An Unhappy Birthday

I’ve never really liked birthdays. In fact, I grew up dreading them. My mother almost always forgot the occasion. Relatives I hated swarmed in from out of town. People watching me eat meant I had to eat more. I felt I didn’t deserve any of the presents I received. The passage of time made me anxious about how little I’d accomplished. I frequently spent the day in a hospital of some sort. And then there was the cake.

The cake! Oh god, the cake! The cake was the worst part. I’d spend all year worrying about the cake, planning for the cake, calculating how many calories were in the cake, devising ways to compensate for the cake. A slice of cake had 1000 calories, right? So, if I ate nothing else that day, I could have half a slice and not gain any weight, right? Or I could eat normally and exercise for five hours to burn it off? Or I could purge it? No, that would only get rid of 30% of the calories, providing I did it properly, and I’d still have 666.66 calories in surplus. What if I restricted for two days before? Could I have a whole slice then? Or could I just have a bite? How many calories were in a bite? Or a tiny bit of the frosting? Just a lick! That was my favourite part anyway. But there would be crumbs on the frosting. How would I account for those calories? It wasn’t worth it. I just wouldn’t have any. But I would exercise extra anyway—just in case, to burn off the cake I didn’t eat.

That was my birthday every year, and it was miserable. Like many people, I used birthdays as an opportunity to beat myself up, to get down on myself for all the things I hadn’t done, for everything that I wasn’t. The event emphasised my biggest insecurities—failure and fatness—and I spent the holiday punishing myself for my ‘obesity’ and ‘idiocy’. Needless to say, it was not much of a celebration.

It was my birthday last week, and although my circumstances were not ideal, I tried to make the best of it. I bought myself a book I wanted. I didn’t receive many other gifts, but I’m glad I have this text for my research. I attended two dance classes. They weren’t the challenging jazz ones back home at Pineapple, but they gave me an opportunity to work on my technique. I redeemed my birthday reward for a free drink at Starbucks. Maybe I ordered my hot chocolate with nonfat milk and scraped the whipped cream off in a panic, but at least I challenged my fear of liquid calories. I spent some quality time with my cat Katherine. It was sad not to be in London, but Katherine is so adorable and sweet. I stopped at my favourite bakery. My cake was delicious even though my friends were not there to share it with me. Did I have the best birthday ever? No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that I’m lucky to be alive having this birthday at all.

Birthdays can be hard, I know. You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to celebrate them. You can treat them like an ordinary day if you want to! Just please, please don’t use them as excuse to hurt yourself–mentally or physically. Acknowledge who you are and where your at. You may not be who or where you want to be, but you are someone, somewhere. I hope you can appreciate that.

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Disclaimer: This cake was from the Saturday before my birthday. I enjoyed a chocolate cake on the day itself, but the icing smudged on the bus trip back to my flat, and consequently I didn’t get any good pictures.

Rebirthday

I died on August 29th of last year. My heart stopped, and anorexia killed me. I was technically dead for three minutes.The doctors didn’t think I would make it. I was too far gone. The defibrillators weren’t working; my heart was too damaged; I would never recover from anorexia. Why bother trying? They called my cardiologist to tell her patient had died; she told them to try one more time.

They did, and that’s when the miracle happened. That’s when my heart started beating again; that’s when my lungs started breathing again. That’s when I opened my eyes; that’s when I learned to see. There were sparkles on the ceiling and jewel-drops in my eyes. There was a buzzing in my ears and a million voices in my head; I could hear them all clearly, and they were telling me the truth–the cold, hard, cement-stairwell truth: They told me I couldn’t go on like this; they told me I had to recover. 

And they were right; I knew they were. I couldn’t go on like this, and I didn’t want to. I had to make a change; I had to do this once and for all; I had to recover. 

And so on August 29th, 2016, after ten long years, I finally began my recovery journey. I sought the help of a dietician, psychologist, cardiologist, gastroenterologist, psychiatrist, general practitioner, and liver specialist. I underwent extensive physical and psychological therapy. I gained thirty-eight pounds. I got in touch with my emotions. I learned to eat and exercise in moderation. I found freedom with food and within myself. I broke away from anorexia, and I came back to life.

