By Sophie Dickinson
(Trigger Warning: eating disorders)
“And there’s a / turbulent, moonridden girl / or old woman, or both, / dressed in opals and rags, feathers / and torn taffeta, / who knows strange songs– / but she is not kind.” - Denise Levertov, “In Mind”
At seventeen, feeling small in a world that still seemed to be running out of space for me, I made a resolution and began counting. I attempted to replace the torrent of teenage angst with a meticulous internal bookkeeping:
How many calories in?
How many calories burned?
How many good foods? (The more nearly-nonexistent green leaves, the better.)
How many bad foods? If the number is greater than two or the calories equal more than 100 per serving, double the number and add it to “How many calories need to be burned to effectively erase the bad calories?”
What number does the scale say today? (Please check at least morning and evening.)
What number is on the tag of that pair of jeans? Please use the extra space to take note of how they fit. Remember: the looser the better.
Counting became one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It consumed some part of every thought, interest, movement, visual. It ticked back and forth endlessly, the way old timetables at airport or bus terminals would. Tick, tick, tick. I began to wonder how many bad numbers were ticked away just by breathing, or with that extra trip up the stairs and back. I relished the image of them ticking steadily away as I started my second bike ride of the day before my ballet class.
While that ticking back and forth brought me some satisfaction, I also began experiencing a visceral and intense hate for the monster-Me that caved in to things I’d forbidden, and a corresponding succulent pride in the Me that resisted her. Monster-Me was frightening, a hungry, indulgent creature who seemed to take delight in puppeteering my irritable fits of rage, my waves of depression, my frustrated bouts of self-gratification. When monster-Me won, I’d feel nauseous, angry, like a repulsive creature that needed to thrust a curved black claw through me, crack my flimsy sternum, and rip myself through my own soft, sun-starved belly. That was who I wanted to starve, to shrink, to weaken until she wasn’t to be thought of anymore.
“It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
My mother, like many well-meaning mothers of 17-year-old girls, cautiously presented me with this maxim in cupped hands, as if aware of the blue-skinned, clawed monster-Me that was ravenous and seething under the surface of my irritable, iron-deficient eyes. But that would be impossible–if anyone knew of this strange creature that would be such a silly thing to say. She was otherworldly and haunting, unbridled to the point that it frightened me. She could seeth with unrestrained contempt, wail with pain and grief like a banshee, and the more I starved her the more powerful these things became. I hated her, and I had no idea how to displace her, which I contemplated daily standing naked in front of a mirror and digging my nails into my skin. If I couldn’t cast her out, I could at least polish and preen the outside until it was without fault. No one would feel the need to remind me that oh, most people won’t notice those flaws anyway. I could be exempt from that–people would look at me and be so in awe they wouldn’t even care to look deep enough to glimpse the monster growling with rage beneath.
Tick, tick, tick.
The glorious diminishing seemed to keep time with the pedals of my bike as I breezed down the bike trail one Iowa summer. I felt the power in my thighs as they plunged, one then the other, towards the ground. My core was consciously tightened, reining in that strange, wild creature who grew more ravenous and livid by the day.
It had been a good day–it was unseasonably pleasant out, and I’d taken advantage of that and added an extra mile to my bike ride, noting how much easier it was and feeling a cautious blush of pride. I failed to note, however, how strong the wind at my back was; I made my U-turn to backtrack the trail home and was hit with a gust of summer air cutting across the flat cornfields. I felt my heartbeat pulse double-time to the sound of the pedals, feeling the muscle strain spread from my inner thigh and snake down my leg. The quietly humming summer cornfields began to turn into cookie cutter suburban houses and yards full of sprinklers and swingsets. And there it was–the end of the trail, shimmering in the strengthening summer heat. I breathed a gratified sigh as I finally stopped pedaling and waited to cross the street.
And then, once across, my legs seemed to weigh a hundred pounds each. My feet began slipping off the pedals. My breath became ragged and the sun seemed to be shining too bright for me to see anything. I thought I could hear the monster-Me beginning to wail in protest.
I got off the bike before I fully passed out, crouched on a shady curb with my legs shaking and stomach churning. I was only a few blocks from home, but the thought of using my legs to get back made monster-Me writhe and shriek–she seemed to grab a hold of my stomach and begin twisting it in her strong, clawed hands. I grabbed my phone and dialed my mother, hoping she was still at home. “I need you to come and get me,” I croaked hoarsely. I told her where I was and hung up before she could ask any uncomfortable questions–I felt like any probing would make me surrender again to the haze of unconsciousness lingering in my peripheral vision.
My mother wore a baffled, concerned expression when she pulled up to the curb and put my bike in the van, while I climbed in and tried to maintain consciousness. I wasn’t sure if her expression and accompanying silence was worse than if she just asked me what the hell was going on and what happened and why are you so pale and throwing up out the car window and what did I ever do to you to make you want to do this to yourself.
At home I laid on the couch and stared into space while I tried to ignore feeling the long side glances from my family members as they walked through the room. Monster-Me still gripped my stomach, but she was weeping. Her home that she tried so valiantly to defend and care for was my shrinking flesh, the vessel that I tried to polish and decorate according to anyone else’s desires but hers, mine. It had become lifeless, impersonable, and not my own except for this monster-Me’s stubborn animalistic grip.
Standing in front of the mirror recently, I recalled this period of my young adulthood, traced back the patterns of yearning for even some pantomime of love, which drove me to contemptuously other my own voice and shape the outside into something ratified and unobjectionable. I had repressed and demonized my own self into a hungry, vindictive terror. Today across my skin are tattooed images from the poems and words and life experiences that fed her hunger–her wild rage, joy, sorrow, and sense of justice. Now I can trace her reclaimed home, her own independent sense of beauty and joy in the flowers, creatures, and stars inked into my soft, fed skin.
About the Writer
Sophie (she/her) is a poet and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She has had work published in Labyrinth Anthologies, Beyond the Veil Press, Seaglass Literary, and Querencia Press. She uses poetry and writing as a therapeutic tool for herself and a way to learn the stories of those around her. Her own work attempts to bridge the emotional to the visceral, and explore the ways our emotional and mental lives are embodied in the physical world.