Happy

As personal as my writing on this blog tends to be, I typically maintain a creative distance between myself and whatever morose subject I’m covering. This is not a diary (for the most part), but rather an expression of thoughts and connections branching from my personal experiences. Much of the content here is, well, negative: Girl With a Tale has been a way for me to navigate painful emotions and cope with traumatic events.

Not my original intention, of course. At first, I wanted to simply host the scraps I’d normally delete somewhere so I could go back to them at my leisure. With the blog, I didn’t need to worry about losing ideas to computers I had to leave behind or backing up musings that had potential to grow. My intentions led to achieving my writing goals. Ideas started here gained momentum and shape elsewhere, becoming poems and prose that I shopped around, including a short story on having my heart broken and an abortion in the same month. In all the despair I host here, I’ve created things, sad as some of them are, that I hope ultimately resonate with others.

I want to change gears with my writing, at least eventually. My tale isn’t grief. At least, that’s not the entire story. Life is not pain and suffering; as I wrote back in March, to live, you often need to let go. So here’s a start in creating something different in this space: I will to put my happiness in plain view, since I’ve often failed to explore my joy and progress.

The week I turned 30, I found out news regarding my job that I still can’t share, but there’s a huge opportunity potentially coming my way that will change my life. I also saw Javier, my ex, as we crossed paths at Exchange Place that same day. It was fitting to see the man that broke my heart and cheated on me within hours of finding out the good news. Javier, who ceased to respond to any of my messages begging for clarity or answers, looked the same as he always did – beard and sunglasses masking the width of his large face, a brown trucker hat, the kind with mesh sides, covering his thinning black hair, brown and green clothing hiding a paunch while simultaneously putting in plain view his inability to disconnect himself from the “military man” identity he held onto post-discharge.

He was someone I had decided to attribute my previous successes to: I regained control of many coping mechanisms I abused while we were dating, and made significant progress both with my career and fitness. But he wasn’t there for me, as supportive as I had thought he was. Yeah, I could text him about hitting a new PR at the gym, but I saw him once a week, and very rarely on the weekends. Looking back, I realize how silly I was to think I was doing well specifically because of a man who treated me like I was last on his list of priorities. Work, family, friends, the doctor that lives in Neptune (impressive find, as he doesn’t have a car), the girls in Brooklyn he crashes with instead of going home, and then finally Amber, the girlfriend. Or a girlfriend. I honestly don’t know. Because once confronted, he refused to say.

Seeing him left me with a variety of feelings to sort through. I primarily felt empowered, though, since I stood my ground as he walked past me, smiling widely and waving. He offered an awkward pause as he decided upon which action to take, until finally weakly waving in return. The moment didn’t send me into a negative spiral. Instead, I smiled on my way home to Harrison, probably looking like an idiot to others on the PATH when I audibly laughed to myself in joy. I’m strong, I thought. And for once, not just physically.

Later that week, on my birthday, he texted me. “You probably still hate my guts but I wanted to wish you a happy birthday regardless,” Javier wrote.

I responded, “I don’t hate you. Thank you.”

A conversation began from this, where he suggested we meet up so I could get the closure I had wanted months ago. Initially I agreed, but the day after, I wrote back to him letting him know that I had made peace with the fact that I never received the answers I wanted. That I didn’t think I’d get anything out of seeing him one last time except for an unnecessary helping of grief.

“I know that it’s hard to be a decent person when you’ve been through a lot in your life,” I wrote. “And you have. I get you, and that’s probably the reason I can never hate you. I loved you and I still care about you, but unless you wanted to make a real attempt to be friends (which means being honest and also treating me like one) – don’t respond. This chapter is otherwise closed. Good luck in your life.”

He hasn’t responded. I wish things had ended at Exchange Place with me grinning all the way home, prideful and confident. The brief back and forth didn’t result in me coming undone, but it reminded me of how hard it is to set boundaries with others -and especially men. I agreed to meet him at a time and date of his choosing initially, instead of demanding convenience for myself. And it was hard to turn him down, as I desperately still want to see him.

I’m not manically happy to have told him I’ve made peace without him providing closure – it’s not like the triumph I felt when he had to respond to me at Exchange Place, giving me a briefly lived power over his emotional and physical response to me. But still, it’s a quiet joy. It’s progress. If I don’t want to repeat my mistakes, then it’s time to not allow men to use me as a means to an end – whatever that end is. Love is not one-sided sacrifice. And as trite as it is to say, love does start with me – specifically with respecting myself and my needs.

Javier had two months to tell me the truth or to give me the closure I wanted. Instead he spent that weekend with another woman, at his home that I was not allowed to see. (How absurd, I realize, to feel the way I do about someone that made me sit in a ShopRite parking lot by the apartment he shared with his mother – for forty minutes – instead of letting me inside.)

I owe him nothing, whereas I owe myself the world. I’ve already spent so much of my life being a victim. I was little better off than an abused dog, cowering and afraid and unable to enjoy the act of living. But going into thirty, I can finally say that I’m happy. Not because of a man. Not because of another person’s intervention. I’m happy because I worked for it.

Two years ago I was living out of my car, having given up everything to escape an abusive relationship that led me down the path of an eating disorder. A year after, I was unemployed while dealing with a rock bottom I had to some degree brought upon myself. Last spring, I seriously considered that I wouldn’t recover from how severely I had regressed in my ability to cope, resorting heavily to binging, purging, and drinking to deal with sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy. The gym became a distant thought, and despite the weight I gained, I figured exercise no longer mattered: as far as I was concerned, the brief period of my life where I felt empowered after leaving Scott was a mistake, and that this was real.

Since my 29th birthday, however, I’ve been promoted twice at a job I love. When I think of Scott criticizing me for working as a veterinary technician or for not making enough to be suitable for marriage, I get to have a good laugh, my career putting me on track to make significantly more than a teacher. The gym is again a place of relaxation, focus, and progress for me. (In fact, I just hit a one rep max for 165lbs on bench press, among other recent feats.) I drink socially without embarrassing myself or losing my keys, purse. Most impressively, my eating disorder is quiet. To say it’s “gone” would be perhaps too optimistic, but I haven’t binged or purged for months, and I’m not terrified to be flexible in how I eat. I let myself enjoy food the way I used to envy in others. I never imagined I’d get here, to be honest.

