I thought you’d go there and be done with your eating disorder when you got home.
People want a recovery story that doesn’t include details about the process. They want to know the beginning, and they want to know the end, as if living without an eating disorder is a narrative shaped like an open circle – from one point to the other, without repeat or overlap. Yet there is no clear end, no definitive place to stop and say, “yes, I am better.”
The behaviors I struggle to control are not simply the impulses to restrict, binge, or purge. Victories are mundane but important. Eating ravioli for dinner when you haven’t had it in years, and eating it without shame, is more rewarding than the things you used to pride yourself on. The disappointments vary. Lapses happen. Despite how well-adjusted you feel, a panic attack hits you in the grocery store, or at a dinner served family-style. Sometimes you don’t eat, because you know you’re going to a party later on and can’t divine the choices. And when the selection is not “safe,” you decide it’s too hard. You can’t be “good” today. Your paper plate is, hilariously enough, like a loaded gun pointed at your gut. An opportunity to feel an intense and inescapable fear, a chance for your hunger to hurt you. So you throw it away as soon as you can.
For me, recovery will never be the open circle. It’s never going to have a beginning and an end. Recovery is more like getting lost while running in a place that is both familiar and confusing. You leave a trail of steps that go east but sharply turn west; you retrace the path without being able to recognize that you were already here. That is, until you come across a recognizable landmark that disappoints you in its meaning: you’ve drifted very far from the destination, and it may take some time and rest to find your way back. Even then, you’re not sure how to locate the place where you began. Perhaps you’ll recognize it when you get there, or maybe you’ll discover a different path altogether that leads you back home.
My struggle with bulimia didn’t exist in a vacuum. It wasn’t simply a part of me, whether the struggle at the moment was recovery, a lapse, or submission to the disease. It was also a vector through which others related to me, both positively and negatively. The experience of bulimia drew me closer to some, and much further away from others.
“I just hope you’ll look back at this and remember that I stuck by you,” Scott said, sitting at our small kitchen table. I stood several feet away from him, near the cream-colored counter top, my arms crossed against my chest.
The words weren’t meant to sting, but they did. I paused, taking the moment to inhale through my nose. Focus. Be present, I reminded myself.
There was a distance between us I felt only I could see. I smiled more, and I puked a hell of a lot less. I wasn’t a burden to be around, the way I was before treatment.In fact, I was so happy and outgoing compared to the past that I often surprised myself. But his responses, then and now, were effectively destroying the part of me that came to love him. There was no “for better or for worse” in our union. Instead, he lived with a passive hope for the bad times to pass.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” I said, attempting to balance honesty with enough sensitivity as to not hurt his feelings. “Or it’s hard for me to think of things that way.”
“Why?” He looked up at me with his blue eyes, the expression on his face familiar. He’s going to get upset. Whenever his brows furrowed and his lips went thin, stretched into a grimace, it felt like he was preparing to be hurt.
The new and improved me was not always good enough. A list of items spun around in my thoughts, tangling with a flurry of negative emotion. Still, I spoke slowly, allowing myself to choose my words carefully. “I’m not sure things would’ve been so bad under different circumstances,” I said. “I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. But you didn’t handle it well.”
“Things are better now,” he said, almost as if he were asking a question.
“Better. Yeah, they’re better,” I said.
Deciding the conversation was over, Scott turned his attention to his phone.
I give up, I thought, losing count of how often the phrase mentally punctuated our conversations. My life was better, yes, but the past and the present both told me that our relationship would never be what I needed.
It’s my opinion that love involves making someone’s life more enjoyable and more rewarding through your presence, and vice versa. So being able to say, yes, you make my life better than if I were alone, is how I know I love you.
The words of a past love. I should have carried his wisdom with me. You’re nice and don’t hurt me is not a foundation that love is built upon, but that’s difficult to grasp when what you know of pain is its extremes. Perspective is difficult for people like me, I’ve come to realize. The world you begin in is small and chaotic, shaped by words like cunt and bitch, molded by careless hands that squeeze and slap and hit. The longer you survive, the larger the world becomes, but there’s still a sense that it doesn’t belong to you. Everyone else’s fingers are entwined in your crevices, and as long as they don’t hurt as they pull and push, you think, they can have me.
That is pain the way an animal knows it: you’re not kicking me, and you’re not screaming, so I trust you unconditionally. But the pain that’s unique to the humanity you are still trying to unearth is more existential in nature. In some ways, it’s made worse by the fact that you’re still intact after all you’ve been through.
What are your dreams, Amber?
He’s never cared to ask.
How did Scott look at my bulimia? Did he ever reflect, the way I did, on how it began? The times I reached out to him, to tell him I had difficulties controlling my eating? I was devoted to the gym and terrified to dine out, the compulsion to exercise and my aversion to food heightened by desperation to reverse weekly binges. And I let him know. I expressed that I was struggling. His mother’s erratic, alcohol-induced behavior at home, the lack of privacy we had living with his parents, my first true introduction into the challenges of nursing school, and working close to thirty hours a week – to feel these burdens alone and without the sympathy of my partner was, to put it lightly, difficult. And after failing to connect with Scott, my response was to turn in on myself. The harder my life felt, the less I cared to live.
It was hard not to wonder how he felt after I experienced my first true purge. My left eye looked bloodied in the corner from bursting blood vessels, and my eyelids were spotted, the vessels broken there as well. My appearance generated concern from my classmates and teachers. Still, he only expressed that I needed to just figure out how to stop, as if I would willingly subject myself to looking so physically unwell. For a man who would often mentally check out of a conversation to look up something that interested him on his phone, he seemed to have little desire to bring his curiosity to the subject of bulimia.
I didn’t understand then that I was the idea of a girlfriend. Not a person, but a concept. Scott’s girlfriend and Amber’s disease couldn’t co-exist – and I wish I had recognized that earlier.