Human Parts
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Human Parts

Swinging Upside Down

At 19, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa Type 2. What follows is a graphic depiction of a part of me that once existed, a part of me I sometimes miss. It’s the part of my history involving my eating disorder and my volatile relationship with purging.

I started starving myself around the age of 16 or 17, I can’t really remember. For a time, it didn’t affect my life too badly. I was still social, confident, and wanted to lose a few pounds. It wasn’t until I started purging a year later that I lost my complete sense of self. My self-hate got really violent. I would never go out, except to go to work or school. I would sleep with people out of a desperate need for validation instead of love. Eventually my weight got so low that I lost my libido altogether, and purging became the only solace I had.

The first time I did it, I ate a box of macaroni and cheese after my SATs. I tried to purge in the upstairs bathroom, the one between my parents’ room and mine. I made all of the mistakes: sitting on my knees, using a toothbrush, not drinking enough water. My abs would convulse, I’d cough in this deep, wheezy way, and nothing would happen. So I kept trying, my abs and stomach pushing tighter and tighter into my spine.

Eventually, three noodles and a bunch of sticky spit came up. My muscles were sore, and so was my throat. I gave up, cried, and resolved to eat only liquid foods for an entire week.

Two years after that first time, I was diagnosed by my therapist. I have been in recovery for five years, but sometimes I still miss my eating disorder. I don’t really miss starving. I miss the purging. I miss being sicker than anyone else in the room. Through all of my bad relationships, through high school, through the first half of college, through bad friendships and getting fucked by people who didn’t care about me, my eating disorder was always there. It was consistent even when my weight was not. It wasn’t about being skinny. I wanted to look as dead as I felt. I wanted to see what existed inside of me when nothing else was left.

Once I learned how to purge, everything about my eating disorder became more extreme. Each action was amplified. I could starve better, lose weight faster. I learned how from communities on Livejournal. A group of girls with eating disorders practiced a theory of “harm reduction” — they thought that if they taught others the right way to do things, it would cause less harm than doing it the wrong way.

I was able to restrict my food for longer periods after that. At 17 I was struggling to cut only one meal out of my day, but by the time I was 19 I could coast for a week on nothing but plums, coffee and lettuce. When I did binge, my weekend was spent standing in front of the fridge and cupboards. Ice cream, cake, chips, Oreos, fast food, donuts, soda. The episodes could go on for 32 hours at a time, fueled by school or work stress, fueled by hate for myself. When I could no longer binge and purge I sat in my bathroom and carved words into my legs with razors, watching the open wounds leak.

I was in college but still lived at home. My parents were going to be gone for a week. A road trip somewhere south, near the ocean. When they left I brought my laptop downstairs to the dining room table to fill the empty spaces they left behind. I studied for school, wrote poetry, wasted time on Livejournal. It was the first time in my adult life I was allowed to grocery shop for myself, to make and eat all of my food unsupervised. This was my grocery list for the week:

butter lettuce
bean sprouts
soy sauce
1/2 dozen eggs
deli turkey
Kraft parmesan cheese
5 plums

I played a game with myself, making rules that said I could only eat what I bought for the week and nothing else. For some reason, the rules felt good to me. It wasn’t just a sense of control that I was seeking. It was world building. It was funneling my energy into a single task, one that I could be “good” at. I had the idea that the more structure I built myself, the more free I could eventually be.

Living with my parents exacerbated my purging. I couldn’t control what was in the house, so there were always new and exciting things to consume. Peanut butter bars, hostess cakes. I would eat entire boxes of cereal in a single morning — my dad would get so pissed at me. He would bring home groceries, with his special cereal, and the next morning the whole box would be gone. This territorial nature with food made me feel even worse about myself. The cereal would be out of my stomach before he left for work. Pop tarts. Potato chips, Kraft mac and cheese, cans of new potatoes covered in butter, sugar right from the bag, Fritos.

Then there was the old food. My parents had a tendency to hoard it. There is a freezer in the garage with meat from 2007 in it. I have seen it. In the pantry: cans of rhubarb from 2010, old steak and kidney pies, expired beans. In the freezer: old meat and three-year-old ice cream. When ice cream gets old, there’s this level of freezer burn that makes it chewy. It came back up soft and foamy.

When my parents left for their trip, I used the bathroom closest to the kitchen to purge. No one was home to hear me. That week I purged so much I clogged the toilet. The plunger didn’t help. I posted on Livejournal hoping to find advice on what to do. I grabbed a hanger and bent it into this long hooked thing, trying to scrape the vomit out from the bowl as if that would help. I fixed the clog but I don’t remember how. The plumbing still doesn’t work right.

