illustrations and article by Kat Gentry
Victoria’s sickness is inhabiting and piloting her 75 pound body when I move in with her. Her body reminds me of photos I’d seen of prisoners in concentration camps. I don’t remember how I convince them to let me switch out of the room—all I remember is the way the tendons running along the backs of her knees jut so far out you could cut them with a pair of nail scissors. I note how her thighs are thinner than my forearms. Usually comparing myself to the other girls induces a burning envy, but this time I’m filled with disgust. It pains me to look at her, maybe because it isn’t until her arrival that some of us realize what an eating disorder really is: an incredibly slow, drawn-out suicide.
None of us can stand the nervous tension that descends upon the room as she enters. We fidget habitually as we anticipate her next move, whether it be dumping her tea into her oatmeal and spooning the warm liquid to her thin lips, or not-so-subtly sneaking chewed up food into her napkin. One night, after they force me to eat chili—which has always made me sick—I puke in the hall while desperately dashing for the bathroom. One of the staff cleans me up and plops me in a cushioned chair outside the nurses’ station, where I sit, hugging my knees to my chest, rocking back and forth with my eyes shut tight. I can hear two of the nurses talking through the glass. The newest one, Dana, says that all the rest of the girls hate Victoria. She says that her doctor, Bob, had to get eight stitches in his forehead after she threw her cell phone square at his face. I know I’m not supposed to hear them, and they’re not supposed to say things like that. They are the adults, the professionals, and their conversation shatters my previously comforting belief that they are required to love and care for us all equally.
Upon arrival at McLean Hospital, I am in stubborn denial about my eating disorder. I’m here because I’m depressed and suicidal and Klarman was the only ward with space at McLean. All else had failed, so my family sent me here, to the “#1 Psychiatric Hospital in America.” That’s what I pitch to the doctors over and over for the first month or so. They humor me, but I later find out they never bought my story.
I call my boyfriend, Asher, every night during visiting hours while the other girls, who are all from the East Coast, argue with and receive modest gifts from family. I cry hysterically to him, describing in detail how awful and prison-like it is. I tell him how I have to hold my pee for an hour after meals, and how it isn’t fair because I’ve never purged in my life, so they should trust me in the bathroom. I describe in detail how you have to keep the door ajar when you use the toilet or shower, a nurse’s foot propping it open and listening to you as you count repeatedly to 10 or recite the alphabet. I tell him that they force me to eat everything on my plate five times a day, even if it makes me sick, and they don’t even allow me to be vegetarian. I describe to him the sickly sweet, viscous medicine they make me drink when I take my meds every morning and night, and how it smells potently of bananas (I secretly love the taste of this potassium concoction, and am sad when they stop prescribing it to me after I’ve been properly stabilized). I tell him how they call it the “re-feeding process,” as if we are farm animals that got sick and need to be fattened up to be of any use. I complain about how they wake us up at three or four every morning, herding us in our zombie-like states into the group therapy room to have our vitals taken. The blood pressure gauge always glitches on me, squeezing my upper arm tight, like a python suffocating its prey, until the nurse takes it off and starts over. They hide the number on the scale when you step on. I try to explain the ridiculous meal plan formulas that we use to figure out how much we’re required to eat at each meal. 2p or 2c/ (1p + 1c) + 1f = two protein or two carbs plus one fat OR one protein and one carb plus one fat. Long ago they devised an arbitrary system to determine what counts as one fat or one carb. Sometimes this formula leaves you with half an English muffin or half a pop tart, instead of the full thing, which I loudly point out is more disordered than the way normal people eat. Worst of all, I tell him, they hardly ever let us outside. Going on walks is a privilege you have to earn by jumping through the thousands of hoops they set before you. Our windows are permanently sealed shut because some girls reason that being cold means burning more calories.
I cry and bang my head against the wall and tear at my skin and say I want out, that this was a mistake, that I’m miserable and nothing they can do will ever change that. This goes on for over a month. I’m as hopeless as ever and regretting having signed myself into this place.
Before I’d arrived, my therapist and parents had been trying to persuade me to come here for months. Because I was 18, they no longer had the power to send me away. I’d finally achieved my goal of returning home, and they were the crazy ones if they thought I was going to give that up. But there came a time when I realized things were so bad, nothing I could think of would make them worse. What did it matter if I was in California or Massachusetts, with or without family? It didn’t. Nothing did.
So when my therapist urges me during our third session one week in October to again consider McLean, I say okay. She stops cold and looks up at me. She must have thought it was too good to be true, that I was playing a practical joke on her. I have to explain my reasoning before she’s able to understand why I finally agree. Now that reasoning seems flawed. I hadn’t realized before coming here the full extent of what it means to live in an eating disorder ward.
