The second semester of my senior year of college, I developed a phobia of unopened packages of food. Unless someone else had eaten from the package already, I suspected it would be poisoned, like the Tylenol tamperings of my youth. The only item I remember being exempt from this phobia during that period of time were the Snickers bars I ate for lunch in the psychology building two or three days a week. Clearly, the candy bar dropped out of the vending machine wrapped, and yet not only did I consume it, I don’t think it ever actually occurred to me that it might be poisoned. I had no anxiety about my Snickers bars, which is even stranger since I was also suffering from a functional eating disorder that had me hovering constantly at just under 100 pounds, and calories were a major preoccupation of mine. I suppose I ate so little otherwise that the Snickers bar was no cause for anxiety. It was accompanied by a Diet Pepsi and was very likely the only solid food I took in on those days. Although I was a borderline anorexic, I took cream in my coffee and (at that time, which mystifies me now) preferred revoltingly sweet drinks like white Russians and pina coladas and Malibu and pineapple juice. Since I drank eleven cups of coffee a day, so that my hands always had a slight tremor and I had to balance books on my lap while reading or they would vibrate around, and my friends and I went to the Madison bars at least four nights per week, I suppose my calorie needs were being met; I never dipped below 98 pounds, even though I vaguely wanted to. I wasn’t quite 5’2” and I was definitely “skinny,” but not to the point of a clinical anorexia diagnosis. Not, unlike my sorority friend, Trish, to the point of getting into Disney World at the “under 12” price or ending up hospitalized. My body was essentially the same shape it is now, just a more narrow version; I still had curves in my tiny black skirts. When my roommate Deb tried to express concern over my weight, I assumed she was just jealous (the absurdity to this is evident to me now, given that Deb had an astonishingly good, healthy figure, and that she could no doubt see on a daily basis what a wreck I was), so I asked her kind-of-boyfriend if he thought I was too skinny, just to hear him say no right in front of her. What he actually did was ask me to turn around so he could look at my body more carefully, and what I actually did was get up on the table of our booth at the Kollege Klub, our usual hangout, and turn in a slow circle. Then he said no, and Deb sulked, and I was what passed, back then, for “happy,” which all too frequently seemed to involve making someone else feel crappy so that I could, for an instant, feel good.
My fear of unopened packages of food was a narcissistic fear, of course. It wasn’t as if, if I saw my roommates about to eat the first bagel of a package, I would jump up yelping with anxiety, fearing they were about to drop dead on the floor. It wasn’t that the prospect of other people’s death-by-poisoning was of no concern to me—I loved my friends with the intensity many only-children do, despite whatever bitchy antics I may have committed vis-à-vis turning around on bar tables for the approval of their boyfriends. Rather, it was that it seemed self-evident to me that this fear of contaminated food was wholly unreasonable unless I was the one about to put it in my mouth. I believed, on some level, that the food would only be contaminated if I were the one to consume it. That I understood how preposterous this was did little to allay my fears, similarly to the way I would believe—maybe still believe in my weaker moments—that airplanes are only destined to crash if I am aboard them. This phenomenon is what some of my addict friends would later describe to me as “believing you are the piece of shit at the center of the universe.” The belief that you are special, even if in a perverted, self-loathing and warped way. That God or the fates or other people are somehow focused enough on your existence and on your self-perceived shortcomings or sins, that the very laws of the universe and world events will be altered just to punish you or teach you a lesson. My boarding the plane will cause it to go down. My eating the first bagel in the bag will cause it to be poisoned, but if Amy or Deb chows down on the bagel, of course it will be fine. I have spent more than twenty years trying to understand this belief, yet still its finer points elude me. Did I believe that my actions literally caused a shift in the linearity of Time, and an altering of past events (i.e. crazy psychopathic criminal bursts into bagel factory and sprinkles arsenic on this particular package…but this only happened if I actually take a bite)? My brain cells were consumed by counting calories and worrying that God would send me to Hell for being a slut, even though I didn’t believe in Hell exactly. Or—surprise—I didn’t believe in Hell for “other people.” If one of my equally slutty girlfriends had expressed this belief to me about herself I would have laughed at her, hugged her, and advised some kind of deprograming from the misogynistic beliefs of the church. I didn’t attend any kind of services and didn’t believe in anything the Catholic church I’d been raised in stood for and took Women’s Studies classes and instructed one of my roommates, who’d never had an orgasm, on the proper masturbatory techniques and sent her into her bedroom and told her not to come out until she’d come. I smoked pot every day and picked up guys most weekends and left my underwear in Chicago cabs and was in an “open” relationship with a British guy who did things like pack condoms right in front of me when he was taking a trip to Greece—a fact that bothered me not in the least since I aspired to be some cross between Anaïs Nin and Sabina from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and monogamy clearly did not fit in to this glamorous picture.
