I'm Not Quite There Yet but Here's the Best I Can Do

by Grace Mazzucchi

 

Years ago, when the web was still the web and did not yet have the technical proficiency to resemble real life, when I still sat my baby-fat hips down each night to log on, the long succession of dial-up tones that didn’t feel long, back then, they felt good, like a placid introduction, a slow-stroke buildup to the adrenaline rush I looked forward to all day—I met a 19-year-old bulimic in a LiveJournal community.

 

She called herself Mina and in all her Myspace photos she wore dark brown lipstick with her cropped black hair, eyes lined soulfully with kohl. From the snippets I could glean online, her parents, from Iran, seemed fairly loving and westernized, but she told me they were horrible, full of venom, restricting her clothes, her friends, her taste in music. Sometimes she threw up six times a day.

 

im tired of feeliking lik this, she told me during our first or second chat. I don’t remember exactly what she typed, but it must have been something like that. I remember her fragmented, internet chatspeak; how intimate it felt, how broken. my parents hav no idea who i am i feel lik i want to die. but mayb this is what rly living feels like-

 

Oh, how deeply she felt! I was in seventh grade but I told her I was 15 and she said she was impressed by my maturity, how I was able to perceive pain so intimately. I marveled at her adult breasts, her dark clothes, the way she was able to externalize all of her inward pains online. To me, she was the height of sophistication, and, secretly, without her knowing, I oiled and ironed my own hair to cover my own eyes, stole my mother’s darkest lipstick. She never saw a photo of me.

 

I added Mina on AIM and every night I logged on hoping to find her status active, clicking frantically between her username, her Myspace, her LiveJournal, refresh, refresh, refresh. When she did arrive, my heart leapt. I was always the first to IM. We talked about surface things, a kind of foreplay—our parents, our dogs, the misunderstanding teachers—that I was eager to thrust through, to the dark meat of her inner self –her days full of starving, how the emptiness felt better than anything; the feasts she fantasized all day and the quick relief of giving in: the donuts eaten in hiding; noodles or beef stew; three bagels; a quart of milk to soften it all, the rush of emptying out afterwards.

 

For months, we spent hours like this each night, sucking at each other’s pain through the digital window. She gave me a crash course on everything I needed to descend into my own illness: how to fill yourself with cold water, how fidgeting burned more of yourself away, how to throw up. Tips for fooling classmates into thinking you’d eaten; for hiding food under car seats, bags of vomit zip-tied behind the laundry machine or stuffed into boots, a day or so before the stomach acid ate through the plastic.

 

 

The online relationship fizzled out gradually—I stopped logging on as often, preferring, as I became wrapped in my own illness, to descend into the interiority of myself. And she had never been one to reach out to begin with.

 

I still followed her LiveJournal and her Myspace obsessively, over-invested in the story of her life, but the posts became increasingly inconsistent until eventually she stopped posting there, too.

As we stopped interacting, her physicality faded into memory until she became only an idea to me—hair, knuckles, collarbone; the downy lanugo she rejoiced over; a pockmarked face slathered with oily foundation—all of it becoming smooth and otherworldly in memory. In the absence of words, I turned to her image, spending hours studying her photos, memorizing every hair and freckle, every stupid tree or bricked building in the background, until each time I looked at a photo it invoked all the things I’d felt and heard the last time I’d seen it, until each image, while on the surface a representation of her, actually evoked a depiction of some other, past self.

 

 

For 11 years after we met, I threw up three or four times a day, often more.

 

Mostly, I lived with it and was, at least outwardly, fine. I excelled, even. I performed cello concertos and got into a "good" school and got a "good" job in New York, and, aside from a brief outpatient program and a few worried looks, at no point did anyone pull me seriously aside. It was easier to ignore.

 

I am ashamed of the waste of it, all those beautiful, buoyant years spent trying to dig through my stomach to its honest, perfect self—a self that may not even exist.

