by Julia Lederer
As my fellow undergraduates packed for home or other adventures, I packed a much smaller bag. One with no sharp objects, edibles, alcohol or pills of any kind.
I graduated from university, then spent the summer in the General Psychiatric Ward.
It felt like I was going to jail for a crime I hadn’t realised I was committing. Yet, there’d been no formal trial or jury, and as a legal adult, it was within my power to leave at any time.
I’d been evaluated. This had meant facing a panel of stoic strangers in white jackets, who asked several humiliating questions about my day-to-day existence. I described the details of everything I ate, which felt like painfully pulling a bandaid off, only to reveal grossly scabbed skin. I was disclosing intimate details of the most shameful aspect of my existence to people whose job it was to judge me.
All of this was to determine the big question at hand:
Was I psych ward material?
It's public health care so they needed to be sure. There are waiting lists, not just anyone gets in. But by two minutes into the interview, I’d firmly and silently decided to never set foot in that ward again, let alone move in for the summer. So whether or not I was invited into this beige-walled circular hallway populated with the widest-eyes, was a moot point. It was an audition for a role I knew would be terrible and would absolutely turn down if it was offered to me. It was a nude community theatre production of Cats. But much worse. And then, later that day, I got the call.
After deeming me psych-ward worthy (the opposite of being knighted), I was told I’d have at least six weeks on the wait-list. I thought about how this would buy me enough time to convince everyone that I’d already fixed myself on my own; that this whole hospital ordeal was ridiculously redundant.
Instead, I didn’t do much at all. Each day felt full of land-mines, but I couldn’t change my path. And after just three weeks, they called. On my birthday.
I was alone when my phone rang.
“We can admit you Monday at 8. Do you accept?”
I wanted to say no so badly. I just wouldn’t tell anyone about the call, and no one would wonder about it for at least another few weeks. By the time they did, it would be too late. The spot would be filled. And I don’t know if I believe in signs— the romantic part of my brain does and the rational part of my brain really doesn’t— but, they called on my birthday.
So I said: “OK.”
And I celebrated my birthday and then went to the most bizarre version of summer camp in existence. Where the counsellors are nurses, the doctors are section heads, and the whole purpose is to get you dealt with and out of there as quickly as possible, so they can get the next patient in. Which was fine with me in theory. The problem was in practice. I was there to be treated for anorexia nervosa. So, the only way I could leave was by eating a lot fast, and gaining a considerable amount of weight. Both of which set off alarms in my head.
Anorexia is a word I hate to say — it sits on my tongue like a slug I don’t want to let out or acknowledge I have held inside me.
It causes my shoulders to ram into my ears and my voice to get quiet. Its syllables feel pointy and awkward and dangerous.
That word is my “Voldemort”, and I am not as courageous as Harry Potter. I’m an obvious Ravenclaw: I play by the rules, I like to stay in my head. Which was exactly what I tried to do while in the Eating Disorders program in that ward. I bit the insides of my mouth and did everything the doctors and nurses said. I disassociated myself from that place, those people, and how I felt as much as I could. I assumed the role of someone who was changing in the exact way everyone wanted me to. But I walked up flights and flights of hospital stairs. I lied about what I ate on weekends when I started getting to leave. Once I poured a soda down a toilet in the ward. I was an adult. I was there voluntarily. But it felt like being a spy.
Because, the thing is, I loved being small. Not as in thin, as in small. The feeling that I could escape at a moment’s notice, that I would never impede on anything or be in the way. And people expect less if you’re small and a girl, so when you do something smart or creative they’re more impressed, and then it’s easy to disappear again after, before you ruin it. There’s less pressure to be anything at all. And my rejection of my physical needs kept me from being a full person, and from the range of emotions, responsibilities, and potential humiliations and mistakes that come with that. It kept me from a lot of the good parts of being a person too, but it was an exchange that felt completely necessary, given my other failings. Sometimes you have to cut your losses.
And I don’t like dependency. There is strength in not needing something that you’re supposed to, that everyone else seems to need. I didn’t want to just give that up.
And despite how awful it was, the limitations, the inner-catacombs of shame that only deepened, what I was doing felt hard, and so to succeed at it— even somewhat— felt like an accomplishment. One that you can actually measure.
But I could never say any of that.
