I want to describe my bones. I want to catalogue them: the ones that rippled under my flesh and the ones that danced, the ones that pressed hard against my skin, leaving mottled blue-yellow bruises. They appeared like the wisdom teeth that popped up unannounced one morning when I was in boarding school; they appeared like untidily wrapped birthday presents; they appeared like lumps of coal in a stocking. At first I was afraid of those new bones and then I was just afraid that they would sink back into my flesh and disappear.
I told one friend, once, just how much weight I had lost when anorexic — a percentage, anyway. I’d known Jacob for less than a month, but in that time we’d been walking across the same country on the same pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Friendships form quickly when you walk together for hours on end, while away your afternoons in red plastic chairs outside undersized Spanish cafés, and sleep in bunk beds jammed up against each other under a low-hanging roof. I’d found it difficult to let myself eat enough for all the kilometers I was walking, and although we didn’t really discuss it, Jacob had sized up the situation and quietly, gently, prodded me to take care of myself.
The night we reached Santiago, we’d gone out for drinks, a big, raucous group of celebratory pilgrims, and somehow I’d ended up telling Jacob the abbreviated story, sotto voce, of my anorexia and recovery and relapse and second recovery. I’d gotten out of relapse and back to a healthy weight perhaps six months before I left to make this pilgrimage in Spain, and I gave Jacob the bullet-point version, not a proper narrative. This happened and this happened and I stopped eating and I lost this percent of my weight. As a rule, I did not talk numbers — not weight, not calories, not BMI, not jeans size — but I told him anyway. His jaw dropped.
Numbers. They’re dangerous. Those who haven’t had eating disorders want numbers because they want to know how “bad” the anorexia was. They want to be able to decide for themselves: yes, that was bad, or eh, it could have been worse. They’re less interested in the other, fiddly numbers: heart rate, electrolyte levels, hormone levels, amount of bone lost to starvation. They don’t understand that numbers can’t tell the whole story.
Those who have had eating disorders want to know how they compare. If she weighed X pounds at Y height, her BMI was Z, and if I weighed Q pounds at R height, my BMI was S, and therefore I / she was thinner. Perhaps I project; perhaps I am being unfair. I know only that in many news articles and books, weight is treated as proof of illness, proof of level of illness, and that I still cannot see a weight-height pair of numbers without automatically converting it to BMI, or a BMI without automatically converting it to the corresponding weight for my height. The part of me that wants to stay healthy would rather not have that chance to compare, and no part of me wants to be a comparison point for somebody else struggling with an eating disorder.
There’s another reason, too, that I don’t talk numbers. Jacob’s reaction was gratifying, and that told me what I already knew but had, on a whim, ignored: that my numbers should stay mine alone. I could trust Jacob with a number because he was male and healthy and there was little risk of comparison, and I was pretty sure he knew enough about eating disorders to understand that weight was not the be-all and end-all of the problem. I could trust him with that. I could not trust that, if I told other people any of my anorexic numbers, I would not be looking for that same reaction, that bit of external, pointless reassurance that yes, I had been ill. I could not trust that, if their reactions fell closer to eh, it could have been worse, I would not be upset that I had not, well, been worse. Been thinner.
It’s a tricky beast, anorexia. Even at the height — or perhaps I should say the low point — of illness, I was well and truly aware that I was too thin. I did not like the fragile, childish shape of my body; I did not like the exhaustion swamping me as I counted down the hours and minutes to my next meal; I did not like the way my bones rattled in my skin, leaving me unable to sit for long periods or sleep on my side without a folded blanket between my knees. When my girlfriend ran a foot up my shin, I hissed and pulled away because I did not have enough padding and her playful touch felt bruising.
I was aware that I was too thin, I say, and I did not like it, I say, and those are both true. I didn’t become anorexic because I wanted to lose weight but rather because so many things were going wrong. The details don’t really matter except that self-starvation seemed, at the time, like a logical response. It was not a bid for thinness or even a bid for control — more, perhaps, that I wanted to focus on anything other than the things going wrong, and when you are starving it is hard to think of anything else. But it’s also true that I charted my downward progress with a sort of grim satisfaction, that seeing my weight drop lower and lower felt like an accomplishment. It’s also true that while I looked in the mirror and saw somebody too thin and too tired and not healthy, I kept looking. I wanted to catalogue my bones.