When my parents got back from their trip, they brought gifts. A lavender fleece that I used to warm my disappearing body. One of those fisherman’s bracelets from the islands. My dad bought KFC for dinner so my mom didn’t have to cook and we sat downstairs in the den, watching TV.

I made a huge plate of chicken, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. All the gravy. The TV was on. Nicole Richie was in some kind of advertisement for a show. This was when she had started getting really skinny.

“You know,” my dad said, “She’s been doing the honest thing.”

He is finished with his food at this point. His TV tray was set to the side, tiny bones piled on top of the plate. I tried to play it cool, pretend I didn’t know how obvious it was that Richie had lost a ton of weight. That I didn’t look up pictures of her on the net, wondering when I’d look the same

“What honest thing?” I said.

He picked up a pack of cigarettes from the side table, pulled one out, and put it his to his mouth. He blew out smoke and coughed in a deep, phlegmy way. I was piling mashed potatoes and macaroni on top of my fork, pushing it around in gravy. I peeled off a piece of chicken and added it to my food tower. I fit it all in my mouth and chomped down, sucking the gravy off the meat.

“Admitting she had a problem and getting help,” he said.

This was the way my parents dealt with the problem. It was very side-stepped. If they knew about my suffering, they never said it outright.

I felt the mealy mashed potatoes go down first and knew they’d come up the easiest. I tasted the salt, the flesh of the chicken and chewed the macaroni noodles down. I took a drink of water. I did it again.

When I first made the decision to recover I was rereading Wasted by Maria Hornbacher for like the fifth or sixth time. I had been eating disordered for five years. I read in a psychology book somewhere that although it takes 21 days to make a habit, there are milestones you can hit that help the habit become permanent. The last milestone is the five-year mark.

I had seen women on the verge of death, mothers, who couldn’t stop, who had been anorexic for seven, ten years, who had finally hit those skeletal weights. I had seen men and non-binary people with eating disorders, too. People who became suicidal and scarred from self-injury — penance for so much purging, binge eating, being. You get caught up in the violence. Every time I was on that verge, exhausted after an episode of purging, I thought about the five-year mark.

When I couldn’t keep my weight low enough anymore, I got suicidal. It was either keep trying to lose weight, or die. I thought if I could surpass the five-year mark and keep going, maybe I would stop suffering somehow. Like starving myself would magically become easier if I’d been doing it for more than five years, like I’d finally get what I wanted and stay in the BMI range of the low 16s. I don’t know why I need it, whether obsession with clean round numbers was fueling my feelings or if it was due to a lifelong expectation of being the perfect child. I guess I just thought it would keep me safe. I built a world that I could emotionally inhabit safely, that no one could touch. I could either stop starving now, or keep going forever. It felt like either road would result in death.

By the time I was done with my KFC binge-fest it was 9 p.m. I chugged a warm glass of water and told my dad I was going to take a shower and head to bed.

Before I left to purge, I leaned over to hug him goodnight and he did this thing he had never done before. He hugged me like he was trying to feel my bones. This is what I do when I body check, when I feel the bones underneath my skin to make sure that my skeleton is still there, waiting to be uncovered. He rubbed the ribs between my spine and shoulder blade. I felt him try to figure out if I had enough meat on my back. I was close to emaciated.

If it were plainly obvious, nobody wanted to talk about it. I was a good student my whole life, had been pushed to excel. It’s a common theme for those with eating disorders. My dad expected so much out of me. The push to be perfect turned against me. Instead of being browbeat by my parents, I browbeat myself. They didn’t have to do it anymore, because the tools were all inside of me. I had zero idea how to deal with failure or with my own feelings, and I’m not sure I was ever taught. When I was 16, my mom caught me cutting. Her only words to me were angry. Don’t start with that shit, she said, and left it at that. By 21, my legs looked like I’d been in a freak accident.

I thought I was never allowed to fail. Failing was the worst thing that could happen to me. I had to be disciplined, rigorous with myself. I was successful to the point of destruction. I have never been as disciplined as I was at 19. I can’t wake up at 4:30 a.m. anymore to run four miles a day. I am late to work constantly. I have extremely low energy. How I ever survived a part-time job, full-time school schedule and exercise on nothing but a piece of fruit and a granola bar a day is beyond me.

When my dad grabbed my shoulder, I was confused. I thought, it’s not like I look that different after a week. Why be worried now?