 

It’s not her fault. But it angers me now to think about all the time wasted relishing pain, fantasizing lankiness instead of going forward in the world and doing something with myself. I think about it often, but even now, the thinking feels too slow—an extension of the wasted time—and I click out of the thought before I’ve had the time to fully comprehend.

 

I wish someone kind would have sat me down back then and told me, Listen, it will all be FINE. U will never hav as much time as you do now, so many healthy years stretching out before u. You will never be this nimble or pore-less, your body never this unseen, &—while u cannot understand this now—ur body will never be this much yours.

 

But I forget what it is to be 13. Back then, I was so uncertain of myself, of being a woman in the world, that I believed to suffer was the only way to exist.

 

 

Im scared to post these pics, but here goes. Progress update. Left is pre-ana, summer 2005. Right is this morning. Excuse the underwear it was laundry day xD

 

Net cals is life!

 

I need to stop making such shit excuses. Starting tomorrow I’m fasting for the next three days. No excuses.

 

Do you trust your scale? personally, i don't always, or it's more like i'm always a bit suspicious that it's not telling my real weight. I have two that I basically trust so I check the one against the other. If there's too much of a gap, I split the difference.

 

Can we also add to this post: constipation can make you "gain" several pounds. But it's not "real." If you don't poop for five days, you have five days worth of food in your gut. And five days worth of food can weigh several pounds. Example: me. I ate 500+ calories below my BMR yesterday, but I weight 1.6lbs MORE this morning than yesterday. Why? I haven't gone number 2 in a few days now, so I'm full of food/poo. (And probably a little water retention from the salt in what I ate.) it bothers me immensely to have "gained" but I know it can't possibly be "real."

 

My parents found out and they’ve been making me eat TONS at every meal. theyre even thinking of putting me in an inpatient program- anyone had this happen before? is it possible to keep cals under 600 while in a program?

 

Ok, so. Out of those of us who purge, the majority do it via puking (as opposed to lax abuse or exercise). And a lot of us (myself included) have probably considered, if not actually tried, using ipecac or some other form of emetic. However, because ipecac is bottled and is commonly used for medical purposes (i.e. if someone has been poisoned) there is a common stigma that it's safe, or at least safer than purging, right? Wrong! When using a substance like this, it will force vomiting. This means that the actual action is much more violent, and is much more likely to cause problems, such as a tear in the stomach lining, esophagus rupture, and problems with the heart and lungs. This on it's own, is reason enough to not use an emetic, right? If that isn't enough for some of you to stay far away from emetics, here's where it gets even more dangerous. These substances induce vomiting by forcing your body to completely empty the contents of your stomach, involuntarily. You will vomit until the vomit is done. So, say you're purging with your hands, and you see blood. You can immediately stop triggering the gag reflex and call 911. However, if you are using an emetic to purge, and see blood in your vomit, YOU. CAN. NOT. STOP. You will continue to vomit, regardless of how you try to stop. When this happens with the use of an emetic, it is nearly always fatal. It's not a fun way to go either.

 

Hi can anyone tell me if this is bad? The cut is deep and I’m not sure what to do about it. Hasn’t stopped bleeding yet, but I put some pressure on it and I think it’s starting to slow down. Feeling so hopeless. And please no nasty comments, sick motherfuckers. I’m attaching a pic.

 

I liked this guy named Alex and I still do but yeah. I waited all summer to see him again in 7th grade. I noticed how skinny he was. My friend made a joke about him being anorexic and it made me think, well maybe I should be anorexic too. Over winter break, I started weighing myself every day and tried to see how long I could go without food. I lost 6 pounds. I started noticing that I was losing weight and loved the results. My goal is still to be skinnier than Alex. Alex is actually skinnier than most people. He does baseball, soccer, and football. I noticed that we were becoming closer and closer friends and he might like me back. My goal weight is 85. I'm eating less than 600 calories a day (my limit), around 116 calories and I'm continuing to lose weight. "I'm not hungry" are the only 3 words I say to my parents and friends. One of my friends, Chloe, told me she only eats every other Friday as a part of her modeling contract. Maybe if I try this, I will become skinny. Maybe only drinking coffee, water, diet Pepsi, or the air diet. Yea so that was my story, add me. btw my highest weight was 148 lbs and I'm currently 129 lbs. also, Alex isn't anorexic, he's just underweight.