I made the decision to work on myself, which wasn’t natural to me, or the least bit easy. When Javier and I were dating, I told him that I know how to survive, but to actually live is beyond my ability. Without conflict, it’s difficult to know what to do with myself. He understood me. “It’s about who gets you the most,” he once said. And I still agree, which is why it will be hard to let go of the love I had for him. People who will hurt me always get me the most, because what we so often have in common is pain. Unfortunately, many don’t turn their lives around. They don’t stop hurting themselves or others. Their interest in survival means that they will never know what it is to live. And if I don’t want to be the girl that repeats the same dating patterns over and over again, the next thing to add onto my list of successes is, “I stopped falling in love with the suffering of men who don’t want to change.”

For now, though, I’ll enjoy my progress. I will focus on the good I made out of the difficulties I’ve experienced throughout my life. Every day that I live with pride in my accomplishments is a testament to my strength and resilience. “It’s about who gets you the most,” Javier said. Well, I realized if that person is me, that’s just fine.

Happy Anniversary

“I miss who you were,” Scott says. We are laying in bed together but as far apart as the mattress allows. He is turned to face the wall. I am looking at the back of his head, contemplating the force needed to bash in his skull. I don’t want to be touched, he had told me minutes earlier. I’m just really sensitive after I cum.

He never bothered to get to know her, whatever version of me he claims to miss. In a truth he can’t admit to himself, it’s just that he doesn’t like the girlfriend he’s received post-treatment. We got along best when I spent more of my time bent over one of our two toilets, letting my anxiety and depression explode from my mouth and pour into cool porcelain bowls. On the occasions that he’d confront me about my behavior, he’d tell me that I was ruining the house. (When I continue to reach down into my throat years later, I think about the damage I’m doing to the pipes, not the potential eruption of my esophagus or my courtship of sudden death.)

“I thought going to Renfrew would cure you,” he says. Scott doesn’t bother to turn towards me. “You’re still at it, though. And you’re so angry with me all the time.”

I’m only clawing at the inside of my mouth when time stretches my willpower so thin that I can see through it like glass. But yes, I am angry. Now that I don’t puke more often than I shit, I feel my emotions.

“I’m sorry,” I say.  It’s what he wants to hear.

 

“Your arms look fat,” Scott says, a few months before I commit myself to a facility for women with eating disorders. I’ve made the appointment already: between my hair falling out and the acid burns around my perpetually chapped lips, he sees how poorly I’m doing. Still, he’s grimacing, absorbed in his observation. The object of his distaste is a photo: I stand with a group of women in front of a limousine, dressed for a leopard themed bachelorette party.

 

Before and after Renfrew, I try to fall asleep, tired from working, school, or most often a combination of the both. At certain points I’m a nursing student and tutor, a vet tech also putting hours in at a pet store while taking a class or two in between, leading my clinical rotations on the days I’m not working 10 hour shifts at an animal hospital. I probably nodded off on the chair in his parents’ basement or slipped to the floor from the narrow couch in our living room. (He was most likely playing FIFA. He most likely ignored me.) Whenever I get to that point, I make the decision to get more comfortable, to move myself to a more appropriate surface.

In my bed or ours, he’ll wake me up an hour later (as soon as I’ve settled into sleep), and he’ll stroke himself while he talks. I wonder why I’m even here if I’m not thinking about his strange desires. I want you to fuck people for money, he says. Just be a complete whore. I’m not shocked, really, not anymore, but it’s still perplexing. There are times when I play along, and others when I’m silent. On a couple occasions, I cry. But he always gets what he comes for, no matter my reaction, leaving or turning away from me before I can ask for comfort, care.

My needs don’t really matter to Scott. I suppose they don’t matter enough to me, either.

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.

A Prayer

Near every day
a war I lose

Closest to a truce –
a finish line,
if you will –
so came new enemies

Tired of fighting,
instead I prayed:

May I lose my life
before my teeth
May my grave be marked
not by porcelain
May the funerary makeup
be flawed for something
other than a scarlet lattice,
the white of my eyes replaced –
strands of undigested food,
my lips painted frosting blue
May death be easier than life
spent bent over my fingers clawing
deep and then deeper
along the inside of my throat –

trying to find the sound of a
girl worth saving and
failing, always failing

Abuse and Selfishness

Mid-March, freelance writer Richard Greenhill contacted me to discuss a Reddit post I made about my then boyfriend, as he was interested in writing about cuckolding and hotwife fetishes.

If you’ve read my blog, you already know from some of my earlier pieces that my ex of three and a half years was obsessed with sexual fantasies involving me and other men. (You can read Your Bulimic Girlfriend, Wedding Bells, and/or The Bulimic and the Sex Addict if you want more insight.) While having particular kinks is not bad by any means, my ex took things to an entirely new level, where our sexual activities included (almost from day one) demands for me to change my body (get implants, plastic surgery, dye my hair, get my nails done, do my makeup so it’s “sluttier,” and all sorts of things), as well as his articulation of strange and dangerous scenarios at gas stations, glory holes, and more. I didn’t enjoy this; we fought often about his inability to talk about any other subject. Sometimes I had the nerve to bring up how sexually unsatisfied I was, my needs and wants elided by his all-consuming fetish, only to suffer through the same one-sided sex talk later that day. To make matters worse, he never respected my boundaries, or when I told him “no.” He would continuously beg me to help him get off, whining and needling me, and not allow me to go to sleep until he got his way. Whenever I dug my heels in (which wasn’t often), he’d become increasingly manipulative. He would tell me that rejecting him made him feel unloved, especially because I was so terrible at showing my affection in any arena outside of sex.

Looking back at my Reddit post, where I asked for relationship advice and reassurance that his behavior was not OK, I cringe. Writing the above, and knowing that I endured his sex addiction despite the pain it caused me, makes me feel like a fool. My post to Reddit wasn’t even completely honest: I wrote that our relationship was fine aside from our sex life. Well, it wasn’t, even aside from the relentless sexual coercion I faced. I developed Bulimia during the course of dating him. I was financially dependent on him, having gone back to school at his urging, and was reminded every day that I should feel lucky and grateful to have his (or his family’s) roof over my head. Prior to leaving for residential treatment at Renfrew for my eating disorder, he had cheated on me. He was still talking to the girl when I came back, hiding that he had a live-in girlfriend.

