“But she’s not afraid to die,
The people all call her Alaska…”
–The Velvet Underground
I have had a long history with eating disorders, starting at age fourteen. Even writing that simple, declarative statement and knowing that it could be read by others makes the words threaten to dry up, but the trope of deprivation and starvation that has run through both my novels makes me realize that this is a subject I need to pin down (and maybe exorcize?) once and for all.
In particular, I want to write about one prolonged moment when things were possibly at their worst, among years of so many ‘worsts’: a long-ago time I went away to a college in Staten Island, New York and was forced to return to Maine just one semester later. It isn’t a pretty story, and there isn’t much in the way of resolution to be offered here—but if the story speaks, in some fragmentary way, to anyone who has lived it, then maybe it is worth telling after all.
I grew up with blue-collar parents who had made it clear to me at an early age that they couldn’t afford to pay for college, which (coupled with my natural depressive state and lack of interest in anything except reading strange novels and watching old movies and pilfering old jazz records from my mother’s collection and filling my notebooks with the sort of furious, intense writing that only the most furious and intense of teenage girls can write) may have contributed to a subpar high school performance. What incentive did I have, really, to do any better? But after taking a year off after graduation to work as Rite-Aid cashier, I decided that maybe I did want to go to college, after all. It was late in the spring when I decided this, thereby limiting my options—most application deadlines are in January or February— so I went through the stack of college catalogues and brochures I’d received the year before, seeking out the ones that had rolling admissions and inviting photographs: a precious, naïve approach that led me to College X.
College X was located at the top of a great hill on Staten Island, a campus with meticulous landscaping and stately buildings and an arts program that I assumed would be welcoming. I am ashamed to say that, in my utter innocence, I thought in those days that Staten Island was a scenic suburb of New York, filled with quaint charm; I had Edna St. Vincent Millay-like visions of being young and merry and going back and forth all night on the ferry with a group of serious, likeminded fellow students.
What I got instead, upon my blind arrival, was something quite different. In my dormitory I was surrounded by girls with big, honking voices and brassy personalities—girls more concerned with teasing their hair and applying their makeup (the better to pass for legal drinking age when they attempted to sneak into those Manhattan nightclubs, on the weekends) than discussing great works of literature or listening to old records or doing any of the other things I liked to do. I knew at once that there wasn’t a kindred soul to be found. (The other girls knew it, too. I was sure I could see dislike for me in their eyes.) The boys seemed mostly interested in sports and in getting hammered—in other words, typical boys, not the charming, clever eccentrics I’d hoped to meet. (In retrospect I think I was a terrible snob; I know now that these brassy girls and these ‘typical’ boys maybe could have offered me something, and I could have offered them something in kind. But I didn’t know it at the time. It wasn’t until many years later, after I had come to value myself a bit more, that I understood the larger value of people—all people.)
The problem was more complicated than disconnection or disillusionment or disappointment, of course. I had brought my own problems, my own history to college with me: some half-assed suicide attempts in high school, and years of largely untreated anorexia and bulimia that made me eligible for a ‘suicide single’—a dorm room that I didn’t have to share with anyone else, thank God. Instead of a roommate, I had an omnipresent wind rattling at my windows, winds that blew fiercely enough to keep me awake at night; and when I think of being in that dorm room now I think of great coldness, of hands too stiff to write, of wearing four sweaters, a bathrobe, and wrapping myself in a comforter while still shivering. I had never been so cold anywhere in my life and would never know that exact kind of coldness again.
Without meaning to be at all immodest, there was a silver lining: I turned out to be kind of a dazzling student during my first and only semester at College X. I was dazzling in a way that I had never been during my public education. I literally memorized my textbooks, summarizing and paraphrasing their entirety into notebooks that grew as long as the books themselves. When I sat in my classes, I locked eyes with the professor as though he (it was usually he) held the secrets of the universe and might reveal these to me and me alone. My life quite literally depended on my classes and on earning the respect of my professors; accordingly, when not in the classroom, all the life went out of me as though a switch had been pulled. When not in the classroom, I had nothing to do but study, write long, manic letters to my parents, and write exhaustive lists of the foods I most missed eating—lists that might look something like this:
Baked beans with hot dogs
Cheeseburger with bacon and skin-on French fries
Fried bologna with mashed potatoes
Carrot-walnut cake with cream cheese frosting
Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries…
I was very hungry, you see. I had a hunger that most people are fortunate enough never to know, and so when I wasn’t memorizing my textbooks I was thinking about food, caressing it in my mind, offering daily devotions to it.