 

 

Some days now, I throw up over and over and over and over and I get so sick and dizzy of it I curl up into myself on the hard floor and hold myself there frozen for hours. I pick at my skin and my hair and it is a way to parse time—a way to say, "After I pull out this hair, I will move on to my real and better self," and then, "Ah, that root wasn’t good, but after this next hair I will find a good root and eat it and then move on to my real and better self," and then, "After this next hair with a fat root with a little blood at the end—my favorite, as it reveals a certain richness to the scalp—I will move on to my real and better self," until it is hours later and there is a fresh bald spot and a little blood on the wall and a thousand coarse hairs on the ground next to me, a shedding animal.

 

Other days I am fine. I eat green tea and oranges and my body unfurls; relaxes. I rub castor oil into my puckered scalp and then I clip in the hair piece I bought from a woman in a hidden Turtle Bay studio whom I was originally too anxious to visit, but who made me cry the first time I saw her because she kept telling me, I see you, I see you. She saw me. Then she took $850 from me for a human hair piece so that no one else would see. But she saw me. "I hope you don’t need it for this long, but it will last you years," she said, cutting bangs into the hair so it would look more natural. I cried from relief and she gave me a $170 discount. "I wish I could do more," she said. She had a baby at home, a stay-at-home husband on a ranch that she filled with rescue farm animals. Before I left, she wrapped a Styrofoam head in plastic bags in case a passerby wondered what I was holding, and for what. I walked the 45 minutes home in the dark, the head in my arms, stark white.

 

 

How can I tell you the genesis of my body without asking you to first live my entire life again, from the beginning, in the order in which it happened to me? Without looking into the faces of every hard man I was brought up to worship and every soft woman I was raised to love?

 

When will I no longer be dragging my body around but inhabiting it, as an equal?

 

 

There was this girl who constantly pretended to fall in public. I watched her videos on YouTube. She fell in supermarket aisles, in office lobbies, on an ocean boardwalk. In the comments, people called her hilarious. They said things like "hilarious antics!" They used the crying emoji, the funny one. The first video of hers that I watched—the one I keep watching—has been viewed over 134,000 times. It’s probably more now. I think about it more than I watch it.

 

Other people were angry. They commented things like "wow this is dangerous" or "this girl should stop her sick, ridiculous behavior!!"

 

She was vaguely internet-famous and had a whole cache of other comedic videos and for a long time I wanted to write to her, not to tell her she was hilarious or to tell her I thought she was hot or brave, but because I wanted her to know that I knew that desire—that I could see how she’d want someone to catch her falling form, to guide her by the wrists, the elbows, something small and bony, toward safer ground.

 

 

Do you remember that Kate Moss heroin chic look? I remember it very well. It was what I fed on; what I was raised on. I remember a particular magazine photo, a Dolce & Gabbana ad: Powder-white women in flowing, vaguely French dynastic dresses, clutching at each other’s throats, long knives and little silver guns scattered in their skirts. I loved those skinny, white heroines—their perfect, beautiful grief. From them, I cemented my knowledge of suffering as a fulfillment of some moral, fundamental duty that was larger than myself—some requisite of womanhood extended from the universe itself.

 

 

The first time my father finds out, he says to me, "You do it because you want to be like the rich girls at school, don’t you, sweetie," and when I look up into his face I can see very plainly that he knows me fully and that he does not know me at all. He might be the only person to know me this completely.

