I have a blister on the knuckle of my right hand’s index finger. This blister is the traitor that threatens to expose me—and I’ve often wished that I’d been more careful about how I’d acquired it. But now that I look at it—I mean, really look at it—I’ve decided that it’s not really a blister, but more like a slight callous—a patch of skin that is a little rougher and less lined than the rest of my hand.
When I first started throwing up after meals, I was probably sixteen or so. That’s when I noticed that my weight was becoming unmanageable, and that I wasn’t as skinny, as popular, or as cool as the rest of the girls I hung out with at school. I wasn’t really pretty, or really witty, or really smart. And I couldn’t control any of that, although I planned to get my nose done as soon as I turned eighteen. But my weight I could control.
I started dieting the summer of my sixteenth birthday. I ran three miles every day on the treadmill at the local gym. One day, as we were going up the stairs to watch a movie in our living room, my dad—who had been trailing me—said something offhand about my calves. He said that he could tell I was working out.
It felt so amazing to get complimented on something, even if it was by my own dad. I was just not used to thinking or speaking kindly about my body. My body was something to be hidden strategically, to be ashamed of, to pinch in anger and constantly hate. It had never occurred to me that it could also be something to be proud of.
But then I started to plateau and the compliments stopped. I wasn’t losing any weight and managing my diet seemed futile—I gained weight if I as much as breathed near a donut. One night, I had been flipping through the channels when I came upon a Lifetime documentary on women with eating disorders. Until that very moment, the thought of throwing up after a meal hadn’t even occurred to me. But it plagued my thoughts for a few weeks after the documentary. I toyed with the idea of doing it only a few times a month, or only after really big meals, but I always chickened out after considering the graphic nature of the process. As summer waned on, I forgot about it altogether.
When my junior year started, I noticed that boys seemed to look at me differently. I was no longer invisible to the male population, and I even got asked out on a few dates. I concluded that my sudden popularity was due to my weight loss, and that was the beginning of everything. I felt—for the very first time in my life—that I was attractive. And it felt good. It felt good to be seen and to demand attention, and I was determined to keep that power at whatever cost.
One night after dinner, I wavered on top of the pristine toilet bowl and considered the situation. I’d never thrown up before. I wasn’t even sure that I could make myself if I tried. And I would need to mask the smell and make sure to leave no traces behind—however faint—otherwise my mother would be on to me.
I remember tentatively sticking a finger in my mouth and poking around. Nothing. So I tried two. My stomach muscles immediately and violently contracted into a prolonged coughing fit that left me breathless. I tried again, and to my own surprise, that night’s dinner came floating up, splashing onto the bowl in a heterogeneous and foul-smelling blob.
I paused and listened for commotion outside of the bathroom door. I could still hear my mother rummaging around in the downstairs kitchen, and my father had gone to bed for the night. I remember planning the next time I would do it, and thinking that I would need to be more careful. My retching had been loud, and I’d need to train myself to keep it down.
I also remember wiping down the little ribbons of vomit that had trickled down the sides of the bowl; I remember lifting the seat up and wiping everything down. And I remember washing my hands—all the way up to my forearms—to make sure that I didn’t smell. But my right hand, especially by the knuckles, was very red, and my left wasn’t. So I pinched myself to even things out, and I remember that even that felt good.
Soon my very occasional habit became a very persistent problem, and I found myself throwing up after almost every meal. I eyeballed the amount of food I’d thrown up, and would stop only when I felt that I’d retained about fifteen percent of what I’d initially consumed. I started throwing up so often, and so violently, that the scar on my hand had no time to heal, and eventually became a permanently raw patch. After my sessions, I had to be careful to hide my right hand, to wipe the tears from my eyes, and to splash some cold water on my puffy face.
After a particularly violent or difficult session, I always start thinking about whether I will ever have the strength to stop. I think about what I’ll do when I get pregnant, or when my children grow up. I can’t show them what I am doing to my own body, and scar them with my burdens for life. I will, somehow, sometime, somewhere, have to find a way to stop. But not yet.