I was reborn on August 29th of last year. My heart started, and I beat anorexia. I’ve been alive for approximately 525,600 minutes. I survived. The doctors saved me; my heart conditions are now managed with medications; I am recovering from anorexia. Who would’ve thought? I made it out alive, and you can, too. 

It Won’t Happen to Me

It won’t happen to me: That has been an overarching theme in and out of my recovery. I’m a smart girl; I did my reading. I knew anorexia had its consequences; I just refused to acknowledge them. Hair loss, muscle weakness, dry skin, fatigue, osteoporosis, amenorrhea, organ failure, death. Whatever. It wouldn’t happen to me.

It can. It would. It did.

Let me tell you about August 3rd, 2016: Light rain dribbled from the sky, and there was slight, dull ache in my chest. Thinking nothing of it, I got up, put on my favorite red lipstick, and popped three diet pills. My favorite scholar was lecturing on Shakespearean sexual suicides today, and I wanted to get to the hall early to tell him what I thought of Cleopatra’s death, how I read it as an extended enactment of the Renaissance ‘die pun’. I sped down the Selwyn stairs so quickly that I ran out of breath. It must’ve been the running that caused me to feel a little ill. No, I’d been sick earlier, too, right when I’d woken up. The pills, perhaps? A bout of violent vomiting truncated my contemplations.

The pain in my chest was worse now, heavier, and I was dizzy, so dizzy that the world spun around me and lights on passing cars danced like fireflies. It felt like someone was squeezing my left arm. I couldn’t breathe. I practically fell onto the ledge in front of the college, clutching at my chest with tingy, claw-like hands. A sensible passerby must’ve called the British equivalent of 911 (999?), because the next thing I remember was screeching down the rainy roads in a screaming ambulance.

I woke up–if that’s the right phrase?–with my face pressed into a green white tile floor. I turned my head a little to look around; I saw chairs, and couches, and a vending machine. There were legs, too, sneakers and swishing pants, voices and people, wheelchairs and carts. ‘Do you have an emergency contact?’ I heard someone say. Did I? Was she talking to me?

Hands grabbed my feet and my shoulders, sore, soared off the floor. I found myself sitting up, back against a bendy chair. I was confused. Why were we moving? Where we going, gliding and sliding, sliding and gliding? Or were we? Was I imagining this, dreaming, nightmare-ing? I tried to pinch myself, but my arm wouldn’t budge.

Wrinkled white paper crinkled underneath brittle bones as they dropped me into the hospital holding bed. Nurses–well, I assume they were nurses?– started sticking things on me, red and white circles with wild, winding wires. I could see a sea of them, all over me like some horrible kind of rash. I wondered what they were. No, I didn’t want to know; I didn’t want to have to know, if you know what I mean?

A woman in blue told me to stay very still. They were going to do an EKG now, and I had to stay very still. But what was an EKG? Would it hurt? Did they have to take any blood? Is that what the circles were for? Hadn’t my psychiatrist wanted me to get one of these a while ago? I had so many questions–and so little breath to ask them.

A whirring, a tapping, a scratching. The printer in the back of the room spat and choked, gagging on a scroll. There was a wrenching, ripping sound as someone broke it open, tearing out its contents. With furrowed caterpillar brows, the printer surgeon examined his specimen. He handed it to the woman in blue who nodded and left the room, muttering something about something called an echo.

‘Printer problem.’ Someone said, stomping on the sludgy silence.

‘Yeah.’ An awkward laugh, a sigh that filled the room. ‘Must be. This can’t be right. That wouldn’t happen to her.’

It can. It would. It did.

The woman in blue returned with cart. ‘We’re going to do an echo now’ she informed me, as if I had some clue what that was. Strangers stripped me, black scissors bisecting a brassiere back. Folds fell to the floor and like a ragdoll I flopped forwards, arms contorted backwards, purposefully pulled into a hospital gown. Cold hands nudged my shoulders into a sinking pillow, and suddenly something chilly crept across my chest. Blue goo, lots of it, glittered like snow drifts under a fluorescent sun, and a probe skated over me, making my heart beat loud, loud over the hospital beeps.

