these changes ain’t changing me

It occurs to me now that this story is wasted on the young. As a child, I found it overwrought. Then again, I was the kind of insufferable pedant who insisted on pointing out that I was ten and a half or turning thirteen next month. To me, the delta between just-turned-twelve and twelve-plus-eleven-months was significant enough to merit pointing out. And that made the idea that you were somehow harboring past and lesser versions of yourself like a parasite preposterous.

These days, I don’t put as much stock in birthdays as I once did. 21 ruins it, I think: the difference between “surreptitiously taking shots by a mailbox on your way to a party” and “drinking a beer while sitting on a legitimate chair in a licensed establishment” is profound enough that nothing else really comes close. I suspect that your twenties are the only time when you don’t fixate on aging, and given that I spent my childhood obsessing over how much better nine would surely be than eight has been, and that from what I understand I’ll spend my thirties wondering whether I should freeze my eggs just in case I wake up one day not trying to figure out a workable solution for flying babies in the cargo hold instead of the passenger cabin, and then from there it’s just constantly counting my gray hairs and wrinkles, it’s kind of a relief.

Sure, sometimes I look in the mirror and panic because I think I went gray overnight before I realize that I just forgot to comb in my dry shampoo, but those moments are few and far between. More often, I feel like the same person I was six years ago, only with a better wardrobe. (As an aside, I just put my last remaining Forever 21 garment in a bag to take to the thrift shop. It’s a shirt by strict definition, but I definitely wore it as a dress to at least one Vegas club, which tells you all you need to know to agree that throwing it out before I turn 30 is the right choice.)

A coworker of mine, someone quite senior in my company, said to me the other day that what I say carries substantive weight in our organization. “That means a lot,” I said, because it does. I don’t think of myself as having substantive weight. I think of myself still as I was at 23, a little precocious and certainly talented but hardly substantive. I am marginally more jaded than I was four years ago, but most of that has occurred over the past seven months. (I’ve developed an obnoxious habit of repeating “We’re all gonna die” to my boyfriend in conversation. He’s as pedantic as I am, so he can’t argue this point, but it’s not really helping either of us deal very well with our impending dual Russian citizenship.) But it’s hard to conceive of myself as anything like… substantive.

I have a tortured relationship with my youth. I chalk much of this up to the confluence events that made 24 such a disaster, starting with the bizarre relationship that I had with an older man who, over several months, went from fetishizing my youth to demonizing it. At the same time, I was nearing my Silicon Valley expiration date, the point at which you’re no longer the wunderkind and if you don’t start proving your relevance, you’re about to get crowded out by all of the Princeton alumni getting off of the Goldman Sachs elevator with their loud voices and their impenetrable business jargon. And also at the same time, I was starving myself down to what I weighed when I was twelve, and it turns out that you can’t really do that without also starving yourself down to the emotional faculties of a twelve-year-old.

I was at once too old and too young and I’d become completely unmoored from that only reliable marker of age, the body. And frankly, I’d also mostly lost my mind. I was functioning, kind of, but stagnating, even regressing, just as everyone around me was discovering their mid-twenties selves. A few months after I started learning how to eat again, three of my teammates at work—two of whom I’d started within three months of and one of whom I’d helped hire—were promoted. And as much as I appreciate that my friends knew to elbow me at the end of a meal and congratulate me for eating it, it’s a little demoralizing to compare rediscovering your beer belly to being handed a set of responsibilities to own and a fancy title to go with. (Granted, this is Silicon Valley we’re talking about, so the titles are mostly things like “Ninja” or “Droid.” It is not unthinkable that living in an environment where jobs are named after Star Wars creatures and everybody rides around on scooters wearing T-shirts has also contributed to my sense of perpetual immaturity.) Instead of getting to enjoy growing up, I felt trapped in my youth, the thing that had made me special until my ex-boyfriend called it my affliction, like a Dorian Gray bargain gone uniquely sideways.