And it’s easier to believe in notions that you never say aloud. They are never challenged. Dark seeds that grow and twist into rotten oaks that tower over everything, and keep you from seeing beyond your own thoughts. You can become lost in your own brain. It happens all the time.
An eating disorder turns you into a liar. It’s so easy to lie once you start.
It turns out, lies just fall out of your mouth as easily as other words do. My lies were mostly harmless mosquitos, that I spat out then swatted away. So common that some of them felt true. And the lies I was telling made the people around me feel better, and I was so tired of making everyone uncomfortable.
In the Eating Disorders Program, meals were like sporting events— timed, with doctors coaching from the side-lines calling out belittling encouragements like:
“Take bigger bites!”
“Mix in your butter!”
All while intermittently trying to carry on “normal” conversations with us about mundane subjects, often asking what movies we’d seen. We had seen no movies.
We lived in a psych ward. And this was before wi-fi and smart phones.
A doctor once pulled me aside and said, “We think you’ll only need to do this once, if you stay focused.” Of course I was only doing it once, I thought. As if I’d ever end up here again. Then I learned it’s not uncommon for patients to finish that program and then relapse and end up back there again. People can spend decades in a cycle of gaining and losing weight, living in and out of that beige ward; losing everything they had to motivate them to recover and get out. That summer, I watched patient after patient get kicked out for not finishing meals, or decide to leave pre-maturely. After only a few weeks in the program, I was its most senior resident. I felt pressure to act as a kind of guide to new patients, preaching things I didn’t yet believe myself. I’d betrayed the person I'd been working to create for so long: not because I’d gotten sick, but because I’d been caught and labelled as such. I needed to finish the program so I could shed this identity as quickly as possible— like a costume I'd put on one day by accident, and the zipper had gotten stuck.
Developing an eating disorder was like digging a hole. It started as a quiet project that complimented the otherness I already felt; have always felt. I hadn’t planned to dig down so deep, but as I went it seemed like the only direction available. Productive and vital. Not happy, but safe. Eventually the world outside became so far away that I couldn’t climb back out on my own. And I didn’t know if I wanted to.
That summer in the ward wasn’t the end of my dealings with Voldemort, and though I didn’t go through the program again, it was a possibility for a time.
Now, it’s almost as if it never happened. It’s not a story I tend to volunteer unless I feel it will really be of use, and it occurred during a convenient and disposable sliver of life between finishing university and what I did after. I’ve been perhaps too fervent about not letting it define me. Frantically brushing its debris under my well-adjusted adult futon.
But dust and cobwebs remain.
I hate ordering at restaurants. And I would never host a dinner party the didn’t involve ordering in, and even then I’d really rather not. I get anxious about spending very long periods of time with other people, that will cross over multiple meals. Travelling can make me panic. The difference is I can do these things now, it’s become normal for me to do them, so I know it will be fine. I’ve proven it enough times to myself over enough time, at this point.
And so I do. And it’s OK.
Though, as much as I don’t want to admit it, I’m sure these qualities and fears have influenced my ability to build a long-term relationship. I worry about how I’ll deal with food if I have kids, how I’d ever be able to create a normal and healthy atmosphere. I will not get on a scale. Even at the doctor, I do it facing away from the number.
If anything about diets or eating disorders comes up while I’m with old friends or family, an awkward silence can descend like a pillow to an open mouth. It’s like a finger poking through the earth at my feet, and I don’t know how reference it without unearthing the entire corpse. So I don’t.
Getting out of that deep dark disordered hole involved taking a wrecking ball to a blockade of beliefs I’d constructed about dependency, health, food, and self-worth.
Recovery should be an accomplishment, but it felt like a humiliating symptom of a problem I’d foolishly created. Anger and shame accumulated into bricks.
Their ruins remain: a deserted fossil of a city, a wreckage at my feet. I try not to look down, but I keep stubbing my toes and tripping over jagged pieces.
It’s still there, I’ve just become better at navigating.
Julia Lederer is a Toronto-based writer. As a playwright - With Love and a Major Organ, was the first Canadian play to be produced at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska. Currently it is running at The Theatre @ Boston Court in Los Angeles. She also writes prose and film and television-- and for web: she was the Social Media Creative Consultant for the final season of the multi-award winning web-series, Carmilla. Her pilot, Upstaged, was produced by Great Lake Films and was a selection at the LA Comedy Festival.