Sarah

By Chelsey Clammer


White furniture surrounded me. I knelt on the floor immersed in heavy sobs. My knees pressed into my roommate's ugly and expensive oriental rug. I was ruining it as I heaved snot onto its red and green pattern--the soft yellows did nothing to hide my globs of mucus. Sunlight streamed in through the large front windows of that condo. It was not my condo. It was my roommate's condo. She was crazy and decided to let me stay there. She was crazy because she was actually crazy. Like, crazy, crazy. Like me crazy. But she was also crazy because she was letting me live there. I was a hot mess. Bulimic, alcoholic, self-mutilator, and generally just falling into pieces.

I was falling into pieces on the ugly red and green Persian rug in that too-white condo. My roommate was away for the weekend. She was the woman who would later give me a blue nylon running jacket and said, "Funny. This is the jacket I attempted suicide in last year." I've attempted suicide before, but I have never tried to hand off the clothes I was wearing at the time.

But this wasn't about her and her white furniture or her ugly rug. I didn't care about her rug. I was too consumed by my own problems to wonder why she wanted to own that rug. My own problems were that I had already binged and purged three times that day. And it was only 10am. And that was not unusual for me. I purged the cereal, the ice cream, the two pizzas, and the mashed potatoes. But then, in some moment of post-puking clarity, I decided to call a friend who was just as lonely in life as I was. This is why we were friends. Neither of us really had any friends, so we befriended one another to help each other through the hard shit.

I was in the hard shit. And in that random flash of clarity, I dug my cell phone out of my pocket and called her.

Sarah, I can't stop puking. I cried and I hollered. And she just listened. She told me to breathe. And so I tried that. She told me to breathe again, and that time I really did it. My stomach crackled with each breath.

I was binging and purging because I did not know what else to do. I had lost all of my friends because of my craziness, I was drowning in the amount of course work for my grad school classes that I kept putting off, and my work situation was a mess. I was an AmeriCorps volunteer. I actually got paid, but it was only $5.50 an hour, so it was basically volunteer work. And it was stressful work. I spent my days at a high school where violence was the theme. I ran a peer mediation program all of the students thought was a joke. The gang members didn't want to talk out their problems. They just wanted to fight. And my mediators were the kids with no friends, the ones who came into my office during their lunch hour for training in order to be mediators. They didn't want to be in the cafeteria, because the other kids always threw food at them. So they came into my office each Tuesday and Thursday and munched away at their candy, the sugar that sustained them throughout the day. They had their social anxiety problems. They had their acne. They had their reasons to not exist anymore. I could relate to them, their desire to disappear, their unsatisfying lives. I was always hungover and never wanted to be in that school either, the cavernous halls with the depressing dark green paint that was chipping off onto the black painted floors. And yet my job was to guide these youth, to show them that talking out their problems would help to heal their school, their community, themselves.

I had been in therapy for two years trying to talk out my own problems. Why it was I kept cutting my arms, why I didn't allow myself to gain some necessary weight, why I couldn't let go of all of my anxiety from being sexually groped by a stranger last year. He had run up behind me and grabbed my shoulder, than stuck his hand up my dress. I went to therapy right after I was assaulted to try and get over that incident, but the therapy was just palliative, just a tool I used to try and feel a connection with someone once a week. Plus, I knew it would be at least one hour a week when I was not puking. That was all I had. Yet each day I got worse. I continued drinking, I continued cutting, I continued puking. This was perhaps why all of my friends left me, as the level of scariness I approached heightened each day. Each Wednesday night after therapy I got drunk, again, continued to spend all of my money on booze and then dumpster dove my way home in search of food I could binge and purge on until I fell into a sloppy mucus-covered heap on my bed. Then I went to work the next morning hungover as hell with a sore throat and bloated stomach, and faced the problems of troubled teens. Nothing there was working.

 

It was a Saturday morning when I called Sarah. I didn't know what she was doing, and I didn't even care. I just knew that I needed her voice, needed someone who could take care of what I could no longer take care of. I wasn't quite sure what it was I expected for her to do, but something to get me off of that ugly carpet in the glaring sun and off to do something productive with my life. But there I was, glued to the ground with snot running down my chin, hungover with my phone grasped to my ear, my hand clutched to my stomach. My jaw was sore, my stomach felt as if it were exploding and bleeding all over itself. My throat was gunked up with mucus, and I could not breathe because I was sobbing too hard.