For so long I identified more with the eleven-year-old on her birthday than I ever did as a child, ever conscious of the 24-year-old fitted inside me like a matryoshka doll. It’s jarring, welcomely so, to be reminded that I’ve grown layers beyond that one. That I’m 28 today and that sometimes I argue with the directors of my company and they listen to me, and that I pay my own rent and I would do my own laundry if it weren’t such a goddamn hassle in New York, and that even if I don’t do my own laundry, I have never run out of underwear, except that time I got stuck in London for an extra day last December and had to wash what seemed like the cleanest pair in the sink of my Heathrow hotel room with hand soap. (These were extenuating circumstances and should serve only to demonstrate what a sophisticated jetsetting individual I am.)

The other day, my coworker asked me if I was planning to buy a beach house soon, and while it turns out that that was mostly because that’s a normal thing for well-to-do adults to do in Sweden because there are “so few Swedes and so much coastline,” I only sort of laughed in her face, because it’s finally occurring to me that I am 28. (And yes, this post was paid for by the Sweden tourism authority.) I’m 28 today, and 27, and 26, and I’ll spare you the rest because I’m pretty sure you know how the story goes. And I’m 24, still, too, but I don’t need to worry about that anymore. It’s buried somewhere underneath all of the beers I drank on Pier A on Saturday surrounded by friends who have been shedding their skins alongside me since we were eighteen, nineteen, 23, 26, below the compliment of being told that I am thoughtful, substantive, that I carry weight. It’s nice to carry weight again.

dana got run over by a reindeer

This holiday season, I fell into a funk, captured for posterity in a series of journal entries where I asked myself some variation of “what’s wrong with me?”

I blame Christmas, when the answer to this question is obvious: I don’t have access to a baby or a purse dog or a mini-SUV that I can dress in antlers. It’s all I can do to decorate my apartment past the point of it looking like a prison cell, let alone put up a tree. Although I own an impressive wardrobe of sweaters, I look weird in knit hats. I’ve still never seen either Miracle on 34th Street or Die Hard.

In a nutshell—roasting over an open fire—Christmas is the time of year when being a normal, functional adult is both the most attractive and the most elusive.

For most of my life, I’ve unabashedly loved Christmas. Every year, I have a ritual first listening of Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Until I was probably way older than I should admit on the Internet, I used to close out Christmas whispering to myself in bed, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” I love Christmas so much that when I go to Christmas with my family, I magically transform into my eight-year-old self, and not in the cute way, either. In the “I want to sit on the couch and read Harry Potter! Don’t make me empty the dishwasher!” way.

As I grow older, the holidays serve as a progressively harsher reminder of all of the ways that I’ve failed at adulthood. For instance, eating: what was once a normal activity regulated by my brain stem and aided by my ready access to grocery stores that stock hundreds of different kinds of cereal is now an emotional undertaking that requires yoga breathing and me giving myself inspirational talks in the mirror. Fifteen years ago I was eleven and eating a Chocolate Orange and waffles and maybe part of my sister’s Chocolate Orange. Two years ago I was 24 and I stuck my finger down my throat after Thanksgiving leftovers. How do you reconcile that? What went wrong during those thirteen years? Is there any part of me that is, like Sandra Cisneros, still eleven, and if there is can I find it and cling to it and let it rocket me back into the past like the flux capacitor?

I want desperately to turn back the clock, to be eleven and twelve and thirteen and flop my body along the armchair that once sat in the corner of our living room and now sits in the corner of my studio apartment. I want to read the third Harry Potter for the first time like I did on Christmas in 2001 or so and I want it to be okay that I’m doing that instead of emptying the dishwasher.

In short, on Christmas, the troll inside me that usually only emerges when the N/Q is delayed or one of my coworkers tries to correct my grammar overcomes me.

