I have very little sympathy for someone whose disease involves poor self-image. The idea that perfect control over your body is possible is so WASPy, as is the idea that other people actually spend their time caring whether you reach it or not. Much more attractive to me are people whose problems come from seeking out all that is invisibleŠ like that fad I read about in Vogue where young people cut themselves every day. The silent suffering and self-containedness of anorexia, in the grand scheme of life, is really worthless. Internalized drama is everything pathetic about drama with none of the majesty. Anorexics never kick out the jams. At least "diseases" like gambling or alcoholism, or even spousal abuse, involve interaction--a tipping-back-and-forth balance of guilt and fury and love and hatred, a shouting match with your girlfriend when you arrive home sans grandma's earrings. At least alcoholics have camaraderie--anorexics are eternally alone, single piranhas circling. (An anorexic sees another anorexic, she thinks, "Damn! Another skinny bitch on my turf!") And in the end, those anorexics will force you to take care of them while looking like they never wanted help, like they never hated you or wanted you miserable: "Oh no, it was all inward-directed violence." My foot! I fucking hate passive-aggressive behavior.
While my sympathy is small, my jealousy is big. Anorexics always seem to have more thoughts than I do. All those intricacies and picayune habits. My body is just something that walks me to the store—it's no battlefield. Where do they come up with these ideas?I just want to write, have sex, fight with my boyfriend, hire someone to clean my house, figure out how to be funny, and go to Japan someday. Keeping my consumption of peas to 7 per day, while not letting the fork touch my lips, just doesn't enter in the picture. And I just know the swanky homosexuals who disapprove of everything under the sun think those spotty-haired scrawny girls are more worth talking to than I am.
Maybe it's just the word "anorexia" I love—spread out like a fishing net over the stars, filaments so thin they're barely visible. The girl herself is a constellation of fine, blow-dried hair, shiny clothes, peeling nails, and jutting bones—you have to connect the dots because there's nothing in between. My best friend for the last 13 years has been anorexic to varying degrees: She is driven by egotism, perfectionism, and what people I never want to meet would call "issues of control." She ate only chips, iced tea, and jalapeño peppers for her main meal every day for a solid year. She'd go to three different stores to buy these items, as if some poor clerk might be keeping track, thinking "If she eats chips, she needn't eat jalapeño peppers as well." If she ever bought anything else, say a cup of soup, she'd talk about it with the person at the cash register (and anyone else around), pretending it was for someone else: "I guess this is the kind he wanted, I don't know..." Eventually, she stopped talking to clerks altogether. She'd pass them a note that said, "I am a deaf-mute. I am picking up some turkey soup for my friend. How much, please?" She was always getting in car accidents, and every single month she thought she was pregnant.
The cool people are always selfish and dramatic. Unlike, say, depressives, who sink down into the same old patterns of self-destructive behavior and never get out of them, anorexics have a constantly expanding galaxy of ways to have problems. They lie. They black out. They hemorrhage. All the anorexics I've known steal boyfriends. Things always "happen" to them: People molest them when they sleep, ex-boyfriends steal their gas cards, or things go wrong when they try to kill themselves and they end up stuck in the loony bin for the weekend. They have mortal enemies. People put curses on them! It's an extravagant, silent life, the life of the anorexic. A guy recently told me his sister had been having a telepathic relationship with Martin Gore of Depeche Mode for the last 8 months—and had even gotten pregnant from it! "Wait!" I said, "Does your sister have an eating disorder?" "Yes," he said, "She's a fruitopian. She hasn't eaten anything but fruit for years."
I got anorexic/bulimics all over my life. One of them is my son's baby-sitter, Chance Provencal—so I interviewed her. Throughout the interview, Chance peeled and ripped up an onion that was sitting on my table. You can hear the low crackle of the mutilation throughout the entire tape.
Lisa: When did it start?