All these things were incredibly ugly. Not just with the havoc the drinking and the puking wrecked on my skin and my face, or the scars that accumulated on my forearms, but the amount that I was hiding these things was disgusting, too. I was constantly anxious about trying to hide from my friends the copious amount of liquor I drank each night, because they already thought I drank too much. I also became nervous about hiding the puking from my friends, about concealing that nasty disorder so they wouldn't be disgusted by me. All of this hiding made me anxious. That was what my shrink said. I was not only dealing with the trauma of being assaulted, but I was also dealing with the anxiety about those addictions, about the fact that I constantly tried to hide the drinking, the puking, and the cutting from my friends . I didn't want to be revealed. But whenever I became anxious I turned to the three things I knew that would momentarily alleviate the anxiety—drinking, purging, cutting. Anxiety over the addictions, using the addictions to quell the anxiety. The cycle continued. I didn't think my shrink knew what to do with me. I didn't know what to do with me. What I did know was that I needed to get out of that trap, that I had the "tools," as my shrink said, to break through that cycle. But I was drowning in the addictions so much that I didn't even know where the hell that "toolbox" inside of me was.

Another thing that was not working was that I also had the school work to do for the MA in Women's Studies I was working towards. I studied women like me, studied the reasons these things happen, the societal pressures, the culturally imposed self-images that were impossible to live up to. You would have thought someone with my background would never find herself in a place like this and if she did, she would know how to "thrive." "Thrive" that's another thing my shrink said. But while I almost had an MA in Women's Studies, while I worked part-time at a feminist bookstore, and while I was in therapy with a feminist relational therapist, I still had an eating disorder, one that was tearing my body apart. I even had a theoretical paper on eating disorders and alcoholism to write for my Women Studies program, and there I was with my own eating disorder and my own alcoholism and I did not know what to do about it. Thinking about it didn't help. Putting it into academic jargon didn't help. Nothing helped. I knew I had feminist strength inside of me, I knew that my body was beautiful just the way it was, but I failed to feel it, I flailed when I tried to will it to be true. My shrink said I needed to love myself more, that I needed to be more compassionate with myself, that I needed to recognize the strength and beauty I had within myself. And while I wanted to agree with her, wanted to think all of those beautiful things about myself, what I felt was horrible and ugly and that I needed another drink. I needed that drink, that mound of food I wanted to shove inside of myself in order to push away all of that atrocious anxiety. My feminist relational therapist thought I was better than that. I was not. The only feminist thing going on there was that I have a strong woman supporting me. Sarah was on the phone with me. She was there for me because I was not there for myself.

Sarah cared. I did not know why she cared, but she did. I did not care about myself, but I needed to know at least someone did. She told me to breathe again, and I did. I heard her voice ask me what had been going on, why I had been puking so much that day, if I was sick and if I needed to go to the hospital, and I wondered if then, if in that the moment I would finally tell her the truth.

Sarah was a volunteer at the feminist bookstore where I picked up shifts at night after my days spent at the high school. Sarah helped to put out the metal folding chairs for each event, helped to clean up the store afterward of the spilled red wine and crumbs of yellow crackers and smears of white cheese. I was impressed by her ability to give, as she was doing a job I would never do if I had not been getting paid for it. She was a volunteer and did all of the work anyway, and with a kind and generous smile.

A few months before that telephone call on the ugly rug, Sarah was cleaning the store after an event while I counted the money. When our duties were done, I asked Sarah if she wanted to go out for a drink. My girlfriend Jen was slowly slipping out of my life, all of my friends had also started to retreat, and I needed a new drinking buddy, someone who would also spend their nights avoiding their problems with alcohol. She agreed to come with me, but instead of pretending everything was fine in our lives, we opened up to each other because our problems had been pressing on our sternums lately, we needed to exhale them out of our lungs.

Sarah had an interesting relationship with her family, one that was causing her much stress. I had an interesting relationship with my friends that were fading, one that was causing me much stress. We talked about our relationships as I finished my third drink and she began working on her second. Her brown eyes looked thoughtfully into my hazy hazel ones through her small wire-rimmed glasses. She looked at my empty glass and ruffled her short curly brown hair with her thick pale fingers. As we started to sip at our new round of drinks, we each shifted our wildly different body weight on our bar chairs. Sarah was short and stocky, I was much taller and too-lean. And though my bulimic face was twice the size of Sarah's small triangular skull, she did not comment on mine's bloatedness. Because while in that dark bar, with the fancy cocktails and the imported beer, I told her how Jen left me, how she said goodbye, how it devastated me, but I did not tell her about the main problem I was having, which was swallowing food and then immediately puking it back up. I considered for a second if I would tell her this, decided no, not now, and finished my fifth drink.