My terror of unopened packages of food—and the fact that sometimes I could not eat all day if I didn’t organically encounter something other people were already eating that they wanted to share with me—did not much fit into this glamorous image of my future either, but it admittedly made it much easier for me to keep my weight down.
The adage that whatever fucked up, self-destructive habit or belief system we hold on to must be working for us on some level or we’d let it go, in my experience, has always been true.
It’s hard now, in retrospect, to pin down the extent of my diffuse spiritual anxieties in those days. I had gone to Catholic school, the kind of blue collar, old world place where the principal—a former nun—did things like spank kids with the Bible, and if the class misbehaved, our teacher told us we were all going to Hell. I spent a great deal of time standing in corners for my “big mouth” and my inability to sit still in my chair and keep my feet on the floor. I had the highest test scores in the class, and was often told by my peers (not always in a good way) that I was “smart,” but I never won any of the prizes for academic achievement given at the end of the year, which the teachers baldly admitted was because I didn’t know how to behave properly. Conformity was prized far more highly than a certain innate academic giftedness, the point of which was unclear anyway, since no one in my neighborhood had ever gone to college or had any type of profession that required critical thinking, and there was no reason to presume I would be any different since no one had ever been any different. It’s fair to say that it was even a gesture of care to try to teach me to conform and behave the way a girl was expected to behave, because these were the ingredients the Catholic school teachers knew of that led to a smoother future. My father, out of similar feelings of care, urged me to the point of badgering to stop reading and writing endlessly on the couch and instead “go out” and hang with my cousins and the other popular girls on the corner, where I might attain a boyfriend and some status, hence making my future brighter. In those days—until I was fourteen and placed into a selective enrollment high school far away from my neighborhood and essentially “got out” four years before I would physically move away for college—reading and writing were viewed as self-destructive habits. The Catholic school girls were meek mice who folded their hands on their desks and chewed their tongues whenever they had a desire to speak out, but the public school girls were brash and tough talking, prone by seventh grade to getting high before school and blowing twentysomething guys in exchange for drugs. They represented a spectrum of possibilities among which I fit nowhere. I wanted to be Joyce Davenport from Hill Street Blues, and wear sexy business suits and keep my last name. I had a vague sense that I wanted to have a lot of sex, but the guys in my neighborhood were terrifying and stupid. The other kids said I was probably a lesbian, and though I knew that wasn’t “it,” whatever I was felt even harder to place.
I wrote on brown butcher-block paper, which my mom bought because it was the cheapest and cut for me by hand. By the time I was 15, I had four “novels” of 300-400 pages each. I hid them, not letting even my devoted mother read them, because I was ashamed of what a freak I was, scribbling stories about people who weren’t real instead of partying in someone’s mom’s basement and getting myself a gangbanger boyfriend. And yet I kept writing, even though it appeared counterproductive to everything I knew. The self-destruction of my participation in my own social ruin “worked for me” on some level, even if I couldn’t place it yet.
In an Afterschool Special, the crazy girl who is afraid of unopened packages of food would get help somehow, would have an epiphany and heal. But in real life, we often have no idea what we’re healing from. Kids I had grown up with had been brutally physically and sexually abused, had lived in apartments overrun with roaches where they were often left alone while their mothers hung out in bars and went home with men, had fended off the advances of their mothers’ parade of boyfriends, had—in a few cases—been murdered in gang violence or simply by crazy, enraged neighbors. Although I had grown up in the middle of all that, none of it had ever happened to me. My parents were nice people. We were below the poverty line, but there were only three of us and we always had enough to eat. My mother took me to the library every week and read books aloud to me. I had gotten out and here I was at a Big Ten college, having studied abroad in London. I had a sophisticated British boyfriend who sent me tapes of cool music and accommodated my vision of myself by packing condoms in front of me. I had scads of friends, who didn’t judge me as harshly as I may judge my former self, as we were all only twenty-one and they had their issues too. I had a massive case of Survivor Guilt.
