A/N: Semi-autobiographical, I suppose. (Constructive) criticism and opinions would be appreciated. Thanks.
It's early August. You are wearing baggy jeans, a fleece sweater, and have an afghan quilt wrapped tightly around your shoulders. You are in Philadelphia, and are certain that it should not be so chilly this time of the year. The concrete steps you're sitting on are hard and cool, and you shiver every time the sliding glass doors behind you open to let out a blast of ice-cold wind from the air conditioner inside. There is a cigarette held surreptitiously in your hand, and even as your eyes dart around nervously every time you bring it to your lips, you know that it is, at this point, ridiculous to worry about getting caught for underage smoking. What could they do? After all, you already have no privileges of which to speak, and you will be leaving for good in a few hours, anyway. Better to err on the side of caution, though. With your luck, they would probably condemn you to an even longer sentence if they found you, a seventeen year-old inmate—resident, patient, whatever—at the Renfrew Center for eating disorders, with a cigarette in hand.
You realize suddenly that there is somebody standing directly behind you, and you jump, startled. When you look up and see that it is only Andrea, you are relieved, and flash her a guilty grin as she eyes you knowingly. Andrea is a year older than you, two pounds lighter (this is an important fact, as it makes her competition), and has long blonde hair that spills, thick and full, over her shoulders and falls just above her hips. You like her well enough, but Andrea confuses you. She is from South Carolina, speaks with an endearing accent, and dresses in expensive designer clothes. They show off her slender frame, and you think that she looks like a model. The first time you saw Andrea walking up the dirt path and through the threshold of the main building, you thought that she was one of the spoiled, rich girls who agreed to enter treatment only to appease a worried and frustrated family, but you have since come to realize that her dedication to recovery is genuine and her own.
Andrea is still staring down at you, and the intensity of her gaze makes you nervous, so you stand, rising to her level, and meet her eyes in challenge.
"Why do you do that here, where everyone can see you?" Andrea asks curiously, gesturing to the illicit cigarette.
You shrug. "They're more likely to miss what's right in front of their eyes," you explain, and fail to notice the irony of the statement.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Andrea finally gets to the point. "So, today's your last day, huh?" You bow your head in confirmation, and in response, Andrea thrusts something small and smooth into your hands. Running your fingers over the surface, you realize that it is a compact mirror, and you raise an eyebrow in silent question. Glass mirrors aren't allowed at Renfrew, for obvious and various reasons. It is one of the many rules that you hate, but at least you can see the point in this one. There is some tiny plastic thing mounted high on the wall of your bathroom that masquerades as a mirror, but it is so far up that you, at 5'2", have to stand on your toes just to be able to brush your hair every morning.
"I picked it up yesterday," Andrea goes on, and you remember then that she got to go out on her first pass the day before. Since the staff checks all receipts and purchases made on outings, you're pretty sure Andrea's nonchalant "picked it up" was meant quite literally. The offhanded remark makes you smirk. "I want you to have it. I know I can't convince you to stay, but would you at least do me one favor? I want you to look in it before you go. Really look, think of how things are right now, and then imagine what your future could be like if you make the decision to get better." You are annoyed by her continuing efforts to persuade you to go on living in an environment that has made you so unhappy, but it has been months since the last time you've been able to scowl at your own reflection, and her offer is enticing. You accept the gift graciously, nodding your thanks, then run inside, into the tiny bathroom you share with your roommate, Alex.
Your hand is shaking as you open the compact, and the first thing your gaze lands on are the identical brown orbs, just as hollow and one-dimensional in real life as they are in the mirror's projection. They lack depth, and you think that maybe this should concern you, but at the moment there are more important things to worry about. Like the fact that threats of bed rest and IVs have scared you into choking down Deliver, a nutritional supplement so laden with calories that it is not even sold over the counter, and the awful, sand-flavored drink has added ten disgusting pounds to your frame in the span of only one month. They make you drink two cans with every meal, and you think that this is unfair when everyone else is given Ensure, which tastes infinitely better and has half the calories. You sigh, as you knew from the beginning that weight gain was inevitable, and move on. You take in the collarbones, not nearly as prominent as they used to be, then hold the mirror as far away from you as possible to try and get a better look at your midriff. It is difficult, but you are a master in the art of self-deprecation, so your mind fills in with distortions of what the glass is too small to show. But there is still plenty there to criticize.
Your eyes turn hard, riddled with revulsion and fury at your own weakness, as you take in the stomach that bulges with evidence of your lack of self-control. You have committed the sin of Eve: nauseated by the mere thought of more Deliver, you ate breakfast that morning. You scowl. There is no forgiveness for you. Unable to bear the sight any longer, you focus again on your face, staring intently into the eyes of the stranger in the mirror. This time, their coldness disturbs you so much that you abruptly snap them shut and decide to do as Andrea asked, figuring that you at least owe her that much.
You imagine a future you, heavy and grotesque and uncaring about the fact that such hard-won control has been lost. Your mind's eye can see the fat, the misshapen body, so clearly that it makes you shudder and feel sick to your stomach. You immediately stop that train of thought and decide against telling Andrea that her plan to make you see the truth has backfired completely. Another shiver runs through you, and you throw the mirror against the wall in a fury, shattering it. The symbolism is not lost on you, but you don't care. Your eyes are still closed.