I hid the facts of my bulimia in hopes that Sarah's care will continue, that she wouldn't get scared away like the others. I was ugly when I puked—the puffy face, the blood vessels that burst in my eyes, the way I could no long see my chin because the glands in my neck were too swollen. No one wanted to stand around and witness it. What I did tell Sarah that night was about the cutting, and she had already started to see how much I drank. She would soon witness the drinking each night, would always be astonished by the amount of liquor I could consume. For some reason the cuts didn't astonish her, didn't make her eyes widen or her face turn. She simply noted them and listened to what I had to say. She did not know where my pain came from, what would make me cut, but she understood the seriousness of it and did not retreat away from me that night or any night after it. What she also didn't know during our first drinking date was that when I ate the chips and guacamole with her in my drunk, care-free attitude, I was only able to do so because I excused myself to the bathroom, and easily heaved it out in one backwards gulp. Then I went back out to the bar for more alcohol, to replace the liquor that I had thrown up along with the food.

Maybe she knew these things. Maybe she sensed it, figured it out by looking at my red, wet eyes when I returned from the one-stall bathroom. Blood vessels on the verge of bursting. Maybe she cared too much to say anything, sensed this newly arising friendship would only last if we first keep quiet about what could create judgment. It was in that silence that I felt her caring, in that she didn't point out what was obvious, that she didn't embarrass me that night by noting what she had to have known. She kept quiet about those things, saved me from the embarrassment, and allowed for me to figure out how to move past them on my own.

Then, a few months later, I was on my knees, on that ugly carpet, with the stark white furniture and white walls spotlighting and echoing the sounds of my desperation. Sarah used her voice to soothe me. After the few breaths I somehow managed to choke into my lungs, I told her I did not want to do this anymore. Do what? I detoured the conversation momentarily as I went again into the story about how I lost my girlfriend Jen, lost all of the friends that used to give me support because I was cutting. Because I'm disgusting, I told Sarah. She asked why I thought I was disgusting, and I wavered for a second as I decided if I should or should not reveal my bulimia secret. There were the things, the ugly facts of the addictions that I hid, the secrets I did not want to share with anyone because I was too embarrassed to admit them.

Like, bulimia gave me great abs.

I tried to appreciate the small things in life. Like how Sarah didn't ask me on the phone right then what I had done last night after the bar.

I had walked down the alleys in my route home from the bar, and looked in each dumpster for food—any food— to eat. Dumpsters are all the same: Big green metal rectangular bins with the black plastic lids. The insides of them always feel oily, always have the grease and grime from other people's discards. They all smell the same. All human trash has a sweetly sour and rank smell, a mustiness about it. The stale loafs of bread I found absorbed that smell. The scent of trash soaked up into the bread. There were also the endless amount of stale pizzas I found in the dumpsters near the college campus and disregarded take-out leftovers with this smell.

I have been a vegetarian since I was fifteen, and then a decade later, I still tried to keep up with that diet as I dove for my food, which was utterly unnecessary because I knew I would immediately throw up all of what I just ate. Somewhere in my mind I thought that if I kept with the vegetarianism, if I set out rules for what I ate, then maybe I would eventually start to eat regularly again. Or perhaps I was just trying to control another facet of my diet. During one of my first dumpster-diving sprees I realized I was powerless to the thought of controlling what I ate. And, though I was tempted, I did not eat the hamburgers, but I eventually disregarded my non-animal diet, when I found the remains of a pizza with pepperoni. I didn't try to pick off the stale bits of meat, because I figured that since I was going to throw it up anyway, what difference would it make what I swallowed?

The night before I called Sarah on the ugly rug, I had left her at a bar and had gone down the alley looking for food. My eyes had almost adjusted to the yellow streetlight hue, as I tried to decipher if there was any food in each white bag of trash. But my drunk eyes played tricks on me. I accidentally ripped open a bag of shit-filled cat litter.

As I hopped between each dumpster, filling my stomach with smelly food, a black man with gray wiry hairs sticking up from his beard saw me and asked if I need a place to stay. His eyes looked tired, wrinkled, like he had experienced too much life, but in those old eyes, I could see that he really did look concerned for me. For a brief second, I saw myself through this elderly man's eyes. With my dreadlocks and trash-stinking clothes, with a look of lost desperation, of having nothing to keep me tied to this world, I must have looked like a homeless child, like a teen who had given up hope, who had nowhere to go.

But I did have my roommate's too-white condo to go home to. And what this man did not know was that I was there because my bloated stomach was raging, because I needed something to soak up the odious amount of liquor I drank. Anything to stave off the alcohol poisoning. My body tried to survive itself.