Eventually I retreat into books like “Girl, Interrupted” and “The Bell Jar,” studying the work of troubled writers and artists who were once hospitalized here. I become fascinated with the history of the place. One time I volunteer to read books to the elderly on the geriatric unit just so I can walk through the same building Susanna Kaysen had roomed in decades before. But it’s not until I meet Michael that I really start learning the secrets Mclean holds. Michael’s white hair suggests he might be in his fifties, but his energetic optimism and lust for life gives him such an air of youth that makes it hard to think of him as old. Something about his calming presence and genuine cheeriness makes him everyone’s favorite hospital staff member. He’s not around all that often, and to this day I am unsure of what his exact job was at the hospital.
Everyone with walk privileges squeals in excitement when Michael shows up at the door to take us. Before the snow comes, he takes us behind buildings and along pathways none of us have ever noticed before. He tells us about the abandoned children’s ward, how the walls are still covered in five-year-old’s crayon drawings. He knows everything about the history of McLean, right up from the time it was built as an insane asylum in 1818. He shows us a backroom where there used to be a bowling alley decades ago and tells us how patients used to go horseback riding through the surrounding forests. He walks us past buildings, pointing out the one that houses the country’s largest collection of human brains, and another that houses hundreds of monkeys the researchers experiment on.
When winter hits, he takes us through the tunnels. Before the hospital was built, they dug out a maze of ditches that would serve as underground tunnels connecting all the buildings on the grounds. The tunnels are unbearably hot and steamy in some places, and frigid in others. Hissing pipes run along the ceilings and flickering overhead lights cast a dramatic yellowy-orange hue on the walls, which are dirt in places, brick in others. In one stretch of tunnel there’s a barber shop for the wealthier adult patients, while other stretches are seldom traveled. It seems impossible to find your way around without getting lost. Dead-ends and corners lurk at about every 15 or 30 feet, and there are no signs to guide you or denote which doors lead where. The tunnels are at once creepy and calming, and as you walk through them, you feel like you’re in an old horror film.
Aside from these walks and my fascination with all the stories the hospital holds, all the famous artists and musicians who lived and even died here, there isn’t much to distract me from the feeling that nothing is ever going to get better. I still don’t understand how I continue to bear each day feeling only alternating sensations of melancholy hopelessness and animalistic panic, but I had no other choice.
This cycle goes on for about a month. Then one day Todd walks into group therapy with his shiny bald head and piercing blue eyes. He specializes in treating OCD and perfectionism, both of which go along with eating disorders like smelly farts with the re-feeding process. When I first start meeting with him, we do this terrible, awful thing called exposure therapy. He makes me draw things with my eyes-closed or with my left hand or in under thirty seconds and then hangs them up on the walls and leaves them there for a full week. We do plenty of things like that, things that defy every carefully constructed law my compulsivity and perfectionism have laid out for me in order of importance and severity.
After a week of crumpling pages in my notebook and leaving projects half-finished, Todd steps out of his role as OCD specialist. He’s gained more insight into my condition than any of the doctors or nurses. He starts giving me long lists of homework assignments, but they aren’t distractions; they’re art projects. He brings in pastels and all sorts of colored paper, hands me a quote or poem he’s scrawled out on a notepad, and leaves me in a room for an hour, my only instruction to create. When he finds out I used to play guitar, he brings in a tiny, plastic-stringed guitar that is painfully out of tune. But it functions, and he lets me keep it. He gives me lessons, introduces me to new bands and songs, and tells me to start writing my own. When I mention I used to practice mindfulness with a teacher, he gives me meditation CDs to listen to and tells me to practice 30 minutes every day.
Eventually, Todd even gets permission to take me to the gym—a privilege none of the other girls on the ward have even heard of. I have a trainer who’s meant to keep me from pushing myself too hard, to keep me exercising mindfully rather than as a means of purging. Of course all the mirrors lining the gym walls make it difficult for me to resist the urge to punish my body for all its faults. It doesn’t help that the gym is just a weight room with treadmills and elliptical machines. The exercise is mechanical, the room dark. There is no puzzle to solve, no vertical dance and no breath-taking view as in rock climbing, which to me is not only a sport but a lifestyle. I never crave to be inside doing reps on a Thursday afternoon, and it never puts me in the alternate space I can sometimes access while climbing, a space in which every moment flows seamlessly into the next.
Like the other staff, Todd witnesses my deep longing for the outdoors. However, he is the only one who decides to grant me the freedom to get outside. I eat my plates clean, participate in group therapy, complete my homework, and in return he unlocks the door to the outside world. He takes me on mindfulness walks, instructing me to focus on the feeling of rain or snow falling on my head, my breath, or the pace of my steps. He finds places for me to sit outside and meditate while he supervises from afar. One time he picks out a large, mossy rock and leaves me there to meditate for 20 minutes. I look out at the grounds, which are verdant and carefully landscaped, giving the impression of a large boarding school or college campus. I never get over the intricacy of the red brick buildings, the way the ivy crawling up all sides gives me the feeling they hold all sorts of history that West Coast architecture lacks. My hands grip the rock at my sides, then run across its surface experiencing its rough, cool texture. It takes me back to summer trips to Yosemite and Tahoe, the rush of exposure I get when I’m 40 feet up on a rock face, in the space where everything flows.
