Bullies

My once friend passes her eyes along the bruised length of my neck, the discoloration left by his teeth extending under my jaw. Sarah Jane’s judgment brings a cold light to the typically unreadable expression she wears. At this point, my co-worker is finding any reason to be unhappy with me (she reminds me uncannily of my father, with her simmering rage over the most mundane things), but I’ve finally given her ammunition.

SJ will be fired in a few weeks, but I don’t yet know that. (I won’t, up until the hour she’s escorted from the office.) I have less to worry about than I realize, but the panic weighs on my stomach like a boulder. Limitless is the word I’d use to describe my embarrassment, but I didn’t ask for a man to bite me in so many visible places. I wish I could say that, explain how while I had consented to sex, I had not consented to wearing imprints of his teeth around my neck and across my shoulders for the days to come.

“I bet you were sick yesterday,” she says. Her words, more like a hiss than human speech, react to the cold November air: clouds form in front of her painted orange lips and drift off into nothingness. (And while the air so quickly forgets the shape of her words, I will remember for weeks, perhaps maybe months.) “Good thing you’re back.”

“I was just run down,” I say, meek as a mouse.

“It makes me uncomfortable to stand so close to you,” she says, apropos of nothing. She’s looking down on me – literally, as she’s got almost a foot on my own small stature – her fire engine red hair hanging past her face like two long drapes. There’s something that approaches malice in her eyes. Maybe I’m just reading into it; perhaps she’s not a bully, and I in fact deserve her quiet rage.

“It’s like I’m some giant,” she mumbles, turning heel before slithering back towards our office.

 

Such a private man, this distraction that’s wound tight as a garrote around my heart. He will tell stories to his friends in front of me, where I am not a character despite the memory belonging to us both. He will not take a picture with me, or create an association between us that is anything more than convenience for himself. But he will leave his mark in all the public places that I occupy alone. (I feel acute embarrassment, a humiliation that is severe but not as disastrously consuming as what will come later.) And still I throw myself at him, desperate for someone to love, accepting he may never care for me because I’m closer to thirty than I want to be but still incredibly and sadly so fucking unfamiliar with the concept of self-respect.

My whole life, survival has meant keeping others happy. If I bury my own wants and needs, I will not be kicked or abandoned. When I tell him I took the day off work because I couldn’t figure out how to cover up the marks he left behind, he just laughs – and I find myself where I often have in the past, afraid of my own anger, more terrified he’ll leave if I express my unhappiness than I am over his callous disregard.

I told you to stop. I told you not there. I told you and you continued anyway. But I swallow air instead.

Happy Birthday

Because I’ve blocked my father’s number and his social media accounts, he now leaves me comments on a blog I use to host my half-finished prose and unrefined poetry. His latest offering is in keeping with his descent into schizophrenia:

Seeing one’s self as weak provokes the mind into its own (being planted by an embraced past; what one doesn’t let go of only creates one that knows its role) victim mentality… Don’t allow another’s weak guilt to imprison you.
Stand up, because you’re more intimidating than the weak $$$ that imprisons you. LET NO ONE’S NARRATIVES WRITE YOUR FUTURE!
~see your delusional daddy

I delete his response to a poem I wrote about my struggle with bulimia, about my fear of dying over a toilet or losing my teeth. (Writing can never fully explore the fears I face, or the nightmares I live with. I dream of my incisors falling out; I wonder when I’ll bite into an apple and find that my front tooth has finally become dislodged, the slow erosion of my gums eventuating in the inevitable.) I’m not sure what he means, yet the incoherence still disturbs me.

Victim mentality? I think. I am imprisoned, but not by guilt. And I am a victim. I’m tired of pretending I’m too strong to not be.

***

Home movies. Remember those? I sit in the basement of my step father’s house, the TV flickering to life as soon as I push the VHS into the tape player. I’ve picked the one labeled May 23rd – Amber’s Birthday. I’m turning thirteen in a few days. The choice feels appropriate.

My father stalks my mother with the video camera. This is how his home movie opens. He narrates using that voice, the one that’s more sinister and frightening than outright anger. Controlled contempt, I would later call it. A lash worse than all the times he slapped me. In the movie, he directs this verbal violence towards my mother. The image he portrays of her – fat and unkempt, her arms as wide as pillows, eating chocolate – is not enough to sate the part of him that feeds off pain.

