Read Loud in the House of Myself Online

Authors: Stacy Pershall

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Psychology, #Personality

Loud in the House of Myself (8 page)

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
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When I caught my breath I flung open my notebook and began to write my suicide note. But rather than directing it to Mr. Anderson, or even my family, I directed it to Zoe and Lula. I said that I was sure they wouldn’t even remember me by next week, but if they did, to please think of me as the girl who only wished she could have been good enough for them. Knowing how bad such a thing could make them feel for the rest of their lives sent a delicious surge of power and terror through me, like when you bite your tongue in your sleep and wake up tasting your own blood. Manipulative suicidal ideation: I know that here, if not previously, it is safe to say I was definitively borderline. (Every time I label myself as such, part of me feels as though I’m buying into the sort of psychobabble—I hate that word, by the way—that fills the self-help section at chain bookstores, as well as the tendency of middle-class folks in the Western world to pathologize damn near everything, but it’s true. The diagnosis applies, and here is where it began, without a doubt, to do so.)

I knew as I stuffed the note through the slats of Zoe’s locker that I had to make everybody think I meant to die—again with the manipulation—and that a grand dramatic gesture had to be made. Once again, I was limited by geography. There was no place to make grand gestures in Prairie Grove. I wanted to steal a car and drive off a cliff, but there were no cliffs and everybody knew everybody else’s car.

I had a pocketknife on my keychain, and I knew I had to at least cut myself up a little bit. I was alone, I could have done it a thousand times over. I pulled into the driveway of my house but I didn’t get out of the car. My mother was out, my dad was on the truck, I could have done it. I could have really truly cut myself and died before anyone came home. But when I tried to press the knife hard enough against my wrist to break the skin, I couldn’t. I made a series of tiny kitten-claw scratches. I slumped down in the seat and hated myself for still being alive, for being so goddamn weak.

As I sat trying to summon the courage to do it again,
do it, slit my wrists like someone with some balls and not scratch at myself like a petulant child, Lula’s car came squealing up behind me. Zoe leapt out of the passenger seat, ran over to my car, started pounding on the window, and screamed to Lula. “Oh my god, she’s here. She’s okay. She’s alive.”

“You fucking baby!” shouted Lula, running up behind her.

We yelled and swore at each other. They loved me, they said. I said, You don’t. If you loved me, I said, you wouldn’t give a shit about the jeans I wore. You wouldn’t care that I wasn’t on drill team. You wouldn’t tell me I was getting skinny just because I wanted attention.

You’re just paranoid, they said, and dramatic. Don’t forget dramatic.

That afternoon, as I sniveled for forgiveness, I begged them not to take the note to the principal. They begged me to “get help, because, like, you seriously need it.” And I realized the most terrifying truth of all: I was no longer fighting with other girls. It had gone way beyond that. Somewhere things had shifted, and now I was fighting my own war, inside my own head. I didn’t need other people at all anymore. It was just me and anorexia, all alone.

Of course, Zoe and Lula didn’t speak to me the next day at school. It didn’t really matter. I was free to be as fucked up as I wanted, and there was no small measure of relief in that.

I restricted my food intake to five items: green beans, chicken broth, canned white chicken, water-packed tuna, and saltine crackers. I stole individual packets of crackers from the school cafeteria and carried them to work in my backpack. I’d eat a couple, throw up, eat a few more, repeat. I never allowed myself to eat more than three crackers without barfing. Which meant, of course, that on occasion it was okay to eat half the Skate Place snack bar before the three crackers. Some nights I ran the soda machine out of syrup.

My already-oversized dresses got baggier as I slid from 140 pounds to 110. By December of my sophomore year, I weighed just over 107 at five foot six, which bothered me because it was not an even number. I was convinced that once I hit 98 everything would be perfect: people would like me, Owen would come back and beg for my forgiveness, and I’d be the skinniest girl in school. Ninety-eight was the magic number. I bought some sneakers and started waking up at 5 a.m. to run.