‘Okay.’ Voices whispered. ‘Okay.’ The word bounced off the whitewashed walls, fleeing the room, fleeing like a mouse trapped a hungry snake’s cage. ‘Okay.’ They all looked at each other; I could feel the fear in their eyes.

‘You tell her.’ They said, speaking all at once. ‘No you, no you.’

Tell me? Tell me what?

Doors slammed, footsteps hammered, and faces leaned towards mine. I saw a mouth move. A man said something, something no one should have to hear. ‘You suffered,’ he informed me, looking down at the stack of papers one more time. ‘You suffered an acute electrolyte-imbalance-induced myocardial infarction.’

‘I what? A what?’

‘You had a heart attack.’

‘A what?’

‘A heart attack.’

A heart attack? No, that was impossible. Only old, fat men had heart attacks. It wouldn’t happen to me.

It can. It would. It did.

I had a heart attack that day, and I’m glad I did. Yes, I’m glad I had a heart attack. It almost killed me, but it saved my life. It was a wake up call, a slap in the face, a red flag in the neverending haze. It forced me realize what I couldn’t on my own: I am not immortal; I am not invincible; I am not immune. It could happen to me–and it did.

Cake at a Funeral

I went to a funeral yesterday. I brought cake. It was a pink cake, pink with rainbow sprinkles. I had to take the elevator so I didn’t drop it. I set it down on the table when I got there–the little table, the rectangular table, the table with all the magazines. I had to leave it there while I payed–two hundred and forty dollars, as it sat there on the New England Journal of Medicine, two hundred and forty dollars, pink on the orange and the white. I felt the urge to write on it, that pang again; I even had my paper out, but I didn’t know what to say. The door opened, front and to the left. A head poked out, and a soft voice said “Hello”; you could barely hear her–her lips moved, but her voice was barely there, a cloud, a cumulus cotton candy cloud on the stagnant sugar-wind. I stood up; that was my cue. My flip-flops thwacked the carpet as I walked towards her, and I saw my cake soar past the rose-gold chairs, up, up under the aureate lights. 

She asked me “How are you?”

I handed her the cake. 

“Is that for me?”

I nodded.

“It’s very pretty.” 

I shrugged. 

“What kind of icing is that?”

“Vanilla. Vanilla with sprinkles.”

We reached the door. She stopped. I went in first. She closed the door. We both sat down. The chairs were brown. 

“How are you?” She asked again.

That’s when I began to cry. She wasn’t going to ask me that anymore.

“Are you okay?”

Silence settled like ashes in an urn.

“Do I have to go?” I asked her. 

“You don’t have to do anything.”

I curled up into a little ball, bringing my knees to my chest. She peered across the carpet, watching as I sobbed, watching as my tears rolled down onto my knees. 

“I heard your session with Adrien was hard.” 

“It was… It’s just…”

“I know.”

“You really can read minds.”

Smiles. Silence. Sobs.

“Thank you for the cake. It’s very festive.”

I looked up. Her eyes were such a pretty blue. “It’s a cake of mourning.” I informed her. 

She laughed. It wasn’t supposed to be funny. 

“I feel like I’m going to a funeral.” I told her. “Preparing for this appointment, I felt like I was going to a funeral.”

It was her turn to nod.

“It’s like… I just…”

“I know.”

“I feel like I’m losing a parent.” 

“Yeah.”

“But, like, an actual parent. Not like when my dad died, that didn’t matter, and my mom could die now for all I care.”

She didn’t judge. I could see the sadness in her eyes; I could see my sadness; I could see the care, the compassion there. There was no judgement; no, she didn’t judge; she just listened. 

“A parent I actually care about.”

“You’ve learned to care. You’ve learned to sit with your feelings.” She was right. Always.

“I just didn’t think I’d have to say goodbye. I just expected I’d quit treatment, die, or just not care…”

“But you do.”

“But I do.”

“Is it hard to say goodbye to me?”

“No.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve. The lie was so obvious that we both laughed.

“Do you think you’re never going to see me again?”

Another wave of tears, heavier this time, a downpour, torrential like an Austin August.

“From my side, I can still answer your emails, and you can call me anytime. If you’re ever in Austin, if you ever need anything, you can come and see me.” 