My trollishness is exacerbated by the fact that everyone else seems to be having a great time. Especially now that everyone has an ugly baby to put in a Christmas onesie, while here I am fifth-wheeling with my family for the 26th year running except for that one awkward year when I brought home a Jewish vegetarian I had been dating for like five minutes and everyone kept offering him bacon. I mostly just want to lock myself in my room, write slam poetry in my journal, and listen to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album on repeat, and everyone keeps trying to get me to do things like play Settlers of Catan.

I find a happy medium in the corner with my Kindle, where I drink a beer and glare at everyone. It’s much like the Christmases of my youth, plus alcohol, which means that at some point I’ll stop pouting and start giggling, if we’re lucky, or antagonizing everybody, if we’re not. Then later in the evening—around 8:30, if we’re feeling wild and we stay up late—I retreat to my room and think about what a pill I’ve been for the past twelve hours and wonder if I’d be happier if I had a baby to dress up in a Christmas onesie.

This is the question I ask constantly during the holidays, when I look at Facebook and the family sitting in the row in front of me on my flight out of JFK and the Christmas cards with family photos on them: are you happy? Are you happier than me? Will I ever be as happy as you? How? How do you find happiness when you can’t be eleven anymore and stomp your foot and stamp out of the room and read in your bedroom while the rest of the world goes on around you? How did you grow up and why am I finding it so hard to?

I was happy on Christmas when I was eleven and all I needed to be happy was a Chocolate Orange and the new Harry Potter. I was happy on Christmas when I was nineteen and I was at home with my parents for the first time in five months. I was happy on Christmas when I was 24 and I was finally not the fifth wheel of the Cass family station wagon. I was happy last year, reading books for the first time since I gave up on the anorexia thing and talking with my grandmother for what turned out to be the last time before she passed away a month later.

This year, it felt like the weight of the past 26 years came crashing down on my shoulders: the knowledge that I am no longer eleven so I can’t act like a troll at family gatherings, that I’m bad at relationships and that means I might die alone with cats eating my face, that I’m a recovering anorexic and that means that I can’t eat a cinnamon roll without poking and prodding at my stomach for the next twelve hours.

The transition to adulthood is less of a precipice than an interminably long catwalk, where I’ve been perched for several years now, inching incrementally closer toward being a mature and selfless human and constantly, dramatically, flinging myself backward. It occurred to me this Christmas that the magic secret that everyone else seems to have discovered is something relating to not being a complete jackass all of the time. It’s contrary to my nature as a selfish troll (“spoiled brat,” as my ex-boyfriend once said, memorably) but seems like a necessary final step to getting my grown-up card.

I anticipate that once I make it through a holiday without dropping the F-bomb in public I will receive this card in the mail, followed shortly by my AARP card. Officially, my New Year’s resolution is to have more fun—because you don’t have a lot of fun when you’re too busy starving yourself to drink beers with your friends!—but I think perhaps it’s time for me to focus also on being less of a troll and more of a grown-up.

If I can spend less time Tweeting to the MTA when my train is delayed, less time grousing about the fact that I don’t have my own desk at work, less time making fun of my Facebook friends who hashtag their baby names (just kidding, I’m never going to stop doing that, your baby name hashtag is obnoxious), will I learn to love Christmas again? Is this the modern equivalent of the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes? Is this how you become an adult? Given the amount of tears I shed this holiday season over finally realizing that I don’t get to be eleven anymore, I’m willing to do a lot to find out.

So I guess my New Year’s resolutions are to have more fun and be less of a self-absorbed troll. The easiest path to achieving both of these outcomes seems to be to drink more and volunteer more and go to SoulCycle more often (although SoulCycle is arguably a bad way to not be a self-absorbed troll, since it’s basically paying three times as much as I used to make in an hour to listen to someone tell me that I’m a warrior because I can ride a bicycle that is LITERALLY GOING NOWHERE).

