I didn’t receive many incoming phone calls during my months as a patient at Remuda Ranch treatment center for eating disorders. Calls could be taken after dinner before evening snack (but not during), and then in the very brief interim after snack before bed. Considering we always had between eleven and fourteen women on our unit…well. One would probably have better luck getting through to the Oval Office. But somehow, he did. Once.
He asked if I was eating. Yes, I was. That was the primary purpose of the institution, you know.. Was I talking to a shrink? Sure. Aside from the formerly mentioned activity, that was nearly all I was doing. A beat. Then, “You want to know what I think about all this?” NO. My brain knew the correct response immediately. Thirty two years of conditioning had prepared me for such a moment. But for some reason, I couldn’t make a sound. Say “NO”!, my brain demanded. Silence…I am weak. Still.
My father. He had become a sort of surreal, shadowy figure during my inpatient months. My therapists insisted on dredging up memories I’d been perfectly content to leave in the past. The more they insisted that the abuse I went through as a kid was one of a perfect storm of factors that led to my twenty year battle with anorexia and bulimia, the more I resisted what I considered to be an absurd notion. Ludicrous. But I was outnumbered. And I wanted to get better, after all. So, I eventually started talking. And then feeling. Feeling everything all over again. Anger. Rage, even. And fear.
In a flawless ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ masquerade, my father had perfected the all-around good guy public persona. He was a stand-up comic by trade. A good one. He charmed my teachers, flirted shamelessly with my mother’s friends,and delighted the neighborhood parents by arranging outings for all their children on lazy summer days. He took a pack of us to the park one afternoon. I was, maybe nine, and teasing one of the younger kids. I guess Dad decided he’d had enough. He came up behind me and the sudden force of one quick shove landed me flat on my stomach. He then jerked me up to my hands and knees and held me there…his meaty hand on the small of my back. With his other hand, he began pulling up clods of dirt and grass, forcing them into my mouth and down my throat until I had to swallow. He was singing “Look at the MOO-cow eating grass everybody! Look at the MOO-cow!” When said “MOO-cow” began to choke and vomit its feed, he stopped, tilted his head to meet my eyes, and jabbed a dirty finger at my face. God, I hated his pinkie ring. It’s strange. The details that are burned into your memory. “Next time, pick on someone your own size.” Irony, anyone? I was loath to admit it, but for years I heard “MOO-cow” ringing in my ears when I purged. Cow. MOO-cow.
It doesn’t matter now, I tell the therapists. It was so long ago. But it matters to them. They say it should have mattered to someone a long time ago. I consider this. I think maybe they’re right. They want to know more. I tell them more. What does it matter now?
I was a few years older this time. Twelve or so. It all got progressively worse as I became older. Mouthy. Opinionated. My father was driving a friend and I back to our house after school. It was the dead of winter in New Jersey and the glare from the falling snow was blinding. I said…something. I was always saying something. My father pulled the car over to the shoulder of the highway and opened the back door where I was sitting. He jerked me out by my ponytail and dragged me toward the guard rail. He tripped me then, and with a still firm grasp around my hair, ground my face into the street. I can still feel the gravel, ice, and glass swept aside from fender benders..When he was satisfied, he casually walked back to the car and sat in the driver’s seat with the engine idling, waiting for me to get myself together. I sat there for what felt like a very long time, gingerly pulling rock and glass from my face. The snow had turned to sleet and was now coming down in a rapid, icy drizzle. It was so cold that the blood on my fingers froze. I knew I’d have to go back and face my friend eventually. I hated my Dad at that moment. I hated myself for making him so angry. I stumbled back to the car and with my head held high, I looked straight into the horrified face of my poor friend. And I laughed. Big joke. You know my Dad..always the comedian. I could tell she wasn’t buying it, but I guess she didn’t tell anybody either because nobody ever came to save me. Nobody. Ever. Came to save me. The next day, I stayed home from school and became lost in the mirror. Not for the first time. It certainly wouldn’t be the last. Staring numbly at the image before me with empty gray eyes, the stranger held my gaze with similar detachment. I continued my work removing whatever street grit I had missed the previous day. For weeks after this incident, I could feel my face burning where the worst of the damage occurred. As an adult, I would remember this when I became a cutter. The pain that lingered long after the original hurt was inflicted. A reminder of what a terrible, terrible person I was. An unlovable girl.
Back to the present day on the phone, in the safety of this place of hope and healing, my ever foolish mouth opens. And betrays me. “Sure, Dad. What do you think?” Here we go. “I think you just want attention.” This, sadly and incorrectly, is a fairly common theory. I don’t tell him that I’d never want this kind of attention. I don’t tell him that things just spun out of control. I don’t tell him that I’d never felt more lonely or ugly or worthless. That in those final days, right before I agreed to accept help, I just wanted everybody to leave me the hell alone and let me DIE already! And because I don’t tell him any of this, he continues. “Yeah, that’s your way. It’s always been- ‘Look at ME! Look at JENNIFER! Aren’t I SPECIAL? Aren’t I BEAUTIFUL? Aren’t I GREAT? And you know what? You’re not. You never were. You never will be. And this is your last-ditch effort trying to get there.” Pause. I say nothing. “Well. You keep in touch. Your stepmother worries about you.” Dial tone. I hold the phone for a few moments before replacing it in its cradle. I wait for an emotion. Am I going to cry? Maybe I’ll become enraged? Run to the arms of a fellow sister in suffering? I’m in a room full of them. But- I don’t feel..much of anything, really. My detachment concerns the professional team treating me.They worry I’m suppressing.That I’m repressing . They just worry in general. I leave treatment after several months, as much a physical success as can be hoped for, but, in their clinical view, clearly emotionally stunted. Okay, then.
I do some serious soul-searching once I’m home. I recount the phone call with my new therapist, with my husband, a friend or two. I’m not completely impervious, though I am largely unmoved. Is something wrong with me?
No. At least, I don’t think so. In piecing together the complex tapestry that is becoming my life story, the threads that have woven my father’s picture are frayed and unraveling. He’s still here, but his presence doesn’t suffocate me now. The nightmares have ceased. I take umbrage at the notion that I am bitter. To know bitterness, you first have to taste sweet.
I think back, sometimes, to that bruised and battered little girl who used to be me. Who would hide in her closet and wait for what she was certain would be imminent rescue. And I ache so much for her. I wish I could go back and hold her through the worst of it. Whisper that it will all end. That she’s not as alone in the universe as she thinks. That none of it is her fault. But I’m crying for her. Not for me.
Because I know now to whom I really belong. I am God’s daughter. In spite of myself, He loves me as I am. In my self-flagellating moments, when my father’s unbidden voice finds its way into my psyche, I am able to extinguish it with these immutable truths. God thinks I’m special. And God thinks I’m beautiful. And God wants to do great things through me. I don’t need to torture myself to become these things. I already am. I am…enough. Enough. I meditate on this in wonderment. I bathe in the foreign delectation’s of His goodness. In the end? It seems I’m not so emotionally stunted after all.