Even during my time at Renfrew, when I was supposed to be healing and focusing on myself, he’d ask anytime I called him if I told my therapist about “how we are sexually.” I didn’t even tell my truth when in the best setting to do so, as I subconsciously knew that my treatment team would likely intervene. (My therapist was already concerned I wouldn’t do well in recovery, given that he was such poor support, and that was without her knowing the more gruesome details of our relationship.) Worst of all, when I left for residential treatment, we had promised we’d both work on our compulsive behaviors – and while I took the steps I needed, he spent my two weeks in a psychiatric unit for damaged girls and women watching cuckold porn and talking to the chick he cheated on me with.

These are not details I discussed with Richard. His Vice article, published earlier this month, focuses on when the cuckold and hotwife fetish puts strain on a relationship, and uses my story as one example (among a few others). After writing about my experience at Richard’s request, the part of our conversation he featured in his article is the conclusion I came to as I tried to answer some of his questions. Cuckold/hotwife fantasies differ from other fetishes because they involve the objectification of both your partner and the relationship between you. (Striped socks have nothing on this kink.) In understanding this, I also understand how many red flags I ignored as I fell deeper and deeper into a shared life with a sex addict. I could rattle off the list, but they all suggest the same thing: he didn’t see me as a person, and he was selfish.

While the men featured in Richard’s article were able to identify wrongness in their obsession (even if they couldn’t overcome it), experiencing – much like my ex – an inability to be intimate with their significant other, my boyfriend of three and a half years was unable to acknowledge the damage he inflicted. Not just on me, but also on himself. As part of his unwillingness to handle his sex addiction, he lied and cheated and manipulated. When we ultimately broke up, the story he told didn’t include three and a half years of sexual harassment. He didn’t tell people how he made me feel insecure by constantly demanding that I change my body, how I dress, and even how I do my makeup. No, the story he told was that I was a crazy girl with an eating disorder. Because disclosing my medical history (even the “crazy” part) to everyone we knew mutually (and those he met afterward) was more OK, and more socially acceptable, than acknowledging his role in destroying my sense of self.

Don’t mistake writing about my ex as dwelling on a situation I’ve left behind. While it’s only been a little over a year, I normally don’t think of him outside of trying to create a poem or some prose based on a period of my life that was emotionally rich. There are triggers, of course: I’m angered whenever I feel like someone is controlling what I can say or do, since my relationship also involved trying to control how I dressed and behaved outside of sex. There are also areas in which I’ve grown as part of my experience, as much as I hate to admit it. I’m not quiet when I feel wronged, and I’m learning how to express myself. I stand by my opinions. And I am likable this way, even if my ex made me fear that I’d have even less of a life simply by being myself, that I needed to be quiet and demure to be both loved and liked.

As much as I attempt to move on, however, I’m in recovery. It means that even if I’ve put the past behind me, I’m still dealing with how a sexually abusive relationship affected this present version of myself. Due to my abusive father, I went into my adulthood with an inability to distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy ones. And then I stumbled into my ex after a relatively OK marriage (where the man I was involved with made me feel lovable and worthy of love for the first time in my life, even if things ultimately ended between us). My ex undid a lot of the progress I made, and he undid it gradually. So when I decided to leave him, I was somewhat lost.

Although I’ve attempted to rebuild my life instead of allowing it to fall apart, I’ve made mistakes. I thought being upfront about my past would protect me to some degree. I wanted to know what it was like to have fun, to live. I also didn’t want to get hurt. So I was fun, and I tried to weigh the risk of being vulnerable and being hurt against the reward of finding love. In the trysts I fell into since, I learned that being hurt and finding that you’re still capable of being vulnerable enough to offer your heart to another are not mutually exclusive. But it’s also scary, sometimes, to see how little progress I’ve made in identifying my own boundaries. I only see evidence that they looked at the partial picture and intentionally avoided the strokes that didn’t fit their fantasy after the fact. I’ve let the reasons they used to justify their bouts of selfishness be the seeds of doubt. I’m not good enough.

At this point, nearly fourteen months after leaving a relationship I thought would culminate in marriage, I want my core belief to be that these people were not good enough for me, leave alone worth the time I invested in them. This is the benchmark of recovery, the thought that will let me say, I’m an abuse survivor, and not an active victim.

A Brief Humiliation

My first impression of Nick was that he was too thin. Even as he closed the distance between us, a casual gait carrying him forward at high speed, his frame remained the width of a rail, his legs more narrow than my wrists. (I expected him to be thin based on his pictures, but I had to admit that the reality was somewhat unsettling.) Already, I could tell that he was one of those men that didn’t realize the importance of clothes, particularly the way they fit on a slender frame. The boyish voice of Scott popped into in my head, reminding me that slim guys need a slim cut. Otherwise we look like skeletons, I recalled my ex telling me on our first date. While I still hadn’t come to terms with the pain Scott caused me, I couldn’t help but smile at the tangential thought of his obsession with fashion. Maybe this was the right beginning – this Nick guy clearly wasn’t fixated on the fit of the oversized polo shirt he wore. Of course, Scott was right: my date looked like he belonged in an anatomy class, suspended in the corner by a pole.

My date waved from afar, strolling past mothers who were emptying their cars of children and lawn chairs and food. From what I could tell, the park I selected was hosting a softball tournament for preteen girls. Aluminum bats, leather gloves, kids with their hair pulled into high ponytails served as the park’s backdrop.

“Amber?” he asked, now close enough that I could hear him.

“Yup,” I said. I hope I look enough like my pictures. This was the same thought I always had when I met anyone from a dating app, moderately terrified I would be told that I’m bigger or uglier than my profile suggested.

“Nice to meet you, Nick,” I continued, reaching out to shake his hand. Dates were like an interview, after all. And just like I would with any hiring manager, I made sure to hold his hand firmly. I’m assertive!

