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Close to the Bones

Amy Nolan

The stomach is a place almost as private as the grave.
– Gaston Bachelard

It was a relentlessly sunny day in July, a week after my fifteenth birthday, when I was admitted to the hospital. I remember staring out the side window of the Chevette’s back seat, trying to follow the hypnotic movement of the unraveling yellow line as it dipped and glided along the edge of the road, knowing that it stretched fifty miles back to my hometown of Grayling, Michigan. Our family had taken this route before, for orthodontist appointments, school shopping at the Cherryland Mall, swimming in the bay. Now we were heading toward the pediatric ward of Munson Medical Center. As I stared out the window, unblinking, entranced by the road’s movement, I could feel my mother’s eyes on me, reflected back through the rear-view mirror. Earlier that morning, she had come into my room to tell me that I had an appointment with the psychiatrist—but to pack a bag, because I might be there for a few days. I packed the turquoise, v-necked sweater I’d been wearing nearly everyday, my journal, underwear, headphones, and two books: Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, stories about a girl, the oldest of four, who has to take care of them after their mother abandons them.

In the car, I shut my eyes and rested my forehead against the cool glass, feeling resigned, and a little relieved. In the world behind my eyes I didn’t have a family. I was rootless—a loner, dark and mysterious, with no history. Behind my eyes there was no dinner table, no faces looking down at half- eaten plates of food, no heaviness in our spirits, no post-dinner stomach ache after the anxious, silent meal. No slap at our elbows to get them off the table. No quick glares from Dad if one of us spoke. No fast-recited prayer: GodisgoodGodisgreatletusthankHimforthisfoodByHishandwemustbe fedgiveusthisdayourdailybread. Amen. In the world behind my eyes I transcended even prayer.

Last week, my mother stood in my bedroom doorway. She didn’t cry—I hardly ever saw her cry—but there were tears in her voice as she said, pointing to my poster of Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics, doing an impossible pose on the balance beam, her muscles bulging and popping under the skin of her sinewy legs, “Look at what this says—Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be a strong person. This is so true. You have your whole life ahead of you.”

Glancing up at the faded poster, I thought, My life isn’t so hard. I had always been praised for being independent, robustly healthy, a talented pianist. I was hardly ever sick, had never broken a bone, never had surgery, never had been “a bother.”

I’d felt a pull to comfort my mother at that moment, but instead I just stood there. I had listened to her talk to others on the phone in a hushed voice, comparing “my” anorexia to Dad’s alcoholism. Now her face was pulled by concern, anger, and helplessness, for the anorexic cannot be moved.

I learned, almost by accident, that I felt safer, more together, more distant, cleaner, clearer, when I was closer to my bones. I was home with a fever during my freshman year of high school. During that week I lost five pounds. I felt clean, and I loved the way my pants hung on my hips as my abdomen had shrunk. I remember thinking, I wasn’t even hungry the whole time! In the absence of hunger, I felt a pure emptiness inside me that seemed to lift me up above myself—where need melted away like long-frozen ice. Being close to the bones was the ultimate psychic protection.

I sought freedom and release in habits that flowered into rituals: running for one hour before I could drink water; riding my bike until dusk, around and around the blocks, before I could eat an apple; elaborately avoiding mealtimes with my family. My diet consisted of bread, string cheese, and apples (sometimes I ate the seeds). In restaurants, the salad bar was my salvation, with no dressing, of course. I sometimes denied myself water after running, so that I wouldn’t feel bloated. To be empty was to be perfect, safe, and comfortable, even when my stomach was raging with hunger. I rarely slept, and when I did, I always dreamed of food. Once, I awoke biting into air, thinking about a big green apple, hand at my mouth.

I was always cleaning the house in those days; I did the laundry before I was asked, I cleaned up around the toilet, even where my brothers had “missed” and hit the floor. When I ran out of things around the house to clean, or when it all felt too futile, I’d move the furniture around, an obsession I’d kept since I was about eleven, when every Sunday I’d create a new configuration to my room. When I couldn’t sleep, I would get up and dust—my bookshelf, window sill, heat registers against the wall. Once I completed my task, I opened the window to clear the air. Usually by then I was sufficiently exhausted enough to sleep.

