Trigger warning: eating disorders
Dating is hard, and when you have an eating disorder, it feels like a dirty car that needs to go to the car wash again and again and again.
“Lauren, I’m selfish. I want you to get better, but only because I want life to be easier for me.” Those are the words my ex-boyfriend said to me shortly after I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder. I felt dirty, filthy, and well beyond the lowest point I ever thought I could possibly go. After a toxic two and a half year relationship filled with addiction, manipulation, codependency, and a final denouement of abandonment, I was ready to go to the carwash and start fresh. Because dating with an eating disorder is a lot like going to the carwash.
It had been only a few months after he left that I decided to jump back into the dating pool. I had quit smoking; I was taking care of myself by eating regimented meals like clockwork. Was it too soon? Probably. But I believed that I was ready, so I took a chance at what life would be like without him and my eating disorder semi-managed with a freshly washed car.
At first it’s shiny and new. Your car is getting extra attention because the gloss of its freshly waxed paint feels so good on the eyes. There is no backstory, no history of the last layer of dirt that was once there, only the intrigued thoughts of the onlookers wondering how a car could possibly be this clean, this pure. How a car could be this perfect. No flaws, no scratches, no codependency issues. The perception that is skewed by the lens of the honeymoon phase. Your car is putting out its best energy into the world, only to receive it right back from the ones it’s trying to attract.
You and your car have a mutual understanding for one another. After all, you know this car from the inside out. You’ve had it for years and even gave it a name. You know the exact volume the radio needs to be on so the speakers don’t blow out. You know the purr it makes when it’s working harder than it should. You know the quirks it has, so you are gentle enough when turning the steering wheel. You know the exact spot where the rock hit your windshield going 90 when you should have been going sixty.
And this car, just like your body, knows everything about you. It knows all of your deepest secrets while you talk into your voice memos on your phone about your next brilliant million-dollar idea. It knows about the time you cried on your long drive through Texas, about how your disorders are the reason why you ruined his life. It’s heard all of the profanity you’ve yelled at God because you didn’t understand why you were cursed with so many problems that felt completely out of your control, why it was all happening to you. It remembers the big smile on your face after your first date with the first person you met after your ex. It knows how many boogers you’ve picked and thrown out the window, how many times you’ve sung “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon way too loud and proud because you know all the words, and how many middle fingers you’ve given to the shitty drivers on I-95. It knows you, and you know it. The good and the bad. The dirty and the clean.
But as the days progress, the car gets dirtier. A film of dust with every long drive to the mountains and trips to the grocery store. A sheet of loneliness, helplessness, emptiness, and hunger. A layer which masks the true beauty that lives behind the filth. The car weighs a little more as the tires drive through the mud. You want to say something, do something about it. You want to open up about the crusted, dried up mud that weighs down on your heart causing you to drive slower, more cautiously. You want to be honest that this grime won’t last forever; just a few days, maybe a week. Then it will be clean again, and the facade of its flaws will be stripped away to bring the true, genuine vehicle out into the world. You want to let the passengers know that the odors are fixable and not of your own conscious volition—uncontrollable. But you can’t.
You’re exhausted from having to continuously explain your story. That your car isn’t perfect, shiny, and new. Now they notice the dent on your passenger door and the crack in the windshield. You have to explain once again the story behind the damage and feel the need to justify that each chip and crack is actually a story of survival, not a flaw. That the engine light has been on for over a year, you just can’t afford to do anything about it because there are more important things to pay for, like food that you have to force yourself to robotically eat. You’re tired of having to retell to each new person that gets into your car that it doesn’t always look like this. You’re humiliated for having to justify why the once tan leather seats now have a hint of brown muck covering the exact spot where they should be sitting. You feel ashamed for having anyone see it at its absolute worst, its lowest of low points, for what it actually is.
So you stop caring and let it go. You ignore the dirt and the mud. The underneath of your car builds rust, leaving a mark of erosion, a chemical change to the integrity of the body. A mark left on the soul in some way or another, good or bad. The interior develops a smell of sweaty socks, rotten banana peels, and lack of care. Sand covers the seats and floor mats from when you ran away for three days into the woods and no one came looking for you, but you’ll never tell a soul what actually happened. Your car will still be the only one to know. People stop admiring your car. It’s now labeled as a generic vehicle because it’s lost all of its initial lust; the novelty has worn off. And you don’t really care that they don’t care. You are absolutely exhausted from overcaring and oversharing.
Then it rains. A storm comes through the city and you forgot you parked it outside on the side street instead of the garage where you know it will be safe. You’re much too tired to go downstairs and do anything about it. You don’t take the necessary precautions to protect it from fallen branches or wreckless teenagers driving by it too fast and too close because again, they don’t notice your car sitting there alone. It’s not beautiful anymore. It’s average and has too many flaws and dysfunctions that no one would even consider stealing it, let alone pay any attention to it.
But then the rain subsides. The sun comes out and your car is still there on the street, perfectly intact. The mud is almost gone along the rims. The rain drops have left streaks on the hood of your car, light enough that a carwash would do the trick to make it perfectly clean again. Wipe away the last sad, heartbreaking weeks of dating.
So you drive it down to your local gas station. You give your car another chance, clean off the shit and go back to that beauty that is underneath, ready to try again. You pull up to the entrance and put your car in neutral. The wheels line up on the conveyor belt, you close your eyes, and let the cleansing begin as the carwash takes complete control.
The jets thrust against the side of the car, washing away all expectations held from going to a restaurant on a second date, unable to explain to someone new why you needed to order a salad because you’re not the salad kind of girl, it’s just the only thing on the menu that didn’t make you feel shame while eating it.
The cleaning solution aims directly at the sludge of you pretending to get off the phone because you were “making dinner” when you were actually crying on the bathroom floor trying not to pass out from not eating for four days.
And all the while, you are sitting on the inside of your car as you watch the exhaustion of putting on your best face slither down the drain. The mechanical brushes wipe away the embarrassment, disgust, and self-deprecating thoughts when he didn’t text you back because you freaked out when he said your eating disorder was more than he could handle.
The air pressure eliminates the moment from remembering that he said you needed to put more meat on your body; you’re just a pile of skin and bones. That he said, “There is someone out there who will love you for who you are, but that person isn’t me.”
The car wash is finished. The tires pop off the line, and you put it back in drive. Your car is ready to go, and once again it’s clean, new, authentically itself for the world to see. The imperfections of the check engine light and the dent on the front passenger door are still there. The window is still cracked, but now, it’s clean. Your car doesn’t care what anyone thinks of its flaws and disorders, of its mental illness, its PTSD from abandonment. It doesn’t care that this last person you dated was everything and suddenly nothing in a few days time. All it cares is that you are behind the wheel, and it can finally drive with ease again. Belonging to nowhere but the open road. Belonging only to you. Belonging nowhere and everywhere.
At least for now, until the car gets dirty again. New relationship, driving off into the open road.