i am 15 years old and i am a liar.Let me show you who I am.I am alone in the house. In the kitchen sink, I pile some dirty dishes. Pots and pans and a glass bowl with ice cream melted in the bottom. I turn the oven on to 375º and leave it there. This is my lie: I have dirtied the dishes but have not consumed the food.
This is the plan: by this summer -- the all-important summer between eleventh and twelfth grade -- I will weigh 118 pounds. I will have long hair and the right clothes. I will be beautiful and popular, and this popularity will carry me through graduation year in style. I am so swept up in this future fantasy of me that sometimes when I catch a glimpse of my current self, I forget how to breathe.
What you have to understand is this: I was always the skinny one. It is my role in this family. I have two sisters. Diane is the oldest one. She is at university, in a different world. Sonja is the middle one, eighteen months older than me, one grade ahead. She is the direct and immediate competition. Here are her roles: the pretty one, the popular one, the one who gets in trouble. She is also the fat one.
But there is some blurring of that line now, because Sonja is beginning to fade away. She has been on a diet since the seventh grade, but suddenly it is working. She eats rice cakes layered over with peanut butter so thin it is translucent and then she works it off in the gym. She is the pretty one. But I am the smart one. I am the good one. I am the skinny one. If she takes skinny, then all I am left with is smart and good, and that is not enough. It smacks too much of nerd, of goody-goody.
I don't put anything on my rice cakes at all. Peanut butter is, after all, just flavoured fat and oil. I don't need it. I take a rice cake to school for lunch and eat it in front of my locker -- fast, before anyone can see me and comment -- leaving pebbly crumbs on the floor. I go to the cafeteria with my friends. I've already eaten, I tell them. I was starving and I couldn't wait.
I buy my diet soda and sip it slowly. I watch them eat. One girl eats an apple fritter every day. She isn't skinny. Who does she think she is? An apple fritter! A thousand calories of fat and sugar. I hate her for eating it. I want one so badly my chest aches and my head gets light. The empty sweetness of the diet soda turns over and over in my stomach. I push my chair back so quickly it falls over. I say, I have to go to the library. I forgot. I hurry away, head down, heart pounding, my mouth sore from craving so strongly what I am not allowed to have. Not allowed. Says who? Me. I won't allow it.
In the library, I read books about anorexia. I inspect pictures of the ailing girls: their thin, frail bodies; their bones wrapped tightly with translucent skin; their eyes huge and haunted. They look terrible, they look as though they are dying. I do not look like that, nor will I ever. I certainly don't want to die. I will stop at 118 pounds. I read hungrily, hidden in the library carrel. There is useful advice in here, things I need to know. I read about purging -- ipecac and laxatives. I promise myself that I will never do that. I don't have to. I am strong enough to resist the lure of food. I am the strong one. This is my secret.
The days drag on. Outside the windows of the school, winter falls like a black curtain. The sky is heavy with low-slung clouds. I am in biology, perched on a wobbly stool at my bench, trying to get fresh air through the window's open crack. The room is pungent with the stench of formaldehyde. On black, rubber-coated pans each one of us has a frog, cut open and held that way with stick pins. The gray organs glisten. The smell is making me thick-headed and fuzzy. It is almost three o'clock. I will soon be crossing the parking lot and getting on a bus for home. I am thinking about what to have for dinner. Today is not an apple day. I am allowed to have something more -- maybe a baked potato with a sprinkling of cheese (200 calories) or a small meat pie (240 calories).
I am lost in this thought when the teacher approaches. Well, Karen, he says. What do you see? I stand up and drag my attention back to the grotesquely splayed frog, poking at it with my scalpel. Um, I say, gouging at hunks of frog fat. The fat is almost orange and shaped like Kraft Dinner. Bile rises in my throat. Fat, I tell him, clenching my teeth.
Very good, he says. Yes, indeed.
I sit back down and watch in disgust as my thighs spread flat. I can almost see the horrifying pasta curls of lard through my jeans, my skin. Fat, I think. Fat, fat, fat. I decide on a new rule. On alternate days, dinner will be a hard-boiled egg (90 calories). No more meat pies or baked potatoes. The rule is formed before I have time to change my mind.
It is morning, early. Outside it is still dark. My alarm blares. The number on the scale is 130, still twelve pounds away from where I need to be. I turn the heat on and stand for a few minutes over the hot-air vent. The room goes bright white and then gray. I am going to faint, I realize. I sit down on the toilet and then stand up again. I'll get help, I think. Too late. I begin to fall, my head striking first the counter and then the toilet. I hit the floor hard, with a crash that brings my parents running. All around me are the bottles and jars I have inadvertently smashed on the cold tile floor.
I stay home from school. This is good because it means I can get away with eating nothing. All day, I lie on my bed and search for my ribs, carved ivory triumphs so close to the surface of my skin.
One-eighteen still eludes me. My body is stuck at this weight and won't budge. Worse, I can no longer keep this up. I am too tired and hungry and scared that my constant dizziness will lead to fainting in public. I can't allow that to happen -- I am afraid of being noticed, of calling attention to myself. I begin to eat again, first a little, and then more and more. When I close my eyes to sleep, I have nightmares of all that my body is consuming. I can't keep up with my own hunger. I am losing control and I am terrified.
Sonja is well out in front. She takes off her sweater and I can see her ribs curving around to meet her spine. Bitch, I think, helplessly.
I break the promise I made to myself and begin to purge. If I hated myself before, now what I feel is so powerful that I find myself shaking all the time. Everything is wrong. Everything.
It is Sonja who makes this purging all right -- she shows me how to stick my finger down my throat, how to eat and eat and eat and not gain weight. It's okay, she tells me. Everyone does it. Soon our right hands bear the twin marks of bulimia, an open cut on the base of our gagging finger from where it bangs against our teeth.
If starving gave me a feeling of control and cleanliness and emptiness, then this brings me the opposite. I take long showers and baths and rinse my hair with vinegar. I brush my teeth until my gums bleed and my teeth gleam, but I cannot rid myself of the stench.
I think, If people knew I did this, they would hate me. What people? I don't know, and no longer care. Everything is going to hell. The number on the scale is stuck and I am puffy and tired and have terrible heartburn. The colitis I have been plagued with since childhood is getting worse. Eating too much and then purging provokes bouts of pain so severe that I am left in tears, bent double in bed or running back and forth to the toilet.
I think, This isn't working. I have to stop. I think, Help.
And then, my sister is caught. How did it happen? Her tiny body wrapped under all those sweaters. The truth is, I told on her. I said, Mom, Sonja has a problem. Just look at her. Open your eyes. Sonja is taken to an eating disorders clinic and the family caves in a little on itself. The presence of the clinic in our lives is an admission of some kind of failure. Sonja is once again the bad girl. Karen did it too, she says, on the defensive. Ask her.
Nonsense, says my mother.
My mother blames herself for Sonja's problem. I am helpless with both wanting to tell her about me and wanting her to never know. She is not to blame, she did nothing wrong. The fact of the matter is that Sonja is sick. Her bony ribs gave her away. My ribs are still well hidden, so I am not sick. I convince myself of this truth.
I go on alone, without Sonja, my partner in crime. I make small deals with God: Please let me bring up the whole meal, please let me lose weight, please cure me of this weakness and I will never never never do this again.
on the record
From NERVES OUT LOUD: Critical Moments In The Lives Of Seven Teen Girls, Susan Musgrave editor, Annick Press