By Melissa Cronin
The snow fell at a slant, the brisk wind chafing my face, as my father held my arm, and guided me to the car. My head felt empty, hollow, like a scooped-out pumpkin. “I’m sorry,” Dad. “I didn’t mean to …”
“We just need to get you to the hospital,” he said.
In the emergency room, yellow lights flickered, and urgent voices blared from overhead intercoms: “Code Blue, room twenty-three. Anesthesia to room fifteen.” My fingers and toes were numb and my skin was pale like wax from lack of nutrition. Lying on a hard stretcher, wearing a hospital gown as thin as parchment, I thought I might die, and that it was too late for the doctors to help me.
It was January 1985, the year I turned eighteen, when mini-skirts were the hottest trend, and Tab was the soda of choice for young girls with the goal of weighing eighty pounds. I wanted to erase the previous few months, when I ate only the minimum amount of calories per day to keep my heart beating: an apple and yogurt, a pita pocket and half a cup of non-fat cottage cheese. Now, I could barely get out of bed or walk to the bathroom without someone holding me up. My father was frightened. So was I.
What had I done to my body? I had washed down my denial of my illness with diet soda, not only Tab, but Fresca, too. But artificial sweeteners were not enough to rub away from my memory the words my doctor had spoken six months earlier when he sat opposite me at his cherry lacquered desk, his black pupils fixed on me: “You have what’s called Anorexia Nervosa.” I had heard of Anorexia – another girl, a gymnast who I went to high school with, walked through the hallways in baggy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt, rumors of Anorexia turning heads as she passed. At the time, I had wondered why she didn’t wear clothes that fit her. I looked away from my doctor’s unflinching stare and gazed at a watercolor painting on the wall of a hillside carpeted in storybook green, and sunflowers reaching toward an orange sun. I wanted to hide in that painting, behind a sunflower.
In the emergency room, I lay on the stretcher, shivering, waiting for the doctor to see me. My pulse thumped in my temples and my breath quickened as I wondered what my father was thinking while he sat in the waiting room: he’s pacing the linoleum, mumbling, ‘I need to get back to the office. Why can’t she just eat? What’s the big deal?’ I wanted to leap off the stretcher, run back home, crawl beneath the blankets, and pretend I had never inconvenienced my father.
After a nurse stuck a needle in my arm, three times, to take my blood, and another nurse stuck me three more times to get an IV into my shrunken veins, I was told I would be admitted to the hospital. The nurses weighed me every day, facing me backwards, so I wouldn’t see the numbers on the scale. They told me if I didn’t eat everything on my plate – the fistful of scrambled eggs, the one slice of toast, and the banana – they’d insert a feeding tube into my nose, down into my stomach, and fill me with Ensure. If my blood pressure was too low, they did not allow me to get out of bed. I had to pee into a bedpan.
I don’t remember if my father visited me, the entire ten days I was hospitalized.
The nurses empathetically listened to me tell them I could not eat any more after a mouthful of rice or a bites of chicken. After three months of eating only three to four hundred calories a day, I quickly became full. But I believed they could not possibly understand my fear of gaining weight. What if I gained fifty, one hundred pounds?
After I returned home, I felt misunderstood when my father raised his fist at me at the dinner table, yelling, “Don’t eat! I don’t care anymore!”
But when I recall my jutting shoulders and hip-bones, my brittle hair and sunken cheeks, and the constant dizziness due to my dangerously low blood pressure and heart rate, I know that if my father had not left his office on that wintery day to drive me to the emergency room, I would have died. He cared, but was probably frustrated by his own lack of understanding.
In the months following my hospitalization, I saw a psychiatrist, and a nutritionist, but struggled to gain weight. I fought against what my body needed in pursuit of an artificial image. I documented every calorie I ate and eventually memorized caloric contents of a variety of foods. I chewed my food until it was pulverized, as if that would reduce the calories entering my body. At meal times with family, I claimed I had a stomachache. In school, I ate in the guidance counselor’s office, because I thought everyone else was staring at me in the cafeteria. I thought about the gymnast, and now understood why she wore baggy clothes: she didn’t want anyone to see her protruding bones because people might ask her why she was so skinny? Then she’d have to try and explain something she didn’t quite understand herself. What would I tell my classmates if they asked me why I would not take off my jacket? “I’m just cold.”
As the years progressed, I formed relationships with men who criticized me for either folding the towels or cutting an onion the “wrong” way. Eventually, I met a man who listened to me, allowed me to be me. He encouraged me to nourish my body, and helped me understand what it meant to eat healthy: to taste each morsel I put into my mouth, to savor the salt of an oyster, the spice of chili, the sweetness of corn.
Now, when my nine-year old niece is watching television, and she says, “Look at her, she’s fat,” I tell her, “No, she’s actually too skinny.” Or, when I see super-models on the cover of a magazine, with legs like pogo sticks, I write to the publisher emphasizing that they’re poor role models for young girls.
At the same time, when looking in the mirror, I lift up my shirt, run my hand over my somewhat round belly, feel the loose flesh of my forty-seven year old body, and wish it were different – my abs and thighs tighter. But then I remember my husband’s early morning whispers: “You’re beautiful.”
Though I’ve been at a healthy weight for the past several years, I know Anorexia will always be with me, like a faded scar with palpable edges. But I also know not to fight against what my body needs, so I eat – I eat my husband’s homemade chicken pie with whole-wheat crust; his homemade lasagna with whole-wheat noodles; and his homemade chicken soup, thick with carrots, celery, and onions. Once in awhile, I even treat myself to a square of dark chocolate, or a peanut butter smoothie drizzled with maple syrup. I suppose artificial sweeteners are okay for some people, but I no longer have a saccharine image of myself.
Melissa Cronin holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written for Brevity, Hunger Mountain Journal, and the blog Writerland. Her essay, “Right Foot, Left Foot” received “Special Mention” by Dinty W. Moore, the judge for the 2013 creative nonfiction contest held by Hunger Mountain Journal. Her essay, “Invisible Bruise,” will appear in the June publication of Chicken Soup for The Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries. Melissa lives in South Burlington, VT with her husband, John. In addition to working on a memoir, she writes human-interest stories for a local newspaper. In her spare time, she plays the Irish fiddle and rides her bicycle.