“And so I went through the looking glass, stepped into the netherworld, where up is down and food is greed, where convex mirrors cover the walls, where death is honor and flesh is weak. It is ever so easy to go. Harder to find your way back.” — Marya Hornbacher
I remember in my youth (?) — it always feels bizarrely pretentious to refer to one’s youth at 26, much like Hornbacher having the unabashed chutzpah to write a memoir about anything at age 22 — the “in” work of nonfiction amongst the with whom I went to high school (I am a Catholic, albeit a sh-tty one who has periodically come full circle from periods of half-assed piety to periods of lapsed agnosticism and back again) was Josh Harris’s pro-courtship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. For the sake of brevity, I will refrain from literary criticism of this work, except to say that Harris raises some legitimate points, using his then-It-Boy status to condemn a cultural paradigm of casual/disposable everything and encouraging romantic relationships to be purposeful in their intent. I first read the book at thirteen at the height of its popularity, and I remember Harris making one analogy which has remained with me ever afterwards:
Building well sometimes means first tearing down. Recently my dad and my younger brother Joel attended a birthday party for Stephen Taylor, one of Joel’s best friends. It was a very special occasion. Stephen was turning thirteen, and his dad wanted to make Stephen’s entrance into young adulthood memorable. Nice presents wouldn’t suffice; Stephen’s dad wanted to impart wisdom. To accomplish this, he asked fathers to come with their sons to the party and to bring a special gift — a tool that served them in their specific lines of work. Each father gave his tool to Stephen along with its accompanying life lesson for the “toolbox” of principles Stephen would carry into life.
During the gift giving, a father who was a professional home builder handed Stephen a small box. “Inside that box is the tool I use the most,” he said. Stephen opened it and found a nail puller. “My nail puller, simple as it might seem,” the father explained, “is one of the most important tools I have.” This father told the story of how once, while in the middle of building a wall, he discovered that it was crooked. Instead of halting the construction and undoing a little work to fix the wall, he decided to proceed, hoping that the problem would go away as he continued to build. However, the problem only worsened. Eventually, at a great loss of materials and time, he had to tear down the nearly completed wall and totally rebuild it. “Stephen,” the father said gravely, “times will come in life when you’ll realize you’ve made a mistake. At that moment, you have two choices: you can swallow your pride and ‘pull a few nails,’ or you can foolishly continue your course, hoping the problem will go away. Most of the time the problem will only get worse. I’m giving you this tool to remind you of this principle: When you realize you’ve made a mistake, the best thing you can do is tear it down and start over.
The undoing of a thing is vastly more difficult than doing it right the first time around. And sometimes pulling a few nails would have saved me a lot of effort in the long run. I “make mistakes like the next man,” to borrow a phrase from Dumbledore; “in fact, being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” So correspondingly huger, in fact, that the undoing thereof tends to less closely resemble the tearing down of a wall and more closely resemble the unraveling of a Gordian knot designed to make a Boy Scout cry.
Do anything for 11 years and then attempt to quit cold-turkey; the very act of stopping is more difficult than mapping the human genome on a Commodore 64, becomes a brutal and death-defying act of the will all its own. Whether your obsession of choice is stamp-collecting, crack cocaine, or supporting a six-cups-a-day coffee habit, the very routine itself — the familiarity — becomes a cold comfort, a safety net that strangulates. It has often been noted that girls who develop eating disorders and other comorbid addictions tend to be the same girls that have always been categorized as Brave, Independent, Self-Sufficient, right from the very get-go. I remember having a curious idea as a kid that Satan lived in my closet (Scrupulosity? Catholic guilt? Parents who let me watch Roman Polanski movies one too many times? I have no idea, but I do know the 1941 movie The Devil and Daniel Webster and the Wishbone episode of Faust both gave me weeks of restless nights as I lay awake wondering if it was possible to accidentally sell one’s soul to the devil), but yet despite these oddly specific fears I didn’t sleep with a nightlight, my stuffed animals (although numerous) were largely decorative, and never once in my life have I owned a security blanket. (Linus from Peanuts, in fact, has always been my least favorite character for that very reason.) Bring on the demons — I would fend them off with my irresistible girlish charm and my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-acquired martial arts skills.
