Gaining; The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders
By Aimee E. Liu
The summer of 1973 was a time when most of my Yale classmates were chasing opportunities-to intern at CBS or study at the Sorbonne, trek in Nepal or go lobster fishing in Maine. I instead chose to spend the summer after my sophomore year alone in New Haven losing weight. By night, I house-sat for the chair of the music department. Mornings, I matted prints at the Yale Art Gallery. Afternoons and weekends, I retreated to the otherwise vacant undergraduate painting studio and worked obsessively on self-portraits. My primary food source was a ten-pound bag of oranges, which lasted me six weeks. My primary source of inspiration was a collection of mirrors in varying sizes, which I positioned around my easel. Though the paradox was lost on me then, it dumbfounds me today: as if playing hide-and-seek with myself, I fasted to minimize my body even as I painted canvas after canvas featuring this body as a centerpiece.
I was hiding and seeking myself that summer, but the game was more of a psychological search-and-destroy mission than child's play. I worked from a mirror tilting upward, so the reflected image peered down her nose. I imagined this external reflection berating my hidden, internal self: "You are nothing. You are weak, pathetic. Just you try to match my power and complexity." The tyrant I saw in that mirror had ruled me since I was fourteen years old. Part of me, yet apart from me, she despised me. She warned me not to eat, berated me for feeling hunger, ridiculed my loneliness. The only way to avoid a life of utter failure was to do exactly as she said.
Of course, we all are prisoners of our conscience, to varying degrees. Philosophers dating back to Plato have assigned the intellect the right and duty to rule over physical appetites. Aristotle believed this management to be essential for the creation of a harmonious sense of self. For people with eating disorders, however, this management escalates into an internal war, with the body as battleground. That summer, my tyrannical conscience was winning the war. Her haughty expression dominated each portrait, sneering or simply staring in cold indifference. In only one of the dozen or so paintings I produced in those months did her fearful captive venture an appearance.
I began that interior with broad, easy strokes to catch the fluorescent shimmer of heat, the bald planes of the walls and door, the hard angles of empty stretchers, the vacancy of the studio. As I zeroed in on the mirror propped in the left-hand corner, I added turpentine to thin the medium, used progressively softer, finer brushes, and worked long into the night. The figure in the mirror started rough, sketchy, and large, but day after day her reflection kept shrinking. The more she shrank, the more compulsively and minutely I worked at her, and yet somehow, the more precisely I painted her, the more indefinite she grew. Studying the finished canvas thirty years later I am struck by the reflection's disembodiment. Her face resembles a miniature mask, eyes pocketed in shadow, the mouth a thin flat line. She looks out, as if trapped, from her mirror cage within that blazing room. "Dare," she seems to say to anyone who will pay attention. "Step through this looking glass and tear off this mask. Find out what lies underneath."
My weight dropped below 90 pounds that summer. I supplemented my oranges with chocolate chips-all of six a day, which I furtively dug from the undersides of cookies stocked in the art gallery kitchenette (no rule but my own prohibited me from eating the cookies whole and by the fistful). Back at the house where I was staying, the refrigerator was full of Tupperware containers the professor's wife had left for me with helpings of stroganoff, pudding, macaroni, but I left this fattening comfort food to mold. When ravenous, I would break the seal on one of the mason jars in the pantry and steal a single teaspoonful of homemade plum or blackberry jam. As I sneaked each taste, I assured myself that my hosts (who had told me they didn't care what I ate) would think I took nothing. In my invented world that summer, consumption constituted a crime.
As that July ebbed into August, real crimes in Vietnam and the Watergate hearings filled the airwaves, but I didn't turn on the television. I never looked at a newspaper, rarely even listened to music. I'd broken up with my boyfriend that spring, had no friends in town, and would not let myself even make a phone call. I often went entire days without speaking-unable to get a word in over my inner taskmaster, who never shut up: "You fat, disgusting slob, you'll never be thin enough, good enough, smart enough, tough or talented enough. ..." When my mother phoned to check on me, I refused her offers to visit as well as her exhortations for me to come home. "I'm fine," I insisted. "I'm getting a lot of painting done. Just leave me alone." Reluctantly, she backed off. I needed to prove my independence. She knew that. I knew that. But prove it to whom? This was one question I didn't dare ask as I put in my hours working alone in the gallery's conservation department, then at the studio painting as long as I could stand it. Finally I'd walk miles to the house I was tending and fall, ravenous, into sleep.
Late one August afternoon, I was halfway across campus when I noticed footsteps echoing off the stone walls of Commons. They sounded so loud that I stopped, but no one else was there. The sky was cloudless, Magritte bright; and beneath it, the quad stretched, silent now. Berkeley and Calhoun, like all Yale's dorms, were locked up for the summer, and Sterling and Beineeke libraries had closed for the night. The day's heat had withered the lawn. Nothing moved. Not a car. Not a leaf. Even New Haven's usual rumble of distant construction had ceased. As the thick air pressed and held me, the silence seemed to grow into a roar. It was as if the entire city had emptied.
My head began to pound. The weight of it doubled me over. I was seized by a dizziness, hard and pitiless as a hunger pang. I thought of all the people I'd spent years pushing away: friends, parents, my boyfriend, teachers. Just leave me alone, I'd pleaded. One by one, they'd all obeyed, and now, finally, I had exactly what I'd claimed I wanted: nothing. For the first time, it dawned on me just how little nothing really matters, how little / would matter if I continued to isolate and minimize myself. What was I so afraid of? I had no idea.
I lifted my head. A moving truck sped down College Street, its accelerator gunning. I pushed myself forward. Through the diesel wake poured a stream of music-piano, some experimental dissonance out of Stoeckel Hall, and I thought with a surprise of longing of the Scott Toplin ragtime records I'd noticed but never played in the house where I was staying. What was it that held me back? Nothing.
I turned the corner onto Prospect Avenue. At the beginning of the summer, standing on this corner, my roommate Patty had suggested that I take the train to visit her in Boston. I'd told her no, I'd be too busy, but she persisted. We'd have fun, she said. We'd play. She'd show me were she lived and introduce me to her friends. All I had to do was call, and she would pick me up.
I would go, I decided, walking faster. I would call and Patty would collect me in her battered red VW. I'd see the beachfront restaurant where she wore a silly Martha Washington uniform and served her customers popovers. She'd take me out in her sloop around the point of Marblehead. We'd visit her friend Jay in Cambridge and have dinner at the Harvest. And I would quit pretending that hunger was artistic or ennobling or good. Hunger, I finally had to admit, was wasting my life.
I listened to Scott Joplin that night. I went to Boston that weekend. I willed myself to follow Patty's example and began, tentatively, to increase the amount I allowed myself to eat. But three years later, as I wrote Solitaire, I was still trying to puzzle out what had happened that August afternoon. Unable to make sense of what had actually occurred, I altered the moment for effect in my memoir, turning it into an upbeat ending. I characterized my state of mind not as a meltdown but as "elation and freedom." I claimed I'd felt "pure delight in just looking and standing still." I wanted to strike an uplifting note on which to decisively conclude my adolescent ordeal.