This is getting dangerously close to a schmaltzy NEW YEAR NEW YOU think piece, which is not at all what I intended, but halfway through it was starting to read like something Narcissus might write after a bad day standing in front of the mirror. I promise I won’t start blogging about chia seeds or gratitude, and I’m not going to steal a baby to put it in a Christmas onesie, and if you want to know the worst baby name hashtags on my Facebook feed, I have an opinion on the matter that I’m happy to share.

And frankly, I’ll probably still rage-Tweet at the MTA because COME ON I PAID A WHOPPING $2.75 FOR THIS RIDE CAN’T THE TRAIN MAGICALLY APPEAR THE SECOND I REACH THE PLATFORM? But other than that, I’m totally going to start acting like a grown-up soon. Otherwise I might not get any presents next year, and then I’ll really be mad.

the empress’s new clothes

A red tank top emblazoned with the word DANCE in rainbow glitter. Baby-blue track pants from the Limited Too that snap up the side. Pastel yellow sneakers for skateboarders, doodled all over with ballpoint-pen stars and hearts and Avril Lavigne lyrics.

Beige corduroy bellbottoms. A tiered skirt that falls to mid-calf and soars when you spin. Birkenstocks. A camisole, worn under a long-sleeved henley, that rides up my belly until there’s a roll sitting just below my bra line that I can’t adjust without reaching up under my shirt in the middle of trigonometry in front of everyone. Low-rise jeans.

Jazz pants. Yoga pants. Leggings. Sweatpants rolled up to reveal the tights underneath so you know I’m a dancer. Last year’s dance company T-shirt with the neckline cut away like Flashdance. A hoodie under a puffy coat under a scarf under earmuffs. The Forever 21 version of a Herve Leger bandage dress… with flats. Under a puffy coat.

Fashion bewilders me. It always has. Why didn’t the Abercrombie jeans I begged my mom to buy when I was thirteen make me look as effortlessly perfect as the popular girls at Becker Middle School? Why did I think that beige corduroy bellbottoms were a reasonable alternative? Was I born without the color-matching chromosome? Why did I buy shoes for skateboarders? (Etnies. They were called Etnies, and in my defense, I was only copying everyone else, and they weren’t skateboarders either.)

These are the questions that haunt me.

“Haunt” is a strong word, really. I cared about fashion intermittently, when I’d notice that the girls two lunch tables over looked like Teen Vogue and I looked like Mallory from The Babysitters’ Club (you know, the tragic one. Who got sent to boarding school in the later books. Not that I read those, since they were released sometime after I graduated from high school, and obviously I was busy reading things like Proust and Infinite Jest).

I pick up on trends selectively and without context. Everyone was wearing tiered skirts that soared when we spun, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to wear with my tiered skirt, which was where the Birkenstocks came in. (I was deeply in touch with my inner artist at this point in my life. Me and my Birkenstocks were like Patti Smith and her Capezios.) I begged my mom for the pants from the Limited Too, but by the time I got the matching T-shirt, everyone else had started shopping at Abercrombie.

Or I dressed like the flat-assed girls with their boyish figures, oblivious to how poorly suited my hourglass figure was to, say, anything manufactured by Hollister. There was a point when the girls were wearing belts that they slung sort of uselessly around their hips without threading them through the loops of their skinny jeans. On my hourglass figure, the belt I slung around my hips made its way to my waist and hovered sort of awkwardly on top of my ass. I’d have been better off with a fanny pack or a tool belt.

I was never quite so unfashionable that I could wear it like a badge of pride: I’m too smart, too talented, too busy for something this frivolous. No, instead I packed my closet with an impressively incoherent wardrobe: ill-fitting steals from the sale rack, bright colors that matched nothing found in nature or Nordstrom, flimsy Forever 21 dresses that fell apart after one night in the college dance club. Sometimes I looked childish, sometimes I looked trashy; more often than not I just looked average.

