1. It is not rational. It sits inside my body like a worm. It wraps around the edge of my vision and colors everything I touch. All day long I think about it and it thinks about me. I am 16. I am 17. I am 21. It is a worm that does not leave, but makes a home for itself high inside my chest.
2. I am not rational. I stand in front of the mirror and watch myself eating frozen green grapes until I feel sick. I am 18. I have known for some time that this has been inside me but lately it has manifested in behaviors I can name and I have both self-diagnosed and feared a diagnosis. I will never tell a doctor about this. I have read the diet blogs of young women who post litanies of their scary goal weights like lucky numbers and I have seen myself in them and I have seen a fear in me that I dread becoming.
After too much wine at a party one night my sophomore year, the boy I’m seeing is sick. He kneels over the toilet in his dorm, trying to throw up. “Punch me in the stomach,” he says. I look at him incredulously. I’m rubbing his back, trying to make him feel better.
“I don’t want to hit you,” I tell him. “Put two fingers in your mouth and touch the back of your throat, and then you’ll puke.”
Groggy with drink, he looks over at me. “You would know how to do that, wouldn’t you,” he says sharply, and I reel away from him, as though I’m the one who’s been punched. We have argued about food many times before, but never has he said something like this.
It is not really about the way I look. Sometimes I am preoccupied with weight, with size and with numbers, but if I had my way I wouldn’t have a body. As it is I don’t know what to do with mine, so it becomes an instrument, an exercise in restraint. I find new words for hunger, for appetite, in order to deny it. I find new methods of control. If anything the worm has always been about control, the control I exert over my body when no control is left.
3. What do I want? I don’t even know. I want everything. I want nothing. I have been allowed nothing. I feel like the master of my own giddy fate, the lens directing the sun into a narrow point of light. I am also the paper, which is on fire. In my head I describe the feeling as a wave, the scouring emptiness, like a shell that has been washed entirely clean of its old mucous self and exists only as an outline of its contents. Eventually even that feeling recedes into a sea of other feelings. Eventually I feel nothing except for myself burning and burning away.
4. I run laps in the darkness, in the witching hour between midnight and sunrise. In the mornings my body feels stretched out, aching and sore. I run until the soreness disappears. I keep running into the darkness, as though if I keep running the unkemptness of my body will float away. As though my body is a puzzle that I can solve. As though I can shut it off.
5. Sensory deprivation tanks are pools of still, salty water too dense to let you sink. Utter quiet. Utter darkness. You float until you lose all sensation, until your body confuses the nothingness with itself, until your body only understands the nothingness, until you, too, are nothingness. Recovery feels like emerging from a tank into the bright sun, so hungry, yawning and starved for everything rich and lush.
6. I am always in recovery, it seems. I am always emerging from the tank, I am always craving, I am always rubbing my eyes at the brightness of the thing I either made or am leaving behind.
7. Things that were once forbidden now seem like points of recovery to me. I hardly deny myself anything. I have to teach myself how to eat all over again. Food is a landscape marked by association. While working on a paper about anorexia blogs, I eat a stained paper carton of saag paneer with my hands standing in front of the refrigerator at 3 a.m. and in the white glow of the open door I wonder if I’m relapsing again. If there is no such thing as relapse, if the worm is always in me: Every time I eat standing up I feel the old anxiety again.
Today, at almost 22, I still tell my friends I am in recovery so they will hold me accountable. My boyfriend quietly puts together apples with peanut butter when I show up at his apartment close to midnight and, after he asks, I say I haven’t eaten. In France, alone, I confess to my colleague that I have trouble with food. The program where we work provides our meals and I am terrified at my lack of control over what I eat. Recovery is supposed to mean not denying, but I worry that I’ve inverted the script, that I consume everything because I am supposed to be better, not worse. And isn’t that just losing your grip on the whole machine again?
Sometimes I think about my relationship with food and it feels as though I’m in a room where the floor has been pulled away, everything in upheaval, no normal metrics at hand, my love of cooking and providing for those I care about tangling with my intense need to self-deny, to prove myself stronger for denying.
8. I worry that I make the paintings of an anorexic. That everyone will see through me to my secret wild desires for everything rich and lush. That at heart I am a wild animal, who only wants to rub her face on silk and fur and lap at milk. That I crave so much I can’t hold it inside me. Sometimes it’s all I think about, my fascination with scarcity and indulgence, with consumption and denial. I worry that I am utterly transparent. That everyone knows I have a problem. That it’s the only interesting thing about me.
9. I am 19. It is late and I have been working. I have not eaten in almost two days and I feel it like a thread running all the way through my body. It is equal parts control and sheer neglect, and satisfaction that the neglect has kept me so confined. But my mouth is dry and I dart out of the studio to buy a bottle of iced tea at the deli down the street. Back in my studio I uncap it and drink it so fast I almost choke, swallowing on top of swallows; I didn’t realize I needed it so much. I cough wet lemony coughs and feel horrified at myself. I never let myself have anything so good because what would I do with it?
10. I try to drink the rest of the tea more slowly but it’s hard because it tastes like what I need so much.
11. I screw the cap back on with shaky hands.
12. It didn’t have to be lemon iced tea. It could have been anything.
13. I make paintings with gel mediums and molding paste that looks just like frosting. I polish my work surfaces to a high shine. I use orange, pink, green-blue, and acidic yellow. I try to make things I can love, but they end up substitutes for the love of others. I eat standing up in the studio. I don’t eat. I eat. I don’t eat. I contemplate the worm inside me. I keep sliding back and forth along the same routes, trying to adjust the light in me, unsure of whether I’m in control, if I ever had control, trying to be good but not knowing what good means, thinking too much, always thinking too much.
I gain weight while abroad and though part of me celebrates it as the recovery I’m constantly supposed to be having, there is also a part of me that is scared of it, and ready to deny, raring to whittle myself down. I am happy when I gain weight and happy when I lose it because both mean something’s happening. I can write the narrative of progress either way and that should scare me. It doesn’t.
I start running again. I don’t know what it means.
14. Always I wonder if recovery ever exists. If I’m ever to be rid of this. I feel like it will always be on the periphery, a thing inside of me. It will always be there within me and every day I will think about it as it looks me in the face. It is about food and it is not about food at all; it has nothing to do with food but with things even more primal and closer to the bottom of being human. It is about control and desire and denial and all I can do is wrestle with it.
Today, every day, I can list everything I ate for you, but it wouldn’t help.
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