I looked out the window. A bird flew by. A bus drove down a hill.

“If I don’t hear from you for a while, I’ll have to close your chart. That just means that part of our treatment is over.”

“I’ll send you copies of my books when I publish them.” I said. 

“I’d like that.”

“And when I write a goodbye letter–which I will do–I’ll mail it to you.” 

“From London?”

“You’re probably disappointed I didn’t write one.” I said, avoiding the issue. “I meant to, but I didn’t know what to say.”

“That’s okay.”

“It’s not. Adrien and Vanessa both got one.”

“It’s okay.”

I wept. My tears hit the couch this time.

“When I heard you were moving to London, my first thought was that you were running, and then I thought maybe she’s ready.”

“Am I?”

“Only you can answer that.”

“But you know everything.”

She smiled. I memorized pattern on the tissue box–white with yellow diamonds, white with yellow diamonds and blue dots. 

“Do you need a prescription from me?” She asked finally. 

“I don’t know.”

“Can you fill it there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you get three months’ supply here?”

“I guess.”

“That gives you a little wiggle room, time to find someone in London.”

I didn’t want to find someone in London. “According to Google, all the psychiatrists in London are old white men who specialize in serial killers.” 

She laughed. I didn’t. 

“Seriously.”

“I’m sure they’re not all old white men who focus on serial killers.”

“They are.”

She smiled and walked over to her desk. I watched. Her white skirt swished as she walked, her Toms changing the colour of the carpet. I could hear the pen scratching.

“I don’t want to go.” I whispered. 

She looked at me, her blue eyes melting. 

“I don’t want to go.” 

She handed me the prescription. I took it. 

“I’ll be here, if you change your mind.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.” A single tear rolled down her cheek.

“Thank you.” 

She didn’t say anything. She just wrapped me up in her warm arms, and held me close as we both shook with tears. 

“I’ll finish the goodbye letter.” I said, pulling away.

“I’m excited to read it.” She replied, putting her hand on the doorknob. 

“It’s time, isn’t it?”

She nodded.

I gave the office one last look, one last time, and then I stepped into the hallway with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes, because I knew I was ready, because I knew it was time to move on. London was calling, and life was waiting. So goodbye for now Dr. S, and thank you, thank you for everything. I love you so much. 

Brownie Sundae

In honour of Father’s Day, here’s an essay I wrote a couple years ago about my dad’s death:

There were dead people in the letters. Birds’ nests braided, golden, in the hollow of the O and around the corners of the H, and the dead people walked through them, tiny at first, tiny as they slipped through the toothpick-thin cracks in the concrete, as they spun between the letters and out into the heavy air. That’s when they disappeared, dissolved, disintegrated. They became part of the bubblegum blue sky, the tissue paper clouds, and the grass–the parched, the yellow, the grass, the grass with its life all hacked and sucked away.

What was it like to die? Was it like getting your ears pierced? Just a pinch! Was it sweet like eating a brownie? Was it like jumping into Barton Springs in December?

The dirt was slippery, quite, and grainy, and dry. That’s because it hadn’t rained in ages. (I was fine with that. I mean, I didn’t want it to rain tomorrow. Rain would ruin the Keep Austin Weird parade.) Hey, that’s why–why the grass was dead.

“We’re near TCBY, right?” I asked, tired of standing on the dirt by the side of a busy road, surrounded by suffocated grass, looking at the lettering on the side of an ugly, grey building.

“I–” The grumbling of a passing car gobbled up the rest of the nameless  family friend’s sentence.

“My dad would let me have ice cream,” I crossed my arms defensively.

An old, silvery woman with skin like a wet paper bag had just peered out from behind the L.

“Are you sure you want ice cream?”

“Um, duh.” What kind of question was that?

We got in the car. The doors, as they shut, clicked like the trigger of a gun. “Here,” I took out my phone, my nine-year-old self’s prized possession, which looked rather like an enlarged green jellybean, “I’ll call my dad.” I said that like it was such an imposition. “He’d let me have ice cream.”

The phone rang. There was no answer. I tried again.