I am known for many vices, but cowardice is not one of them.
So it is not altogether surprising that we, having denied ourselves the right to our childhood fears, latch hold of these misguided security mechanisms in adulthood. Boys, booze, and bulimia may have been my three-headed Cerberus over the years, but to give credit where credit is due, they saved me all the while they were killing me. Addictions form a paper-thin protective layer between you and the world around you. They enable you, however briefly, to cope, to feel normal, to just freaking deal the way everyone else around you manages to do without chemical or edible assistance. “It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained,” writes Hornbacher of her eating disorder. “And in the end of course, you find it is doing quite the opposite.” Never do I feel more paradoxically invincible than when I am demolishing the entire contents of my refrigerator (the Great Uncooked-Brownie-Batter-Pickles-and-Kidney-Beans binge of 2007 was particularly memorable) and washing it down with a bottle of Bacardi. The blackouts on the bathroom floor, the half-remembered ambulance rides, the shaking hands of a palsied eighty-year-old, the muscles crying out in anguish at years of abuse, the brain set loose upon itself in a devouring fit of madness — all these seem inconsequential, for in the moment the combined effects of solid and liquid courage (in a caged match, I could probably triumph over the Bacardi but not the brownie batter) seems your own personal Armor of Achilles: impenetrable. You are Okay. You are untouchable. You can almost hear the “Super Mario Brothers” invincibility-star theme song playing in your head as you rip up the back of your throat with your fingernails.
If you’re so Okay, then why are you crying?
I said in the moment. These are important words to the addict. All we know is the moment. All we operate in is the moment. Addiction can practically be defined as short-term satisfaction with long-term consequences. The idea that one can act opposite to one’s emotions is utterly foreign to the eating-disordered/alcoholic/addict brain. So on this, my second full day without purging or drinking, I have discovered that half the battle is conquering the moment. We — not just addicts, but people in general — are creatures of many and fickle emotions. The jeans that fit me perfectly well yesterday, even when I know damn well they fit me perfectly well yesterday, absolutely categorically do not fit me today because fat is oozing out of my every pore and oh my god I am beginning to bear a striking resemblance to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man AND NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME AGAIN AND I AM GOING TO DIE ALONE WITH CATS LISTENING TO MY NEXT TO NORMAL SOUNDTRACK.
This is all probably not true. In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say it is almost definitely not true. The empirical evidence would suggest otherwise. I am (a) probably not going to die alone — people won’t even leave me the hell alone even when I want them to — and (b) am five-feet-seven-and-three-quarters-inches and 108 pounds, so probably do not markedly resemble the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, or any other brand representative of legendarily mammoth (or green) proportions. I have in fact gained weight the last several weeks (up from 100), but I still have a BMI of 16-point-something (well below underweight), and on my trip to New York a week ago I zipped into a size 00 at the Gap with room to spare. (In other words, the smallest adult size they make for human people.) So from a rational standpoint, it’s not only an egregious overstatement to say I’ve gotten fat, it’s beyond f-cking absurd. I know that. I do. I KNOW that. I am smart and self-aware enough to recognize that after I eat 450 calories (my entire breakfast, including a Mountain Dew Amp, this morning), I feel sick as hell and am going to be pacing in a frenetic panic for the next several hours. But once those several hours have passed and I’ve digested and forgotten about (okay, not forgotten about — never forgotten about) the Greek yogurt or whatever the hell it was that was causing me such existential angst, I WILL BE OKAY.
I just can’t trust the workings of my own head in the moment, or operate on my own feelings. And when you’ve grown up heeding Polonius’s bullsh-t advice of “to thine own self be true”, what do you do when the one person you can’t trust is — yourself?
It’s a pickle, all right.
And if you’d been around for the Great Uncooked-Brownie-Batter-Pickles-and-Kidney-Beans binge of 2007, you’d have seen how I feel about pickles.