Once the old man was out of my view, I continued to traverse my way home, feasting myself again on the discarded food

I was stuffed and nauseous with trash chemicals and the lingering liquor by the time I returned home. I took a plastic grocery bag and up-chucked the food I'd consumed. I knelt in my closet in an attempt to muffle the sounds from my roommate who slept down the hall. This is how I hid my bulimia. The quiet heaves, the throwing up when she was asleep.

My roommate never woke up. Sarah asked nothing about what I did after the bar when I called her the next day from the ugly rug.

I felt as if Sarah's silence came from a place of caring. But my roommate's silence, how she didn't even say one thing to me the other day about why our bathroom sink was clogged up with the black gunk of old, chewed up food felt different. The bathroom sink was another place in which I dispelled my binged food. If after flushing the toilet of vomit, I stood up and felt there was still more in me that needed to be expelled, then I used the sink. Thus the toilet flushed only once, like I was just peeing. And while my roommate's silence did nothing to stop me from doing this, I, in a way, appreciated it. That was my mask of normalcy, the silence that kept me looking sane.

But then, on the phone, Sarah was trying to break that silence. She was trying to get me to admit that I felt quite insane with all that I was hiding. On the phone, I did not tell Sarah about the drunk dumpster diving from the night before. But I did finally say it, finally let the words crack through my teeth, my rotted gums, the words spilled out of me like partly digested food. I'm bulimic.

A month before this phone call Sarah took a picture of me in Michigan on the lake. It was sunset, and I waved my dreads in front of the pink winter sun. Ice and snow consumed the beach, and the sun hung low against them. With my back bent forward, my long dreads hung down and covered my face. They were a curtain for the sun, the light highlighted and surrounded each dread. Looking back on this picture, I wish this could be a metaphor for something, something about how good it was to finally have a friend, to have someone who had my back, who stood behind me and helped me to shine. But it wasn't that simple, especially when one of us in the photo was hiding.

Sarah and I went on a weekend vacation to Michigan on the same weekend of the year before when I had gone away with my girlfriend Jen up to Madison. Jen and I were in love then, a strong love that showed no hints of going away. In the year that passed I lost Jen to my addictions, lost all of my friends because I was bulimic and hid it. But they knew. There's no way they could have not known. But no one wanted to talk about it, and so they turned their backs and ran. I don't blame them, I would have done the same. But then there came Sarah right when I needed someone to catch me, to not run, to understand me, to not judge me, but to help me do more than just barely survive.

She came with me to Michigan to keep me company, to drink wine and shut ourselves off from the cold air in the warm cabin with books. We drank and we ate, and when Sarah ventured off to the store down the road for more wine, I ate a few pieces of bread with some butter then threw them up in the bathroom. I did not binge, but I needed that feeling of purging in order to get the memories of Jen out of my system, the feeling of her that had been pressing in my bones. Sarah soon returned with more red wine, and I wondered if she knew that I threw up, if again she could see it on my face. She said nothing, poured me another drink, and we sat back in our conversation, continued to learn who each other was, staying silent about the one thing that screamed.

This, I appreciated. Her silence was caring.

Before the phone call on the rug, when we first entered into our friendship, Sarah tried to understand my other addictions. She tried to understand them so well that she almost hurt herself trying. She wanted to understand the cuts, to see if a physical pain could really help to relieve an emotional one. One night at the bar, she told me about her experiment that day. This was a month before the Michigan trip and just a few weeks after we had started to become friends. A few nights earlier I had shared with her an essay I wrote about cutting. She wanted to understand. A few days later while she was at work she felt frustrated and overwhelmed, she said. She closed her office door, shut herself off from the world. She hiked up one leg of her brown stretchy pants. She took a plastic twisty tie from off the end of a loaf of bread, and tried to dig into the pale plump skin. A subtle scratch that got her nowhere, something that irritated the skin rather than bring her any relief. But she was trying to understand.

Before she met me at the bar that night, she confessed her actions in therapy. As she told me about what she did with the twisty tie, I wondered what her therapist thought of me, if I was that crazy friend, a bad influence. But I knew I was not responsible for Sarah's actions. I sat and I listened to her slow words as she described the incident, her thoughtful words that were silent about blaming me. It was not my fault. This I decided as my vodka soda reached up to my lips. And as I listened to her one distorted thought made me smile—I was the crazier one. My crazy antics were somehow better than hers, crazier than hers. I had the win here, the thick scars on my arms were proof that I was better at self-mutilation. I knocked back those crazy thoughts with another drink, and smiled instead at this friend I had found. Because unlike the people who left me, Sarah was trying to understand, and that was all I need in this friendship.

