High School, for me, was a building where I got to nerd out with all of my theater friends, cry in bathroom stalls, and create melodramas that would win Oscars. I didn't hate it, certainly didn't love it, and definitely wasn't great at it. Going to class and doing my work never managed to make it onto my priority list. Luckily I had excelled in the art of bullshit and up until the middle of my senior year, had made it through without failing. It shouldn't have been a surprise when all of my mediocrity and hiding out in the cafeteria caught up to me. But when my guidance counselor brought me into his office to tell me straight up, if I didn’t get my shit together I wasn’t going to graduate, I was floored. No bigger fire could be lit under my ass than the idea of becoming a "super senior".
The thing is, I wasn’t stupid. If I actually took the time and paid attention to something other than my mostly internal life, I would get good grades. It's just that I had more important things to focus on. Like Jordan Catalano** and how he really did love Angela even though he snubbed her at the Buffalo Tom show. Would I ever have my own Jordan Catalano? Would anyone ever love me enough to secretly make-out with me in a boiler room? The answer, by the way, was a big resounding no.
You see, I had the pleasure of hitting the adolescent lotto and was the fat depressed girl during all of my school years -- not the plump chubby girl, who magically loses her baby fat but keeps all the good curves for the pubescent boys to ogle at -- but the tried and true fat girl. From the ages of seven and up I'd be the one who'd keep coming back year after year bigger and more emotionally distraught than she was the one before. At the end of every June, I’d have high hopes that my summer of transformation had arrived. Come September I’d be back looking good feeling great and ready for some good ol’ fashioned high school lovin'. Unfortunately, despite all of my hoping, my summer never came and I am now doomed to be obsessed with high school drama shows for the rest of my life, forever living vicariously and always dreaming of what could have been.
Clearly my nearly flunking out was a symptom of a lot more than just poor grades. By the time I was in my junior year I had one suicide attempt and hospitalization under my belt; had been diagnosed and treated for depression, anxiety, ADD, and bipolar; and weighed over 200 pounds.
It was rough times during my teenage years, but I mostly managed to pull through it by submerging myself in the lavish world that I had created in my head -- a world that was loosely based on television dramas, movies, books, and the romantic pitfalls of my fellow teenage friends who confided in me. My life was spent seventy percent of the time in this dream world and thirty percent in my actual life. The line between reality and fiction was so blurry that it was not uncommon for me to get angry at someone for something they did in my head and hold on to it as though it was real. At around this same time I also started to find that the drama I was steeping myself into started to infiltrate my real life, and I unfortunately and embarrassingly was becoming the perpetrator of stupid teenage girl shit. Not surprisingly, my weekends stopped being so active. Truthfully, I think a big part of me was subconsciously pushing people away as an excuse to be alone and sad. After all if I was alone and sad then I could partake in my two favorite things, eating and watching TV.
I honestly can’t recall a time when I didn’t have an addiction to food. I have a very foggy recollection of my early childhood, but for as long as I can remember food has been my main man and number one priority, always. When I was in elementary school my mom, a new age hippie who never lost her hippie roots, used to send me to school with tofu sandwiches. Everyone around me was eating Lunchables and peanut butter Fluff masterpieces and I’d pull out some mushy white thing between two pieces of whole wheat bread. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved me my tofu sandwiches. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t curious about the chocolate pudding the kid next to me was scarfing down. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I sat near the right people there would be plenty of leftovers. I couldn't believe that these kids would not only eat so slow, but leave so much behind. As a child I was not what one would call social. I had always been the type of kid who hid behind their parents legs whenever people were around. But when it came to food there was no amount of social anxiety that could keep me from asking the awful and inappropriate question: “If you’re done, can I have that?”
In second grade I was sitting in class and out of nowhere started to mildly choke on something in my throat. I went to my teacher in a panic, legitimately scared that there was something wrong with me. I have no idea where she came up with this logic, but she was convinced my choking had to do with me needing food. Next thing I knew all of the students were coming forward with their afternoon snacks. I couldn’t have been happier. It was better than Christmas and my birthday combined. For the next two weeks I tried with all my might to make it happen again, and when all else failed, I lied. I was a skilled liar for a seven year old. Especially when it came to food. Eventually and unfortunately my teacher caught on. But for the few times it worked I felt like I was coming close to satisfying the deepest part of me. The only problem was it was never enough. The only time I felt satisfied was while I was eating, but as soon as it was over I needed more.
This need kept growing the older I got and with it so did I. The only other place where I found that same type of satisfaction was with T.V, movies, books, and eventually the drama of the instant message. I craved other people’s dramas - fiction or not - and combined with food it was a deadly cocktail of happiness, depression, joy, and pain. At a certain point it started to feel like the only time I was truly living was when I was binging on drama and food.
Somehow I both managed to successfully pull my grades up enough to graduate and get accepted into my dream school. High school was ending and my new life in the big city, as a photography major at the School of Visual Arts, was about to begin. I was just as terrified as I was excited. A week or so after graduation my orientation letter came in the mail and with it a feeling of pure horror. It finally hit me that high school was over and with that the safety of it was gone. I started to get scared and question if I was ready to go to college. My parents soon broke the horrifying news to me that they couldn’t afford to pay for dorming, and the loans I had already taken out wouldn’t cover it. My dreams of living in New York City were crushed. I was humiliated and heartbroken by the idea of commuting from Long Island and my excitement about school dwindled each day this new reality got closer. If you’ve ever been to Penn Station during rush hour you would understand why. It is literally, without any exaggeration, the worst place in America.