 

 

I had a coworker who is Sabbath observant. She still works there. She works from home on Fridays and spends the day preparing—doing laundry, cleaning, roasting vegetables for dinner. She logs off the company work chat at 4pm, turns off her computer, her cell phone, her Kindle, lights candles at the little table by the kitchen. Good friends come to her apartment, family members. The have chosen to live close to each other for this reason. They walk to each other’s homes in the waning light and light more candles. They bring pre-cooked food and eat it together. They bless each other with red wine and roasted root vegetables.

 

I’ve never experienced it, but this is what happens, she tells me. And it is a beautiful story. But sometimes it grows dark early on a Friday, and I imagine her sitting quietly with herself, the measured breath, completely content with the body swelling and falling, in its own way, to meet some higher, more fundamental expectation that she cannot see but accepts unconditionally, and I wonder if I will ever learn to do the same.

 

 

I visited my seventh grade English teacher a few years ago when she moved in to a new house—a downsize to a kind of condo community. She was an eccentric older woman who loved snails and yoga and creamy and expensive clothing, and throughout high school she’d often left magazine clippings for me featuring a certain cellist or writer that had made her think of me. She listed herself as an "Episcopalian Buddhist" on Facebook.

 

That day, sitting in her new, little living room amongst the scattered boxes in various states of unpack, she served us tea and gifted me several expensively framed paintings that she said she no longer had room for. I felt as if she were preparing for another life, to become another woman entirely. She barely touched the snacks she’d laid out, instead sipping a Diet Coke.

 

I don’t recall the exact tone or context, but somewhere in the conversation, she said something to the effect of, "If I’m good all day, I let myself eat two squares of dark chocolate before bed." I remember she smiled sweetly and also that she crystallized for me then, as no woman has crystallized for me again. She became no longer a hazy figure, but a sharp point: a jewel, bright and focused and hard. I gathered her into my eyes, trying to bore through her—it felt crucial that I see through to her source, so that I might avoid the same fate. And then: her hair moved across her face as she bent down—maybe she was pouring more tea, or shifting a plate, or patting my hand—and her body took on a shape that felt both deeply familiar and shocking to me. I realized then that it’s not the vulva or the clitoris or the slenderer cartilage around the voice box, or even the hysteria or the breasts or the perfectly ironed hair, but this shape—something like bending, ever-striving toward the light—that makes one female.

 

 

My first year in New York, too many days I woke in an unfamiliar room on a stiff couch or some sweat-filled bed, the rank air of someone else’s breath next to mine. Strange plants against the window; dirty, unfamiliar shoes. Always freezing, a slight ringing in my ears. I picked myself up then and took the L to Union Square and walked to Chinatown, where I wandered the streets all morning, taking in the grease and the smoke and the fruit and the Chinese, putting myself back together again. Inevitably, I ended up at a little cash-only Cantonese diner, where I ordered dim sum for three or four before purging in a single-stall closet bathroom that had just enough space between the door and the toilet for my knees.

 

One morning, as a waiter led me to a back table shared with two other families, a woman rushed after me. Your shirt!, she said. The back of mine was unzipped, completely open. It was a forest-green silk top and it had looked very good the night before, but now my body was swollen with alcohol and exhaustion—you could see the impression of my belly button through the silk. She had a mother’s worry. I went to the bathroom to zip it, saw thumb-sized bruises along my spine. Peeling pants down to pee revealed a tenderness on my thigh, a dark bruise spreading there, more running down my shin. I remembered falling the night before, vaguely, over a short rail, but mostly I do not remember. I remember stumbling around in the cold dark gleefully, climbing into one damp bar after another, thrilling to his hand at the small of my back. I remember gasping myself awake, the white light of that morning pouring in across my shoulders, shocked that I could be so alive, before becoming aware again of my body, the sharp aches and cuts and a deeper, stretched-out feeling, looking down to find myself naked and vomit-stained. And him, next to me, startled, and then afraid and cruelly protesting, though I did not realize it at the time. I remember I ate not quite reservedly but not emphatically, either, and afterwards I didn’t make myself throw up, instead I starved for three days on lemons and coffee. At the time, it was the greatest kindness I could afford.

