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.

The Will to Survive

I believe in life after death—just not in the religious way. I don’t believe in God or Heaven, in reincarnation or ghosts. No, I believe in something very different. I believe in recovery, hope, and second chances, in the future and the promise of a better life. I believe in miracles, magic, and medicine. I believe in literature, cake, and fairy dust. Most of all, though, I believe in Shakespeare. Let me explain:

When I was seven, I stole a copy of Hamlet from my second grade teacher’s desk because the cover reminded me of orange sherbet; I took it home and acted it out with pieces of bread. I had no clue what was going on, and I recall having to crack open Polonius (an aptly cast dictionary) every other word. Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted; the words mesmerized me, and I wanted nothing more than to be a part of their world. Thus began my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare.

I devoted the next couple years to reading, seeing, and performing as much of the cannon as possible. I’d devoured the comedies (Romances exempted) by the close of fourth grade, and just prior to sixth I used the prize money from my violin competitions to fly to London to see the Globe replica; the following year I played Hermia in my middle school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which led to further performances in school, local, regional, touring, and festival settings. Performing and sharing Shakespeare became my greatest joy, and I vowed to star in the Royal Shakespeare Company someday.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, however, that I was introduced to academia. Ms. Kimberly Horne was lecturing on King Lear, and for the first time in my life I found myself challenged in an English class. Disoriented but intrigued, I practically lived in her office for the duration of the unit, interrogating her about everything from fundamental prosody to textual variation to the role of milk in Shakespearean tragedy. A gifted teacher as well as a brilliant scholar, Ms. Horne gave hours to my cause, talking me through passages, answering my questions, and acquainting me with relevant theorists/criticism. She exposed me to a whole new side of Shakespeare, the academic side, and I loved it; inspired and amazed, I decided to pursue criticism professionally.

I spent the following summer at Harvard with Ms. Horne’s favorite Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Marjorie Garber. The latter was leading two graduate seminars, and I, fresh out of high school, had managed to worm my way into both. The experience was truly transformative. Dr. Garber, the absolute apotheosis of intelligence, revolutionized my views on Shakespeare, literature, and the world. Under her tutelage I learned to read critically, think analytically, write professionally, and speak eloquently. I went into her class a Shakespeare aficionado, but I left a Shakespeare scholar.

A month later, I started my undergraduate education at King’s College London, my so-called “dream school”. It was, in short, a nightmare; my courses were elementary, my lecturers lackluster, and my peers imbeciles. Wasn’t this supposed to be a world-class institution? Were these acclaimed academics capable of nothing more than meager plot summary? Where were the Baby Blooms and Little Lessings I was so hoping to meet (and why did none of my aforesaid classmates comprehend that fairly mainstream allusion?!)? Bored and betrayed, I relapsed into my eating disorder. Starvation supplanted studying, seminars were shirked in favor of trips to the gym, and before I knew it, I had swapped out my degree for a bed at the local A and E. My ill-conceived endeavor at amusement had suddenly spiralled into a devastating deringolade, and by the end of term I was a 30 kg cardiac patient with no hope of a meaningful future. I had lost Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, and I just wanted to die.

Anorexia nearly killed me. It stopped my heart, ruined my life, and left me for dead, but somehow, somewhere, I found the will to survive. I had the one thing stronger than anorexia’s desire for thinness, and that was my love for Shakespeare. So armed with my Norton Anthology, I decided to fight; I packed up my critical collection, withdrew from university, and returned to America to get the help I so desperately needed. Two years, four cardiac rehabilitation courses, seven doctors, and nineteen kilograms later, I can now say I have recovered from anorexia. I am currently writing two academic articles, preparing a lecture circuit, and compiling a curriculum for an forthcoming symposium. I will also be returning to university this Fall. I have future, a rather bright one at that!

Anorexia is in my past now. It has to be. There are plays to read and books to write. So thank you to University College London for giving me a second chance, Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop for the most amazing cake, and William Shakespeare for saving my life. This year is going to be LIT(erary).