“Nice to meet you,” he said, pulling his hand away slowly. The only word I could find to describe his voice was “blunted.” There was hardly any inflection. I’m in for a treat, I thought, expecting to be bored by the lanky stranger I had agreed to meet.

“I think the trail starts there,” I said, pointing towards the paved ground ahead. This wasn’t the hiking trail I had been hoping for, but he was yet another guy that forced me to figure out the details of meeting up for the first time. I was tired of getting drinks — alcohol made you fat, like so many other things — so I opted for a physical activity and a location halfway between the two of us. I didn’t put a lot of effort into these things.

Given our lackluster greeting and the questionable impression Nick made, I didn’t expect our first date to clock in at over thirty hours.

**

I’m not the first person to recognize that they’re in love with being in love. Of course, I believe that the concept of being in love with being in love is simply a generous way of reframing, “Hi, I have an addictive personality.” Maybe I’m just being cynical. I do know that I’m projecting, independent of my prior insight’s validity. Personally, I see love as another dirty habit I engage in. Losing myself in a new romance or a friend is as numbing as alcoholism, and it kills time better than my usual vice of choice. (B-U-L-I-M-I-A. I think it’s a funny word, but it’s still hard to say aloud.)

Still, this isn’t the impression I typically make, or want to make at all, which is why I try so hard to be cold and distant at first. Actual love (including the self-directed variety) is too vulnerable. My desire to lose myself in someone else is too dangerous. Given my history, I’m reasonably certain the latter event is inevitable, despite the Ice Queen disposition I’ve tried to adopt. Genuine love, whether it’s for myself or another person, will be sacrificed along with what little personality I’ve scraped together thus far. Because when I open up, the only thing I reveal is that I’m desperate to please – even when that means giving up the bits and pieces that allow me to feel like a person with interests, dreams.

This was the exact lesson I learned from my brief relationship with Nick, wasn’t it? A guy who needs me can save me from my addictions – until reality replaces infatuation, and the cycles I’ve known all my life repeat, tied together in an infinity knot. The threads are limited, representing only sacrifice and survival. Bleak, I know, but the paths I’ve taken in my life can’t be undone, unpaved, unwound. I can almost predict my future based on how and where these lines have traveled, and I’m more terrified to experience something new than I care to admit.

With Nick, I ignored the red flags, telling myself that mine were worse.

Sometimes, I feel like I survived only so that I could relive and replicate the trauma that’s chased me throughout my life. On better days, I consider all the potential I contain, my ability to change this narrative of abuse, both self-directed and externally inflicted by others. I’m not dead yet because I desperately want to find happiness. I’ve made that decision more than once – and acted on the will to seek better for myself, even when it meant facing the unknown. Always, the difficult part is keeping that momentum going. Eventually I fall into filling myself on my addictions; I’m too afraid I’ll collapse otherwise.

I thought Nick was a different path. I was in love with being in love with the change he represented. Finally, someone nice. He was not Scott in all the ways that mattered most. If I lost myself in him, as I had with Scott, I’d be safe.

Wrong. I was a fool to be so surprised when he left. There was a different insight I wish I had made at the time, when I first left Scott and ventured into the realm of dating again. I need to learn how to be in love with myself first.

**

“I know you’re not alright,” my therapist said.

My jaw throbbed. I always wondered if he knew when I was acting on my symptoms. He specialized in treating people like me, after all.

“I have something to tell you about your boyfriend,” he said. “Nothing bad, but I want to hear what happened first.”

He knew about Nick?

“He left,” I said. I was smiling. I did that whenever I felt like I was on the verge of crying -grin like a lunatic, an inappropriate context almost always accompanying the expression. A subconscious part of me equated baring my teeth with protection. “He took everything. He left. When I got home yesterday, all of his shit was out of the apartment. Everything.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’m sure you have some thoughts,” he said.

“Well… I don’t know, we were fighting, sort of. About a lot of things,” I began. “He knew we were moving in together, but he made some choices that put me in this position – I paid for a lot of our furniture, and used a lot of my savings, and it was just hard to think it was fair… and I don’t know, there’s just so much that came up. I wanted him to be neat, and I think I nagged him too much. I was worried -”

“He’s a hoarder.”

“His parents are hoarders,” I said. “And he definitely has the same impulse to hold on to things. I don’t know if it’s hoarding or more like… that’s just what he knows, after living with them his whole life. But I didn’t want that for us.”

Remember when he told you he cleaned out his bathroom? Nick was practically waving his red flags that day. “I did my best,” he told me as I walked into the room, his affect strange and difficult to describe because it seemed so unlike him. He was sitting on the floor, his long legs folded over each other, head hanging down. I’ve never seen him like this, I thought.

The only progress he made was clearing out one of the recessed shelves by the shower, but even then, he had simply found new homes for the random of collection of items that once lived there. I knew to be gentle in my response – so I told him it was okay, but that we could definitely do better.

“I’ll help you,” I said, stroking Nick’s head, now pressed against my hip, my fingers occasionally caught by tangles in his coarse blond hair. Instead of recognizing that my new boyfriend had a serious problem, I used his dysfunction to satisfy a part of me that enjoyed being needed. I spent what remained of my night encouraging him to throw away excess bottles of suntan lotion, women’s makeup (I was both relieved and disturbed when I discovered that these items were leftover from his half-sister, who had moved out almost a decade ago), and useless As Seen on TV items like towels woven around reusable freezer packs. I remembered feeling so satisfied by the end result. In retrospect, I knew that a selfish, co-dependent part of me found joy knowing that he’d required my help, that this event proved I could prevent him from becoming like his parents.

“Was there more?” my therapist asked.

Yes, more than I realized, I thought. “Food, too,” I answered. “That was an issue. He wasn’t really helping with meal prep, and the food I made… I cook a lot of quinoa and beans, I guess, and he was like, ‘This is really carb heavy.’ This was a couple days ago, but he’s always made comments like that. And it’s probably shitty of me to be mad. I was, though. I didn’t drop it. I don’t want to control how someone else eats, or how they feel about food, but at the same time… I mean, come the fuck on. He knows I have an eating disorder.”

“How long were you two fighting?”

“Just since we made the move,” I said. “I didn’t think he’d leave. I thought this was all given. It’s stressful.”

