Meeting my friend at a coffee shop I’ve never been to, I do a double take on the pastry case. Oh my god. It’s them. I’ve seen them a few times recently at middling mom and pop places in LA and it sends a shiver up my spine. I see the bars, lemon, pecan, brownie, all uniform, the size of a deck of cards and I taste ipecac in my mouth. It was twenty years ago but I can still remember timing it so that I would take the medicine right after closing so that I could throw up in the store’s sink when I locked the door. Then I could go home. I didn’t like working with other people because then I’d have to suffer through sharing a cookie with them (normal people liked to share cookies) and having to properly digest it, with only a six mile run the next day to combat the half an oatmeal. The normal girls I worked with shrugging as they chewed. My anxiety ratching up to an eleven. Trying to figure out how to undo the crime while still committing it. I didn’t like working with other people, but I faked it.
I remember how it was my job to sign for the deliveries, the big chilled boxes from the corporate dessert provider, aptly named, La Dessert. Each box, like a cold record player in my arms, as I lined them up in the back refrigerator, writing the date with my sharpie the day they arrived so we could keep them ‘fresh’ (read a month). I was in an in between time. I had returned to my parents home in La Jolla from Colorado where I was a sophomore in college and the school shrink had coolly one interview with me and said, you need to leave school, you have a severe eating disorder. My mother was not happy about it. The only eating disorder she understood was a fear of running out of things to eat. (Same coin. Different side. You learn stuff. You transmute it.)
I had dropped out of college because despite trying to stay and ‘fix myself’, as my mother had suggested (good plan- always have a nineteen year in crisis ‘fix themselves’) things had gotten worse. I tried to explain that I had lost my ability to do the normal things to be a normal person she told me I needed to stay and finish the quarter because leaving would be too costly. I am not sure if I used words to explain that I couldn’t stop exercising every time I ate half a cup of broccoli, that my period had stopped and I no longer talked to actual people because I was sure they were thinking how fat and disgusting all ninety pounds of me was, but I do know that I asked for help. I was too ashamed to say the other things plus, now I only wanted to be ninety pounds forever but it was untenable to just sweat, eat, and record, so it was confusing. But I did ask for help.
There is a little crack that happens in a person, when they ask for help, when they reach out in albeit, self inflicted destruction, and they are given a price tag on their health and sanity. It took a few beats. I kept reaching out, explaining that I couldn’t do it. I wanted to scream: I know this is insane but I can’t stop writing down calories and exercising them off. I can’t stop wanting to be zero. Please, please please, help me. But I did not. I was quiet, because those thing would be considered petty and vain and not the mental health issue they truly are. It seemed I would never be a normal person, who could eat a normal meal and accept a normal body and if you can’t have those things, then why bother? Life felt choice-less. I started dying in lots of ways.
My mother would retort that none of this would have happened if I had joined a sorority. I couldn’t tell her I was always ‘other.’ Sororities scared me, with the perfect looking girls I didn’t imagine talking about books, wearing Dickies or drawing Munch inspired pastels with Smashing Pumpkins on their discman. Maybe some did, I don’t know. But being pulled around like cattle in dresses and getting ‘party schedules’ and giant keg cups with my name paint penned on it was not for me. So I dropped forty pounds off a normal frame and speedwalked the mountains, journaling, pinching non-existent stomach all the while knowing: this is not a way to live. I lost the plot, attempted suicide, and finally, my father picked me up and delivered me to an eating disorder unit when I explained that I couldn’t cope with the basics.. My mother yelled at me on the phone, again, the expense. Guilty, I begged to be released. With my father assuming responsibility, I was sent home. A few weeks in, my mom suggested I get a job. The last place I’d worked, in high school, was a coffee bar called Café Latte. So I went there. How this was a good idea is sort of shocking.
