Now, it feels like it was all a dream, being there. I am back home and life is about the same, but oh so different. The experience was so contained, like none of the actual events and people on the ward spilled out onto my present life. But the memories, and what I learned, and the ways in which I was transformed and how I grew will stay with me even though I am no longer there.
My room was right across from the nurses’ station, Room 512. I could stand in my doorway and not leave the room, and still catch the attention of the staff sitting at the desk. This was a comfort to me. At the same time, the staff could keep a good watch on me, just by turning their heads. If I didn’t want to deal with them, I just closed the door, but that didn’t work too well, because the door had a huge window in it for them to see through. I got used to it. Folks like me who spend lots of time in psych wards get accustomed to being watched an checked on all the time, and being asked the question, “Do you feel like hurting yourself or anyone else?”
I brushed my teeth about ten times a day while I was there, probably more. I called it my “coping skill.” They talked about coping skills a lot there. I was supposed to learn new coping skills besides starving myself.
When I first got there, they gave me a notebook. They told me to write in it. I wrote all the time in the notebook they gave me. I was known among the other patients as being a person who was constantly writing. I admit, I frequently shooed people away if I was in the middle of a sentence or a thought. The notebook had 100 pages in it. I wrote on both sides of the page, and filled a notebook and a half. That’s 300 pages. A number of times, staff people told me I relied on my writing a little too much, and that perhaps I should spend more time interacting with other people. I brought the notebooks home with me and I still write in the second one, the one that was half full. Mostly, I write down what I have eaten and what I plan to eat, and what foods I need to purchase to make my meals. Food is very complicated. I guess it’s turned into kind of a food journal. Or maybe I should call it a “food journey” at this point. My therapists have always wanted me to write down my food. I do it now because I find it fascinating. I refuse to slap together the same sandwich day after day, or dump the same breakfast cereal into a bowl, turn on the TV, and watch the morning news while slurping down breakfast.
Right now, I’m sitting at my desk typing away, with a cup of herbal tea beside me, Celestial Seasonings Roastaroma. Roastaroma and I go back a long, long way. I was introduced to Roastaroma before I was introduced to dieting, back in the days when I really didn’t give a shit what my body size was, when the “Freshmen 10” meant 10 first-year fools, not 10 bits of flesh. I was introduced to Roastaroma around the same time that I was introduced to the bong, my favorite Joni Mitchell album, and all the goings-on at UMass/Amherst in 1975. I didn’t develop my eating disorder until 1980. That’s five years of Roastaroma when I dared to put honey into it without worrying about calories.
Calories. What are they? Units of heat, I’m told. Mention “calories” and you see people act like children when you tell them about really bad swear word…the more calories, the worse the swear word, the more forbidden, and the more enticing.
When I was growing up, my parents had a copy of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint lying around. I don’t know if this is true, but we kids believed that there were a couple of pages in there that were truly filthy. Naturally, we knew just how to find these pages in the book (when no adult was looking, of course) and read them to each other, awed by the profundities splattered on those two pages. After a while, the book opened to those pages automatically whenever we lifted it from the shelf. Of course, we thought we were doing so in secret….
That which is forbidden is often more coveted than that which is allowed. For the patients on the ward, the things that weren’t allowed were like gold. Since this psychiatric ward is closely linked to the eating disorders ward “across the hall,” many things that are allowed on most psych wards weren’t allowed on this one, such as soft drinks, candy, gum, magazines, tank tops or short shorts…and the food was always, always, always kept locked up. If a patient pocketed food, they got caught at it. They were very strict about this. At the eating disorders unit, patients aren’t allowed to wear anything with pockets to meals. They can’t even wear hats or hoods to meals. Once, I put my pencils into my pocket, and I was told to show the staff person what I had pocketed, just to make sure I wasn’t taking anything off my tray. Food became a coveted item among patients. You didn’t have to be a hearty eater to want more.
Patients wanted more of a lot of things. Mostly, they wanted more freedom. For many, it was a huge challenge to be on the ward and not be able to smoke for the entire time. This puts a smoker under an incredible amount of stress. I met a number of patients who wanted to transfer to other inpatient facilities–there are a slim few left–that allow smoking. Others were bothered that they were in a “locked” facility and didn’t understand why the facility had to be “locked.” I keep wondering the same thing myself sometimes. I guess it’s for the sake of the minority of patients that need it. The same goes for the bans on dental floss, shoelaces, pens (but not pencils), spiral-bound anything, and razors (well, duh). If you wanted to be the exception to the rule, you had to get a doctor’s order for it.
