Tuesday, April 21, 2015
An excerpt from Just Another Number
Since my parents forced me to transfer schools the previous summer, I felt as if my life had been tumbling into a gutter. Just before the accident, I reached the first point of contentment I’d known since Mom married Carl. I had a boyfriend and was receiving an affection that filled a void that had been aching for as long as I could remember. But even beyond the adventures of my romantic explorations was CSAS. Adjusting to the oddball school was awkward at first. But by sophomore year, I saw it as a black hole that launched me out of the shackles of the Republican Bible Belt and into a world that challenged rules I never thought to question.
I was learning Spanish and developing an intrigue with Latin America. My voice became articulately booming once I mastered talking across an auditorium. I became obsessed with literature and dominated mock court sessions in defending fictitious villains in Greek mythology. I joined a crew team in downtown Chattanooga. I was gradually discovering my first niche as an intellectual Birkenstock-wearing, Rock Creek Outfitter-shopping, outdoorsy hipster who smoked grass atop mountain parks and dissected poetry verses.
My parents blamed CSAS for my drug use, even though my classmates were my only straight edge acquaintances. They took me out of crew, despite the fact that athletic obligations were my only hope for bulimia salvation.
“That goddamn, free spirit, hippie school is makin’ a disrespectful smartass oudda ya!” Carl lectured, rolling his eyes.
Although it was Mom who I poured my drug experimentation confessions to, she followed her typical tendency of spilling it all to Carl like a tattletale child. Uprooting me from a good school to a bad school seemed like a drastic move considering Carl had knowingly seen me intoxicated several times and never cared. Back then, I figured he was just mad at me for getting caught and forcing him to deal with my mother’s panic. But in hindsight, I think he spotted the birth of the monster he would fear for the rest of his life.
The brain is like any other muscle. We’re born with certain ones, but there are times in our development where its construction is vital. Just as a six-year-old and seventy-year-old can’t build a six-pack the way a twenty-year-old can, the brain has certain points in life where its absorbency is higher. During Mom’s teenage years of mental hypersensitivity, she was pampered and babied, giving her a permanent need to be cared for. Carl became an alcoholic during his adolescence, cementing an everlasting reckless, party boy mentality. During my sensitive years, I was immersed in a culture that bred educated rebellion. My school was a miniature epicenter of progression tucked in the belly of southern tradition. Our teachers opened our eyes to daily tests in our own yards, making us constantly ask “Why?”
“Because I said so,” was always Carl’s answer.
In just two years, CSAS ignited the flame Grandmother lit years before. Carl would never succeed in his attempts to extinguish it. But his parental authority was able to keep it dormant and unthreatening for several years. At Ooltewah High School, I was like a lion forced into captivity after a liberating romp in the jungle. Nothing challenged me. Nothing motivated me. Nothing moved me. My claustrophobia itched to the point where clawing at my own skin seemed to be my only method of relief. With no social outlets and no intellectual nourishment, I caved into self-destruction. My bulimia amplified from throwing up obligatory family dinners to driving to grocery stores and gas stations, shoving junk food into my purse in security camera blind spots, devouring the calories in the corners of desolate parking lots, and scurrying into remote public restrooms in the outskirts of town. My knees would rest on the cold, sticky tile floors as I wrapped my arms around bleach-scented toilets as if embracing an old friend.
There was a time when one finger tickling my tonsils was enough to provoke stomach jerks, but my gag reflex built a tolerance to it over time. One finger became two and then three. By the end of my junior year, my throat was nail scratched and knuckles were scarred with tooth marks. My fingers reeked of a constant sour scent of my stomach acid.
“Do ya actually think it’s workin’?” Carl interrogated my eating disorder during one of our “family meetings.”
The term, “family meeting” my parents occasionally summoned was always code for, “We’re going to lecture Maggie on everything she is doing wrong and then punish her.”
The announcement was usually typed up in a semi-official Times New Roman format used to summon gatherings in professional establishments. Mom and Carl posted it on our refrigerator with one of Mom’s puppy magnets.
“Your bulimia sure as hell aint’ makin’ ya skinny,” Carl jabbed, darting his eyes at my stomach. We were all sitting in the living room. Carl was in his large Lazyboy black leather recliner that he would have likely even forbid the president to rest in. To the left of it was a table that held a coaster for his large Jack and Coke mug and about four remote controls for his big screen television, DVD player, and stereo systems. To the left of the table was Mom’s smaller peach, patterned cloth recliner that was typically hers, but was sometimes occupied by guests. But that evening, I was cornered to the couch on the other side of the room as my parents sentenced from their thrones.
“You’ve packed on at least ten pounds since last summer and you’re always wearin’ those godawful baggy sweats ‘round the house. You’re in denial that you’re gainin’ weight.”
I knew that my eating disorder wasn’t achieving its initial goal, just as any alcohol or drug addict knows that their substance won’t fix their lives or numb their pain. I was a junkie far beyond feeling the satisfaction that initially enticed my addiction. I felt my headache and my heart pound post purging. I felt the hot, regurgitated chunks of sopping wet food burning my throat as my stomach erupted, splattering toilet water back into my face from the vomit’s cannonball. I saw my complexion morph into a pale yellow that illuminated the deep, dark circles around my eyes. I knew that, sooner or later, somebody would spot me throwing up in the woods or unveil the vomit filled Tupperware I hid in my closet. I knew that I was committing gradual suicide. It’s not that I disregarded logic because I couldn’t see it. I disregarded it because I didn’t care. I didn’t stop because I couldn’t stop.
My parents’ attempts to stop my habit were through guilt and force. They grounded me several times. Carl made cracks when he felt that I was eating too much and snide comments on my weight yo-yoing. They sent me to psychiatrists who tried to quick fix me by Paxil, Zoloft, and Effexor prescriptions. All were antidepressants with weight gain for side effects, which might as well have been rat poison for a bulimic.
I would take them a few times, feel my emotions and sense of reality fuzz, and look at my mother who had been doped up on them since we moved to Chattanooga. I would see her blank, hazel eyes, and her bright, but empty, smile with chronic, artificial, exaggerated cheer, and become scared. I often wondered if she was buried under layers upon layers of southern sugar. I would make bitchy, inappropriate statements and look for her. I would say something, anything to shake her and look into her eyes for something real. I saw it when she was upset or afraid. I saw it when she’d spot me exiting my bathroom, hair tied back, knowing what I’d done. I saw it when she found out I was raped. I saw it when I told her about the drugs I used. I saw flickers of a real person, but she quickly disappeared within herself once she gathered composure. I decided not to be like her. Even if it meant embracing my demons, I wanted to be real. After a couple doses, I would toss the meds in the garbage.