“Look at the hippopotamus,” he says loudly enough that my mother’s head spins, “look as she grazes.” She brings her hand up towards the lens, her fingers and palm and sagging skin obscuring the view of our tiny kitchen.

Sharp cut. Now there’s me, a small child, my face red and wet. I’m wailing on the top bunk. I look like some soon to be victim, as if I were one of the dumb girls in the horror films my mother and I watched together. My father is Freddy Krueger, among the few – or perhaps the only – horror villains that emotionally tormented their prey before slaughtering them.

“Oh, why is the birthday girl crying?” He uses the same tone as before, when he deemed the woman that gave birth to me and his two other children a hippo.

When I think back to my birthday, I don’t remember why I was in tears. After all, I was only five years old.

Recovery?

I’m in recovery. What a nebulous sentence. I’m not even sure what it means when I admit to people that I’m bulimic, but am “in recovery.” Am I working on the behaviors? Am I successful when I don’t purge, or when I can sit uncomfortably after compulsively over stuffing myself? Am I still symptomatic if I’m binging? And what about these thoughts I have, related to my body and food and self-worth? When I can say, I’m recovered, does that mean I can’t feel guilty about missing the gym because I’m worn down?

The closer I come to having a life that allows me to live, the more I focus on the details, the semantics.

I realized yesterday that I don’t want to be bulimic anymore. I don’t want this disorder to be such a large part of my identity. But even as I trace its origins, even as I begin to understand how this happened, I’m not any nearer to defining what life without bulimia is like. Worst of all, this disease is like an invasive species; it doesn’t belong here.

I’m surprised that it happened so recently. Scott’s mom was candid about her feelings, perhaps because I was being open about my own. Not that I had much choice. Scott had told his family – without my consent – that I was bulimic. She was dismayed to hear that the disorder began in the midst of living with her. The answer she wanted was different – maybe some story about how I spent my time bent over a toilet in college and recently relapsed. She didn’t want to consider that the disorder began as part of my relationship with her son and his family.

In fact, when I told her I was going to residential treatment at Renfrew, she repeatedly stated, “I hope they don’t tell you we’re not good for you.” I was about to uproot my life the day after finishing my fall semester of nursing school to spend an indefinite amount of time at a residential facility in Philadelphia, and her main concern was that the therapist(s) would tell me to get the hell out of Dodge.

My therapist, of course, did question my ability to be successful with a partner like Scott. I never told her about Scott’s sexual abuse. I didn’t mention that his mother was an alcoholic, and that I spent almost a year being told by him and his twin brother that I was just imagining it or being dramatic. She didn’t know the details of Scott’s cheating, or the way he’d compare compulsive acts of sexual abuse to my bulimia. I never told my therapist that Scott explicitly said he didn’t forgive me for being emotionally unstable when my bulimia was at its worst (“you were still you then,” he told me more than once when I came back from Renfrew, even as he continued to cause me emotional and physical harm in bed), and considered the behavior of a genuinely ill person comparable to his cheating, his lying, his abuse.

I think my therapist simply saw what I see now: I’m a resilient person, but resilience is a finite resource. And I was wasting that resource on Scott, on his family, on people who never asked me what I wanted or if I was happy. I wasted my resilience on trying to live with people who slept with their secrets. Who didn’t, or couldn’t, communicate honestly, but acted passive-aggressively, displayed random bouts of anger, manipulated one another. I purchased their story of this being normal, and judged myself instead of identifying their problems sooner.

I wouldn’t have developed bulimia if I had never met Scott. I’m so certain of this that I want to laugh hysterically until I cry; I want to embrace the absurdity of my situation. These thoughts also make me want a life without bulimia more than ever. I want to be able to know what it’s like to not fear a bathroom after a large meal. To not miss the gym because I spent the day before, or even morning of, purging. My life is worth more than the DSM diagnosis they brought into it.

I don’t know what being “in recovery” actually means. I never will. But I am in a state of regaining my resilience. I can recognize that I’m not a bad person for wanting a life defined by my desires and needs. For accepting that it’s not healthy to keep secrets, or to let anxieties create a momentum that’s chaotic and harsh.

I’m happy to wake up. I haven’t been able to say that in years.