I was okay with average. I knew it wasn’t my thing: there were girls at Vassar who were regular fashion plates, not just the rich girls in actual designer clothes but the thrift-shop hipsters who must have had closets bursting at the seams with patterned skirts and slouchy socks and grandpa sweaters and Coke-bottle glasses without lenses. Most of them, I noticed too, were thin; like the girls whose belts lay flat across their hips while mine rode up stubbornly to my waist, they were gifted in a way that I wasn’t.

Fashion is for skinny girls and runway models. The rest of us just need to keep our nipples covered up and our underwear clean and hope for the best. I just couldn’t be fashionable, I decided, so I gave up, stopped letting it bother me, bought clothes I liked in the fitting room and shrugged when they didn’t match anything else I owned. I focused on things I could control, like taking showers regularly and abiding by social norms. I drew my confidence from other sources: my wit, my intellect, my reliably good hair.

Then I got sick.

Anorexia isn’t fun, but—problematically—being skinny was a blast. I rented a Badgley Mischka dress for my company holiday party and I felt like a movie star or a fashion model or one of those flat-chested girls who could sling a belt around their hips without it getting stuck underneath their boobs.

It was the first time I’ve ever felt glamorous. It was also the first time that I’ve ever been unable to sit down and read a novel because I was starving my brain of the ability to focus, and the first time that I understood what cardiac arrest might feel like, and yada yada yada and so on until it occurred to me that I was engaging in something of a Faustian bargain that probably wasn’t worth it.

So I gave up. I put my sweatpants back on.

As I began to regain the weight, one block of cheese at a time, I grew desperate for a way to feel beautiful. My hair was growing back—and so were my boobs!—but I longed still for a new source of satisfaction. Even cheese was an insufficient drug to get me as high as being skinny did. What could I possibly do to get myself to tolerate, maybe even enjoy, looking in the mirror? How could I find happiness again?

Spoiler alert: I bought it.

My new wardrobe grew organically at first. I couldn’t stand the sight of my body, so I bought swoopy, drapey shirts in neutral colors and paired them with leggings and eventually, when I could stand the buttons jamming into my belly, jeans. I quit buying colors or patterns, anything that would garner too much attention. Everything was black, gray, brown, white, fade-into-the-scenery colors so unlike what I used to buy to beg the world to pay attention to me.

It turns out that limiting myself to four colors and a single aesthetic gave me what I’d been looking for all along: a foolproof wardrobe. Everything I own matches everything else. It’s all boring enough that I could wear the same thing two days in a row and nobody would look twice. I could be pregnant with twins or smuggling arms under my blouses and you’d never know, which wasn’t really a fashion goal but has proven quite useful when I’m feeling particularly self-conscious about the size of my stomach after I do something sinful like eat a burrito.

I feel mysterious in my new wardrobe. I feel grown up beyond belief. I am an adult woman with a closetful of clothes that all match! I look so much like a New Yorker that tourists are constantly stopping to ask me for directions! I feel—dare I say it, I who felt this only when I was starving myself into a state of near-oblivion—fashionable.

I’ve always loved to dress in costume. I grew up in dance and theatre in tutus and Cleopatra wigs and once, memorably, a “napkin” costume with a can-can skirt. I put up with the indignity of tie-dye velour unitards and long underwear meant to convey, abstractly, the notion of a “red-tailed hawk.” I own a suit jacket that I’ve worn twice in my life: once to a high school debate forum and once in a college production of Rent.

Being a recovering anorexic with a credit card is like being an actor let loose in the costume shop. I bought myself a new costume: goodbye movie star, hello… elementary school art teacher, or wallflower New Yorker, or whatever it is I am today, draped in layers of blouse and sweater and wrapped in leggings, whatever I can find that doesn’t remind me constantly that I gave up my chance to be a movie star or a girl who sits two lunch tables over.

I never quite believed that I was an Egyptian princess or a piece of tableware. I don’t quite believe who I am today, either; it still doesn’t come easily to me, and I can still only buy clothing in four colors. (And God help me when tunics go out of fashion.) I get a thrill every morning out of playing dress-up, though, a thrill I never quite knew before I got sick and a thrill that’s only grown sweeter since I’ve gotten better.