 

 

 

I keep thinking about this one scene from Girl, Interrupted—the dancing trees scene. In that part, the patients—all slender, all pale—move as their dance instructor guides them through the motions. "Let your arms be the branches," she sings. "Reach, reach, all the way up into the sky."

 

Partway through the class, the girls see, through the metal lattice on the windows, another patient being released, embracing what appear to be her parents and getting in to a car to be transported back outside to the waiting world. One girl, seeing this, begins to scream. "That’s not fair, that’s not fair. 74 is the perfect weight," she cries before collapsing to the ground, sobbing into the sleeves of her soft, pink sweater.

 

I remember watching that scene in high school, in my fourth or fifth viewing of the movie, and wondering, even then, why the writers wrote the script that way, for whom this patient was supposed to be performing. If she truly believed in 74, she’d pretend to get better, get released, get back down to 74, come back to the psych ward, do it over again. Or she’d be on the feeding tube, having exhausted every act in her power to resist nourishment.

 

If I had a goal weight, I’d write it down privately, guard it from the world. It would be my sweetest secret.

 

 

The girls in the hospital with me—the ones who were truly sick—didn’t perform their pain for anyone. They were always the quietest. They held their suffering close to them like a tiny doll—some precious, suckling thing, kept warm at the breast.

 

 

I’m tired of the problem being common, of thinking I’ll shock someone with my revelation, only for them to say that it’s happened to them, too.

 

I’m tired of thinking that commonness means that it’s not that bad.

 

I’m tired of justifying to myself—my doctors, my friends, my boyfriend, my father, strangers, the internet—that my pain is real, that it’s real, its source and its rendering. I’m tired of being told that I can choose to be happy.

 

 

I tried, about a year ago, to log in to my old AIM account, wondering if she’d be there, waiting and silent. It was the first time I’d tried to log on in years, and I’d forgotten the password; the recovery email is a middle school account that no longer exists. Effective December 15, I recently discovered, the thing itself was discontinued. The possibility of connection—of finding her within some datacenter or cable stretching across an ocean floor—entirely disappeared.

 

I will never speak to Mina again. The only Mina I know is the one she rendered for me in those few months, and so forever she stays for me like that—Mina starving, Mina cutting herself on the wrist and thigh, Mina throwing up a bag of sesame bagels, the dark lipstick smudged over her knuckles and the angry, cropped hair greasy in her eyes.

 

But Mina exists in real life, too.

 

She will be in her 30s now, the beginnings of crow’s feet. It is Friday, maybe. She is writing at a table, little notepad by her wrist. A scrawled-out to-do list, some receipts. The sun settles then and she looks up at it in the big bay windows in front of her—a red ball loosening. I can see birds outside the window—crows and sparrows, little hummingbirds and blue jays, even, at the feeder. One of them opens its mouth, but the windows are thick—an expensive, energy-efficient kind—and I cannot hear what it says. Then, as if signaled by them, Mina clicks out of the browser, closes her laptop, turns off her phone, the iPad. One by one, walking through each room of the little house, she turns off lights, leaving the doors open to face the darkening halls. She comes to rest on a couch and, though she does not know it and I do not know it, I am becoming her, we are becoming one person. Even after all these years, it comes easily. The room darkens and we are left increasingly alone with ourselves, the quiet breath. We hold ourselves there and as the night deepens, it becomes increasingly unclear as to what we are waiting for, whether what we are holding is merely a body or my whole, uncompromised self.


Vivian Ludford is a writer, cellist and artist living in Austin, Texas. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories, and her fiction can be found in Narrative Magazine.

This column is edited by Bindu Bansinath and Sophia Richards. Click here to learn more about submitting your own material.

Illustration by Grace Mazzucchi. You can see her work here, and contact her at gracemazzucchi@gmail.com

These essays are a result of countless, unpaid hours of labor, which you enjoy free of charge. You can show your appreciation and help put food on the table by sending a donation. Even a dollar will do.

Vivian Ludford