Tuesday, April 21, 2015
An excerpt from Just Another Number
I was twelve years old the first time my parents sent me to a psychiatrist. Within a year of crash dieting and excessive exercise, I managed to drop forty pounds and halt the repetition of my first period. At seventy pounds with protruding ribs and knobby knees poking out of my scrawny chicken legs, I stood at 4’10” as a pre-teen in a child’s body.
“So, Maggie,” Dr. Sullivan, a middle-aged psychiatrist with a silvery-brown beard and a calm voice began our conversation. “I spoke to your mother and she says that you are obsessed with losing weight. Why is this?”
His eyes darted up and down my entire body - not in a perverted, kiddy porn way - but in amazement that such a thin girl could be so desperate to lose weight.
I began to elaborate on the humiliation I felt during the chubby phase that seemed to creep up on me unexpectedly the year before. I explained the shame I had in that body and the excessive flesh that I could literally feel weighing down my confidence. Fat was ugly to me and for a young girl in dire need of approval from her peers, ugly was worse than cancer.
“Every time I eat,” I explained,” I can just feel the fat piling up on my body.”
“And what is it that you do when you feel this way?” he asked, squinting his eyes in concentration.
I resented his obvious judgments and attempts to label me with some sort of disorder. I imagined the list of mental illnesses he had in his head, waiting for my explanation of symptoms as he placed each of them in his disease categories.
I knew that he had no answers for me. There was no cure for whatever the hell was wrong with me. In my insecure, pre-adolescent brain, the only salvation for my obsession was a magic pill that would enable me to consume all the food that dominated my fantasies and daydreams and made my stomach growl in the midst of my starvation, without gaining a pound.
The number on the scale that I habitually stepped on several times a day was at an all time low. With my body forcing itself into puberty, I knew that my days at seventy pounds were numbered.
“When you eat, you feel fat, correct?” Dr. Sullivan asked.
“Yes,” I answered, looking directly into his eyes to show him that I had no fear of his judgments. If I was fearless, I was guiltless. If I was guiltless, I was perfectly sane and justified in my actions. I was simply a girl wanting to stay in shape - that was all.
“And what do you do when you feel fat?”
“Well, I have to burn the calories I eat,” I answered him as if he had just asked a very stupid question.
“What do you do to burn the calories?”
My stare turned into a glare and my jaw slightly dropped to express the ridiculousness of his silly, meaningless questions.
“I exercise,” I answered bluntly after a moment of silence. “I rollerblade, I ride my bike, I swim, I jump on my friend’s trampoline with her. I love to be outside. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Although I wasn’t lying, I left out the fact that I had gone from playing outside for fun to being constantly on the move for the sake of burning every fat cell in my bony body. If it was raining outside, I sat in front of my television doing crunches or running in place. If the summer heat was too intense for children to play outside, I ignored my mother’s warnings of heat stroke and was comforted in knowing that I would sweat even more than usual. My cousin nicknamed me Richard Simmons because I took every opportunity to squeeze in exercise. If she was watching TV, I was walking in place beside her, or standing because I read somewhere that standing burns more calories than sitting. Even at the movies, I imagined the fat accumulating in my body as I sat motionless. To ease my mind, I tapped my feet in order to burn at least a few extra calories during the hours I was required to sit still.
I never understood why Dr. Sullivan got paid a hundred bucks an hour to follow every sentence with “How does that make you feel?” then prescribe me antidepressants, and tell me that putting ketchup on a baked potato is lower in calories than French fries.
Dr. Sullivan never asked me about Carl. Even if he had, I would have given him the same filtered explanation that any other child would have. Children are often like hostages under the care of authority, with spankings and groundings nudging them like guns pointed at their skulls, threatening to shoot if the wrong words are uttered.
Even if I had trusted Dr. Sullivan, I didn’t have a grip on the reality of Carl. My stepfather wasn’t a villain. Yes, he was an alcoholic. He was chronically selfish and flamboyant with his money. He was negligent. He was a cliché trailer salesman with a silver tongue that made trash seem like treasure. He was highly inappropriate in ways that, without him even knowing, would permanently tatter my developing mind. But none of these flaws were potent enough to do the real damage.
Carl never loved me. I think he wanted to. And I think by his standards, he tried. Carl did everything for me that would pass him as a socially acceptable parent. But a child can hear silent rejection.
The phenomenon of gender equality is still in progress. When I was growing up, women had only been able to hold financially supportive careers for a few decades. The women of my generation are still awkwardly maneuvering through the remnants of centuries worth of patriarchy. In the past, a woman had no income of her own, no property ownership, and no legal rights. Her level of success solely depended on the husband she landed. So naturally, every dress she wore, book she read, and word she uttered was intricately designed to gain male approval.
Although women have gained the legal rights of men, I don’t think that social evolution has fully taken place. The underlying message that men were in charge of determining my worth was all around me. It was in my music, television, Teen and Cosmopolitan magazines, and the fashion industry. Nearly every form of entertainment I indulged in was based around being appealing to the opposite sex. Carl’s sharp critiques on my body were solid evidence that I was failing. I starved myself. I got thinner. Without realizing it, I chased the father I would never obtain. Deep down, my worthlessness seemed inescapable. So I caved inward. My eating disorders were the abuse I felt I deserved.
My parents didn’t hesitate to inform me that Dr. Sullivan racked up their bills with slew of drugs that would never work. As Dr. Sullivan predicted, I grew exhausted from starving myself. My anorexia evolved to bulimia. Once I joined the Navy, my own personal rehab, I lost all of my privacy for two months and was forced to quit. By the end of boot camp, my bulimia was completely cured. I began using sex to fill my void.