I wonder if this is what it’s like for Jennifer Lawrence or Tilda Swinton or the girls at the popular lunch table, if they wake up every morning and climb into a disguise to trick themselves into believing they’re something they aren’t quite yet. I expect it’s not, that like everything else in my life I’m faking it until it becomes habit, like writing technology proposals or being a good girlfriend or cleaning my toilet.

Hey, listen—I’ll fake it indefinitely if it means I never accidentally buy another Forever 21 dress that makes me look like a sparkly potato.

there and back again

When I think of anorexia, I think of Karen Carpenter. Like every normal teenage girl who came of age in the 1970’s, I idolize Karen Carpenter (I, unfortunately, grew up in the 2000s, which makes the “normal” qualifier irrelevant). But only insofar as I would give my right arm to feather my hair and belt out “Superstar” in front of a screaming crowd. It never occurred to me to want to be thin like Karen Carpenter. I knew that she died of anorexia, which as a little girl, I knew to be some terrible disease where you weren’t allowed to eat cereal or chicken fingers or any of the other beige foods starting with the letter “C” that I was willing to eat.

But her death, years before I was born, was irrelevant to me the way that Janis Joplin’s or Jim Morrison’s deaths are irrelevant to me: tragic, of course, and preventable in hindsight, but a fact of life, a thing that happens to people who aren’t me. It is only when I am 25 years old and staring at a piece of paper that says in clinical numbers—307.1, the diagnostic code for anorexia nervosa—that it occurs to me that I never got the feathered hair or the Asian tour, but I did get that freaky disease where you forget how to feed yourself.

I always assumed that if I were to contract an eating disorder, it would be something like pica, where you eat paint chips or whatever, things you see on “My Weird Addiction” (or read about in your favorite children’s book, the Childhood Medical Guide, if you were a friendless child with bizarre literary interests). Anorexia is awfully basic for a girl like me who prides herself on being original. Anorexia is for cheerleaders and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul contributors. I’m a writer—I’m supposed to be an alcoholic, or bipolar; something sophisticated and higher-brow. I’m too smart to starve myself.

But as ridiculous as it seems—that I, a girl who has always been best described as voluptuous whose favorite sin has long been a tie between sloth and gluttony, could be on the brink of death from self-induced starvation—the omnipresent pain in my chest tells me the truth.

“No, it’s not,” my then-boyfriend said when I mentioned that I thought my chest pain might be a consequence of my alarmingly low weight. I don’t know why—maybe he genuinely believed it, or maybe he was in denial, or maybe he was just sick of the fact that somehow the smart-mouthed, energetic little thing he’d fallen in love with had morphed into a moody, listless, half-cadaverous excuse for a human who would rather exercise than spend the morning in bed with him. I can hardly blame him. Nobody wants to date a sack of bones.

And a sack of bones I am. To clarify: I have always had great boobs. It’s awfully lowbrow of me to say that in such a public forum, but it’s true, and it’s important. They are perfect, and nobody in my family knows where they came from. They are big enough to be noticeable, but not so big that they’re, you know, slutty—because as any woman knows, large breasts are a visual indicator of one’s genetic predisposition not only to heterosexuality but also to wanting to sleep with any and all men, including that guy yelling at you from his car window—and they’ve always been one of the few parts of my body that I am comfortable with.

I looked down one day, though, and instead of my beautiful Raphaelite boobs I had a bra that I could have worn to smuggle drugs. Instead, I had a lucky rib.

“Rib” is probably not the anatomically correct term. I never pretended to be good at science, but to the point, I had a lucky rib—a little nub that protruded from my sternum that I could feel when I poked around at my chest, which I did often when I wanted to make sure that I was still a good and disciplined and virtuous person and not a greedy-sloppy-sluggish pig.