I know some girl out there will want to compete with me, will want to hurt herself from reading this story, because I still do. When I read about or hear about eating disorder experiences, I want to go back. I want to skim through my days on plums and lettuce, want my stomach to hum with that emptiness, the high of lower numbers on the scale. An earlier draft of this story had the numbers in it, numbers I want to say but I can’t. By telling you those numbers, I would be telling her how to be sick. Like telling you my diagnosis, there’s a reason I first included them. I needed you to know how far I got. That I was sick. That I wanted to be sick for a long time. I wanted to be sick.

That is how eating disorders work. The rules and world-building we create, the ways that numbers give us something tangible to hang on to. The numbers allow us to compare ourselves, to make value judgments in our heads. When I suspect that someone I have just met or someone I know has one, a competitive tick in my brain starts to do a little crazy dance, even five years in recovery. I want to know how much they weigh, what they eat every day, how often they exercise and for how long. It doesn’t swing as hard as it used to, but it’s still there. It spirals in my head, destroying brain-meat as it moves around. I can feel it right now, as my stomach struggles against my skinny jeans. I am not a competitive person. I hate team sports. I don’t even like to play cards. But someone talks about problems with eating and my little death-spiral does its dance inside my head, chanting “I can do better. I can do better.” I still stare at pictures of emaciated women sometimes. I still think, “what if I tried.”

Upstairs, I stood over the toilet, head swinging down. My hand, which made the shape of a gun, had red marks that looked like burns. My knuckles were swollen and scuffed from hitting my incisor teeth when I jammed my hand down my throat. I was tired. When I breathed, I could feel a heaviness inside of my lungs. I purged so much my gag reflex would sometimes stop responding completely. I learned this when I started going down on men, the way the spit comes back up thick, how I could push a man back into my mouth, far back until the tension released against my throat. I wouldn’t gag at all.

When I stuck my fingers in my throat this time, the first thing that came up was the chicken. Chicken and water and mealy potatoes. There is no nausea that happens, there’s just this great pressure from being over-full.

Your abdomen kicks. It releases from your mouth. There is this huge rush — endorphins or being able to conquer your body — and then an emptiness. It happens quickly. A satisfied, tired emptiness. Sometimes things go a little black around the eyes, things get a little light, like floating. It’s a little like being high. You feel spun on all the nothing in your stomach, smug that you have officially broken the will to survive.

If you do this fast enough the food doesn’t even curdle. If you do it often enough you learn to be silent as you puke. When you stand up, your body might waver a bit. Your eyes might stop seeing for a second and things get really light inside your head. The weight of your body brings you back down to catch you before you fall.

After the first two rounds, I turned the faucet on hot, filled a cup with water and drank it all. When I went to throw up again, the only thing that came up was the hot water, but I knew there was still food inside my stomach. I tried and I tried and I tried. Until my fingernails hurt my throat and the thing, I could feel it; I could feel the pressure of it right at the edge of my esophagus. It wouldn’t come out.

There’s this image that used to float around the internet of a girl whose stomach ripped open from vomiting. The pressure that has to build to do that seems like a lot, until you’re coaxing what seems like a golf ball up and out of your esophagus. You get desperate because you have to get everything out. The glee of purging doesn’t “count” if there are things still inside your stomach. You worry a little bit about what would happen if you died, but you try not to think about it. You want that heady feeling, the emptiness.

Blood welled up inside my head like I was swinging upside down. Tension built behind my eyes as I pressed at my throat to get this chunk of food out. If I couldn’t get the food out, I’d have to cut. To make myself learn that binge eating isn’t okay. My thigh already had bandages on it from an episode a week prior and I started to wonder what the PSI of vomit was, if a blood vessel was going to burst in my eye.

Once, at work, my cuts bled through the bandages and a giant clot formed, sticking my black workpants to my leg. When I got home I had to wet the bandage down, wet my pants down to remove it from my wound.

I pressed my fingers further back, feeling the spit and the soft meaty part of my tongue. I realized I was hacking up biscuits. I forgot I had eaten KFC’s biscuits. They had coagulated into this huge ball. I started to think I might choke. Involuntarily my throat hacked several times, echoing into the toilet bowl.

When I finally got the biscuits out of my throat, I realized the shower had been on for 30 minutes and was now running cold. When I flushed the toilet, holding down the handle, I could hear my dad’s footsteps and his cigarette cough as he walked into his bedroom next door.

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Elle Nash

Elle Nash

Elle Nash is the author of ANIMALS EAT EACH OTHER (Dzanc, 2018) and a founding editor of @witchcraftmag. She also edits fiction @hobartpulp.

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