I stopped going to class. Crowded rooms gave me panic attacks. Sometimes, just walking on a street teeming with other students, my limbs would go completely numb and I would stop being able to breathe. I’d take off my shoes and feel the cold pavement against my feet, and this would help me enough to get me home to my apartment, where I would smoke a joint and listen endlessly to Depeche Mode or Miracle Legion or Janis Ian in my bedroom. Sleepless in the middle of the night, overcome with clawing hunger, I would masturbate in an attempt to tranquilize myself to sleep. When I would end up in front of the open refrigerator, scouring for something my roommates had already eaten, I would sometimes permit myself a quarter of a blueberry bagel or one carrot or a slice of turkey, and I would go back to bed hating myself for my weakness and figuring I would grow up to be fat like my mother, who made no secret of the fact that my father had stopped having sex with her after I was born. I would be fat and nobody would want me, which had been true in my youth but somehow I had been okay with it then. If in the morning, the scale said 100, I would starve myself for two days or go on Slimfast. On the rare occasions I made it to class, the wooden lecture hall seats dug into my prominent tailbone, and my friend Trish and I made jokes about bringing pillows to sit on, and then she started really doing it, but I didn’t go to class often enough to bother. One day Trish ended up in her car in the middle of the night, where she kept her food so she wouldn’t be tempted to eat in in her apartment, stuffing her face at three a.m. She weighed less than eighty pounds, and finally she snapped and started sobbing, saying aloud to herself, Do you want to die? Do you want to die? She lives now in San Diego with a husband and a son who has a lot of allergies, but demons are never banished that easily. You push them out of the top floor of the house into the basement, and you can still hear their voices through the pipes but you refuse to give them free reign anymore. You learn to chew and swallow even though you think the ingestion of nutrients will turn you into your mother or whatever it is you fear being. Trish was a virgin, a more “classical” anorexic than I was—she looked like a child and feared sexuality and being pursued. She wore her child’s body like armor until it nearly killed her. I don’t know what happened to her when she was younger, but I know that in my neighborhood and most of the world, having a child’s body doesn’t protect a girl from much of anything.
I took a psychology exam, the day after a bad trip where I’d gone into a kind of shock and had tremors for most of the night, and in response to a question asking about what major theory Freud formed in Paris, I wrote, “Freud never went to Paris.” This cracked me up for weeks. Somehow I got a B on the exam. It was the first semester in awhile that I hadn’t made Dean’s List, but I still got my diploma with a good enough GPA to apply to grad schools. My creative writing professors called meetings with me and recommended journals where I should submit my work, though I never, to my recollection, sent to any of them. Instead I moved to London, where I would be a maid at a hotel and a bartender, under the table, and live in an almost-squat with eleven men from all over the world, most of whom were drug dealers, although they were also some of the most nurturing men I will ever know. I would wander around Battersea Park, so ravenous from fasting that the world seemed both jaggedly sharp, yet faraway and surreal at once; stars popped before my eyes dizzily as though I were only steps away from seeing visions. I’d lie on park benches and tell myself I was doing penance. Penance for what? I was in love with one man and living with and fucking another, but that wasn’t quite it. My sins ran deeper than that in my own imagination. Maybe my crime was being in London to begin with, when most of the girls I’d grown up with never even got as far as the other side of the city where I went to high school. Maybe my crime was still being alive. Every time I boarded a plane, I was certain God would rectify that problem.
I had shunned all the partiers and dealers in my old neighborhood for years, making a social outcast of myself, and been the first person in my family on either side to go away to college, just so that I could—in a different country—live among drug dealers, tending bar like my father. The irony wasn’t lost on me. And yet I had come to realize I was no Joyce Davenport. Even with a part-time bartending job, I often showed up late or called in sick. I couldn’t keep track of money, and preferred just putting it into my rucksack and letting my male companions pay for everything, or throwing my paychecks into a communal pool. One of the men I lived with was an amateur photographer; another had friends who were starting a literary magazine. They also had friends in prison for murder, which seemed ordinary to me. I knew I couldn’t stay in London forever, but this static world, this hybrid of my youth and vaguely boho-artistic fantasies, felt safe. Finally, I moved to rural New Hampshire for the boyfriend who would become my husband. He was pursuing his PhD, and simply following him gave me the illusion of movement and change, without requiring me to do anything myself. I moved into the house he shared with other grad students and I waited tables and nannied (both rather poorly) and cried so often it remains a miracle he didn’t break up with me.
This had been going on way too long to accommodate any Afterschool Special by this point. A year passed, then another. I got into therapy, though it didn’t help much since all I did was lie to my therapist. I once ran into her on the street and—although this violates the ethics of what you’re supposed to do if you run into a client in public—she said an enthusiastic hello to me. I had no idea who she was. I’d been her client for eight months, but I never even looked at her, really. I was looking at myself: at how to construct the Me I wanted her to see. I was fighting another invisible enemy, like God. I’d gone into therapy to get control of my life, but once there I wanted my therapist to like me. I handed her pictures of who I thought a likable woman might be. It never occurred to me that a likable person might be someone who would recognize her on the street.
