For purposes of confidentiality, I’ll change her name to Dr. Penelope. Penelope was an older but very pretty and very French woman who had been found for me by my very French mother, referred to her by her very French friend. I started seeing her my senior year of high school when I was 17, about the time when I was unknowingly slipping into an extremely intense and quickly developing pattern of eating disorders. It’s a long, messy story, but Penelope was basically my mother’s desperate last attempt to try and understand what was going on in my hormonally-deranged head. Off the bat, and to this day, there were a lot of things about Penelope that really annoyed me. First of all, I didn’t care much for her office. I’d seen a few shrinks here and there before seeing her, not to mention the countless number I’d seen on TV, and her office was incredibly unmodern in comparison to theirs. You’d think that wouldn’t even really matter, but a psychiatrist will be the first to tell you that the order of a room tells you everything about a person internally. And she was up by 68th street, near Hunter, around all the beautiful townhouses and bougie boutiques, yet her space was always depressingly dim and had an odd smell to it. I’d characterize more as a guidance counselor’s office than that of a sleek, organized mental-health professional. At the same time, I guess it gave her some relatable charm.
Another thing I found odd about her was that I could tell she wasn’t all the way right herself. The first few times I sat on her couch I didn’t say a whole lot, but rather tried to feel her out instead. Over our years together, and maybe this is naïve of me to think, but I felt we developed a bond as more than client and patient, but as close friends or sisters. She always seemed to be able to relate so well with my food issues, almost to the point where it alarmed me. She’d tell me stories of going to dinner with friends the night before but skipping the bread and butter, with a horrified grimace, because those were the kinds of things that made you fat. It was like we were mirroring each other’s conversations, like two little girls gossiping about the scale instead of a therapist trying to rationalize her patient’s fears. So I quickly realized Penelope had issues with food herself, and even though it kind of made the whole experience of going to her a joke, her knowing exactly how I felt also made her one of the best people to talk to about it. She even opened up to me about her own abuse during childhood at the hands of nuns—shit I couldn’t make up if I tried. I’d leave feeling really strange, like I’d gone into the session carrying my burden and then walk out carrying hers, but maybe it was some weird healing method like hypnosis. Then again, maybe she was just weird.
By the time graduation came, I had my New York escape plan in motion. At that point I’d pretty much isolated myself from friends completely, my only desire was to get as far from everyone was possible and wallow in the depths of depression. The plan (so my mother thought) was for me to spend the summer with my grandparents in France, getting my mind right and mentally preparing for the year ahead. What actually happened is that the isolation made everything a thousand times worse, and I essentially became a prisoner in my own body, thrusting myself into this very bizarre, OCD-driven anorexic pattern. Every waking minute of my life revolved around food, which is ironic considering I barely ate any at all. Even my sleep was haunted by food. My best friends were two calorie-count books (a pocket-size one for toting around in public, and a larger encyclopedia-esque one that I’d use to double check doubts from the smaller version), a food scale, and a printout about 6-pages long that held additional calorie values for items unlisted in the books, like artisanal saucisson from the market.
At my lowest, I was ingesting 600 exact calories a day. One calorie over would have sent me straight to the toilet. It sounds ridiculous, but rationality no longer played a part in my life. It was literally all numbers. 600 was OK, 601 was not. I would wake up from a night of food dreams, counting food-sheep in my sleep, and prepare a small breakfast under 100 calories. Perhaps a small apple, sliced, and a few grams of yogurt. Lunch was probably around 300 calories, my biggest intake of the day. I still tried to make it enjoyable with nice plating and pretty cuts. The reality was meals were my happiest and saddest part of the day. For someone with such a love for food and cooking, it was heartbreaking. My grandma, god bless her, the incredible cook that she is, would try and make all the things I loved, like rabbit braised with mushrooms. Since I had to count and measure literally everything I ate, we’d have these horrible fights about food, where I’d literally cry because I could taste wine in a sauce that she swore to me had no wine. I’d sob myself to sleep every night, gripping my covers, screaming into my pillow, wondering how on Earth such a smart, lucid young woman like me had gotten there. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t go into a grocery store without having a panic attack. I’d clutch my little list of things and try to walk down the isles focused, not looking at all the tempting labels and jars around me—even condiments became exciting then—and then I’d stumble in front of some ice cream lockers and just lose my fucking mind. I’d look at the nutrition labels and start pacing around the store, doing math in my head, like “OK well 100 grams of this will be around 340 calories so maybe I can just not eat lunch tomorrow” to the point where I’d get a massive migraine. Even as I type this now, it seems literally impossible to think this was me. If I didn’t know me or what it was like, God, I’d have the strongest desire to judge. I’d think I was so weak. And I was. But the things that manifest themselves in your mind are not to be overlooked. If neglected or improperly managed, they can consume and destroy you. When I left for France that summer, I might have been around 127 pounds. The day I came home and greeted my family, maybe two months later, I was 102. It had 100% consumed me mentally, and now it was physically consuming too.
Back to Penelope. While I was in France we spoke on the phone a couple times a week. I’d tell her everything I ate and little by little she was supposed to help get my calorie intake up. When I got back the severity of my weight took precedence and we bumped our in-person meetings up to twice a week. My periods had ceased for months, I was about as weak as a 75-year-old woman, and my chest would hurt if I applied too much pressure to it, like the palm of a hand. With the horrifying prospect of “going somewhere” becoming more and more realistic, I agreed to go to a nutritionist and get back on a plan to gain weight. It was a literal nightmare. This guy wanted me to eat two eggs and a banana for breakfast and have some huge chicken breast for lunch; the thought alone nauseated me. Even worse, I’d have to wean myself off the calorie counting.