Entering the flow space is the closest I’ve come to spirituality. The outside world falls away and your realm of consciousness shrinks to encompass only your body and the rock. This is the space in which the climb is just at your limit, the moment in which you focus solely on the next movement. The precarious placement of your shoe rubber smearing against the rock face, the exact notch you are aiming for and the precise amount of energy you have to exert to get there. Everything else quiets. You don’t hear your friends yelling at you to keep going, you don’t even hear your breath—if you’re one of those lucky few who remember to breathe. I use the memory of this space to power my workouts, and when I consider giving up on my third mile of monotonous treadmill running, I imagine returning to the rock faces I’ve fallen and bled on countless times, stronger and more capable than before.
A gentle tap on my shoulder snaps me back into the present—Todd letting me know my 20 minutes are up. During the walk back to my ward, Todd admits he had me sit there because he knew the rock would remind me of climbing, something that hadn’t even crossed my mind when I first sat down, crossed my legs and centered my breath.
I don’t realize the shift until one of the younger nurses, Chris, tells me during a check-in that I seem different, better. My instinctual reaction to this is a big fat NO. I’m not better. Could not be better. Every time someone predicts “better” in my life, I take a sick sort of pride in successfully proving them wrong. But I’m so shocked I have to think a minute before I can respond, and in that thinking I realize he’s right. I’m talking to other girls, investing in friendships. I’m smiling and laughing and making fart jokes that drive the more serious doctors up a wall. I’m participating in group meditation and group therapy instead of sitting or lying there staring out the window at the changing seasons, daydreaming about the day I get to return home. Every day I write down things I’m grateful for and things I find beauty in. I title them “For Asher,” because I can’t do something so healing for myself when I don’t feel I deserve it, but I never end up sending them to him. They end up being for me. I draw and journal on a regular basis for the first time in years. I play guitar and sing in a talent show we hold, reveling in the sweet warmth I feel when everyone demands an encore. I’m enjoying the little things for the first time in years.
One night it snows heavier than ever before, and for some reason we’re let outside. The whole group of young women is ecstatic with a giggly energy that cannot be subdued. It’s as though we forget where we are and why we are here and are for the first time able to experience a night of joyous abandon as a group. We build snowmen, run around in circles in the front yard throwing snowballs and collapse into the powder, spreading our limbs wide to create outlines of angels. The nurses watch from the porch, for once turning a blind eye to the “exercise” we’re not supposed to be partaking in.
In this moment I’m overwhelmed with love for these girls. I want nothing but happiness for them, and it breaks my heart that they can’t see what I see in them. Molly can’t see the way she makes even the most depressed of us laugh hysterically at her sassy yet childish humor. Erica won’t admit that her extraordinary success and ambition inspires us to loft our own goals. Ashley doesn’t know how her tender embrace and soothing words make us feel warm, safe and loved in the loneliest of times. Alison is blind to how her art blows everyone away to the point of speechless awe. All they see in themselves is failure and fat. Too big. Too much. Too loud. Too needy. The thing we really are is too human for our own liking. We want to be the manic pixie dream girls you see in films, the starving artists who live off of black coffee and cigarettes.
What we are training to be, though, are magicians. With every lost pound, skipped meal or 15-mile run on an empty stomach, we are preparing for our final act. Every time we bend over a toilet bowl, buy another pack of cigarettes or lie about not being hungry, we shrink along with our capacity to think of anything other than the ways in which we could be better, prettier or more selfless. And food. Constant obsessive thoughts about food accompanied by immense guilt, aching desire and stubborn resolve to resist temptation demolish any effort to be in the present. We perfect the use of smoke and mirrors to deceive our loved ones, the art of distractions and aversions to disguise our sickness—we’re always inventing new tricks to keep up our sleeves. We’re slowly, painstakingly teaching ourselves the art of disappearing.
One afternoon when I come back from a meeting with my psychiatrist, all the girls are abuzz in the group therapy room. It takes a lot of effort to calm one of them down enough for her to explain to me what had just happened. Victoria, with her toothpick legs, made a sprint for it. She ran out into the snow in her pink pajamas, two of the heavier nurses stumbling after her. It’s all incredibly hilarious until a few days later when the ambulance comes to take her to the ICU.
Given all of this, I can’t say why I’m still shocked when I read about her death on Facebook this past summer. I badly want to post some testament to her character, describing how she lit up a room upon entering it and how every one of the Klarm Farm (our nickname for the Klarman ward) girls would miss her. After fumbling for a while over my words, I realize I can’t write anything nice about her that isn’t a blatant lie. It doesn’t take me long to figure out this isn’t because there’s nothing nice to say about Victoria, but rather because by the time I met her she wasn’t herself anymore. She was too far gone. While she was busy refusing to swallow anything, her sickness swallowed her whole.