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A Walk Down Wardour Street on a Late December Evening

Note: I set out to write a cheery Christmas vignette, but this is anything but! The following post, an account of a past Christmas, contains mature themes, disturbing imagery, mentions of suicide, descriptions of eating disorder thoughts, and “sick photos”. If you are easily triggered, please exercise caution when reading. Thank you, and have a very Happy Christmas.

There were lights on lamp-posts. They flickered—on and off, on and off. Were they dying, too? Blurry through the haze. And they were barely visible now, hard to see; hard to keep her eyes open, she could hardly breathe. But really, they were just lights, lights in the darkness, what was there to see? Incandescent and rainbow, festive and free.

And there were pies in the windows—tiny, white, dusted with powdered sugar, filled to the brim with fruit—with apples, with cherries, with blackberries, with pumpkin, with rhubarb, with mince meat—with pecans, with chocolate, with creams… Should she get one? A smile cracked her lips, ripping through her cheeks, shredding like scissors on wrapping paper, and a laugh clogged her throat—a gurgling sound, a gravelly sort of choking. Was she gagging, asphyxiating? And my god, she couldn’t breathe. It was the thought—the thought of it, the sheer ludicrousity of it, the misery; it was just so funny, so funny that it was killing her. But she had to get going now; she really had to keep walking.

The pies could keep leering at her through the bakery windows for all she cared. She really had to get going; she really had to keep walking. She really wanted one, though; yes, she really did want one. But no, it was fine; she was fine. And no, no, she would not be getting one. Besides, she only needed to see them to taste them, smell them to feel them—in her mouth, against her teeth, down her throat, sitting in her stomach, squatting in her skin, boiling in her blood, infiltrating her cells, turning to fat. So no, no, she would not be getting one.

And there was tinsel on the roofs. She could see it despite the darkness. It was hanging, hanging, hung—silver and sparkly, limp but lovely. Oh how she wanted to take a piece! She could wrap it around her neck, drape it like a scarf, pull it tight and feel the warmth, tie it to a hook, hear a crack and feel the pain until—thank god!—she couldn’t breathe. Well, it was dark inside, too, she supposed.

And there was music in the shops. Tambourines tinkled as jingle bells jingled. Shop doors opened, spewing music, spitting warm air into the cold—yes, the cold, the bitter, biting cold; she could feel it in her bones, taste it in her lungs—was that why she couldn’t breathe?—, hear it in her ears—a popping, a pressure, a pain, a pleasure. There was a heaviness to it, to the music, to how it sat in her ears and how it sunk there; it gave her that airplane kind of feeling—the one you get when you take-off or land (when the cabin pressure changes), the one you have to chew gum to get rid of. But gum has calories, you know.

And there was snow on the sidewalk. Legions of boots stamped through it, leaving lesions on the pavement, letting crusty, brown blood ooze from their scars. The wind whipped them over, beating them like frosting for a cake, concealing them from view; the flakes fell down again, and instantly they were cadavers covered in sheets, those hospital corpses that no one had claimed—hidden from view, under a blanket, yet still so very, very there. She wondered vaguely where they went, the footprints in the snow, but it didn’t matter. She just kept walking, her shoes slapping the sludge, sinking a little deeper into the spoils they had made. It was too cold out, and the snow looked too much like powdered sugar. She didn’t want to breathe it in; it might make her hungry.

And there was a girl in the middle of Wardour Street, standing on the edge of the sidewalk, too close to the cars. She was waiting for one of them to hit her, watching with bated breath as they passed her by. Snow fell all around her, and the wind threw her from side to side; she was a puppet on their string, a statuette of sticks, stuck together with the stuff of nightmares. A clock chimed through the darkness, and her heart skipped a beat. It was Christmas time in London, the perfect time to die.

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. 

Wear It Beat It Day

Today 7 million people in the United Kingdom will fight their daily battles with cardiovascular disease. Today 435 people will lose that battle; today 110 of them will be under the age of 75. Today 530 people will go to the hospital with a heart attack; today 190 of those people will die. Today 657 people will have a stroke; today 109 of them won’t survive. Today 12 babies will be diagnosed with a congenital heart defect; today 1 of them won’t get to grow up. Today 82 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests will occur; today less than eight of them will live to see tomorrow. 

