I couldn't bend a finger or even open my eyelids. My breathing was slow and shallow. I was panicking but frozen stiff, totally paralyzed. When my blood began to circulate, I was able to roll around and eventually sit up. It was such a relief to finally come alive, like lying in a bathtub full of water too long and sitting up fast, emerging from the water and gasping for air.
            I was trapped in a distant solstice where no one could reach me. When I ran my hands through my hair, the lifeless strands fell out as easily as lifting dried flowers out of a vase. Ash-grey streaks drifted vertically down my teeth. My skin had the pallor of an icy winter sky. I was slowly dying. I was once a great strong tree with sturdy branches. I began to shrink back to a bending sapling, then started to disappear back into the ground as a seed, buried and vulnerable.

            My mother tried every approach to get me to eat. She would be nice and try to make my favorite dishes, but I snubbed them. She tried to make food fun, taking me out for ice cream or baking cakes. I enjoyed this. I was fascinated with cooking, I just had no desire to eat what we made. So she got firm. Eating became the term I had to agree to in order to go to school or practice or to a movie. I sat for long hours at the dinner table alone glaring at a plate full of food. I saw that I was making her upset and sympathized with her in a bizarre way, forgetting that since I was the one who started this, I should be able to stop it.
            It seemed like I came out of this almost as fast as I had slipped in. One day I got home from school and my parents sat me down and told me that they had three school nurses, one doctor, and a handful of teachers call home in just that afternoon. They unveiled a crate of at least 100 cans of Ensure Plus and told me that I would be drinking two a day until further notice. If I didn't cooperate, my mom was going to send me away.
            Sure, the Ensure had all the vitamins and minerals I needed, but drinking it was like swallowing a chalky old carpet soaked in raw milk straight from the cow, with a cheap chocolate after-taste. It sat heavy like sand in my weak stomach. No matter the speed I consumed this treat, I felt like barfing. Once I chugged it all in one shot—it was like a punch in the gut. I drank it literally drop by drop, using the end of a straw, and it took me one and a half episodes of the "Price Is Right" to finish it. I still wanted to die at the end.

            I don't recall the Ensure making any noticeable difference. The real breakthrough came one night after dinner when my mother made a giant pan of apple crisp. My mother's apple crisp is renowned throughout all of upstate New York, where the true bakers reside. This night, she used the big pan—enough to feed an entire kindergarten class. She spooned my brother a small dish and gave herself and my father a modest scoop. I had scoffed at the roast she made, no surprise to anyone, but did accept a bowl of the crisp. Everyone offered their compliments to her. I grumbled that it was decent. To myself I thought DEAR GOD! Nothing has ever tasted better than this! After everything was washed and put away, and my family had retired to the couch, I stayed in the kitchen, next to the pan. Then I got a spoon. I just wanted a little bit more, but after a few bites, I was ravenous with an insatiable hunger, so I ate, and I ate every last morsel. I felt like the food was going to bulge and explode out of my body, just tear me right open. It hurt so bad. I walked over to my mom, crying and holding my bloated stomach.
            "What's wrong?"
            "I ate the apple crisp..."
            "You had another bowl?"
            "No, I had all of it."
            She gave a sympathetic Oh, half chuckled and opened her arms to me. I lay on her lap, and she rocked me in her chair.
            "That was really good for you," she said.
            The next day I had six peanut butter and fluff sandwiches for lunch. Once I started eating, I could not stop myself. At first I lost weight because my body was exiting recovery mode and making lots of repairs, but I was slowly starting to gain it back. It was harder for me to fatten up than it was to lose weight, both physically and mentally. One morning I stepped into a pair of jeans that had been my favorite for years, and I couldn't get them past my knees, I cried hysterically. I didn't want to get bigger, mostly I just didn't want attention of any kind for my drastic changes in appearance. As I stopped refusing food, I stopped feeling sad for no reason; I began to accept what was happening.

            At the end of my junior year, we went to the graduation ceremony at my high school. I wore a dark skirt splattered with small flowers and buds, and a soft pink halter-top that tied into a big bow around my neck and wisped my hair into a twist. I stood at the high edge of the outdoor stadium to pose for a photo with one of my friends, and my mom shouted out, "Look how good she looks! Do you see? Look at her! She's back!"

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