I beat out chants in my head in time with my footsteps as I jogged around the gravel track at the park. I didn’t have to make them up; my hungry, sleep-deprived brain was a font of bizarre word combinations and rhymes. This is a condition of hypomania, which, for me, is a strong indication that BPD is not actually a personality disorder but a mood disorder, and rightfully deserves a place on the bipolar spectrum. The more I ran, the more I starved, the more entire elaborate poems began to form themselves without my conscious effort. One trait of the bipolar brain is its facilty with wordplay.

In preparation for the day when I broke 100 pounds, I had bought myself a pair of size 3 forest-green pants. They were folded lovingly in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and I would occasionally open the drawer and stroke them, or take them out and drape them across my lap. This was a favorite tactic to use when I was hungry. The pants became a symbol of the perfect life that was only nine pounds away, and my starving nervous system drummed out an early-morning ode to them as I leaned into hill after hill:

You…will…make it around

You will…lose…nine pounds

You will…wear…the green…slacks

Before you know, you’ll be looking back

Slacks. Like anyone who was sixteen years old ever used that word. But I will never forget the chant. And underneath its rhythm, the bilious rumblings of my indignant empty stomach. These sounds can be swirled together.

Here is what people with eating disorders do: We pick foods at random and adorn them with meaning. If, for example, one eats exactly one-half can of fat-free chicken broth with exactly two saltine crackers at 12:37 p.m., one can then eat half a can of green beans at 4:19 and then the other half at 8:42, and all will be right with the world. God forbid one should be delirious from diet pills and lack of sleep, and that one might grab the wrong can, accidentally empty the green beans into the bowl at 12:33, freak out, pour the green beans into a Tupperware, wipe up the puce-colored water that spills on the counter, wash the bowl, open the can of chicken broth, and then realize it’s 12:38, at which point one is well and truly fucked. Obviously eating is no longer an option, because it’s one minute too late, so it is necessary to wait until 4:19, and then at 4:19 think,
Hey, I’m doing pretty well, I can forgo those green beans and by 6 p.m. be hunched in the garish orange bathroom stall at work,
where, at the end of your shift, pizza, soda, cotton candy, Skittles, and crackers are always floating in the toilet.

I was sitting home alone at lunch one day, having gained off-campus privileges, sipping chicken broth while watching
All My Children
. During the commercial break, dreading throwing up because my throat was sore, I suddenly paid attention to the ad for Dexatrim: a woman in a red bathing suit dancing about by a pool.

Take control of your body!
went the TV jingle, while the bathing-suit lady pranced about and turned men’s heads.
Take control of your life!

I dumped the rest of my soup down the drain and headed for the pharmacy.

I stood in Sterling Drug, terrified of being spotted, nervous because the pharmacist’s son Kyle had just become the Quiz Bowl math person. To him, I was surely a Good Kid, one of those straight-A’s-and-piano-lessons types. I stood before the dizzying array of diet aids (one of which, a box of little chocolate squares that looked like it had been on the shelf forever, was actually called “Ayds”), trying to decide which would rocket me fastest to a life of green pants (or slacks, as it were) and glory. Finally I grabbed the Dexatrim, just as the commercial had instructed.

I paid for them with my head down, buying a pen and notebook at the same time so that maybe Kyle’s dad would think I was picking up something for my mother while buying school supplies. When he greeted me warmly, I mumbled “Hi,” then stuffed my purchases in my backpack and got out of there as fast as I could. In geometry, while the rest of the class talked about isosceles triangles, I pulled open the box, folded down the cardboard flaps, pulled out a shiny blister pack, and began what would become my love affair with speed, glorious speed!

Diet pills rapidly became the holy altar at which I prayed. Dexatrim all but eliminated my need to throw up, because if I took enough of it, I never needed to eat. Within a couple of weeks I was wearing the aforementioned slacks. And, except for the fact that I was always cold, always sick, always grouchy, barely speaking to my parents, had no friends, and still lived in Prairie Grove, things seemed pretty much perfect. Like I said: just as long as nothing was more important than food. This is how anorexia can save you. This is also how it can kill you. This is where living and dying become the same thing.