We weren’t moving; it wasn’t the 5:30 traffic; he hadn’t started the car. “I promise,” I whined, impatiently slamming my fingers onto the phone’s plastic buttons. “My dad takes me to TCBY every day.” That wasn’t entirely true. (We went almost everyday, but only when I had practiced violin for an hour and twenty minutes and only if we rode our bikes around the block and down the steep Far West hill to our destination.)

“Stop.” He said quietly; he sounded like his mouth was stuffed with cotton balls.

“Stop what?”

“Stop calling him.”

“Why?” He wasn’t going to get me the ice cream. I could feel it.

“He’s not going to pick up.”

The nameless family friend sounded so serious. It wasn’t a big deal. My dad was probably just brazenly taking the Band-Aid off his knee–why would he even need it? he just fell off a bike!–or signing the discharge papers. He’d meet us there. “He’d even pay you back.”

I heard a “fine,” a defeated, muffled “fine.” The red car turned on, and the engine spat golden-orange, glowing sparks. We drove away from the building, from the faces in the lettering, down the highway, and past a screeching ambulance. The dead people faded into red, and then into grey, then into white. They were just dead people, dead people in the letters, getting fainter, getting lighter, getting softer, as we got farther and farther from them.

It did not occur to me that at 6:53PM there would be crooked, yellow teeth, a mustache, and a white bicycle in the crevice on the letter P, bicycling, bicycling in circles, bicycling up and down. As we drove, the family friend and I, in the maroon car towards the swirls of frozen yogurt and the fountains of sprinkles, they–the corpses–looked down, placid, knowing, watching. They smiled; they smiled, because they knew, the dead people in the letters.

Self-Love Sunday: What You Need To Hear

About three sentences into my preachy post on self-love, I realised I had absolutely no clue what I was talking about. I cannot seriously tell you that you’re a magical rainbow unicorn who deserves to love yourself unconditionally. I don’t think your tummy rolls and toenails are the quintessence of radiance, and I have absolutely no intention to inundate you with saccharine Tumblr-sourced affirmations. I’m not going to tell you what I know you you want to hear; I’m going to tell you what I think you need to hear:

So, are you fucking insane? What are you thinking? Do you know what you’re doing? You are killing yourself. You are doing irreversible damage to your body. You are torturing the people who care about you. You are destroying any chance you have at your dreams. Why? You want to be thin. You think it’ll make you happy; you think it’ll solve all your problems.

I promise you it won’t. Chances are, you won’t even reach that obscenely low goal weight; you’ll get caught up in a vicious binge-purge cycle and rip your esophagus in two or suffer a lethal cardiac arrest. Pray that you do, ’cause losing forty pounds or whatever is much, much worse. You’re going be more miserable than you’ve ever been; you’ll wish you were dead, and darling, you will be, if you–when you–lose those ‘last ten pounds.’

Get your shit together. Move on. Snap out of it. RECOVER. It’s not just #thisorhospital; it’s this or death, and trust me when I tell you, you don’t want to die. Please, please choose recovery; choose it today and choose it everyday. It is not just the right choice; it is the only choice.

Pretty: A Rumination on the Word

I’m going to tell you about my least favorite word: Pretty, a word which here means, “superficially attractive” or “to some degree but not superlatively”. I have devoted over half of my life to “pretty”, to pursuing it, to apotheosizing it, to trying to be it. Pretty thin. Pretty smart. Pretty talented. Pretty normal. Pretty perfect. Pretty. I coated my face in makeup, practiced violin til my fingers bled, splurged on clothes I couldn’t afford, and literally starved myself to death. It got me nowhere, nowhere but a hospital bed in the cardiac ward. Laying there, makeup smudged and skin sallow, dressed in a hospital gown and tangled in tubes, I was anything but “pretty”. But have I ever been, will I ever be pretty?

No, and that’s okay. That’s great; that’s wonderful. I don’t need to be pretty, and I don’t want to be. Why should I be conventionally attractive when I can be uniquely beautiful? Why should I be decent when I can be extraordinary? Why should I be a comparative when I can be a superlative? Why should I be “pretty” when I can be so much more?

Very. I’m going to be “very”. Very intelligent. Very accomplished. Very kind. Very happy. Very me.