When I first came to College X, my weight was already well below the triple digits, and though I had no scale, my clothes grew looser and looser from day to day, to the point where I had to tie a piece of rope tightly around the waists of my skirts so they wouldn’t fall down—an ad hoc Ellie Mae Clampitt belt. Ironically, though, there was a constant presence of food in my dormitory: the smell of someone’s takeout pizza wafting down the hall in my room, the loud voices of the girls next door arguing about what kinds of Chinese food to order—and the warring impulses of self-control and denial and brute, base hunger began to drive me half-mad. The girls in my dorm had hearty appetites and ‘eyes that were bigger than their stomachs,’ as the old saying goes; too many times I had espied their boxes of half-eaten bakery cannoli and picked-over Popeye’s chicken resting at the top of the communal trash cans that were stashed away on each floor. Knowing that food was there, uneaten, eventually became too much to bear.
I reached a point of desperation where I used to sneak out of my room and night, barefoot and wearing only a nightgown with a winter coat over it and holding a large plastic bag that I brought with me on such missions, once I was sure everyone else was asleep. I rode the elevator and stopped at all fifteen floors to look at what was at the top of the trash, collecting the most tempting items to bring back to my room: an entire pint of fried rice, in one instance, and a half a dozen doughnuts (only a little stale) in another. Once I had filled my bag, I’d go back to my room, lay out my bounty on napkins spread on the floor, and begin to chew and savor each item before carefully spitting it into my metal trash can. Sometimes the temptation to swallow the food was too great, and at those times I would throw up in my garbage, later sneaking it out to be emptied into the toilet. I had learned this technique through trial and error over the past five years; throwing up directly into a public toilet is too dicey—too many pairs of girls coming in and out, pausing too long at the sinks to gab at one another and critique their own reflections in the mirror.
In terms of what I ate, it started with salads. Afraid to eat and terrified to be seen eating, I had developed a strategy for avoiding complete starvation: Armed with an empty margarine tub hidden in an oversized purse, I would descend the stairs of the campus cafeteria and approach the salad bar. I would fill a small wooden bowl with lettuce, cucumber, celery, take my tray to an isolated corner, and—when no one was looking—dump the contents into my margarine tub and depart, saving the salad to eat later in the privacy of my room. This once-a-day meal was the only food I ate during my first couple of months at College X. Around the second month, one of the cafeteria ladies caught me ‘dumping’ my salad and snapped, “You can’t take food out of here.” Ashamed, apologetic, and near tears, I exited the cafeteria, though I remember having to stop and rest at the top of the stairs, clinging to the handrail; at that point I was already quite weak.
I wondered how I would be able to eat at all, now that I couldn’t smuggle my salad out. Perhaps I could go into ‘the city,’ as all the girls called it, and buy my own lettuce in a grocery store. After all, hadn’t the brochure for College X promised ‘a campus just minutes from bustling Manhattan’? But I never left the island. I had heard tales of a city bus at the bottom of the hill that would take you to the ferry, but I was afraid that I would get off at the wrong stop or that the bus wouldn’t be the right bus or that I wouldn’t know what to do once I got to the ferry itself. Luckily, through the power of eavesdropping, I learned that a shuttle bus made free trips directly from campus to the Staten Island mall every Saturday, and it was there, at one of the drugstores, that I began to buy my weekly replacement food: packets of Cup-o-Soup (eighty calories apiece) that I could heat on a contraband hot pot kept in my room. Problem solved.