I finally went to Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca City is a bizarre and beautiful place, with such traditions as
Noche de Rabanos,
the “Night of the Radishes,” when the town square is taken over by intricate figurative sculptures carved from the red fleshy roots. But the Day of the Dead is its own glitter-spangled underworld celebration. On Halloween night, children in costumes ranging from skeletons to Ninja Turtles parade through the streets of a city alive with orange marigolds, mariachis, and creepily out-of-tune brass bands.

Of course this sort of occasion calls for a tattoo, so I spent the evening in the studio of Dr. Lakra, whose assumed name is slang for both “filthy” and “scar.” He inked a large, colorful sugar skull on my left calf, and when I returned to the U.S., Denise’s apprentice Frank Ash tattooed words around it: “Take what you have learned here back to Krumville,” Spalding Gray’s reference to his own small town in
Swimming to Cambodia.
Never forget the place you left, and when you return, tell stories of other lands.


I was sixteen years old, five feet six inches tall, and 98 pounds when I first went to see Dr. Philip J. Thornton, Ph.D. It was an October afternoon when crepe-paper leaves danced down the stained-glass windows of the Episcopal church where he saw his patients.

I rattled through the door of his office.

I had taken to wearing a dozen rosaries and an antique stopwatch around my neck. I liked feeling them whack against my collarbones, and I liked that rosaries were a symbol of a religion other than Baptist (Catholicism being, like Judaism, one step away from Satan worship in the dominant theological paradigm). Just that morning I had sewn two darts in the waistband of the green pants. My hair, except for the long bangs that covered half my face, was chopped into two-inch spikes. This was an homage to my favorite book of the moment, Ernest Hemingway’s
The Garden of Eden
, in which a man and woman, wanting to become indistinguishable from one another, get the same boyish haircut. It was also a rebellion against the prevalent hairstyle of the time, spiral perms topped with what I called “donut bangs.” The other girls in Prairie Grove fanned out their curled bangs around a central circle of scalp, which was the donut hole, and the hair was the donut. In my failed attempts to fit in, I had flirted briefly with donut bangs, but I developed an intense aversion to waking up in the morning with my hair plastered to my face by a shellac of leftover Stiff Stuff.

In those days the hallways of my high school smelled like chicken sweat, Aqua Net, Forever Krystal (a
-themed perfume), and Hubba Bubba gum. On special days, these odors were commingled with the stench of formaldehyde wafting off the dissected fetal pigs in the biology lab. I sat in the back of the geometry classroom tapping out wild speed-fueled rhythms on my clavicles, grinding my teeth, and waiting to get the hell out.

I landed in Dr. Thornton’s office shortly after my mother walked in on me changing clothes in my bedroom. I’d forgotten to lock the door. When she saw me, she yelped, then started crying.

After I left for school the next day, she read my diary. When I came home, she waved it at me and said, “You’re going to see a doctor.”

“I cannot BELIEVE you snooped on me!” I shrieked. “You had no right to do that!”

“I had EVERY right,” my mother countered. “My child is starving herself. I don’t even know who you are anymore. You come in here with dark circles under your eyes and you look like you’re dying. You—”

“I do NOT look like I’m DYING,” I huffed. “I look perfectly fine. I’m perfectly healthy. I’m making good grades. Leave me alone.”

“You don’t even go out with any of your friends anymore. You don’t do any activities at school.”

“Except pass,” I said. “Except stay out of trouble and get A’s. Nobody at school likes me anyway. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not like they’re exactly beating down the door.”

“Don’t you get smart,” said my dad, who had by then joined in the argument. The night ended, like so many others, with none of us speaking, Cameron hiding, and me falling asleep between the bed and the wall, undeserving of a mattress, holding back tears by clenching my teeth.

I moved further away from my family, and for that matter, from everyone I knew. I ran, I took Dexatrim, I drank pot after pot of black coffee, and I did my homework. I took Advanced Placement classes in history and English. I was on speed-fueled fire. I bought a membership to a gym in Fayetteville, went dutifully every day after school, and did my studying on the StairMaster. I had decided that my only hope of getting out of the hellhole that was my life and my hometown was to get into a foreign exchange student program as soon as possible.

