Homecoming

“We’ll have to get you an air mattress,” my mother had told me on the phone. “There’s no bed for you. We set up the TV and furniture in your old room.” Why? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t need to question her when I already knew her answer. You don’t live here anymore. You’re not eighteen anymore. Fend for yourself. Instead, I should have turned my thoughts to the truth: my mother and step-father Mike had let the house become such a mess that the first floor was virtually unusable.

We had a shit room – it was literally filled with dog shit – and the hardwood floors were soaked in urine. In the afternoon, the sun would hit the the entrance to our deck, warming the surface and releasing the smell of dog piss. There were less heinous and more common problems, such as the filthy kitchen, but they had essentially lost the first level of the house to animal neglect.

There’s still time to turn back, I told myself, looking down towards the train tracks. Empty cups and cigarettes occasionally appeared between the rails, carelessly thrown by passengers who didn’t bother to walk to one of the several trash cans on the platform. What exactly did I expect from this trip? Part of me wanted to see my family before I left for India with my boyfriend, as I’d be gone for several months. At the same time, I had such a poor relationship with my two younger sisters that we said nothing more than “hello” when I was home. (Unless, of course, we started to fight about something completely absurd.) I was also becoming increasingly aware that both my mother and Mike had very little interest in my life. Philadelphia wasn’t extremely far from Rhode Island, but in all my years at Temple University, my parents visited me twice: they moved me into my dorm room my first year of college, and they came to my graduation ceremony.

“I’m getting an award,” I recalled telling my mother months before. “The ceremony’s the day before graduation. Maybe you guys can stay in one of the hotels nearby—”

“I don’t want to stay overnight.” My mother was both brief and honest. She offered no congratulations or explanation.

 

Many of the soon-to-be passengers on the platform were clearly college students, or at least young women and men who appeared to be traveling home for a visit with their loved ones. There were many families as well, children and parents alike with backpacks and luggage, huddled together. I wondered what kinds of situations they were destined for. Did the college girls return to doting parents who asked about their studies? Who were proud to have daughters who won awards, or made the Dean’s List? Did the mothers and fathers feel a sense of joy in showing their children Philadelphia (or, alternatively, New York)?

I wondered how it felt to have a mother that cared about you, or a reliable father who didn’t so easily become enraged that he was terrifying to be around. College, in a way, had been a double-edged sword. I was able to get away from the neglect and abuse, but there was a separate and extremely sharp pain in realizing how abnormal my upbringing had been. Often, I found myself extremely jealous of others, their parents coming from the far end of Pennsylvania to visit them in the city. I also experienced amazement in the number of people who had college educated mothers and fathers. How foreign a concept that was, when my parents didn’t even graduate high school.

Don’t go was an intrusive thought; it followed me into the train and accompanied me on the trip to Rhode Island.

 

This was the second day I spent on a beige couch that smelled faintly of urine, watching my mom view episodes of Maury and Jerry Springer. (Attempts at conversations were met with, “Jesus, you always interrupt me at the end of my shows.”) I briefly turned my attention to the repetitive narratives of cheating and paternity tests, and wondered what compelled people to seek something outside of their self-described committed relationships. Why bother? Sex is sex, right? Mom focused intently on the television screen, her cigarette dangling in her right hand, absorbed by the drama.

The day I arrived, my mother took me to Benny’s to purchase the air mattress. She knew I was coming, but claimed I hadn’t given her enough notice. There were no air mattresses to buy, so she resigned herself to letting me share her bed. Mike’s sleeping in your old room, she said, he can’t sleep on his back after his gastric bypass, and he needs the recliner.

This was the homecoming I expected, but not the one I wanted. Neglect didn’t harden me – it made me even more desperate for love and acceptance.

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.

I am my scars.

So much of my life feels like a secret. How much time, I wonder, have I wasted, filing away my memories, trying to put them into places where they can be forgotten? How many times have I closed myself off to others because the real answer is off-putting? Because I’m afraid of how people will respond – afraid of being rejected for honesty, the way I had been as a child, by some of the people closest to me? As an adult, I live in the space between truth and social acceptability. And the result is total isolation. A lonely reality, shaped by a multitude of traumas that I’ve tried to abandon and forget.