My lucky rib was more fascinating to me even than the base of my spine, which I discovered for the first time some eighteen months ago when the protective layer of fat that coats my bones first began to melt away. It became my talisman. I rubbed it like an underfed Buddha.

I could count, then, every bone from my collar to my waist.

It becomes harder to concentrate. I quit reading books. When I was a kid, I used to get a stack of books from the library, read them all in three days, and beg my mom to take me back. At 25, I am no longer able to read books because they are too much for my shriveling brain.

My hair grows brittle and falls out in clumps. The more I exercise—and oh, boy, do I exercise; even my spin instructors admire my dedication to the classes that I attend every day without fail—the grayer my skin grows. My veins pop out of my arms and legs. My heart pounds out of my chest. Sometimes, when I lose control and eat too much, I stick my finger down my throat and vomit. This is by far the least glamorous part and I try to save it for when I really need it, like when I eat ice cream.

“If you continue like this, you will DIE,” C_______ writes to me in an email.

“I had two heart attacks,” says K__. “You will have a heart attack.”

I dislike these opinions, so I ignore them. I stay home, mostly, or I go to the gym, where people ask me what I do and what I eat and eye me enviously. The gym is a safe place. Restaurants and bars are not safe, so I stop going to them. I go to bed early. C_______ and K__ want me to be healthy, they say, and happy, but it’s unclear to me how I can be happy if I’m not skinny and being skinny is incompatible with going to restaurants and bars and staying out too late to get up and exercise. Plus, I get cranky when I’m hungry, and I’m always hungry because I only eat when I’m ready to chew off my own arm and I stop when I stop shaking and that doesn’t really mean I’m less cranky, just that I’m less faint.

I’m not very much fun to be around. My boyfriend dumps me, eventually, and then I am alone, except for my lucky rib. Like a country song about a lovelorn vegetarian at a barbecue.

I am a sack of bones dangling from a coat hanger.

I used to be a wild animal. I used to go out dancing, take four shots and sweat it out in a pile of bodies and then go pile into a booth at the diner and order chicken fingers or buy a bag of tacos from Del Taco and down them in the back of the car.

Have you ever asked a sack of bones to go out dancing with you?

Nobody loves a sack of bones.

I watch a video of Karen Carpenter a few months before she died, after she had been force-fed 30 pounds’ worth of food in a hospital. She is haggard. She could pass for sixty—and I’m not just saying that because she has the same haircut that my grandma did before she died, which I don’t think you can really blame on anorexia—and her skin is gray like mine. I want to drink away my heartbreak, but I can’t, because alcohol has calories, and I want to read away my heartbreak, but I can’t, because I can’t read, and I want to run away my calories and so I do until my heart is practically popping out of my chest and I hear again—“I had two heart attacks. You will have a heart attack”—and with no love and no wine and not even a book to keep me company, I know that I have lost.

This is rock bottom, I suppose. Sometimes, now, twenty pounds later—and counting, God help me, I’ve already replaced my pants twice and I’m about ready to join a nudist colony—I look at pictures of myself from those months between when my boyfriend dumped me and when I finally called the treatment center and I am abjectly horrified. I want to make inappropriate jokes about the Holocaust and the Bataan Death March because I don’t know how else to explain away the complete irrationality of starving yourself.

Rock bottom is the night at work that we need to pull an all-nighter, and I can’t bring myself to eat so eventually I lose it and start screaming at my coworkers and solidify a reputation for myself as the psycho girl who can’t hack it during an all-nighter. Rock bottom is leaving my best friend’s bachelorette party early because I want to get up early and run the next day. Rock bottom is doing that again at her wedding.

But I felt so glamorous. This is what they don’t tell you about anorexia: you feel like a movie star. “You look great,” I hear, often, from coworkers and strangers and relatives and friends. “What do you do?” I am unused to this attention and this is what is so hard to give up: the idea that I’m finally doing something well. I’m not good at very much: I wasn’t very good at ballet, and I wasn’t very good at being a girlfriend, but for a time, I was good at being skinny and that felt really, really good.