The morning after my mother read my diary, she took me to the pediatrician, where I shivered in a blue paper gown before the man who, a decade and a half before, had laid his hands on my crowning head and pulled me out into the world. He asked me questions about various aspects of my so-called lifestyle. Did I exercise? Did I eat? Did I still menstruate?

He asked me if I threw up what I ate. I knew about bulimia, because I’d read everything the Prairie Grove, Farmington, and Fayetteville public libraries had to offer on the subject. So I used the word first: “I’m not bulimic.” He looked at me the way a thousand other doctors were no doubt looking at a thousand other shivering fibbing girls in pediatric clinics at that very moment. I held his eye.

He said, “I think you might be.”

I said nothing.

He went out into the hallway and my mother followed him in. He sat down at his desk and wrote
Dr. Philip J. Thornton
and a phone number on a prescription pad, and said, “I think you should call a friend of mine.” And he handed me the name of the next person my mother would come to loathe and I would come to regard as my savior.

I still do.

The day I met Dr. Thornton I stood in front of my bathroom mirror admiring the tunnel of light between my thighs. I felt horribly excited and horribly insecure, so I tried on seven outfits, pulling them tightly around my body to see which ones made me look the most emaciated, the most genuinely anorexic (and therefore the most successfully eating-disordered). I did not want him to see me as bulimic, to picture me at the Skate Place with my fingers down my throat, tickling that little ledge of cartilage,
come hither,
coaxing my food back up. Rather, I wanted him to picture me as an ascetic, starving in a room that most definitely did not have rust-colored carpet and those little Styrofoam popcorn bits sprayed onto the ceiling.

Everything about him was worldly, starting with the fact that he wasn’t Baptist. There were pictures on his packed bookshelves of him with his wife on a boat in some Italian canal, outside Harrods in London, and on a vibrant green hill in Ireland, and then there were shots of their well-educated children lined up outside colleges made of red brick.

“So, what brings you here?” he asked.

“My doctor made my parents bring me.” I cringed at the admission of having parents. The last thing I wanted to do was spill my teenage guts to this guy with the beard and the little round glasses and the brown tweed jacket with the patches on the elbows—all of which, unfortunately, I found sexy. I tried not to find him sexy. I buried myself in my sweater with no small degree of embarrrassment.

“Do you like school?”

“I hate school.”

“Is there anything about it you like?”

“English,” I said. “But I hate when we have to read Shakespeare out loud and nobody understands that it’s music. It hurts my ears when I have to hear it
reeeaallllly sloooow
with a hillbilly accent.” My mother would have considered my comments conceited, and Zoe and Lula would have stopped speaking to me for at least a week; I’d referred to my peers as hillbillies, and thus felt that sharp familiar uprising of red behind my eyes, the one that signaled I was doing something I shouldn’t but was going to do it anyway because it felt good. Which was something that sort of scared me. You’d think this would be one of the things I’d mention to a psychiatrist.

“You don’t have much of an accent, do you?” he said.

“I try.”

“Where would you rather be instead of Prairie Grove?”

“England.” Why? Because Sting was from there, and I considered Sting the sexiest man alive.

“England is nice.” He knew from personal experience. I didn’t.

“I don’t have an eating disorder,” I said.

“I didn’t say you did.”

We stared.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.

“I did.”

“What’s his name?”


“Did you and Owen make love?” The room exploded. A hole opened up in the floor and the lower half of my body fell through. I pictured the two little naked homunculi from the “Love Is” notebook I had in third grade, the one I used when I played Harriet the Spy.
Make love
. Any phrase in the history of the known universe would have been better than that one. He suddenly transformed before my eyes into a sensitive seventies guy with a perm who taught people to paint barns and shrubbery, and then he was back and I was hot for him again.

“Yes,” I squeaked. Once counted. One time we
made love

“Are you using any form of birth control?”

“I don’t have periods,” I said.