My mother caught me once. At about two a.m., I heard her in the hallway. The light came on, and she opened the door to my room. I hated that she just opened the door and never knocked. Her tired, squinting, suspicious eyes mirrored back to me my sullen madness. With a rush of shame following it, I felt an acidic thrust of hatred for the woman I could never hate—the woman who had tried her best, who needed my help, who depended on me to be strong, who couldn’t bear my tears. I hated her for seeing my obsession and not daring to step inside my room and shake me, hug me, yell in my face. I hated her inability to move from that threshold of my doorway, the way her small brown eyes looked at me, searching, accusing, so as to mask her own guilt. I hated her soft, sad face. I hated her slightly arched eyebrows and the deepening line between them. I hated her pudgy arms and ass. I hated her passivity and silence in the face of Dad’s drunken leers and sober rage. I hated how my stomach pulled and ached when I looked into her worried eyes, framed by lashes I could see from across the room. I hated how much I looked like her, how much I needed her, how much I wanted to run to her, bury my face in her chest, wanted her to hold me, to forgive me for hating her.

By the end of the school year, I had reached 95 pounds, and people were telling me how good I looked. I looked in the mirror and didn’t see a fat girl, or a distorted funhouse image. I just saw body parts—as if I were looking at a puzzle. I saw: thighs that touched, but shouldn’t; upper arms that needed to be narrower than the elbow; breasts that stuck out too much; a stomach that was most unruly, whose size changed with whatever I ingested. I saw my body in terms of the cold lines of mathematics: pounds, width, height, length, calories, and sizes—of clothes, of food portions in relation to the size of the plate.

My obsession included all numbers, but most importantly, the numbers on the gold metal scale in the bathroom. The scale was as cold as porcelain, and was always shoved back out of view under the dampness of the sink like an unnamed artifact that no one wanted to admit to owning. The elongated, black numbers fanned out when I stood on it, holding my breath—for now the scale determined my worth. It was the scale, with its smooth, silver handle that divided the gold frame, and the red needle—always constant, always true—that would point at the wobbling numbers. The scale was a roulette wheel, brutal in its cold objectivity.

In school, my mind would wander, but I sat still and rolled my thoughts upward as I envisioned the loneliness of outer space. I had been exploring the films of Stanley Kubrick, having seen The Shining a few years before, haunted by the director’s ability to capture the uncanny emptiness, the singular horror of and embrace of annihilation. I had just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I imagined that same loneliness and horror, the wonder of stepping outside my own body as astronauts stepped away from the earth, seeing for the first time what it looked like from a great distance. I remember gazing down at the shape of my hands as if seeing them for the first time, and suddenly wanting to cry, for the awareness of my own fragility and mortality was so intense. Running my fingers lightly over the places where my bones stuck out—elbow, knuckle, clavicle, wrist—I imagined myself small enough to live on the surface of my body, navigating the skin. I wondered if the astronauts could see the movement of the ocean waves, the spinning of great winds, the silent noise of a chaotic earth, a rumbling stomach, from above it.

As I slipped below 90 pounds, I began noticing my bones more prominently, as if they were new developments in my body. My period had long ago stopped, and I wouldn’t receive it again until I started college. My pelvic girdle began to feel as if it were situated outside my body, insect-like, as if I were “wearing” it. I was sleeping more, and running less. My mother had forbidden running, but I still “sneaked.”

During the day I coolly refused food at the regular mealtimes, which angered my mother. If she caught me grabbing a cracker at, say, 10:00 a.m., my “lunch” time, she’d start slamming things around in the kitchen, making me so nervous that I’d put the crackers away. I felt ashamed for being hungry. Ironically, maybe I would have eaten more if she had been willing to “let me” eat any time I wanted.

The only time I still felt vulnerable to my mother was at night, on the cusp of morning, when the sky was still ink-black, but I was so hungry I couldn’t stand it. At night, I’d make myself wait until 4:00 a.m., my eyes glued to the clock. The ache in my stomach was sometimes so great that I felt as if it would cave in on itself. I’d sneak down the hallway, hands shaking and holding onto the wall, heart pounding with the fear that I would wake up my parents. Somehow I almost always did.

Once I arrived at the kitchen, the ritual was always the same: gingerly open the fridge so as not to allow any bottles to clink together; slowly remove two slices of wheat bread from the plastic bag, making sure the plastic barely crinkled; noiselessly ease out two pieces of string cheese; painstakingly tug open the crisper drawer and remove one apple; wash it with the smallest stream of water possible. The slowness was often difficult to sustain, but it calmed me, helped me focus on the task.

I’d carefully remove a plate from the cupboard, a knife from the drawer that often came off its tracks, making a loud screech. I’d stop and listen, like a raccoon at the birdfeeder when my mother shone the flashlight on it. Then I’d carry the food to the table, and open yesterday’s newspaper. I had to read, to distract myself from the sordid task of consuming food. I’d go through Ann Landers, cartoons, and the horoscopes—short items that I didn’t have to concentrate on.

Before I allowed myself to read, however, I needed to prepare my food. I ripped the bread into several pieces, saving the crusts for last. I peeled the lengths of string cheese into thin strips, then cut the apple into eight pieces. I ate in this order: bread first, the last four strips of string cheese wrapped around the last two pieces of bread, and a piece of apple would follow roughly each bite of cheese.