I'm bulimic, I finally gasped to Sarah over the phone.

Yeah, I know, she said in her soft voice.

And suddenly the stark white of the apartment didn't feel so threatening, so wanting to cast me out of its purity. Someone knew. And still cared.

My breath felt lighter. And my stomach no longer crackled. And with this admission I stopped puking. I stopped binging, I stopped drinking, I stopped cutting.

That is not how it worked.

A year later, Sarah is the one who finally takes me to the emergency room. The night before she takes me to that emergency room, was a night in which I drink away all of my money and took one last trip home through the dumpsters. I did my nightly routine of eating and puking, got all of the fierce liquor and smelly food out of me by puking. By then, I lived on my own, as my crazy roommate with the ugly rug and the too-white furniture kicked me out once it dawned on her I was binging and purging all her food. She caught me one morning before I could walk to the store and replenish the refrigerator of all I had eaten. And so she kicked me and my addictions out. I was then on my own, and I got even worse. Though, when I finally admitted to Sarah that one Saturday afternoon a year ago that I was bulimic, I thought that was it. Since I had expelled the secret from my body, I thought I would stop expelling the food. But it has been a year, and I am still puking. Sarah knows this, knows what I do as I leave the bar each night, and yet she still does not judge, still only wishes me well and tells me to call her if I need anything.

Now, a year after the bulimic admission and another morning after a night of drinking and puking, and I need her, again. I need her quiet voice, the way she lets air hang between each thought. I need her thoroughness, the way she considers each phrase, each action. I need the way she does not judge. I need her to keep me from disappearing. And, she has a car, so I need her to take me to the hospital.

My arm is bleeding. I have cut it again, as cutting continues to be a part of my nightly ritual, something to go along with the drinking and the puking. Sarah knows this, knows how the cutting doesn't actually hurt me, but the consequences of it does. The friends that ran away when the cutting got deep, the girlfriend that left because she couldn't stand my scars.

I call Sarah again, only this time I am holding my arm, trying to affix a bandage as I tell her what I've done and where I need to go. She knows I'm serious, can hear it in my voice. Five minutes later she is at the apartment. She shows up with a tentative smile, not knowing what mood I am in. I smile back at her, let her know that I'll be okay now that I'm leaving, now that I'm getting out of the apartment I have trapped myself inside of with the drinking, the cutting, and the puking. We go off to the hospital for stitches, then I will go off to the psych ward to have experienced professionals take care of me. To get the alcohol out of my system, to try and have a normal eating schedule in which I do not binge and purge. To let my cuts heal.

In the car as we drive north towards the hospital, Sarah does not ask if I'm sure about this, does not question if the hospital is really where I want to end up. She's silent, perhaps because by then, she's getting a little exasperated with supporting me, her being my only friend I have left. Perhaps she needs the break from me more than I need it from myself. If this is true, she says nothing to me in that car ride, but silently drives me to the hospital as I ramble on about nothing in particular, letting words drift in the air to avoid talking about how much my stomach hurts, how horribly hungover I am.

She sees me to the waiting room, sits there while the triage nurse asks me the questions. Why are you here? How old are these cuts? Are you suicidal? Soon, I am in a room and I have a guard outside of my door. There is nothing in this room that can hurt me, just Sarah who keeps me company. The pale yellow walls, the peach colored bed, the gray chair that Sarah sits in all comfort me. She leans back in her gray padded chair and we begin joking about something, god knows what, but smart little quips about life and the hospital and the cuts that get me to laugh. Sarah cares for me in the only way a best friend can, by letting me make my own mistakes, and being there for me to drive me to the hospital when I need it.

After the stitches, and after an hour of waiting for the social worker to come and assess me, Sarah takes off. She has her own life to live and there is nothing else she can do for me now that the professionals have swooped in. I will not see her for ten days, though I do not know that as I sit staring at my stitches. In that emergency room I do not know that I will stay in the psych ward for a week and a half, that I will call Sarah every day because the nurses take my cell phone away and hers is the only number I have memorized. She again will talk with me on the phone, again will get me back into myself with each considerate word. I will come out of that psych ward and never drink again, and I will finally begin to heal. Sarah will see me through that, too. She is the one who brought me to the hospital, and she will be the one that is there for me when I reemerge. She will drive me back home and continue to stay with me, to help me clean up my house of the liquor bottles and rusty razors, and she will continue to be my friend as I learn how to be one for myself.

 

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