“Well, you should be menstruating if you’re sixteen.”
Menstruating and making love,
I thought,
that’s me

“Sometimes I do,” I said.

“How often?”

While everyone else in Prairie Grove was hanging out at the One-Stop Mart after school, sitting on the gates of their parked pickup trucks, drinking Cokes out of little glass bottles and listening to Def Leppard, I was at the Episcopal church answering questions about my period. Later that evening, when my classmates had taken off in their pickups to do donuts in somebody’s cow pasture and spit Skoal juice out the windows, I sat at home shaking my foot seventeen thousand times (it just wouldn’t stop, I just couldn’t make it stop) and listening to the college radio station broadcasting from thirty miles away in an effort to learn what was actually cool in the real world, and thinking my favorite obsessive thought,
Maybe if I just get skinny enough Owen will like me again

“I dunno,” I said. “I guess the last time was about two months ago.”

“How long before that?”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“For now.”

I kept him talking about something else for weeks. Mostly we talked about books. One day he gave me a copy of
Jonathan Livingston Seagull,
and I opened it up and smelled it.

“I do that too,” he said. “Smell books.”

“I go to the Dickson Street used book store and smell books for fun,” I admitted.

“I’ll have to try that sometime.”

I suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to share another secret. “I lost my virginity to Oingo Boingo,” I blurted randomly. “Like, not to the band itself, but that’s what was playing.”

“I don’t know Oingo Boingo. What do they sound like?” he asked.

“Like horrible oompa bullshit,” I replied, and he laughed, and I laughed, and I hugged the book, and I loved him.

Still, I lied, because the eating disorder remained my master, my primary allegiance. I lied to him all winter, mostly about food. One day I let it slip that I hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, and he made me promise I’d stop for a cheeseburger after the session. Instead I ripped open a packet of saltines that had gone stale in my glove compartment. But I pretended they were a cheeseburger, so it counted a little. Two saltines were, after all, one-tenth of a cheeseburger. Which part of the cheeseburger would I have picked, had I actually eaten a tenth of one? I chewed my crackers in tiny squirrel bites and thought,
Cheese. Mayonnaise. Meat. Double cheese. Double meat. Four hundred all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on two hundred sesame seed buns

I carried my secret around with me everywhere: I had a shrink. I was officially crazy. I went to see a psychiatrist after school. It made me feel special as opposed to just weird. I was certifiably
like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton; perhaps I would gas myself one day. I started to imagine that Phil could see everything—he took the place of Andy Warhol—and that he was watching me all the time. In the morning, I hooked my unnecessary bra around my xylophone ribs and imagined he could see my nonexistent breasts, and my face flushed hot. I went to school, popped my five Dexatrim—he looked away during that part, but he followed me to geometry, where I stared out the window and sang Police songs in my head. I began to wonder whether everything I did was pathological. I asked him one day if I could read the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual,
the “DSM,” as he called it, the leather-bound tome of things that could be wrong with people.

“You just want to smell the book,” he said.

In my memory, every time Phil gave me a book, the hand-off looked sort of like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That’s how important and momentous it felt. I began to realize that people can be healed by telling each other stories.

Of course, this is overly romantic; storytelling didn’t avert the rapidly increasing hypomanic episodes, nor did it save me from running a sobering gauntlet of medications for over a decade. But having a grown-up tell me with obvious passion and conviction that books were important, I mean
important and not just reach-this-degree-of-literacy-and-pass-this-test important, blew something open inside me, something that had been waiting to be blown open. I gave him a copy of
Interview with the Vampire
and he read it, and this fueled our conversations that first year. We found each other in the pages.

Out of nowhere, Owen began to call me occasionally and continued to break my heart. I prayed to a God in whom I no longer believed:
Please please please bring him back to me I’ll eat less I promise
. And I ate less, and sure enough, a month later, I came home to a hand-folded note in my mailbox. “We had a good thing and I blew it,” it said. That night we reconciled, hotly, in his Mazda RX-7 in the parking lot behind the church, though we did not
make love
because the seat didn’t go back far enough.

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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