The worst part about surviving awful things is that you always carry them with you, even if you can forget or forgive. Other people do not understand that they’re seeing the scars left behind when you can’t maintain eye contact, or when you flinch during a hug. Sometimes the scars are mistaken for being socially awkward. Cold. Boring. For me, the truth is that I’m just afraid. I’m a dog that’s been kicked most of its life and I’m terrified that you’re going to kick me too. I protect myself with silence and half-truths. I say, “I’m okay” when I’m not. I don’t share stories of my childhood. To prevent rejection, I cut people out of my life before they can say that they’re done with me. That I’m not good, or weird, or something worse.

It’s been a slow process, but I am getting help for my issues – I’m trying to learn that this shit is not my fault. For me, it’s been difficult to realize I need help undoing the trauma. Despite feeling like I can’t share most of my life with others out of feeling grotesquely different, I spent a lot of my time growing up being told that my feelings were misplaced, selfish, wrong. “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it,” my mother would say, not always jokingly. She would complain that I had unreasonable expectations. She would say that it was not wrong to tell me that I was responsible for myself at fifteen. When I was in college for my first degree, I remember coming back home for the winter break and trying to discuss that I thought I needed help dealing with the fact that I was socially delayed. (Being in college, around people whose parents visited them and called them, who could recount so many happy stories – that was the first time I started to realize my life wasn’t typical. I could also see that I was not making friends, because I was so scared to even talk to people.) My mother denied I had problems. For whatever reason, it then seemed like a good idea to tell her about the time I tried to kill myself.

I was fourteen and didn’t have a single friend. I was bullied terribly by boys in my school for being overweight and socially awkward. A few months before, I had a falling out with my father (one of many), which resulted in him harassing me over the phone about being an ungrateful bitch (for what, I don’t know) and a stupid, fat cunt. He had come to the house my mother and step-father owned after I hung up on him. When I tried hiding behind my step-father, because I knew my father was going to beat me, my step-dad moved aside so that my father could slap me hard across the face. He’s your father, I’m sorry. At this point, I couldn’t deal with experiencing another day in my life – I had no one I could trust, and school was just another place where I was abused. So one night I overdosed on Tylenol and ibuprofen. I vomited for hours and literally passed out several times, but my mother and step-father didn’t check up on me and weren’t concerned by the symptoms I exhibited. Even the ringing in my ears. I was still not dead, and tried doing the same thing the next day when I stayed home from school. I was unsuccessful again, most likely due to the fact that I didn’t understand that Tylenol and ibuprofen were different drugs and didn’t have the additive effect I expected. My attempt resulted in a lot of vomiting and sleep.

I told my mom about overdosing because I felt so friendless and alone. I told her that I was disappointed that I was able to do that without anyone noticing I was trying to kill myself. That no one even thought to take me to a hospital. That I had real issues, and have had them for awhile. My mother simply said, “I don’t remember what you’re talking about. And I’m not responsible for you.”

I learned so many things from my parents. My mother and her husband taught me that I am alone. If I think I have problems, I am probably just making them up or being childish. My social ineptitude is my own doing. That it’s funny when I don’t want my own family members to hug me. My father taught me how to be afraid. He taught me I was worthless. He instructed me on how to hate my body. To not trust kindness, because it’s always fleeting. Together, my parents taught me that I will always be rejected by the ones I love.

The part of me that realizes these are the lessons taught by parents who abuse and neglect their children cannot mollify the part of me that still hurts. I’ve managed to become a productive adult and can hide behind my so-called successes, but I still (rightfully) see a damaged person in everything. I have friends (but no close relationships). I have (rocky) monogamous relationships with men (and use sex to obtain validation when I’m single). I’m extremely talented when it comes to school (but feel like an impostor, because how could I be talented?). After being at a new job for a couple weeks, my bosses are always happy that they picked me over other candidates (until I implode a year later, and abruptly quit). I powerlift and really value health (but will binge eat and puke in times of stress – yes, I’m bulimic).

I’m a functional mess. A woman born from a girl’s trauma.

This is ultimately an attempt to tell the truth. To be honest about myself, so that the words I speak don’t always seem like such lies. And the truth is that I am often not okay. I shouldn’t need to expect “okay” from myself after the kind of life I’ve had. But in writing this truth, I also see it’s not my fault. I don’t deserve to feel so much contempt for myself over the fact that I am not perfect. That I can’t recover on my own. That I’ve developed bad coping skills.

There’s more hope in the truth than there is in my lies of omission. If I can see there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, if I can voice that I am just barely getting by, then it’s easier to accept that I deserve help.