Chance Provencal: When I was 18. I never thought about how much I ate or how much I weighed until I had this one boyfriend. I was 120 pounds and he was like, "Oh, I like my girls to be skinny."
Lisa: "My girls." Sounds like a pimp.
Chance: The thing is, he was fat! He was! "I like my girls to be 100, 105 pounds." No matter how much I tried to cut down on my eating or exercise more, I couldn't lose any weight. So I just kind of like ate what I wanted and then got rid of it.
Lisa: You puked.
Chance: Oh yeah, I puked and I starved, alternately. I did a lot more puking than I did starving. It was easier to just puke it out.
Lisa: How often did you throw up?
Chance: Sometimes just a couple times a week, sometimes a couple times a day. It depends on how much I ate that day. Because there are days where I won't eat at all. I found that if you wake up in the morning and you don't eat, you can go longer without eating. But once I eat, I just have to eat and eat and eat.
Lisa: How come after you dumped that boyfriend you still had the eating problems?
Chance: Because after that it was an obsession to be skinny. All my friends down in Maryland are really skinny—between 90 and 105 pounds—and I felt fat.
Lisa: What if you got a bunch of fat friends, would that help?
Chance: Probably not, because then I'd be mean and want to be even skinnier. I have fat friends now and I continue to be skinny because they all say, "Look how skinny you are, look how tiny you are," and I like it.
Lisa: What's the lowest weight you ever got to?
Chance: 85 pounds. I didn't get lower because I was taken to the hospital pretty early—[starvation] was harder on me than most people because of my diabetes. I got down to 85 with painkillers. I think painkillers are the best diet drug. You really don't get hungry! You just lay in bed all the time and lose the weight. But when you're not tired, they make you just jump up and run around and not think about anything—just keep going.
Lisa: Were you able to hold down a job at this time?
Chance: Not then, because I had an ovarian cyst, so I was out of work because of that. I never wanted to count calories. I'd just eat a piece of lettuce, drink water. I didn't want to do this whole thing of eat one M&M, exercise for three hours. I was never that meticulous about it. I'm too lazy.
Lisa: Did you go to the hospital by choice?
Chance: No. I couldn't really fight it by that point because I was just too out of it. I was too weak and half in and out. My boyfriend at the time took me because I was bordering on unconsciousness. My roommates called him up and said, "Her heartbeat's really low, she's not responding to much, she's dehydrated." So he came and picked me up and took me to the emergency room.
Lisa: Is this the one who likes his girls skinny?
Chance: No, a different one. This boyfriend never said I was too skinny.
Lisa: How did people treat you while you were recovering in the hospital?
Chance: Some were really nice and sympathetic, some were mean and heartless. They'd say, "Well you got yourself into this and you ought to know better and I don't feel sorry for you!" Other people would say, "Oh, you poor little thing." The counselors were nice, but a lot of the nurses were mean—the fat nurses. But you get that no matter what you're in the hospital for—some nice nurses, some mean.
Lisa: How much weight did they make you gain before you could leave?
Chance:: 10 or 15 pounds.
Lisa: How did you gain the weight? Did you get an I.V. drip?
Chance: Yeah. They gave me the saline solution, then glucose. They were talking about putting that tube in my nose.
Lisa: Why? Were you afraid to eat?
Chance: No, they just felt it was so necessary at that time, but I was like, "No, no, no, I'll eat!" And then I had to get monitored every time I had to go to the bathroom. I had to call a nurse and leave the door open part-way so they could make sure I was going to the bathroom and not doing other stuff.
Lisa: How long did it take you to gain 10 pounds?
Chance: It took a couple months, because your stomach shrinks, so what was a normal meal to me would be like a snack to someone else. Even now, when I don't eat for a while, my stomach shrinks, and then I'll eat just a couple bites and I'm full. I can't eat another bite, and that's fine for me! After that I went to my boyfriend's house and he was fat and his whole family was fat, and they took care of me. They made sure I got fed. And he worked at Taco Bell so I got to eat tacos all the time. They were trying to force me to eat, and then when I'd feel sick they'd tell me, "Oh you're fine," and like force-feed me, and then I'd really be sick, and throw up.