I am smart enough to understand that being good at something that will eventually kill you—“The only good anorexic is a dead anorexic,” C_______ says to me, and I suppose logically, that’s true—is not actually a talent you want. I go to therapy and the dietitian and I learn that I’m slowly killing myself and that my body is eating away at my brain and that if I don’t start feeding myself again, and soon, I’m going to lose my job and then I will have nothing, absolutely nothing, left to live for.

What I also learn is that I have a choice: I can be a glamorous movie star in a tiny dress with jutting elbows and cheekbones and ribs that I can count in a dressing room mirror, or I can be a human being, with a life and friends and love and hobbies.

My therapist gives me a list of the things that happen to you when you starve yourself: not just the hair, or the being cold, but things I never guessed, things that explain why my life has become so intolerably lonely. It turns out that starving yourself is a good way to become an antisocial hermit, only minus the part where you read the works of James Joyce and write your version of Walden, because as I’ve mentioned several times, malnutrition is really bad for being a functional human.

I am given instructions to feed myself. This is ironic: I’m 25 years old, I was the valedictorian of my high school class, I have a degree from an almost-top-10 liberal arts college and I have to pay $160 an hour for a woman to tell me how to eat properly. (Maybe if I’d gotten Phi Beta Kappa, I’d still be able to eat sandwiches without feeling like I’m trying to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Prove? What do you even do with a theorem? See above re: not being good at things.) It’s demoralizing.

I cry a lot. I cry about the bachelorette party that I missed. I cry about the fact that I went an entire year without eating sushi because it has rice in it. I cry about my relationship, both because my eating disorder destroyed it and because I think that maybe letting myself stay with someone who was so cruel to me was, in a way, tacit permission to let me be cruel to myself. It seems to me that I have lost an entire year of my life to what looks to other people not like a disease but a weakness, and I cry over every night that I could have spent dancing and drinking and eating bags of tacos from the Del Taco drive through but instead I spent on the couch reading a single page of some women’s magazine over and over until I finally digested whatever bullshit they were feeding me about how I should hate my body.

Eating disorder therapy is not all tears and confessing that your high school dance teacher made you keep a food journal (side note: in retrospect, that was really fucked up). It’s kind of fun, trying to regain 20 pounds. It’s fun to say that going out and drinking beer and eating pizza is your therapy. It’s fun to down a whole plate of enchiladas like you’re a fifteen-year-old boy and feel the warm sensation of fullness spreading through your veins in a way that you haven’t felt in months.

It’s not fun to feel yourself seized by a wave of panic induced by a plate of enchiladas. In fact, it’s downright embarrassing to be 25 years old, gainfully employed, ostensibly an independent adult, and to be brought to your knees by a plate of enchiladas. It’s not fun to buy a new pair of jeans every month because you’re blowing up like a hot air balloon. I could probably buy stock in the Gap right now. I would happily join a nudist colony right now if it meant that I never had to put on another pair of jeans and feel the button crushing into my fat belly every minute of every day, reminding me that I am no longer thin and glamorous.

I’ll be 26 in three months. I’ve remembered mostly how to eat on my own again. I am reading voraciously, catching up on all the books I missed while I was underwater. I have a new boyfriend who puts his hand on my belly sometimes like it’s something precious. He looks at me like a girl in a Renaissance painting and I forget for a moment that I’m covered in fat, that my lucky rib is buried again, that I’m not virtuous or special. I go out dancing and I eat pizza and I drink beer, and when I do, I look at everyone in their sweaty, imperfect bodies, girls with mascara running down their cheeks in cheap faux-silk tops from Express and boys who are finally outgrowing their teenage metabolisms and I feel—well, not lucky, yet, but at the very least, at home in the world again. Alive, again, at last.