When you’re the piece of shit at the center of the universe, you aren’t a person exactly, but more importantly neither is anyone else. The world is merely your audience, the way God was my imaginary audience. The rest of the world exists just to confirm your belief in what a shitty, punishable person you are. What a special person you are in your horribleness. In a world of Hitlers and Milosevics and Dahmers, your awfulness can rewrite the past of the bagel factory; your awfulness can bring the plane down.
Three years passed this way. Pulling my car over to the side of the road during legendary New Hampshire snowstorms, hyperventilating and numb with a panic attack, afraid the car heater must be poisonous and would kill me. Driving the rest of the hour home with my windows down, the heat turned off, and ending up with chilblains, the doctor telling me how strange it was that I had this eighteenth century malady, and my feigning confusion, How could I have gotten this?
I got an MA in counseling during those years; I got engaged during these years; I wrote the first draft of what would become my first published novel during these years; I traveled extensively. It’s easy to look back on a messed up time in our lives and say, Who was that? But many of the things I did were the things I would keep on doing for the bulk of my adult life, even after unopened packages of food and car heaters and churches looked innocuous again. Various things add up to change: a chiropractor who put me on a hypoglycemic diet, and within two weeks my anxiety issues and my breathing problems had stopped. Starting a grad program in writing, and feeling for the first time in my life that there was somewhere on the spectrum of possibilities where I might actually belong. Moving back to Chicago, and coming to grips with the city I grew up in, on new terms. Reading a shitload of books on theology, initially in an attempt to reconcile with the Catholic church, and emerging realizing that I am an atheist, and that my spiritual crises, such as they were, were always partly about trying to swallow a system that made no inherent sense to me, and my guilt over that because abandoning my religion was just one more puzzle piece of my youth I was throwing out the window of a moving car, so that I could never come together again as the person I’d once been. One day you live in a state of acute crisis, unable to walk down a crowded street without having to take off your shoes to feel the earth beneath your feet, and then it is three years later, and maybe you have just gotten too fucking exhausted to keep carrying on that way, and you just don’t do that anymore.
Do you want to die? my friend Trish asked herself alone in her car. Do you want to die?
I didn’t have to come as close to dying as she did to realize I wanted to live, but maybe it took longer.
The other day, my father, who is ninety-two, and with whom it would be accurate to say I haven’t had an in-depth conversation in years, suddenly said to me, on his return from the hospital: “All those times I used to try to get you to go outside and run around with the other girls—Jesus Christ, was I an idiot. I didn’t understand that you knew what you were doing. I didn’t understand that you were going to have a completely other kind of life I just couldn’t imagine.” His words meant more to me, even after all this time, than I maybe want to admit. And yet the truth is, I was acting blindly too. I was simply a different kind of animal than the people around me, back then. There was less “choice” involved than perhaps I wanted to tell myself. My writing and reading were less “heroic” acts of rebellion, and more simply my nature, my evolutionary survival skills, no different from the way Martha Cruz ran around the playground every day as though it were a track, or the way my best guy friend, Hector, picked endlessly at his own scabs, opening and reopening them until they scarred, biding his time until he could come out of the closet. The belief I held, back then, that I was somehow the only one who needed something different was part of an old mythology. Unhappiness in captivity doesn’t make anyone special, and maybe getting out doesn’t either. Maybe it took my father validating my choices to realize that he—by not being an addict or an abuser or a criminal; by contributing his particular genes my way—was as much a part of the pastiche of my choices as I was. Shift everything just that much to the left, and who knows where I would be now?
I am a writer now, living that “different life” neither my father nor I could imagine. I’m also a mom of three, living in the Midwest, and my life doesn’t resemble Anaïs Nin’s much more than it does the coffee clutch ladies in their housedresses from my youth. Life is a work in progress, and part of being a writer is listening to the voices from the basement. Letting them drift up to you and clearing a space at the table. Learning not to hate yourself for surviving, but not to hate the self you were to survive either. Maybe not giving up on being “special” but rather realizing that without the abiding belief each human being has inside of our own uniqueness, there could never be art, there could never be love, and that part of the fundamental task of humanity is to truly see the pieces inside those around us that make them special too. These days, I sit on planes reminding myself that the universe doesn’t care whether I’m aboard—that I’m not at the center of anything—and yet that doesn’t abdicate me from acting as though I can make some kind of difference. I still usually need a benzo to board a plane, but I’m working on that. If I never get there, that’s okay. Sometimes, we feel static for a very long time, and then suddenly, we’re somewhere else instead. Movement may not always be progress, but, like art, I’ve come to believe that it has a beauty for its own sake.
Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at the University of CA-Riverside’s low residency MFA program. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com), an international writing program. She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com.