Four hours later you are once again standing outside, this time surrounded by a group of friends. Jaime hugs you, wishing you well. Kelly's expression is a mixture of disappointment and fear as she grabs you to her, and you wonder if the tight embrace is an attempt to hold the fractured pieces of your soul together. You manage to bite back the, Don't bother, it's too late, rising in your throat. Dani, Erin, Allison, Jackie, and Tori follow, each murmuring variations on the same theme and swearing that they will keep in touch. You only barely resist the urge to roll your eyes. You have been through so many goodbyes during the course of your illness that you can recognize the lies instantly. You will never hear from these girls again. No one, once they get better, wants to remember a place where laughter is nonexistent, where the sobs and occasional screaming of overdramatic patients keep the entire ward awake some nights. Nobody is eager to dwell on a time in their life that was so overcast with despair, and you, their friend, a fellow inmate, are a reminder. You can relate, so you don't blame them.
As the crowd dissipates, you wipe away your own crocodile tears, and this is when you notice Andrea standing off to the side, face hidden in the shadows. You raise a hand in silent goodbye, but before you can get away, she begins to speak.
"Jen, wait, don't go," Andrea pleads. You turn to look at her out of courtesy, but do your best to block out her words, knowing that if you listened, took them to heart, the guilt might overwhelm you. As it is, your throat feels tight as you turn your back on Andrea. You run to the car and eagerly make your escape.
For so late in the summer, it was ridiculously cold. At the time, I didn't think much of it, telling myself that the perpetual chill that all of the residents at Renfrew felt was due to an air condition that must have been stuck at 40 degrees. I, as usual, was so ready to put the blame on anyone, anything, other than myself. The fact that it was my doctor who set the temperature was convenient because he was already the enemy. It was easy to turn "He wants to make you fat" into "He wants you to think that you're sick, so he raised the air-conditioner to trick you." When I think of my perception of the world back then, I almost want to laugh. When you have an eating disorder, the entire planet revolves around you.
There is one girl at Renfrew whom I remember in particular. Andrea was admitted about a week after me, and I hated her on sight because she reminded me of the preppy girls I went to middle school with.
It didn't take me long to figure out that my first impression of Andrea was both inaccurate and unfair, but I don't think the depth of my misunderstanding really hit me until weeks later, on my last day at Renfrew when Andrea approached me to make that odd request. She had been attempting, all week, to convince me not to leave treatment, and her last ditch effort was to try to get me to see the truth by myself, knowing by then that I was too stubborn to listen to anybody else's reasoning if it conflicted with my own. When she handed me the mirror, I felt uneasy. Part of me was touched by her concern, but I shoved it away and covered my growing uncertainty with a layer of irritation for a girl whose persistence was grating on my last nerve. Still, Andrea was my friend, so I agreed to do as she asked, even though I knew it would make no difference. On the surface, I was adamant, and gave the impression that I wanted nothing more than to say goodbye to Renfrew, and treatment in general, for good. The truth is that this confidence was a mask. If I knew it at the time, I didn't care. I had an image to maintain, and back then, surface appearance was all that mattered.
The few minutes I spent looking into Andrea's mirror are still clear in my mind, the image as vivid as it was back then, but the picture of the future me I envisioned that day is only partly accurate. The "fat" I imagined is closer to "average," and although I still care, I have since come to realize that there are more important things in life than fitting into a pair of size 0 jeans. The biggest difference between then and now, however, goes beyond any of the visible changes, and is something far more profound. It is the fact that, these days, the term "reflection" has an entirely different meaning.
Four years ago I closed my eyes and imagined what my physical self would look like if I allowed myself to eat. Today I open them and think back on the picture I saw in the mirror that day, the face of a girl who lived a solitary life filled with anger and loneliness. My focus has shifted from the external to the internal, and too late, I understand that Andrea had been right all along. Our last exchange still makes sad, and I wish, more than anything, that I could go back in time and do things differently.
"Jen, wait, don't go," Andrea had said, and the despair in her voice made me pause. She touched my arm. "You're not ready. You know that, I know you do. If you leave now, you're only going to get worse." I turned around then, saw the genuine look on her face, and knew that I had misjudged her. Her eyes, always so expressive, were brimming with a concern that was all too real, and in that moment I hated myself for a reason that had nothing to do with weight or appearance.
In my heart, I knew that she was right. There was a voice in the back of my mind, not yet strong enough to seep into conscious thought, that was issuing the same warning. Somewhere inside of me I knew that my reasons for leaving had nothing to do with the rules, which were actually quite fair, or the program itself, which was a five-star hotel compared to some of the other places I had been. But I was young and naïve, lying to myself just as persistently as I lied to my friends, family, and doctors. I wanted to go home to my boyfriend, whom I missed terribly, and was eager to use this as an excuse to run away from the horrible truth I was afraid I might begin to believe: I was sick. It was something I could not admit, not even to myself. I wasn't ready, and wouldn't be for another two years.
But Andrea's sincerity was heartbreaking, and the implication that somebody truly, honestly cared about me was a reality that I couldn't handle. It was too scary, too uncertain, and so I forced myself to look away before my walls broke down completely.
"Don't go," she insisted again, and I wondered at the fact that she could sense my resolve weakening.
"I have to," I mumbled. "My parents are already here…" But the excuse, like my determination, was feeble. Her sigh echoed mine as I shook my head with a conviction I did not feel.
"I'll keep in touch," I offered, hoping to placate her, wishing there was something I could say to ease the pain in her expression.
"You know this is the wrong thing to do! If you just talked to your therapist, I'm sure she would understand…" Andrea's voice trailed off. She, like I, knew that there was nothing more to say.
She wrapped her arms around my neck as I gave her a quick peck on the cheek, and then forced myself to walk to the car while my shadow slipped quietly away, back into an underworld of deception.