My girlfriend and I threw a Halloween party the autumn I was first anorexic. She braided rubber snakes into my hair, and I sewed a hissing fabric serpent onto a shirt and went as Medusa. She wore a crisp white shirt and gobs of hair gel, curled her lip into a sneer, and sang “Hound Dog” into a hairbrush. I’d wanted to be a skeleton — it would, I thought, be funny in a macabre sort of way — but had sensibly (wanting my girlfriend to stay my girlfriend) not mentioned this. Still, I imagined cladding myself in black clothing slashed with glow-in-the-dark paint, turning out the lights, and disappearing into the shadows as nothing but a pile of numbers and bones.
In the photo, I was sitting on a curved tree branch. My blue-and-white running shoes went poorly with my sleeveless black cotton dress. My hair was scraped back from my face, and oversized black sunglasses were perched on top of my head.
Some months later, as I was sorting photos from that summer into folders on my computer, my girlfriend saw it and grimaced. “What?” I asked. She’d taken the photo with my camera, on a trip to Vancouver for a cousin’s wedding. Tired of being asked to pose, she’d told me that if I wanted a photo of somebody on that branch, I could sit on it myself.
“You were really thin,” she said. I looked closer. I’d relapsed a few months before the photo was taken, and that trip to Vancouver had not been fun. My girlfriend and my mother had tried to stage a mini-intervention, I’d thrown a bell pepper at the wall, and there had been a lot of tears, not all from me. Yes, I’d been thin.
But now that I was back in recovery — food habits and weight back where they belonged — and looking at that photo, I was not so sure. Thin. Yes, I’d been thin. But did I look thin enough? Did I really look sick?
I try, as a person who is in recovery at least most of the time — there was that pilgrimage, and a five-week slip that fall and a three-week slip the next summer; do they count if my doctor never found out? — to present as unromantic a view of illness as possible. My girlfriend would have told you that my anorexia was anything but romantic. I was constantly cold and constantly anxious; I wriggled my way out of dates and social events because they involved food or because I just didn’t have energy; my body stopped producing hormones, so I had no sex drive. I was no sylph in skintight jeans: my jeans tumbled from my hips to pool on the floor because my hips could not hold them up, and I could not enjoy my surprise because I was too tired, and too afraid of fitting into those jeans again, and too cold to stand in my bedroom in my loose, sagging underwear, denim puddled around my ankles. But I know, too, that somebody somewhere will hear jeans tumbled from my hips and think I want that, I want to be that thin.
Articles about anorexia, often from tabloidy news sources, regularly include photographs of individuals at their lowest weights. The articles are spun in a very specific way: Anorexia survivor is sharing dramatic photos to show the deadly effects of the disorder. They talk height and weight and BMI and calories. I’ve read more of these articles than I care to admit, but I always wonder: would she share these photos if she were not, on some level, proud of those images of her anorexic body? I deny my instinct to view those photos as an accomplishment, as a challenge.
I have very few photos of myself from my first trip to anorexialand, but when I relapsed, I made a point to take photos. I wanted an anorexic record, a proof of illness. It sounds grim, and it was, but it was also — in a twisted sort of way — logical. Even through the slow fog of a malnourished brain, I wanted to be able to look at those photos later and say I have been there and I do not want to go back. The photos don’t tell the story, but I can’t trust the numbers or my memory to tell the whole story either. I do not share these photos. I don’t want anyone to see them and think my then-anorexic body is something to emulate. I don’t know if I was thin enough anyway, which tells me that it’s still not the numbers or my memory or the photos that I can’t trust. I will not issue that challenge.
My bones are hiding now. In hibernation. Buried under flesh and blood. I want to describe them, still, to excavate them and dry them off, sandblast them until they are clean and white and brittle.
I leave them encased, secure. They are safer in their wrapping, their edges dulled. My flesh, balanced on scaffolding of marrow and minerals, hums. It has curves. It needs my bones, and my bones need my flesh, and so it goes, an uncertain circle with no end in sight.
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