by Brandon Dameshek
I spent my sophomore year waking up at 6 A.M., which allowed me just enough time to go downstairs, make a pot of coffee, toast a strawberry Pop Tart, and return to my bedroom to watch reruns of I Love Lucy on TBS. When the show ended and my breakfast was gone, I’d jump in the shower, dress, and put a variety of styling gels in my hair, a process that took me until 7:30, twenty-five minutes before my home-room teacher, Mrs. Simpler, took attendance. I wasn’t conscious of this routine until November of that year, the same month I started seeing Dr. Wendy Mynnix, a psychologist who specialized in eating disorders.
I was living primarily with my mother and step-father, though I’d occasionally spend the night at my father’s house. My mom began pointing out what she called “noticeable differences” in my personality. It was her way to criticize, as maybe it’s any Jewish mother’s way – it was done “out of love,” not malice. I’d sit in the unlit basement – my face awash in television glow – and stare purposely away as she called me “listless” and “disinterested.” She was right. I didn’t want to be hugged or touched.
My dad, on the other hand, noticed something else completely.
“You look thinner,” he’d say, week after week.
It didn’t bother me that he thought I looked like I was losing weight. I was the butt of several fat jokes my freshman year. (My friend, Heather, once called me a dump truck.) I wasn’t fat in the typical sense; I simply had some extra weight in the face that accompanies puberty. When you’re 15, though, fat is fat, and other 15-year-olds won’t let you forget it.
“You must be hungry,” my dad would note.
I grew up in the shadow of an older brother who, back then, was not only handsome, but was said to look like Tom Cruise. It was 1990 – four years removed from Top Gun – and I was sharing a bedroom with Maverick. It seemed every girl – his classmates, my classmates, girls from other schools, girls from other countries, imaginary girls who didn’t exist – wanted him. What they didn’t want – what they couldn’t want – was a 15-year-old blob. Of course, I wasn’t a blob, but that’s how I saw myself. It’s only now I know any better.
It became ever harder to ignore during gym class, especially in the locker room. I started noticing that some of my classmates had muscles – real muscles – in their arms, legs and chest. They talked about running and lifting weights and getting in shape for whatever after school sporting event awaited them. And then I’d look at my undeveloped self. I wasn’t sinewy or muscular. I was shapeless, like an amoeba. They looked like men; I looked like the Shmoo – like I’d just stepped out of a Li’l Abner cartoon.
“Are you trying to lose weight?”
What irritated me about my father’s comments was their frequency. He’d hug me and note my back feeling “bony.” Every meal was served with the catchphrase, “Is that all you’re having?” He eventually started to notice a lack of interest on my part in anything but exercise and coffee.
In our first session, Dr. Mynnix didn’t take any notes or remove and replace her glasses with every answer. She never piped up and asked, “Do you have an eating disorder?” Besides, I wouldn’t have known the answer even if she did. Instead we just talked – about school, about home. Normal things. Boring things. Ironically, after a couple months of shutting myself off from my friends, my parents, and the rest of the world, I decided almost immediately that I’d found someone with whom I could speak candidly.
Shortly before Christmas vacation, Wendy moved her office to the fifth floor of the Harrisburg Hospital. I stepped off the elevator with my father and felt every eye on me. The reception area was littered with mothers and their children. One boy threw a Lincoln Log at another. None of them stopped their hollering or put down their plastic blocks to notice me; the parents, however, stared. My dad tried to talk to me about the approaching Super Bowl (Giants/Bills, I think?), but all I could hear were those kids – screaming and running, throwing stuffed animals and crayons across the room.
And then, at last, Wendy. Along with her new office came a new line of questioning.
“Are you overly neat?”
I was. When I slept at night, the covers had to hang evenly off both sides of the bed, myself perfectly centered on the mattress. I’d lay there, arms outstretched at my sides, pinching the sheets between my fingertips to ensure they were equidistant from the bed’s center. When bathing, the stream from the shower head had to hit me directly between the shoulder blades. I’d reposition it time and again to make sure it, and I, was centered
“Do you spend a lot of time by yourself?”
Well, yes. I had become so completely detached that I’d wait for the house to be empty before I ever came out of my room. The idea of having to interact with anyone terrified me.
“After speaking to you for over a month now, Brandon, it sounds fairly obvious to me that you’re suffering from anorexia nervosa.”
Wendy pointed to the radical weight loss, the depression, the sense of not having control, the detachment from others. I doubted her still, until she handed me an essay on anorexia. I lingered over the highlighted passages as if reading my own journal. I felt embarrassed and ashamed.
Wendy asked my dad to join us. She repeated nearly everything she had just told me. Every time my dad spoke, his voice cracked.
