Saturday, December 15, 2012
Paper Ornaments--Anorexia, a personal journey
It's Christmas day, and the tree is adorned with paper cutouts of ornaments tied to branches with string. Glass, wire, and implements with even the slightest edge are deemed hazardous and confiscated by the staff, or hidden between couch cushions by desperate patients. The ornaments bear sayings like “Keep on keepin' on” and “You are loved.” The room is drafty, but Donna and I are curled under a fuzzy green blanket on the couch, pretending that the red and orange tissue paper fire in the fireplace is actually emanating warmth. It's not her first Christmas away from home, but it's mine.
Across from us is Marina, clad in a Led Zeppelin shirt and bright pink velour sweat pants. Her black hair is piled atop her head in a giant Amy Winehouse inspired beehive. She is molding a lump of flesh-colored Silly Putty into obscene shapes, and Cara, my roommate, is laughing hysterically. Thumbing through photos of her blue-eyed young son is Gina, a small-framed, exquisitely pretty English teacher. She serves as my makeshift mother here. We sit together in the day room around a makeshift fire, next to a tree with makeshift ornaments. My makeshift family celebrating a makeshift Christmas.
In the far corner are the shivering, skeletal figures of the women holding onto their dear lives with blistered, skinny, sweaty fingers. They are emaciated and their conversations move slowly, heavily, as though each word is dressed in denim and forced to swim against a rip tide. Some are 40 and look 80, some are 20 and look 12. They reek of decay as their bodies waste away. It is their twelfth or thirteenth time in treatment. Their families long ago gave up on them, and I almost can't blame them. Anorexia has won.
Donna and I head upstairs for a Christmas day nap. My floppy, tattered Liam and her plushy, gray Pursely are perched on our beds, waiting for us. It's important to stay in touch with your inner child while in recovery. I put The Velvet Underground on the stereo, and Lou Reed plucks at his guitar strings and gently sings to us, “Candy says, ‘I've come to hate my body and all that it requires in this world.'” We know very well how Candy feels. But I look at Donna, and her sea-green eyes are swimming with life. Her once gray-tinged skin is supple and glowing again. We can think again, speak again, laugh again, and as long as our mirror access is limited, we are happy again. Our saggy, shapeless pants are beginning to fill out a bit. We're getting healthy together.
She wears a bright yellow jacket and a black bandana to tie up a spiky mane of bleach-blonde hair. Every part of the human face that can be pierced is, and the holes in her ears are stretched to the size of quarters. On her shoulder is a tattoo she designed – a scrawny man with butterfly wings. And black, gothic lettering across her chest reads “This Is Just The Beginning.” She smells like lavender linen spray and cigarette smoke.
“My psychiatrist asked if I dress offensively to scare people,” she told me once, laughing. He had a point. You could see how the more fearful girls shied away at the sight of her provocative attire, and I think that's exactly how she wanted it. The silver bullring through her nose and her heavily black-lined eyes seem to warn, “If you're shallow enough to judge me by my looks, then you're certainly not worth talking to.” She smiles with pierced pink lips. I think she is so beautiful. I'm happy to be spending Christmas with her.
That morning we had Belgian waffles for breakfast, a seemingly harmless confection, but sometimes seemingly harmless things are actually the most powerful. A seemingly harmless wave to a friend once caused an Italian captain to capsize his cruise ship. A seemingly harmless rainstorm once flooded the city of New Orleans. A seemingly harmless pebble slung by a seemingly harmless David brought the seemingly invincible Goliath to his downfall.
“How,” I asked the waffles silently, “did you become so powerful? Why am I so afraid of you? Why do you hate me so much?”
“You fat, ugly girl,” they replied. “You fat, ugly, gluttonous girl.”
I thought about my friends at home and the relationships my eating disorder had damaged. I thought about my family, whose Christmas would be spent in the crowded visiting room of a treatment center with fake ornaments on fake trees. I thought about how I had nothing to give them except a few lousy string bracelets, and about all the abusive obscenities I had hurled at them when all they were trying to do was help.
I thought about how waffles are my little brother's favorite breakfast food.
I felt a delicate hand on my knee under the table. It was Gina's. I told her about how waffles were Henry's favorite. She squeezed my knee and said sweetly, “The best gift you could give him is a better you. Enjoy them for him.”
So I did. Never had a cold, soggy Belgian waffle tasted sweeter.