I’m five and waiting in the front yard for my Dad to return from a two-day business trip to Little Rock. He honks when he pulls into the driveway and I follow him up the red brick sidewalk into the house. I trail behind him in the kitchen while he fixes himself a glass of ice water. I shadow him in his bedroom as he unpacks his luggage. Dress shirts he throws in the pile for the dry cleaners. His lace-up black shoes he places by the door to polish after dinner. My favorite, his Dopp kit, he tosses next to me on the bed. I unzip it carefully and survey all the items from the bathroom that smell like him: Crest toothpaste, Canoe cologne we give him every year for Christmas from Eckerd Drugs, Barbasol.
And his razor.
I pick it up by its silver handle and hold it in my palm. I flip it over, blade-side up. It feels cooler than a rock and heavier than a fork. The blade shimmers, a harmless glint — a sliver of metal surrounded by a thin strip of plastic on either side. I run the pad of my right index finger along the blade left to right. The red bloom on my peach-colored skin shocks me. The pain makes the room bulge and sway.
Why’d you do that?
I don’t know.
Don’t you know not to play with that?
There were things I knew, but more that I didn’t. My head swam with questions I had no words for. Like why I felt so heavy, in my head and in my body, and why I almost always felt like crying.
I could have picked up the cologne, the toothpaste, the Barbasol.
I chose the razor.
I’m thirteen, and I ate too much. Now, I feel ill, and worse, all those nachos and brownies will make my body too big. My grandma says I’m not pretty enough to get away with extra weight. But I have an idea. I kneel before the toilet in the pink powder room and get rid of all of it. I’m not scared; I’m vivified. When the food is out of me, I am filled with a jaundiced power. I do it again the next time I overeat. I get very good at sticking my finger down my throat.
It works. It’s glorious. It’s a loaves-and-fishes miracle; I can eat so much and never gain weight. It’s a shiny, heavy secret that settles deep in my bones.
It’s a dirty business, sure, but at least there’s no blood.
I’m fifteen, and I let the boys at the park punch my arm. I like the attention. They get this look in their eyes when they wind up and prepare to make contact with my flesh. I’m illuminated. I don’t care if they are thinking, what a weirdo; at least I’ve entered the frame of their thoughts. None of them wants to date me. They date my friends: Stacy, Lisa, Stephanie. They dress the same: button-down shirts, faded Levi’s, Red Wing boots.
I remember the first time. The damp air of an early autumn night in Dallas. The starless navy sky. The grass preparing to go to seed for the winter. The sound of U2 playing on some kid’s car stereo.
“Hey, hit my arm. No really. Do that thing where you make a fist but let your first two knuckles stick out.” Do I beg? God, maybe. “Come on. Just do it.”
Jared. Sam. Colton. Patrick. A junior I don’t know.
I’m not thinking about the way I treat my body. I’m not thinking about consent or violence or autonomy or self-care or respect. None of that. I’m not thinking at all. I’m all sensation and absorption. A spectacular pain explodes three inches below my shoulder. Brilliant shards of light arc across the darkness behind my eyes. The pulp of me is shaken and bruised. The force of the blows jerk my head as my laughter shudders through the air.
All fall, I watch colors seep across my arm — the faded sweet-corn yellow from a month ago, martini olive from Homecoming weekend, indigo from last week. They say something about me.
I am purple.
I am green.
I’m the faded blue bullseye on the arm of a young girl.
None of the other girls let the boys hit them. I’m too scared for hand- or blowjobs. I can’t fathom that kind of closeness. I can’t bear anything other than a fist on the end of an outstretched arm.
At nineteen, I’m sinking. I can’t get the food in or out fast enough. My impeccable grades slip. My roommate notices her missing food. My monthly allowance fails to cover my campus grocery bills. The future disappears behind the curved metal arms of a vending machine offering pretzels, animal crackers, and Twix.
One night, I faint in the shower after getting rid of thousands of calories. My body slumps in the steamy water, and I have a spiritual awakening: I can die without any blood at all, and I’m well on my way.
Fear finally overcomes my hunger.
I attend a recovery group a week later, and everyone nods when I tell a sliver of my secret. Afterwards, I’m lighter without its weight compressing my spine and hunching my shoulders. Each week, I tell them a little more. I eat like this. I feel like this about my body. I do this behind the bathroom door. At the end of each hour, we clasp our hands together and pray to a Higher Power to restore us to sanity around food. “Keep coming back,” we urge each other. My body rewards my efforts to recover by sending me messages about when it’s time to stop eating. No more kneeling.