As my friends prepared to leave and start their new lives, I hunkered down in my bed, remote control in one hand Ben & Jerry’s in the other. On the occasions that I did go out I would catch myself nervously looking at the clock and making excuses to leave people’s houses early just so I could get to Taco Bell before it closed. I didn’t have a job so I started to steal money from my parents like a drug addict, because that’s what I was. I ate in my car, in my bathroom, and at two o’clock in the morning while everyone else in the house was asleep. Anytime I could be alone I took my chance to binge. It got so bad, that every single night of the week I was eating until the point that I blacked out -- waking up to a floor covered in wrappers and empty pints of ice cream. By the end of the summer, as I was about to enter the brutal world of art school in NYC, I weighed two hundred and seventy pounds.
During orientation week my mom and I walked around Manhattan traveling from building to building and sitting in on lectures about my upcoming year. My mom couldn’t have been more excited for me. I pretended to join her on this ecstatic journey into the next chapter of my life, but in reality I was terrified. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t quite get my fear to turn into the excitement I knew I should be feeling. When we passed by my new classmates toting all of their belongings in large crates, getting ready to move in and meet their roommates, my heart sank. I knew I was going to be missing out on a crucial part of the college experience, but actually seeing it in front of my face just twisted that knife. I was ready to go home, get back into bed, and pretend like none of this was happening. My mom on the other hand wanted to keep walking and taking in the city. “Isn’t this exciting!?” She kept saying to me. I wanted to cry.
By the time classes started everyone had already been living in the dorms and getting to know each other for over a week. My weight, social anxiety, and the stigma of being a commuter kid had sealed the fate of my chances at a college social life. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to fit in or how much I tried to contribute to the conversation about Elliot Smith’s death (his girlfriend clearly did it) I was always faced with rejection. No one wanted to talk to the shy fat girl who wore the same black skirt everyday with alternating t-shirts to make it look like a new outfit. High school was hard, but at least I had my group of friends who loved and knew me. No one had any desire to get to know me at SVA and I was too scared to try harder. I had never felt so alone, so embarrassed, so vulnerable in my life. Every week was filled with snarky comments, people laughing and whispering in my general direction, and dirty looks on the train as my ass filled two seats. Almost everyday on my walk from Penn Station the same homeless man would shake his head and tell me I was too fat before asking me for spare change or a cigarette. I wanted so badly to retreat back to my bed and the made up worlds of other people and I would take any chance I could to miss my train and stay home.
A month after school started I came down with what we thought was a severe stomach virus. I woke up every morning running to the bathroom and violently puked for hours. My esophagus started to feel like I was a normal college kid and had been doing shots of tequila every night, while my attendance went from being fairly rocky to pretty much non-existent. The throwing up, which was never self-induced, only made my binging worse and my weight still managed to increase. A month later when the puking still hadn’t stopped it became glaringly obvious that it was directly related to my situation at school. My parents and therapist stepped in and all agreed that it was time for me to apply for medical leave. But there were conditions. I couldn’t just leave school and live in my bed for the rest of the year. If this was going to happen then I had to agree to enter long term treatment. I needed to get serious help, I was out of control.
I immediately accepted the terms, help was all I wanted. I was ready to stop avoiding my life, but there was no way I could do it on my own. I was tired of being embarrassed to go out in public and feeling powerless over my disorder. I wanted to re-gain control and finally be able to start creating a life beyond my head. I wanted this chance, I wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted before.
My mom, who is a Nurse Practitioner, had heard from a colleague about a hospital in Virgina called Chestnut Hope. It was the only hospital in the country at the time dealing with both obesity and mental illness and the more we found out about it, the more perfect it sounded. It was a six month program, and in that six months I would be on a rigorous diet combined with exercise and intensive therapy. Unlike the very few other hospitals my parents found that dealt with binge eating, this hospital actually focused on helping their patients lose weight. I was so excited. We had found my lifeboat.
Chestnut accepted me as a patient immediately, but we still had to wait for approval from my insurance company. We assumed the whole process would take about two weeks and started preparing for my departure. This opportunity was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I talked to my friends about it with a passion that had been reserved for their lives and the lives of fictional characters. I began planning my skinny future and spent hours on end scrolling through websites of clothing stores I loved, but was never able to fit into. I bought new CD’s and books to get ready for my time away. Printed out pictures of family, friends, and bands to put on the wall of my new room. Eventually I even started to say goodbye to people. For the first time in the eighteen years I had been on this earth I felt like my life was about to start. I had been accepted. I was excited. I was elated. I was ready.
I was denied.
**If you are unaware of who Jordan Catalano is you better stop reading and start researching a place that streams or sells My So-Called Life and not leave your house until you are completely emotionally raw and never able to look at another boy the same way again. And, you're welcome.