Since I didn’t have the heart to eat these new, bigger, non-calculated meals alone, I’d eat them with Penelope. The day of my session she’d be all excited and say, “Oh wow, you got some sushi today? That’s so nice. Don’t you miss just eating sushi and not worrying? It’s still nice and healthy and I promise it won’t make you fat.” I’d frown and take a bite and she’d keep encouraging me the whole way. It was ridiculous. But I needed her then. It couldn’t have been my mom or my best friend. And for all the weirdness of this woman, and even for the fact that she was paid to sit there and do that with me, I still feel like I owe her a lot for those moments.
Unfortunately, the story gets messier before it gets better again, but I’ll try and wrap it up in one swoop. Things started going way better for me. Even though learning to eat normally again was hard, I got back into a healthy pattern again pretty quickly. I was freshly 18 and got the official gig writing for Leah up at the top of the Empire State Building, which was an amazing break after such a treacherous and emotional summer. For the first time in just about forever, I was feeling good about myself. The weight seemed momentarily under control, and I felt comfortable enough in my skin to maybe find solace in a boy. I started dating this kid, very casually, and after a couple months of going together thought, “Fuck it, now seems like a good time to lose my virginity.” In hindsight I still don’t regret it because it was such an insignificant blur, but I probably shouldn’t have after such a fragile time in my life, or at least with less of a scumbag. Even though I thought everything was great, he ended up never calling me again. You can imagine how it might have tripped up a wire in my just freshly re-wired brain. I started drinking heavily and binge-eating, the disgusting habit which had gotten me to the point of anorexia in the first place. To combat the drinking and massive food intake, naturally I started purging. And that’s when the bulimia chapter kicked in.
By then I think both my mom and Penelope didn’t know what to do with me. I got referred to an additional Doctor…let’s call him Dr. Koppen, who somehow managed to be even crazier than P. His office was fancier but also a fucking mess—a rich mess. He had papers and prints and fancy books strewn all over his cozy den, plus heaps of pharmaceutical samples and paperwork mounting on his Eames furniture. He was the typical New York shrink: neurotically-witty with a slightly perverse aura about him. I didn’t like him at all besides the fact that he prescribed me drugs. And oh, did he! This guy loved pushing pharmies down my throat. We started with a mélange of Zoloft, Valium, and Adderall. How it was even possible that this guy dosed that shit out to me at a time when I was so fucking batshit reckless, I have no idea. And naturally, I adored the pills. The anti-depressant I didn’t notice so much, but the combination of zero fucks I gave while on the downers with the amount of flawless work I could get done on the uppers? It was brilliant.
This is when my skepticism for the psychiatric profession really became present. It was there in Dr. Koppen’s bullshit office beside his photo of his smug wife and overweight, probably-a-prick little son that I realized I hated these people. And if it was all business and prescription paperwork to them, then it would be the very same to me. I took the medication recreationally, sold it, and passed it out to friends, and it resulted in a few month period of humiliating blackouts. Losing things, waking up with bruises on my face the size of bull testicles, getting so blacked out that I’d wake up to pee only to realize I’d already peed the bed. Yeah, not cute, at all. But this is what it was. That was the honest reality of being lost and depressed and having some retarded doctors take advantage of it.
The whole thing made me pissed at Penelope. She never thought I should come off the medication, just that I should learn not to abuse it, but I’d lost my professional respect for her by then. It was only after I met my ex and he essentially saved me from my own downward spiral that I got a grip on everything. It’s so funny, now that I’m here, thinking back to what I thought I had a grip back on then, I was still totally clueless.
So I stopped the pills and I eventually stopped my bout of bulimia. It was a shame that through the ignorant bliss of a seemingly happy relationship, I gained all the weight, plus more, back—but that was a long fucking time ago and I look better now than I ever did then or before. And like I mentioned way back at the beginning of this long tale, I stopped seeing Penelope too. I think the straw that broke the camels back was that she kept calling my ex Craig when his name was Greg. Like, I’ve just spent the last few years of my life showing you the darkest sides of myself and you can’t even remember the name of the dude I’m seeing? Bye bitch.
But the whole point of this post was that for some reason, a lot of my weird, all-consuming insecurities have been coming back to me lately. I know sometimes I’m really confident, and I post pictures where I’m feeling myself and my body looks good and everything is in place, but that’s not every day. Chicks legit get mad if I’m down on myself and say shit like, “Bitch stop fronting you obviously love yourself or you wouldn’t be posting those photos,” but it’s really a bit more complex sometimes. As women, we all have good and bad days. Some days I wake up feeling flawless, like the world is mine and everything/everyone else are just falling into place accordingly. Others I wake up already defeated, hung up on some mental baggage for who knows what reason that’ll completely ruin my day. And the fact is when you’ve been through the type of shit I have in the past, where insecurity plays a huge part of your history and you still bear some of the scars from it, it’s even harder to let those feelings go. Those things are always there to haunt you; lurking in the back of your mind like old sentimental shit in your closet you don’t have the heart to throw out. Some days the insecurities are so stupid and vain, simple things like wishing I had bigger tits. Others, I’m insecure about things deep down inside, things I know will never, ever change. And that can be exasperating—to feel there’s something inside you’re struggling with but won’t ever be at peace with. It’s these times I really miss P. There are things you can talk about with your friends and family, and then there are things so irrational that only a paid therapist or Word Doc could understand. Sigh!