To this day, my staples remain apples, cheese, and some kind of bread. Anything swimming in a sauce, whose ingredients are impossible to monitor, is off-limits. Casseroles, desserts, and intricate salads that begin with mayonnaise are too scary. Anything that has been cooked in butter or some mysterious marinade is too complicated.

On the first day in the hospital, I lay on a narrow bed, listening to the squeak of nurses’ shoes on the shiny hallway and equipment being wheeled around, occasionally smelling overcooked food wafting up from somewhere. The nurses were quick and efficient. They had short, bulletproof hair, starched uniforms, and stern, suspicious faces. A woman, who we soon referred to as “Busybody Edie,” came into my room to take my vitals. My parents had left me about an hour before, and I still hadn’t cried. I’d watched them walk across the parking lot, my mother glancing up to search for my room. I’d waved, but she couldn’t see me.

Checking her watch and quickly moving to the bedside, Edie snatched up my arm, wrapped the black blood pressure strap around it, waited, and abruptly unwrapped it with a loud scratch of Velcro. She knocked her stethoscope on my chest, where it sounded like metal on wood. Tears came to my eyes. She never once looked at me.

The next morning, when she came to retrieve my untouched breakfast tray of cold rubbery eggs, Edie stood with her hands on her hips, surveying me with small, dark eyes that peered out of a pasty white, rouged face, and sighed sharply. I felt like a fraud, like a major inconvenience to my family, the hospital staff, the therapist, the psychiatrist. The nurses gave me disapproving looks—they did not feel sorry for me, I did not have cancer, I had not been in a disfiguring accident, I was attractive and healthy, except that I wouldn’t eat. To these women, who worked hard to put food on the table, this was inexcusable and disgusting—a luxury of the rich.

Confined to my bed at first, I still lost weight. My body had efficiently taken the baton and was now losing on its own, even though I was starting to put food in my mouth. After a few days, I dropped to below 76 pounds. For this reason, I was placed on a behavior modification program, which meant that in order to have any privileges—a word I came to know well—I would have to eat a certain number of calories or gain a certain number of pounds. Every activity of my prior life—taking a bath, reading a book, watching TV, wearing my own clothes, calling my mother, going for short walks accompanied by the nurse, and eventually, going home for a night or weekend—became a privilege I had to earn in calories. For the first week I wasn’t even allowed to shut my door, leave my room or have visitors.

Although I was not allowed to read my own books I had brought in, I was allowed to read magazines brought to me from the waiting room. Most of these were fashion magazines. The models grinned at me from the pages, with perfect skin, perfect bodies that were as thin as mine but I couldn’t have known then that the protruding bones had been airbrushed. All I saw were seamless, glossy surfaces. As I pondered my vague triumph at having surpassed the thinness of the average model—my proof being hospitalization—I also couldn’t remember when I had become so obsessed with being thin. It had crept up on me, had trickled down behind my eyes, and now flooded my thoughts, dreams, all of my energy.

At first, I hated the crisp, antiseptic smell of the gowns that I had to wear, transparent from age. With time, though, I grew to like the smell, especially after I had worn them for a week. The smell of my hair, which was getting long again, blended in with the hospital smell, so I felt more at home. Having only my journal, I wrote entries every day, and graded each day—mostly Cs and Ds. I remember being so cold that I couldn’t feel my toes and fingers— how surreal this felt as I gazed outside at a hazy summer day. My skin was covered with pale, fuzzy hair. I let myself be handled like a doll—pushed from space to space.

I was surprised by what a relief it was not to have to be responsible for anything except eating. I felt vaguely ridiculous, yet tired and relieved to be wheeled about, getting X-rays and blood work, as I was so dizzy whenever I stood up. I kept my head low, staring at the tile floor as the gliding movement of the turning wheels made me lightheaded. I remember the slight gasp of the radiology technician when she told me to lift my arms for the X-ray of my chest. I was all ribs and hollows.

My therapist and dietician agreed to start me at 800 calories a day, threatening me with intravenous feeding if I didn’t start eating that day. Trish Perlman was a soft-spoken, hippyish woman who resembled Arlo Guthrie. She talked to me like I was an adult—very logically, appealing to reason. She told me that when it came to gaining weight, I need not worry because first the blood is affected by the food, then organs, then muscles…that fat is the very last thing. She told me that food is not about love or hate or control—it is about nourishment and strength.

I came to like Trish, even though I often tested her patience. Through her I learned about the world of organic food, vegetarianism, ecology, and about her travels to wonderful places like Greece and Italy. I promised myself that I would go there someday. Trish seemed kind of dreamy sometimes, distracted, as if she too looked forward to being someplace else.