“Yeah, I don’t disagree with you. Actually, first… let me tell you about what happened, why I know you’re not alright. Your boyfriend called me yesterday. He kept saying, ‘I know Amber’s your patient. I can’t be enough for her. I can’t do it.’ Repeated it non-stop. He sounded panicked – and a little crazy, honestly.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach felt like it was being strangled by my embarrassment. I had never expected Nick to behave this way, to inconvenience a stranger with this drama he brought into my life. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no. Don’t be sorry. I’m glad this happened. To be forthright, I don’t know if I’d believe you – that he just suddenly left for no reason – if he hadn’t made it so clear that there’s something off with him. It sounded like he snapped when I spoke to him. He was worried that he wouldn’t live up to what you needed. It was strange.”

“I guess this means it’s over,” I said, the fatuous smile of an idiot still plastered across my face. “This is funnier to me than it should be, but he said that he couldn’t make that decision while in whatever state of mind he’s in, to end things. He left a check for me on the table where the memo read ‘for therapy,’ though. Felt fucking crushed when I saw that.”

I waited for my therapist to say something, but he just looked at me. I hate this, I thought, trying to fill the silence.

“My self-esteem isn’t so low that I’d say ‘yeah, I’ll put the bullshit you just put me through behind us’ if he decided to come back.”

That was dishonest of me to say, I realized later. When I arrived home to my empty apartment, several pieces of artwork leaning against the living room walls, still unhung, I thought, I want you back.

If he had been waiting for me on the couch, I would’ve sat by his feet like a dog.

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.

The Bulimic and the Sex Addict

“I’m afraid, knowing you’re going home,” Natalie said, her crossed legs long enough that they made the shape of an X. “I don’t think you’re in an environment that supports your recovery. Your relationship — I can’t tell you what to do, but I’m disappointed. He didn’t visit you at Christmas. He didn’t come to the family session. The phone conference we did instead — he rescheduled us instead of telling the parent that there was a time conflict.”

And this one met Sean, too, Sammie thought, considering her therapist’s words. Prior to entering residential treatment for bulimia, she had seen another therapist for a year who had encouraged her to reconsider her tendency to settle with “nice,” specifically in the context of Sean. When Sammie had told him that her therapist wondered if she was getting what she needed out of their relationship, Sean seemed frustrated and only said that she had never met him. His “side” went unheard. He didn’t realize that therapists usually kept their opinions out of the question of whether or not a relationship is worthwhile – that was for the patient to decide, and both Natalie and her former therapist went as far as to suggest that leaving him would only be beneficial. With many caveats about how it was Sammie’s choice to stay or leave, of course.

Natalie had included Sean in a few of the therapy sessions. One “teleconference” that mostly consisted of telling him he had a bad connection, and two times in person, when she was admitted and during his Christmas break, the first and only time he came as a visitor. “I’m glad my mom is driving,” she remembered him saying on the phone, “I don’t want to put so many miles on my car going from New Jersey to Philly.” Natalie’s impression of Sean was that he was a teapot on the verge of boiling over. His obsessive need to talk, she told Sammie, made it difficult for him to listen. He was always thinking about what to say next, when it was far more important to bring his attention to what was being said. Sammie found it hard to disagree with the therapist’s assessment.

“What can I really do?” Sammie asked. “I quit my animal clinic job. Being in the nursing program – I couldn’t do that and work at the same time. I went to nursing school full time for him, because he wanted to be with someone like that, a nurse. At this point, I don’t have the savings I used to. I don’t have my job.”

“If you have to go into debt, then you go into debt,” Natalie said. “Your recovery is more valuable.”

 

Sammie wants to tell him to leave. This is the fifth time he’s fallen asleep on her couch, and the third that he’s refused to see her on a Saturday, when he would actually have a chance of staying awake. He’s nice and cute, Sammie thinks, running her chubby fingers through his hair. I think he likes me. But Sammie can’t be positive. No, they barely speak. He comes over, fucks her multiple times, and falls asleep on the couch. Sometimes he stays awake long enough to beg for a back rub.

Sean is never cruel or particularly rude, just a little unintentionally insensitive. Sammie’s working full time, 2nd shift most days, while also taking classes full time at the local community college. She wonders if he realizes the stress she’s under, or how little time she has to herself. He often texts her when they’re apart, but the messages are things about his day that never respond in kind to what she has to say. Or they’re requests for validation. What do you like about me? Sammie would say a lot of things: I like that you’re cute, when you’re goofy it really makes me smile, I love the way you touch me, you’re really talkative in bed (although he says some very strange things), and you’re so dedicated to your job. When she made the mistake to ask him the same question, he wrote, You relax me. She wanted to demand some kind of answer that related to her personality, not the benefit of having sex and sleeping on her couch. Of course, she didn’t follow through.

The worst bits are the ones Sammie tries to ignore, but they continue to creep up into her thoughts. He’s sexually impulsive. It makes her uncomfortable. Determining her own rights is hard, for some reason. Is she just being sex negative? Is she a prude? She wants someone who is kinky and interesting. Her last relationship was a snore, at least sexually. But she wasn’t expecting to hear about how she should get implants, or try to get money from guys who want to fuck her. Isn’t that prostitution? He wants me to be a prostitute? Was he serious? Did it just turn him on to say these things? She did ask, at one point, but he refused to provide a clear answer.

She’s desperate for someone to care about her. So she doesn’t push, and she doesn’t judge. She doesn’t demand he see her on Saturdays. When he doesn’t get to her apartment until after 9pm on Fridays, when she told him she was making them dinner, she doesn’t get angry. Not even when he tells her he’s not hungry at all, because he ate pizza with his family before coming over.

 

Tomorrow, Sammie would be going home. She wasn’t ready.

As soon as Sammie was admitted to residential, she wanted to leave. She didn’t feel like she belonged. Sure, she binged and purged multiple times a day. And yes, she wanted to kill herself because she was tired of living her life that way. But she wasn’t thin. In fact, she almost cried when she was weighed by the nurse practitioner, distraught that she was now technically overweight. A fat girl didn’t belong in treatment, especially when her bloodwork was just fine. True, she did pass out the second day she was there; a blood draw at 4am would do anyone in. And she was naturally orthostatic. The dizziness she experienced had nothing to do with her behaviors. Right?