When I returned to school in January, I was forced to become better acquainted with the school nurse, Mrs. Rawls, the mother of two state wrestling champions who graduated from my high school. She was a lean woman with “secretary” hair and a slight southern drawl. Wendy had spoken to her before school was back in session and, to my dismay, enlisted her: Mrs. Rawls was to not only weigh me once a week, but was to have me report to her office – a cold, first-floor room that reeked of cheap tongue-depressor wood – every day between second and third period to have a snack. It didn’t matter what it was, provided it had a set amount of calories. Lettuce, for example, was out of the question. So I ate things like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and candy bars, and when I “forgot” to bring a snack, Mrs. Rawls marched me to the cafeteria to buy one. The worst part about it was that the only people in the cafeteria at that time of day were me, Mrs. Rawls and the lunchroom employees. They always looked at me funny, but never said a word. Mrs. Rawls never told them why I was there.
It was humiliating.
One day, following my second period Chemistry class, I skipped my visit with Mrs. Rawls. Ten minutes into third period, an announcement came over the public address system: “Will Brandon Dameshek please report to the nurse’s office? Brandon Dameshek to the nurse’s office.” My friend Brian, a workout fanatic we dubbed “Solo,” after the then wildly popular Soloflex home gym, asked why I’d possibly been called to visit the nurse.
“I have no idea,” I lied.
As the year and its rituals progressed – my sessions with Wendy, the weekly weigh-ins and snacks, the positioning of the shower head, the straightening of the sheets – my weight actually dropped. I had reached an agreement with Wendy that it wouldn’t dip below 112 pounds. If it did, Mrs. Rawls was to notify Wendy immediately who, at times, had reluctantly threatened me with intravenous feedings. (A friend of my dad’s, also a psychologist, suggested I start putting rocks in my pockets before my weigh-ins.)
One morning, I stepped on the scale in Mrs. Rawls’ office. It read 110 pounds. She looked at me, disgusted. I begged her not to tell, practically crying. She had no choice. I collapsed into a chair, alternating my gaze between her face and the scale’s, unsure as to which one terrified me more.
It was August. I was 16, and both Wendy and my parents were at their wit’s end. The counseling wasn’t adding weight to my frame, nor was my parents’ pampering. My options were then stripped away entirely.
For one of the only times since they divorced when I was 10 years old, my mother and father were driving to the same place. I sat in the front seat of my mom’s silver Ford Tempo while my dad followed in his Dodge Omni, the three of us on our way to an institution in Baltimore. I don’t remember its name, but I knew why I was going.
A doctor in a white coat took us on a tour of the facility – an enormous brick building nestled back between the trees, somehow reminiscent of an Ivy League school – pointing out the dorm-like rooms and the many kids wandering its halls like ghosts. The floors looked newly-mopped and smelled of Murphy’s Oil Soap. Everything was immaculate. The doctor told us that patients were there for everything from eating disorders to suicide attempts. He smiled the whole time. He was proud of his “rehabilitating” kids. The tour lasted for over an hour, and my mom and dad bombarded him with questions. I said nothing. I barely blinked. I moved in and out of its many rooms as if floating.
When the tour ended and we returned to their respective cars, my parents asked me what I thought.
“There’s no fucking way I’m coming here! This is bullshit! Fuck that, no way!”
I had never said “fuck” in front of my parents, yet suddenly it was the only word I knew. I cried. They reached for me, but I struggled free of their grips. I didn’t want their sympathy or any institution that locked kids away and forced them to get well. I said the only think I could think of: “I promise I’ll start eating. I promise, I fucking promise! I promise!”
They never checked me in. In fact, my sessions with Wendy ended soon after. It’s been 22 years and I haven’t seen or talked to her since. After that trip to Baltimore, everything changed. I kept my promise and actually started to gain weight. I forced myself to eat, to be more personable, to do things with friends. And by doing all of those things I discovered I was happier. It was difficult at first – stepping on the bathroom scale and watching the counter-clockwise rotation of the numbers as my weight slowly increased. A pound to me may as well have been twenty. But I knew that if my weight kept going up, the idea – even the mention – of Baltimore would gradually waste away. And it did.
I wish I could say that I was cured – that I’m no longer anorexic and don’t obsess about food – but that would be a lie. I’ve never eaten a meal without at least considering the calories. I’ve never looked at myself naked and been truly happy. Not even once. I watch my 9-year-old daughter eat her dinner and think, “Is that too much food? Not enough?” I worry myself sick that she might one day waste away, or hover over a toilet with a finger down her throat, or, worse yet, lock herself in her bedroom, away from the world, where no one can get to her. I am relieved, though, when I see her towel in a heap on her bedroom floor, and her clothes stripped from her hangers and tossed aimlessly across her comforter. There is this part of me that breathes easier knowing that my little girl’s a slob, and that maybe she’ll never need to stuff her pockets with stones.
About the author
Brandon Dameshek’s poetry has appeared in Cimarron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Harrisburg Review, Coe Review, Portrait, Conte and, most recently, Wildwood Journal. Dameshek holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. He now resides in Camp Hill, PA, with his wife, daughter, and dachshunds.