I guess if people don’t try and step into the mottled brain that has rendered food fetishized and obsessed over, full of moral and physical implications, then it would be fine. In retrospect, given my state of mind, given my level of anxiety around food of any kind, this was just fucking stupid. Like giving an alcoholic a barback gig. I didn’t stay at the unsupervised coffeebar long. I quickly fell in love with a photographer, and got a job at a French bakery where there were lots of co-workers and barfing from self poison was essentially impossible because French people are nosy. I had a psychiatrist. I was on Prozac. I was so animated I was bouncing off the walls. But I was not getting underneath it. I was not getting to the insatiable, noxious hole that stuck in my gut. It was like a dirty chicken lived in there, peck peck pecking. Do better, be thinner, be smarter, be sexier, be richer, be funnier, be all these impossible fucking tasks that I never said a loud to the shrink my mother complained about paying for. I’d look out the window and see the ocean and think, I don’t belong here, this is for rich people. I just need to get my shit together.
My sweet kind photographer hippie boyfriend (who the night I met I just knew, was going to help me and love me. I knew I would not stay with him forever, but his kindness, his gentleness was going to be part of the fixing, and it was). Sam had a vision of us spending Christmas in Rome, so I was working at the bakery and going to the community college and saving money for it. At nineteen, making coffee was all I knew how to do. Sam begged me to stop taking Prozac. I was on it maybe five months. I stopped. Which is when my insomnia started. I’d wake up in a panic and that never fully went away. Still it seemed better than bouncing all day. Sam got me my first paid writing gig, doing music journalism for Italian magazines. Real ones. They’d send us checks and the tear sheets and I loved it. He ate cookies with me at night from the French café. He never wanted me to be skinny skinny, he wanted me to be happy. I knew he didn’t have the perfectionist gene the minute I met him which was why I chose him to be my Sherpa through this scary time. I needed a person to give me what I wasn’t yet able to give myself, which was a sort of unconditional love I couldn’t muster.
We talked about Christmas in Rome while eating the cookies, I got chubby, but it was okay. He was the first person I felt safe with. And somehow, this was more restorative than the Prozac or the psychiatrist with the long straight ironed hair and the fake nails and the ocean view who suggested I spend a semester abroad, for a change of pace. (My mom didn’t want to pay for this session much less a semester a broad and I just can’t work that many coffee hours right now, I’d think, frustrated).
So it was funny the other day, when I recognized those damn snacks that tortured me so much. The fear, the defense, the desire to hurt oneself, it all feels so far away. Like I don’t know who that poor girl is. I don’t know what chemical thing was happening in her brain that led her to poisoning herself all the time. I just stand there, twenty years later, shocked. Once they were a place to hold it all, the self loathing, the fear, the anxiety. It doesn’t matter if it’s gin, or fudge, or glass cat figures, or fucking strangers, using has nothing to do with ‘it’ and everything to do with the dirty bird pecking your insides. I have felt the low lows. I have felt the non stop tidal wave of sadness so deep it only seemed rational that an ‘ending’ would cure. It was a lie. But it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt truer than anything. Which is why I learned to stop believing my own thoughts. I borrowed some of Sam’s (‘you’re beautiful however’), I borrowed some of Wayne Dyer’s (‘if you only knew who walked with you, you would never be afraid’), I borrowed some yoga teachers (to hurt yourself is to hurt God, as you are part of God, so your thoughts of self hatred are unholy- oh this was BIG, is a higher power that preferred I didn’t shit on myself? Wow. ). I borrowed in alanon, in friends, in all sorts of places that I had to look for. I had to look. And for me, what kept came back was understanding that if I could not have compassion for myself, I could do nothing. Growing up in my house, my mom talked a lot about original sin. This repeated rumbling that we are all bad, us humans, and we must beg for forgiveness. I had never learned that I was inherently a good girl. The constant apologizing for existing, for desire, for humanity ceased making sense. So I gave it back.
Every once in a while, I still say it to myself when I get scared, “Sweetie, you’re a good girl.” It never ceases to throw me a little bit. As if, how could that possibly be true? But it is. Even on the days when I massively figuratively shit the bed. I am forgiven. As for my mom, I’d like to think her desire to offer the world a charming college educated child no matter the emotional cost came from the same place my desire to be nearly invisible came from. An inability to recognize the sea of possibilities, in life, love and shape. An inability to recognize the bitter taste control leaves in one’s mouth and instead, savor compassion.