Whatever the answers were, Sammie did improve by being in Residential. She connected with other girls, and was able to complete her meals without engaging in the symptoms of her eating disorder. She hadn’t gone a week without binging and purging since her bulimia first began. Yes, the setting made it difficult to puke into a toilet after a meal, but it was a huge accomplishment nonetheless.

Moreover, after Sean had cheated on her, she needed space and time to regroup and validate herself, to reestablish her worth as a person again. He had told her that she hadn’t met his emotional needs for a long time. During their in-person session with Natalie, he had referred to the fact that he had cheated in vague terms, citing feeling neglected as the cause. Natalie explained that Sammie was an empty cup; she had nothing to pour into his glass. If she couldn’t take care of herself, expecting her to take care of him crazy. That was a lesson quickly unlearned, of course. Even while still in res, their conversations would include how she never said anything nice to him, that she was cold and not affectionate. Sammie wanted to scream at him. Instead, she usually just said, “what about the sex? What about taking care of the house? I do a lot. I do.”

He would answer, “I know. But I need more.”

He had nodded sagely during the session, but over the phone maintained that the cheating happened due to Sammie. He was dealing with so much. A bulimic girlfriend that acted like she hated him most of the time. Who wanted to kill herself. (And you ignored that, Sammie often thought and, at times, voiced.) As she became more comfortable in res, she stopped calling him all the time, taking to her books or conversations with other residents instead. She needed to use the time she had away from him to see herself through her own eyes. To not feel the weight of his expectations, his wants, his desires. To not feel like a failure.

So the news that her insurance was cutting her off before two complete weeks of treatment was upsetting. She was, in all honesty, afraid to go back to the life she had with Sean. In fact, she was already expecting to be disappointed tomorrow.

Initially, Sammie imagined that Sean would pick her up from Philadelphia before lunch, and that they would eat at a Panera or some other restaurant that met the criteria of her meal plan while driving home. Instead, because he didn’t want to put the miles on his car, he was having his mom and dad drive. They would all pick her up. Sammie had been with his family long enough to know that they would not stop for food, and that they’d have an assortment of snacks in the car to cover lunch. Her first meal outside of treatment would already be a failure.

Aside from that, Sammie also didn’t want his family’s continued involvement in her life. In her life together with Sean, sure. But when it came to her individual problems, she wanted Sean’s support. To feel like she could confide in him. (He already made it obvious she couldn’t, after telling all his friends she was going to treatment for bulimia, but she wanted to start over.) Instead, his family was being brought along for the ride – literally. She wanted Sean as a partner, not as their son. For him to love her, and take care of her without his parents’ help, and to drive as many miles as she needed him to in his own car.

Was that so unfair?

 

“It’s funny,” Sammie says. “I came here to talk about my family. How I grew up. Instead all I talk about is how unhappy I am right now. Not because of them, my parents. Because of Sean.”

Christine has a habit of tucking her blond hair behind her ear. She’s attractive in an unconventional way, Sammie notes, with her predictable habits and her widely set eyes. And she shops at Target. Sammie knows this, since she has some of the same sweaters, just in different colors. It makes her feel more comfortable, like her therapist is Any Woman.

“Right,” Christine says, after the silence extends beyond a certain point. I wonder if she counts and starts talking when she hits ten? “You’re not happy in the situation you’re in.”

“No,” Sammie says. “It’s hard. I feel like an outsider. I’m living this life where I’m struggling to keep up with everyone else. I’m in school. I’m working. It doesn’t seem like enough for anyone. Not for Sean, not for his family. I’m not a teacher. I don’t have a career yet. I’m doing well for me, but no one looks at my life within the context of how I grew up. The accomplishment of not having a kid at my age. Or at 18, for that matter. Of graduating high school. Of having a college degree. I still feel like I’m not good enough.”

“Is it possible that you’re projecting these feelings onto others?”

Sammie pauses, then shrugs. “Maybe. Not with Sean, though. Sean… that’s so difficult. He’s difficult. I got my job with the vet at the same time – the same time I was accepted into the nursing program as a second degree student. And I told him, ‘You know, if things work out with the vet, I think I might not go into the program. I’ll see how things go from March until September.’ And he said, ‘That’s not a career.’ He didn’t feel comfortable moving out with me from his parents’, even if I was working as a vet assistant. He has a certain standard.”

“Yes, we’ve talked a lot about Sean. I agree that you’re not projecting in his case. But let me clarify. He doesn’t want to move out with you, even if you’re contributing?”

“He doesn’t want to move out until I’m an RN.”

“Is his mom still drinking at night? Have you let him know that it’s affecting you negatively?”

“Yes. To both. She’s been so bad lately, drinking and making a ruckus almost every single day. I can’t focus on my work. And I just feel scared to go home. He says he’ll work on talking to his mom, but I’m so upset and angry lately, and he’s not doing anything.”

“Sammie,” she says, her usually passive face taking on a frown and furrowed brows. “I don’t say this lightly. It’s not within my rights to tell you to leave anyone. But I have a difficult time seeing Sean as a positive figure in your life. I’m not telling you what to do, but I strongly recommend that you consider taking a break from school, working, and getting out of there.”

Suddenly, Sammie’s at a loss for words. I’m part-time at my job now. I don’t know. I love Sean. I do.

“I know you care for him, but I’m worried about you. You’re so resilient, but right now you can’t be where you need emotionally while you’re in the middle of his mother’s alcoholism. And you’ve told me before that you’re not receiving the support you need. From what you tell me, I can only validate those feelings. He sounds very much like he can’t see things from your perspective. A good partner accepts you for you, and tries to understand what you want. What if he lost his job? What if you had a career as an RN, but had to take time off because of an injury? That happens frequently to nurses.”

“I know,” Sammie says. “I’ve tried to explain that to him. But I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t see you two as being in a partnership,” Christine says. “I haven’t met him, obviously, but I doubt my opinion would change if I did. It sounds like he wants to always be in a situation where someone else is taking care of him. He’s not interested in taking the lead on that. Moving out is not a huge request, not at your age, and not when you’re exposed to an alcoholic in your current setting. But that means taking care of you as much as you take care of him.”