After nearly a month, when I’d reached 86 pounds, I was allowed a roommate— Becky, who was also anorexic. I liked her immediately—we were the same age and liked the same bands, especially Tears for Fears. We fed on each other’s dark, wry sense of humor, although she was more outspoken than I, and we did impressions of the nurses. Becky and I made fun of each other’s food choices. She loved prunes, which were disgusting to me. I’d pretend to retch whenever she’d get them. Becky would lean over in her bed toward me, hold up an ugly, wrinkled piece of fruit and growl, gleefully, “Pruuuuunes!”

Every Sunday, a priest would come to give Becky communion. The priest would whisk the curtain shut, never once looking at me. I’d be writing furiously, pretending not to notice or care, trying to ignore the Lord’s Prayer for the thousandth time. Having been active in my own church since I was ten years old, I couldn’t understand why my pastor hadn’t been to see me. Even my orthodontist had visited. I found out later that my mother hadn’t told anyone at church, so I wasn’t on the Prayer Chain. It didn’t occur to me then to be angry, only ashamed.

One night in the hospital, during a severe thunderstorm, I watched the bony fingers of lightning reach across the distant bay. I noticed that my hair was now longer than it had ever been, wild and thick, like it had been when I was five. I pulled a few strands around the side of my face and inhaled the scent of White Rain shampoo. Sitting in the center of my bed, I touched my hair tenderly, noting how sharply its usually reddish, but now almost black, darkness contrasted with the white sheets. I was overcome by a surge of love and tenderness for myself. Finally, I let the growing ache in my chest give way to the rise of a well of tears. Trish told me that the tears were a great sign: I was feeling again, a sign of warm blood, colorful cheeks, shining hair and a sharper mind.

One of my biggest fears of recovering was the eventual shift on the scale during my weigh-ins. I knew that soon the nurses would begin to move the primary weight indicator on the scale to 100 instead of 50, where it had been since my arrival. To me, being healthy meant being average, bland. I panicked whenever someone told me I looked good—which to me meant fat—and rejoiced when someone told me I looked terrible. Even as I gained weight, I had to keep assuring myself that I could go back anytime, if I wanted to reclaim that identity of anorexia.

The paradox of recovering from anorexia is that I had to eat. I hated the new person I was becoming—I was simply going back to the way I was before, or worse. What was it about who I was before? Why did I hate myself?

Then and now, I was always hungry, but I didn’t have the language to describe it—this longing, this desire. At the same time, I cursed these needs. I flew back and forth between wanting to gain—be strong, visible, to insert myself into the world—and wanting to lose—to sink back down, down, into the quiet, winter world of invisibility, where no one could touch me, where thought and imagination could strike back at the duller reality of being a creature of flesh and bone.

I was a giant mess of need, and anorexia was a way to become needless. As I got better during my hospitalization, I felt that I was becoming more of a burden to my family. When I walked into my bedroom during my visits home, the calendar on the wall was still at June; everything looked so small, like a little girl’s room. I felt strangely older—like I had been away for a year instead of two months. I couldn’t wait to return to the hospital.

What is it that makes us want to be one with our bones? Even now, I like the feeling of spareness when I have lost a bit of weight. I know that it would be easy to keep going. I admit to a kind of reassurance, knowing that I can remember how to starve—that anorexia is right there waiting for me if I choose it. One foot will never be completely out of the doorway. I still touch the parallel bones across my lower back, making sure I can feel them, my lower ribs, a clavicle, for comfort—knowing that my bones are still relatively prominent. I do so knowing I live in a culture in which it is considered strange and near-impossible to be healthy. Further, a culture in which very few know what “healthy” means.

I believe the recovery from anorexia to be a frightening but necessary inner flood that the afflicted must face: to embrace what we fear, what women are traditionally not encouraged to own for ourselves: selfishness. I am learning to mother myself. I am never going to marry. I will not bear children. I will not demand to feed everyone around me in order to fill a hole inside me. Until I can feed myself with love, I will not be able to feed anyone else. In order to move toward recovery (because complete recovery does not exist), I need to let go of some control.

My cat is my greatest teacher. She knows that she has a right to be here, and that she is not required to prove her worth. She has the fluid but muscular body of a dancer. And she eats whenever she is hungry.

No one ever teaches us how to trust ourselves. No one teaches us how to listen, or even to listen, to our bodies. As I still give attention to my bones, I now clumsily, somewhat fearfully, give attention to my breasts, the roundness of my belly, that once taut desert held together with my pelvis…all the soft places I once wished to see dissolved, cut away—those places that are just as much a part of me as my bones.