I’m twenty-eight and tired of the loneliness. My eating is stable, mostly, these days, and I want more. Someone to spend Sundays with, someone who will hold my hand on the way home from dinner at the tapas place, someone to be my plus-one for all my friends’ weddings. I make myself say yes to every man who asks me out because you never know. Ryan offers to make me dinner at his house for our second date, and I can’t admit I don’t want to go — he’s nice enough, but I feel no attraction to him. I ignore the swirl of resistance in my stomach and point my car toward his house. On the couch after dinner, he leans toward me. The top of my head feels hot from the too-bright overhead lights. My deepest full-body desire is to be alone in my car headed back home, but when his lips reach mine, I close my eyes and count to ten before letting myself pull away.
This is my best guess on how to not die alone.
The day before my thirty-first birthday, I sit in an A-frame great room at a rustic retreat center in Sandwich, Illinois, listening to a woman with brown eyes and a cool, swoopy haircut talk about her recovery. This is my first retreat with 12-step people.
The theme of the weekend, “forming healthy relationships,” is comically on point for me, a lonely woman attracted solely to active addicts and clinically depressed men who’ve maxed out their credit cards.
The woman with the swoopy hair talks about her relationship with herself. Oh, how I want to roll my eyes. A relationship with myself? Please.
“I don’t always feed myself when I’m hungry,” she says. Maybe you have an eating disorder.
“Sometimes I have sex with people I don’t like,” she says. Who doesn’t?
“When I’m talking to my mom and want to get off the phone, it’s hard for me to hang up,” she says. That’s how everyone feels when they talk to their parents.
From my chair in the third row, I’m diagnosing, dismissing, and mocking this woman who’s laying herself bare for us; I’m being a terrible, raggedy, small-hearted version of myself. I tell myself to stop it. You’re angry you’re here instead of at a bar-b-que with a hot boyfriend you want to bed. I think the only cure for being this nasty person is to get out of my head and into my body.
I take a few deep breaths.
I wriggle my toes in my sandals and smell the burnt coffee in the pot across the room.
I glance at the clock and stare out the back screen door into the noisy rural darkness, all crickets, katydids, and cicadas.
“The number one thing I’ve started doing consistently for myself is letting myself go to the bathroom when I really have to pee, you know, instead of putting it off until I write one more email or read a few more pages of my book. When I have to pee, I pee!” the speaker says, pumping her fist.
I’ve had to pee for over an hour.
My bladder aches, though I hardly noticed before she brought it up. There is a bathroom 10 yards behind me and another one only a short hallway away. I do this all day long — hold it, hold it, hold it.
There are so many invisible ways to abandon your body. You don’t have to move a muscle.
I’m over forty now. As I gently run my right palm along my left triceps, ghosts scatter — those boys with heavy fists I left behind in Texas with their shit-kicker boots and domestic beer. The light pressure of my hand reminds me of a recent blow, not from knuckles, but a needle, the flu shot I scheduled in November to give myself the best chance of avoiding illness. A few years ago, I skipped the shot, willing to take my body’s chances. I justified my casual approach to healthcare with flimsy excuses: parking is expensive, my schedule is packed. When the fever and body aches felled me for five days later that winter, I promised myself never again.
Sometimes, I pick a cuticle and draw little pearls of blood along my nail. I don’t always catch myself before I go too far. If the red blooms, I stick my finger in my mouth to soothe the pain, and the briny taste hits the back of my tongue. When my husband notices my mangled finger, he holds up my hand with great tenderness. “What happened here?” he asks.
Every day, we are having a conversation, my body and I. When I neglect it — sending that extra email before letting myself pee — she lets me know. The pulsing bladder is a request to be tended to. When I run too far for too long, my tight muscles remind me that there is a price for not taking care, for not listening. Every time I make a choice that keeps my body humming with pleasure and satisfaction, I’m making amends for the times I stuffed, sheared, kneeled, and emptied.
On some Sunday mornings, when mid-morning light pours into our attic, my husband and I queue up a yoga class and salute the sun. Maybe I push a little too hard in pigeon pose or wind up with sore hamstrings from pyramid pose. It’s possible. Good practices can be used for old purposes. But there is a difference between a razor blade and a yoga pose. I let the light in and let it spill over my body.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Mark Bonica/Flickr Creative Commons