It wasn’t solved, though. Not by a long shot. The shame of my condition and the secrecy of my nighttime activities made me even more withdrawn, if possible. I began to be almost phobic about being seen in the halls, creeping out of my room only when I was sure I wouldn’t run into any of my floor mates. The girls on my floor had an unnerving, sociable tendency to keep their doors wide open, so sometimes I would leave for morning classes three hours early in order to avoid walking past them. I didn’t like the way people were beginning to look at me—the looks I was getting, the fear and revulsion that I thought I saw in people’s eyes. Of course, I could camouflage my dwindling frame pretty well with large sweaters and voluminous skirts, and I have always the kind of facial structure—somewhere between round and square, with wide-set cheekbones—that never really grows thin, making it possible for someone looking above the neck to notice nothing amiss. Still, most were beginning to see that something was wrong. And apart from one sorority girl who cornered me in an elevator to effuse, “Oh my God, you’re so thin! It’s awesome!”, no one ever spoke of it to me. Not even the adults on campus seemed terribly worried about it. I had begun to see a couple of counselors on campus, but I was always a little too smart and too savvy for therapy, presenting myself in such a way that I charmed my therapists and made them think everything was hunky dory; one of them, a male doctor well past his prime, smiled indulgently and told me that a girl like me was enough to make him wish he were a young man again.
But in due time, even stealth and cunning couldn’t hide the severity of my condition. The real problem, I think, started with my blood circulation. After sitting in class for more than half an hour, I would completely lose circulation below the knees; by the end of two hours, when it was time to pack up my books and leave, my legs were so far gone that they would not support my weight, and there were several times when, attempting to pull myself into a standing position, my legs gave out under me and I fell down. To the onlookers—including my professors– I would laugh this off to clumsiness, fatigue—anything. The pins-and-needles feeling eventually gave way to stabbing, chronic pain in my lower legs. The pain became so severe that there were times when I couldn’t walk at all, and I remember some instances of walking to classes hugging the walls so that I wouldn’t fall down. One time, near the end of my term at College X, my legs cramped up so badly leaving the mailroom that I had to crawl on my hands and knees all the way back to my dorm. “Are you okay?” one fellow—an upperclassman, by the looks of it—said in a tone that conveyed alarm but also indicated that he hoped I wouldn’t ask for help. “I’m okay,” I called back, crawling along, the autumn leaves and spare twigs of (certain trees) crunching under my hands and my feet, wincing as my knees would occasionally hit a stone.
(To this day, I don’t know exactly what medical condition was causing this pain in my legs, but I am sure that it had something to do with malnutrition, and I occasionally still experience vestiges of this pain—occasional shin-twinges that remind me of what used to be.)
Walking wasn’t the only thing that was difficult. With increased weight loss, every surface my body came in contact with hurt—chairs stabbed at me, my mattress was too hard. I began to carry a soft coat to classes so that I could sit on it like a pillow, but the chair still caused excruciating pain. I found that I began to go in and out of consciousness easily, without knowing how it happened or remembering when it started: I would wake up in strange places, on my cold dormitory floor face-down and another time on a remote section of campus, just after the first snow. My teeth, bereft of nutrients and already vulnerable from stomach acids, hurt at all times. Toward the end of my stay I began to feel a frequent, painful urge to urinate, but when I sat down on the toilet, only a drop would come out. Embarrassed to be locked away in a bathroom stall most of the day and too weak to keep walking up and down the hall to the ladies’ room, I eventually hid an empty two-liter bottle of soda in my room and spent a great deal of time trying to pee in that.
And I wondered why no one wanted to be friends with me.
The worst of it were the odd flutters of the heart—the times when it seemed my heartbeat would stop for too many seconds, as though deciding what to do next—and the hallucinations that came toward the very end. I remember many nights laying there in bed, listening to the wind and still convulsing from the cold despite layers of clothing and blankets, my legs so swollen and pained that I could not move them. Sometimes, just underneath the voice of the wind, I thought I heard the voice of God talking to me: “You disappoint me,” he said. “I have turned my back on you.” (He didn’t have a voice that I can really describe, though whenever I think of the voice of God I think of Roy Orbison, whom Bruce Springsteen described as sounding like ‘God through a foghorn.’ This voice didn’t sound like that. He sounded mean, berating. He wanted nothing to do with my foolish self-destruction, and on that score I couldn’t blame him a bit.)