Today 34% of people in the United Kingdom will live with high blood pressure; today over half of them will continue to go without treatment. Today 6% of the population has diabetes; today that number does not include the estimated one million who remain undiagnosed. Today 27% of people in the United Kingdom will be obese; today 34% of them are overweight. Today 25% of people will exceed the national alcohol intake recommendations. Today 39% of people will not get adequate physical activity. Today 25% of people will not eat enough fruit and vegetables. Today 17% of people will smoke a cigarette; today smoking-induced cardiovascular complications will kill 55 people. 

Today you can do something about these numbers. Today you can maintain a healthy weight. Today you can quit smoking. Today you can get cardiovascular exercise. Today you can eat balanced diet. Today you can visit your doctor and get heart-checked. 

Today is Wear It Beat It Day. Today we wear red to raise awareness about heart disease. Today we stand in solidarity with those effected. Today we honor the lives lost and lived to and with cardiovascular disease. Today we donate to fund lifesaving research. Today we fight heart disease. 

Happy Birthday!

Last year, I was taken to the hospital after I fainted on the way home from a final exam. I spent the day pulling tubes out of my arms. I watched the listless whitewashed walls and listened to them tell me to eat. I ignored their worried voices, shaking my head at the food they brought me, laughing when they told me I was going to die. It was just so funny: Me counting the seconds to death, me laying in a half-dead hospital bed. That was no way to celebrate a birthday, so I got up and left. It’s been a rough year since then, since I snuck out of that hospital on May 9th, 2016. I’ve had heart attack, dropped out of school, left my home, and technically died for three minutes. It’s been–without a doubt–the worst year ever, but somehow, I got through it; I gained thirty-nine pounds, graduated cardiac rehab, started a blog, and quite literally came back to life. I survived; against all odds, I survived, and that’s something worth celebrating.

So here I am, sitting in a Starbucks, drinking free hot chocolate and writing this post. I’ve got some research to wrap up at Senate House, and then I’m off for ice cream with my friends before dance this evening. There’s a ridiculous smile plastered across my face, and as I lick the whipped cream off my chin, I can’t help but shed a tear. It’s just so funny: How much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve changed. It’s been one hell of a year (and one hellish year), but I’m so glad I stayed.

Asking for Help

I could feel myself slipping, the world sliding out from under me, my feet skidding on sliding ground, my fingernails scraping at empty air. I could feel myself falling, gravity sucking me down, my legs breaking, my arms flailing. It was terrifying, but I liked it–in a way. And then I came to my senses. I could hear my heart beating a little slower; I could see my thighs getting a little thinner; and I could taste that sourness again, that comfortable sourness, that deathly sourness. I was relapsing, wasn’t I? I was relapsing, and I knew it.

So I took a deep breath, pulled out my phone, and texted a friend. “I think I’m slipping back into my eating disorder.” I wrote. “What do I do?” She didn’t reply; she showed up at my flat with two cups of hot chocolate and told me we were going to Camden. We ended up getting ice cream and having a heart-to-heart. She said some really amazing things that I want to share with you:

  1.  Calories may make you gain weight, but they also keep you alive. Food is fuel.
  2.  Your eating disorder probably only defines you in your head and not in anyone else’s. People didn’t know you had an eating disorder until the end; they knew you as a person. 
  3. It makes sense to not know who you are without your eating disorder, so think about who you want to be–and that is not someone with an eating disorder. Imagine that you left your eating disorder back at the hospital, and eat for the person you want to become.

It was incredibly hard to ask for help and it went against all my natural instincts, but I am so glad I did. Not only did it keep me in recovery, it brought me and my friend closer together. So my point is this: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There is no shame in it. It doesn’t make you weak, or a failure, or a bad person. It just means that you’re struggling, and that’s perfectly okay.