“And he doesn’t want to,” Sammie says. “I think I’ve always known that, in a way.”

 

Is this really a surprise, Sammie thought, looking towards Sean. He sat on the couch opposite from her, slumped in his usual position. “I thought you were going there to get better,” he said.

“I was getting better. I told you that I wasn’t ready to come home,” she responded, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She was only trying to be honest, that she had trouble eating pizza with his family. That sitting with the cheese and dough in her stomach made her feel a flood of emotion: she was guilty, anxious, and wanted to bend over the toilet and puke. “Please, you’re not supposed to be so critical of me. Read about this. Come on. I gave you the pamphlet they sent home with me.”

Sean’s thin lips bent into a frown. She expected them to form the words “sorry, I will,” but that expectation was apparently too much. Why won’t he read about bulimia? Or about how to support a partner with an eating disorder? Why can’t I come to him when I’m struggling?

She gave him what she thought he wanted over the course of their relationship. A crazy sex life, completely dictated by what he wanted from her. She accepted his family, as much as she wanted her space. The house they lived in was his mother’s doing – she held the mortgage and enabled him to afford the property by providing a ridiculously low interest rate. Sammie wanted a partnership. To move out together into a shitty apartment, and buy a house when they could do so together. Instead he followed his mom’s wishes – to live a block away in the house that originally belonged to his sister.

Even fresh out of residential treatment, she was attending family pizza night, eating dinner with his mother (who was drinking, again) almost every night, going grocery shopping by herself, making meal plans alone. She was trying. Things could get better, right? Their relationship could become something great. Like it was before? No, that was awful too. It just didn’t involve Sammie stuffing herself to the point of needing to puke in a toilet.

Why can’t he meet me halfway? Well, Natalie and Christine both warned her of the same thing. He just didn’t want to.

 

Sammie is on the portable yellow phone with Sean, pacing near the nurse’s station, trying not to talk in front of other residents’ closed doors.

“Did you tell Natalie about the sex stuff?”

This is all he seems to care about lately. “No, Sean, I didn’t,” Sammie says. “I didn’t tell Natalie, just like I never told Christine.”

“Okay,” is all he says, leaving Sammie to count up the ways he’s hurt her sexually. The talks about changing her body – she wishes she could discuss them with someone, figure out whether or not that’s a part of the bulimia. She thinks about having sex with other men at his behest, after he’s begged for her to do so for years. How sometimes he loves it, and other times makes her feel so ashamed. How in either scenario, he’s obsessed with these fetishes – the cuckolding, the bimbofication of his girlfriend, the idea that he’s coming home to a slut. We’re so fucked up. We need to stop, he’d say, almost immediately after getting off, sometimes in reference to a recent hook-up, and sometimes in reference to his unique form of dirty talk. I’m going to take you to a glory hole, and you’re going to suck every guy’s cock there. Aren’t you, you whore? And you’re going to get fake tits, yeah. Next time we fuck you’re not going to complain about me wanting to make you a bimbo, right? You’re going to be a good little slut?

She thinks about being friendly with some of these men she’s slept with — making them genuine friends who she texted regularly after meeting them, and being told that he’s uncomfortable with that. I like the idea of you being a slut, not this. I don’t want you to see anyone consistently. I just don’t like it. How she’s given him so much, endured sex talk and activities she didn’t enjoy out of love, privileged his orgasm over her pleasure even after he’s brought her to tears with his continued requests to behave like a whore, or go to a glory hole, or change her appearance, or dress sluttier than she does.

The worst part is that she doesn’t even expect that he stop completely. She accepts his desires. She just wants him to change it up, acknowledge her own wants and needs, and provide some form of care afterward. For three years, he’s held her for no more than a minute before deciding that he’s too hot, too uncomfortable, to stand holding her anymore. That is, if he’s not in the mood to flagellate them both over his kinks. Or just tired. Then he rolls over to the far end of the bed, and promptly falls asleep.

So, disturbed by her thoughts, Sammie hangs up without a word. She resists the urge to throw the yellow phone down against the facility’s ugly carpeting. She’s going to do exactly what treatment doesn’t want her to do: she will avoid her feelings. Reading is her only strategy for that here – there are no cell phones and no Internet, and the television belongs to Dance Moms tonight.

Her distress must be visible, though. As she returns the phone to the nursing station, one of the counselors speaks to her.

“Sammie, right?”

She nods.

“How are you doing, Sammie?”

“Fine,” she says. “I’m fine.” She smiles broadly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“If you need anything, please find me. Okay, Sammie?”

She wants to say, Please tell me I’m going to be alright. Please help me.

Instead, she nods and turns her back to the counselor. I can’t let her see me cry.

Your Bulimic Girlfriend

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.

A Day in My Life

There was something both funny and frightening about sitting in the unit’s day room, listening to one of the social workers talk about the pain that accompanied attachment. I imagined myself as a patient, bored all day and night, using my attendance at group therapy as a means of escaping the floor sooner. I imagined what the four men in the room thought of me and my friend, two young female nursing students, observing them like exotic creatures to further our studies. For us nurses in training, these individuals were simply case studies. Nameless patients we would discuss later in post-conference, where insensitive remarks about mental health would inevitably be made. Sometimes the instructor would take the lead with a joke: What do you call an unmedicated bipolar? An addict.

Every day of my psychiatric clinical rotation left me tying the experience to the past and future. “Mindfulness,” apparently the act of “being present” according to whoever the hell wrote the handout the social worker was reading off of, was way beyond me. My thoughts wandered to the image of myself occupying the space of a patient, observed and evaluated, considered only in the context of my disease. A schizophrenic. A bipolar. (There was plenty of cultural and religious sensitivity content written into our curriculum, but little education on sensitivity towards those with mental illnesses.) Before long, I would be a bulimic to counselors and nurses in a residential facility. That’s what I thought, anyway, given how my peers and some of the staff at the hospital spoke.