Lisa: How do you feel when you see a fat person?
Chance: I don't know, I think a lot of fat people are beautiful. Sometimes I want to be fat, have a little extra meat on me. But I can't bring myself to actually do it. But sometimes I get mad at fat people because I think they're gross and disgusting, other times I think they're fine, I think they're beautiful. My good friend Cindy, she's overweight, and sometimes I think, "Fat pig!" and then other times I think, "Oh, she's fine."
Lisa: How do you feel when you see a skinny person?
Chance: When I see someone skinnier than me, I get mad. This one lady, she was so skinny, I kept looking at her and thinking, "There must be something really wrong with her. She must have cancer. She is impossibly skinny."
Lisa: Was she elegant or grotesque?
Chance: She was grotesque. It was really nasty.
Lisa: Did you realize you looked disgusting when you were that skinny?
Chance: No. Because you have your own image of what you look like. There's this mirror over at Rick's house that I call the Skinny Mirror because I looked in it one day and I looked really thin. Everybody said, "You're just saying that." But then this guy's girlfriend looked in it and she said the same thing, so we call it the Skinny Mirror now. So whenever I feel fat I go look in the Skinny Mirror. There's days when I look at myself and I think, "Wow, I look great, I can live with this." And there's other days when I look at myself in the mirror and start scrutinizing every inch of my body: "My butt's fat. My legs are fat. My gut is fat." But I don't ever want to go through hospitalization again, I'll never let myself get to that point again. I have a messed-up esophagus now from making myself throw up so much. Sometimes I'll just chew on a pen cap now, and I'll gag. Because I used to stick my toothbrush down there, my fingers, anything. And now when I throw up it really hurts and burns, it feels like my whole chest is gonna cave in.
Lisa: When you were so skinny, what did your skin and hair look like?
Chance: I did get that light layer of hair that you grow. It's baby-blonde color. That extra layer that keeps you warm, because you get so skinny your body can't keep itself warm.
Lisa: Was it all over your body and face?
Chance: Not on my face so much. It was mostly on my midsection, on my back and front.
Lisa: How did your boyfriend feel about you having chest hair?
Chance: He was kind of disgusted by it, but he really cared for me, so he didn't let it really show. There was no physical relationship at that point, because I was too weak and he was too afraid he would break me. He was really delicate with me all the time. If he held my hand, his hand would completely wrap around mine.
Lisa: Do you still get urges to not eat and to throw up?
Chance: I still do. There are days where I won't eat at all. Just because I'm afraid I'll get to the point where I'm too fat again and then it will start all over. Other days I'll eat like a pig and then I'll feel awful for weeks after. And I'll be like, "Well, I can't eat for a couple days because I ate a lot yesterday." I haven't thrown up lately. I was doing it a couple months ago, because I'd eat so much I'd have to. And then you know, when you throw up you get dehydrated, so I'd drink like a whole gallon of water and then I'd have to throw that up. I used to throw up every night still last year.
Lisa: Do you take painkillers now?
Chance: I did the other day. But a lot of doctors are cracking down on what they give you. I had a kidney infection two weeks ago and they wouldn't even give me painkillers for that. Which is good, because I was addicted to them really bad. When I stopped taking them, I went through withdrawal, the shakes. If I even take one or two now, I'll get addicted almost automatically, so it's good they don't give them out as easily anymore. You don't think about a lot when you have painkillers. Painkillers are deadly, not just for the obvious reasons, but because of the way they make you think and act. I'm proud that I stopped, the painkillers and the eating disorder. I still have my days. They say it's never really cured, you always have it in the back of your mind. It's just a matter of controlling it. I don't make myself throw up anymore. When I look back at what I used to do, it really kind of disgusts me.