There was this thing called “ED Protocol.” In a nutshell–oh, I could go on and on, but I won’t right now because it’ll take all night–ED Protocol sucks. Like the whole “one hour rule.” I had to be out of my room for an hour after meals because it was a blanket rule for all the ED patients. I don’t think for the entire time I was there I was able to get them to understand that I do not throw up. I was kind of insulted that they didn’t believe me. Actually, they didn’t ask me even. They just assumed.
Don’t assume. There are people of all sizes and shapes out there. You do not know what is happening it their heads. You can’t look at their bodies and measure their pain based on body size. You don’t know the depth of the starvation in their hearts based on anything you see on the outside.
When I’m waiting for the bus, there’s this sign at some of the bus shelters that said, “Hunger is on this bus, too.” Wow. FELLOW PASSENGERS, BEWARE! HUNGER IS IN OUR MIDST!
Hunger was on the bus, on the #71 bus, on September 1st, the day I took myself to the emergency room. I was on the #71 bus on my way to therapy. My stomach was far from empty and I was not hungry that way at all. I was starving in the depths of my being. In Watertown Square, at the CVS, I purchased a large package of Fig Newtons,which I gobbled up all the way to Harvard Square, right there in plain view of the other passengers. I was the one who turned away from them, thinking that perhaps if I didn’t look at them, they’d be less likely to look at me. I turned and looked out the window and saw nothing because my eyes were cold and numb.
At Harvard, we were all disembarking. I hurriedly put the empty cookie package back into my knapsack and then walked forward to the rear door. As I stepped off the bus, I stumbled and collapsed onto the concrete of the bus station. Luckily, I was able to get up quickly, and enter the subway station to get to my therapist’s office safely.
She was pissed at me. Or shall I say, frustrated. I was refusing all treatment. I was refusing help. I didn’t want to change. I was engaging in more and more risky behavior. What was the statement I was trying to make? she asked. Was I trying to stop her from going on vacation? Or is this more like a huge Fuck You to the world?
Hunger is everywhere. Hunger is on the bus. Hunger is on the streets and in the projects and shelters and on the Boston Common every single day and night. Hunger can be in a large or small family. It can afflict an elderly person, and a person can be born into hunger.
I brought my hunger home with me from therapy. I carried it carefully and didn’t fall off any more buses. When I got home, I made some calls, one of them to my dog’s boarding place. My mind was made up, and as soon as I brought my hunger to the ER and told them that my head was completely out of control, I felt one heck of a lot better.
I didn’t tell them half of it. It didn’t matter though. The other stuff came out after a while. I had 26 days to talk about it all, to unwind the clutter in my mind, the insanity, the urge to starve, the urge toward gluttony. The secrecy and the rituals of June and July that nearly killed me hadn’t stopped me, but now was the time to stop.
And I stopped. I’m home now, dealing with the resulting practicalities and complications of that stuff called food–food, that I had pushed away from myself for so long–food, that was so forbidden that it was all the more enticing to me in my starved state. Now, it fascinates me because of the sensations I get from it. Everything is so new now. I forgot how good food tastes.
I remember walking down the street with Puzzle in July of 2010, past a barbecue, and smelling the barbecue meat, which is one of the best food smells there is, unless you’re a vegetarian. I began to salivate, and drool like a baby. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve. I could not stop the sudden outpouring of fluid. Like tears.
When I got home from that walk, I knew I was at a really, really bad place with my starvation. This year, it’s been 10 times worse. I was going down, down by increments. Let’s see just how much Julie can take before she can’t take any more.
And during my 26-day stay, I can truly say that I was supported every bit of the way, even as I realized that I could not go on in the capacity that I was in unless something gave. I would either die or end up in a really bad place and there were no choices, no options, no way out of insanity. It was the insanity of my eating disorder, and the insanity covered everything now. The fog was so thick that I couldn’t have seen myself–as a fat person or thin–in any mirror at all, or seen more than a couple inches in front of me, a couple of seconds, not days or weeks…not even hours.
I didn’t see things in terms of “eat or die.” If I had, the way out would have been much easier. “Eat” is loaded with all sorts of other stuff. That’s why it’s an eating disorder and not just “eat.” I thought m brother’s theory of how to solve eating disorders wouldn’t work. He says that all you have to do is “Cook food, then eat it.”
Or will it?
I am finding out that yes, it is that simple. At least right now, anyway. It’s a major challenge for me to do this. A huge struggle. I fight off the urge to throw in the towel, but the towel no longer matches what’s in the heap. There’s no going back. Yes, it is that simple, though, when you think about it.
I use this analogy all the time, and I’ll use it again: I’m on my own now with no training wheels to steady me. This time, they took off the training wheels one at a time, just to make sure I’d be able to ride on my own okay. We determined my discharge date a week before I actually left. I had plenty of time to get ready for the big day. And that was me, by the way, that you saw, kinda wobbly, but staying upright nonetheless, chasing the #71 bus all the way home.