Yeah, that was the funny part. Situated in the day room during a group therapy session, knowing I would be in a similar position as the patients we were asked to observe. That was hilarious to me. Upsetting, yet comical. I’d have a file, like the ones we looked at earlier — a fat red binder with my admission information. Patient reports that she binges and purges 2-12 times daily. Exercises 4-6 days a week for 2 hours. Admits to SI. Denies HI. Physical complaints include muscle cramps, swollen glands, thinning hair. How much of what I said to the woman who conducted my admissions interview would end up in that chart? And then my thoughts took another turn, wondering what sort of forms and tools they used within facilities primarily for eating disorders. Could I ask to look at my own chart? Probably not, I decided.

 

For a reason unknown to even the clinical instructors themselves, we had two teachers for our psychiatric rotation – one on Tuesday, another on Wednesday. Wednesdays sucked. Not because I disliked the instructor, but because she sat with us during lunch and often turned her attention to the fact that I didn’t bring anything to eat.

The first time we sat together for lunch, I said that I had forgotten to pack food in the morning and didn’t have money on hand. I figured that would be enough.

“Here, here. Have half my salad. I couldn’t possibly eat this all,” she lied, pushing the small plastic container towards me. I denied her offer, but could feel my own embarrassment and anxiety possessing my body — the warm cheeks, the clammy hands, my heart beating hard enough that I felt like it was hitting my sternum. Finally, one of the girls in the group offered a banana, and I took it so that the instructor would leave me be.

“Thanks, Jess. I love bananas,” I said.

“My mom always packs me a big lunch,” she said. “No problem.”

I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this but at least it’s not drenched in dressing and oil. I peeled the fruit slowly, took a few well-paced bites, and threw the rest away so that I could count the snack as 100 calories.

Today, I had a strategy. I brought some money with me and walked around the hospital’s tiny cafeteria for a few minutes. I purchased coffee. If I had something in my hands, maybe the kindly old lady would leave me alone.

“You didn’t bring anything to eat again,” the instructor said. She frowned, deepening the already quite severe creases around her mouth.

“I ate a protein bar before you sat down,” I replied. Not true, but it was a stock excuse for when people commented on my lunch habits. “I was going to get something else in the cafeteria, but they didn’t have many options.”

“That’s not much of a lunch,” she said.

“I eat a big dinner at home,” I responded. Some of the girls at the table turned their attention to the conversation.

“Amber eats like a bird,” Jess said. “She never eats a lot for lunch.” She was always commenting on how small and petite I was, phrasing her compliments in a variety of ways. I wish I looked like you! But Jess – and everyone else at the table – were perfectly beautiful girls. (Women, women. I was a bad feminist.) And I envied them when I saw them eating sandwiches on bread, or the delicious looking cannolis from the cafeteria.

How did people eat like that and not feel guilty?

My friend, who was my partner during the rotation, agreed with Jess’ statement. “She eats really healthy.”

Not true either. Not when alone, or when I knew I’d have access to some privacy and a bathroom. I was a complete and utter failure when it came to valuing my own health.

It reminded me of hearing from people in my program — instructors and peers alike — that I seemed calm and in control when it came to the didactic and hands-on challenges of nursing school. Wow, thanks! I’d say, with forced enthusiasm. An honest response would’ve been too frightening: I’m slowly self-destructing and if you knew who I really was you’d be disgusted. Calm? In control? No, not when people weren’t looking. Outside of college, I was the real and terribly disappointing version of myself that occupied nearly all free time by eating massive quantities of food so that I could then self-induce vomiting. There was also exercise, but I had angrily quit going to the gym when the woman responsible for my admissions interview claimed I overexercised. I don’t. I don’t even need to go. So I didn’t, but the guilt was overwhelming.

I was a fraud. I wasn’t healthy, and I wasn’t in control of anything.

 

Do I really need to go to residential? The question was on repeat in my mind. I’m functional, I thought, pulling into the ACME parking lot. No one knows. I’m going to finish this semester with great grades. Do I really need that level of help? I parked my shitty, decades old Toyota Corolla in a spot that was far away from the store itself (despite a downpour and the flats on my feet) so that I could increase my step count for the day.

As soon as I entered the store, my gray pants and blue button-up completely soaked, I became self-conscious about my current activity. Any time I shopped for food to binge on, my anxiety became transformative, granting people who did not give a shit about my presence the psychic ability of mind-reading. Oh, yeah. They totally knew what I was doing, and they were absolutely judging me. And I think I don’t need help, I thought, self-awareness colliding with the paranoia brought on by a part of me that was seriously disturbed.

Where was I in relation to the continuum of mental health? What did it mean to be functional on the outside, but to internally live in compulsions that, while providing temporary relief, made my life feel like a living, inescapable hell?

I carried these thoughts with me as I picked up a basket. I browsed the ice cream aisle first to see what was on sale, determined I would grab a gallon of Turkey Hill before I checked out, then moved onto the reduced-price baked goods. Most binges were ultimately disappointing, but a cheesecake for half its original price or chocolate frosted brownies at a steep discount always gave me some hope that the next session would be a fantastic opportunity to relieve some stress and feel genuine pleasure. Today, there were muffins, 50% off. Not easy to purge, I thought, as I often did when I considered an item outside my typical foods, but I don’t really care.

Eventually, my frugal values wore down to nothing. I told myself that I would be done soon, given I was going to residential in a week’s time, and that it didn’t matter if I spent a lot of money on foods that would end up in the toilet. When I was finally finished, I brought to self-checkout my gallon of ice cream, four large muffins, two packages of Oreos, two boxes of Entenmann’s donuts, a frozen pizza, a box of poptarts, and a rotisserie chicken.

 

When I got home, I ate everything. I took at least five breaks to purge, but at a certain point lost count. During these hours, my thoughts became fuzzy, lost in the overwhelming compulsion to eat and vomit. (Well, that and disturbed fluid and electrolyte balance. You know, nothing chugging Powerade Zero couldn’t fix.) But it occurred to me that what I consumed didn’t matter. Not at all. What I really desired most was the relief I felt following the purge.

Nothing else in life provided the same feeling. Probably because I was also deeply depressed, and found myself incapable of doing activities I used to enjoy – read, watch Netflix, play some video games, cook (haha). But I couldn’t justify the idea that I needed help with my eating disorder, or with constantly feeling on the verge of ending my life, when I woke up every day and went through the motions.

I was doing well in my nursing program. A lot of people respected me for being intelligent and motivated. I’m fine.