I miss the hunger.
Hunger focuses your thoughts the way a lens focuses light. It gives you a raw clarity that you can’t find anywhere else.
Staring at the empty page, the blinking cursor and the dwindling battery of my laptop, I miss it more than ever. I can’t find the words anymore, let alone choose the right ones. Does the wind whip through the trees, biting and cold, or does it thrash like something half-drowned? Does the water wash calmly over the shore, or does it lap like a dog’s tongue?
This is a side effect of recovery. I can’t rely on the ache in my belly for inspiration anymore. I can’t starve my brain until it croaks out the answers I’m looking for. I have to find them in myself somehow.
It’s been a long, long time. I was too weak to write in the hospital with a feeding tube up my nose and an IV taped to my hand. At Mangrove Recovery Center, I never had the time. Climbing walls, meditation and art therapy filled every hour. There wasn’t even time to think.
“You’ll find your spark again,” Leo says to me this morning. “You’ve just got to get back on that horse.” He tells me I should write about myself; about what’s happened to me and how I came back stronger. “People love that feel-good junk. Trust me.”
But every time I start, my heart races and my hands shake. How can I write about brittle clumps of hair falling into the sink? How can I write about eroded, yellow teeth, burned into popcorn kernels by my own stomach acids? How can I explain the manic moments where I estimated my weight by the volume of creaking floorboards when I wasn’t allowed a scale? Or the screech of a spoon against the bottom of a choked-down bowl of oatmeal? It all feels too personal and too real.
I miss when words would spring up effortlessly. I miss when writing was an escape from the past, rather than an archaeological dig into the worst moments of my life.
Osteoporosis isn’t reserved for the elderly. Years of self-starvation has turned my bones into glass. If I trip on the stairs, I can break my femur. Every stubbed toe is an excruciating fracture. And then there’s always the risk that one day, my joints will buckle and collapse in on themselves.
When I’m in too much pain, Leo carries me up the stairs, careful not to squeeze too tight and dislocate a rib. I pretend I’m an old lady: “C’mon, sonny! Carry yer old Granny up to bed!”
I feel old, but without the wisdom. The hairs in the middle of my head have broken from their follicles like dead leaves from a branch, leaving a chasm where I used to part my hair. I have to wear it asymmetrically now, with hair combed over the bald spot. What woman wants to go bald before her husband?
The worst part is that, unlike age, this could have been prevented. If I hadn’t started restricting, binging, purging, cycling. If I hadn’t tried to fold myself in half over and over like a piece of paper until I almost disappeared, everything would be different.
At the vertex of everything, I was taking eight medications. Now it’s only four. They don’t make medications for bulimia, but there are some helpful side effects. Olanzapine, which is meant to treat schizophrenia, increases your appetite. Calcium and Estrogen tablets strengthen brittle bones. Topiramate is an anticonvulsant that stops you from binging and purging somehow, and sometimes makes people go blind.
Perhaps the reason I’m lacking inspiration is that my life has become stiff and uncreative. Everything is a massive equation: calories, dosages, pounds and ounces that must be perfectly balanced. This is a side effect too: recovery makes you aware of all the numbers that preside over your health.
As I stray from my creative pursuits, I find myself more in tune with the mathematical foundations of life. My emotions are parabolic. I can plot their slopes and vertices. Sometimes I dream in oscillating sine waves, in crests and troughs.
The only thing I don’t understand is Zero. It is impossible to see and impossible to reach. How do you get to Zero? How can something become nothing?
Sometimes I cut my fig bar in half with the side of my fork. Then I cut the half in half, repeating this again and again until I’m splitting a tiny crumb. I’ve never found Zero, and I have no proof that such a thing exists.
After breakfast, my stomach bloats out like a balloon and I have to unbutton my jeans. I pull my shirt up and rub my hands over the hard rubber ball of my belly. I always imagined I’d be pregnant someday. Sometimes I can even feel a fetus squirming around like a phantom limb, even though I know I’m as empty as the blank screen in front of me.
I drum my fingers randomly across the keyboard, as if the letters will sort themselves into words. The frustration of failure always ebbs in: failure to produce, failure to reproduce, failure to finish anything I’ve started.
At Mangrove, the word failure was strictly forbidden. If you had a bad day, they’d call it a hiccup or a blip. I remember Dr. Sweeney drawing a big, round arc on the whiteboard. “What goes up, must come down,” he would say. “What matters is that you get up again.”
By evening, the curve of my belly flattens, and the fantasy of motherhood dwindles with it. How can I even dream of it when I could shatter so easily in Leo's lustful hands? And how could life grow in such a bleak habitat, scorched by angry acids and always on the verge of breaking? The burden of your own sterility isn’t an easy one to bear. It hangs in the periphery of everything you do, waiting to spring out of the shadows when you least expect it and kick you in the gut. An intimate touch on the hips can send me spiraling, remembering what will never root and sow between them.
What goes up, must come down. The phrase itself is an arc, rising in the middle and dropping on the ends. At its peak, between the subject and predicate, there’s a pause.
I try to center myself on that moment. The stillness of the apogee, the fraction of space and time between going up and coming down. I remember once, getting to my feet on sore, wobbly knees, hunger whipping--no--thrashing inside of me, and feeling that pause. No trajectory, no movement, just me sitting still on the crest of my illness and looking down with complete clarity. It’s like the moment on a roller coaster when the cart stops climbing and the track stops clicking like a wind-up toy and there is nowhere to go but down.
I miss the hunger. I crave the vertex. All of the thrill is contained in that instant of stillness before the nauseating plunge. But the feeling can’t last forever. Eventually you have to take the plunge. I take a deep, shaky breath, hold it, let it go, and begin to write.