dawn

"everything will be okay when it's over. and if it isn't okay, it isn't over."
-anonymous

You always feel like you've got something to prove, you know? That's how it starts. You wake up one morning and you think, I've gotta show them all up. Or, worse, I've gotta be worthy of them. Who "them" is simply depends on your point of view. Family? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Acquaintance? That boy on the street who wouldn't make eye contact? The girl in the store? It could be anyone.

It happens so suddenly. One day, you just... You make this split-second decision, maybe in the shower, or in the bed staring at the ceiling. You decide -- consciously decide -- that something else is worth more to you than, well, you.

The first indication is that you're tired. It starts in your thighs, this weird kind of dull ache like maybe I shouldn't have walked so much yesterday. You don't think about it too much. It isn't that important. What's more important is -- check out that girl in the mirror! Look at those numbers on the scale! They aren't where you want them to be, but they're falling and that's the best part, isn't it? It's only been a week or so, and look how far you've come!

Then the tired feeling starts to spread.

You feel it in your hands, your chest, your eyelids. Your stomach cramps, a sharp pain and then a dull throb, from the collarbone to the hips, and all of a sudden it occurs to you that it's been -- God, it's been 43 hours since you ate.

And you always know. You always know the exact amount of time it's been since that last bite of sandwich or salad passed your lips. You can calculate how many calories you've had in the past week, and you know the math, you know this isn't right or safe or healthy. And every now and then, you listen -- you call your mother on the phone and say Hey, let's go out to lunch. Something big and fancy, on me. You bring her with you because you know you can't hide it from her. If she's there, you'll have to eat a full meal.

It's that tightness in your chest, though, that doesn't quite go away. That shortness of breath, that fluttery feeling like there's something swimming in your veins, it doesn't leave you alone, a quiet and steady reminder that you really don't need to go down that road again.

But the numbers on the scale are climbing and you want that image in the mirror back. It's never that much a difference -- five pounds, perhaps, but you were so close to your goal and now you've lost all that headway and now --

Your thighs ache again. Your calves, too, and you think that maybe you should have taken the elevator instead of the stairs. Maybe you should take the bus rather than walk all the time. You can't catch your breath anymore. You think, maybe your bra is too tight. Maybe you need a looser pair of pants, even though they're already having trouble staying on your hips.

That tight feeling intensifies. You panic, and it gets worse. You ignore it, and it screams. You gasp for breath in the night, and you insist that everything is okay, even though you can't walk up a flight of stairs without feeling like your heart is about to give up. You call your mother again.

It's becoming a cycle; you're getting used to it. You get used to the tricks of your body. You know, innately, what you can and can't do. You know precisely when it's time to stop, and you know precisely when it's time to start again. It becomes instinct, this self-destruction and subsequent repair. You know you can't do this forever, but that isn't the plan -- you start to think of a day, somewhere off in a distant future, where this isn't necessary. Where you can stop for good.

But until that day, well, this will make do. Good enough for now. You start obsessing over it, and why you do it.

You start waiting for someone to bring it up in conversation. You start thinking that maybe this will be your chance, maybe that future isn't so distant, maybe -- maybe you can get someone to understand. But they don't ask because you don't let them know they should. You're so good at hiding it.

You mention, casually, that it's been 34 hours since you last ate, and it surprises you that people think this is strange. You've forgotten the way normal people function. Their concern irritates you because you aren't -- you eat, you do!, and if you were... If you were, then wouldn't you look like a skeleton? Wouldn't your period stop? Wouldn't you grow that hair all over your body? You don't show any of the normal signs. You think you're smart. You think you've mastered this demon.

(You still can't breathe at night.)

It's getting difficult to remember when to stop.

You start wondering if this is all a mistake, and then it occurs to you that you'll forget this feeling of fear once the scale hits 120 again; you'll think of how great you felt five or ten pounds ago. You'll think of how gorgeous you looked. You'll forget the way your ribs seemed to close in on your lungs. You'll forget how hard it was to climb a staircase.

It occurs to you that everything is temporary in your life now. Every emotion, every number on the scale, every breath caught in your throat. It occurs to you that there will never be a day when you can stop for good. That no one will stop you until you can stop yourself.

It occurs to you that you can't stop yourself. Because the fear will pass, the panic will subside, and you'll always do it again. You can't figure out how to fix this mess you got yourself into, and you can't even remember why you got into it in the first place. You call your mother again, and you swear, after she's already agreed to lunch and hung up, you promise yourself that this time, you'll explain it all to her.

And then you look her in the eyes and she's so happy to see you, she's so glad that you want to take time out of your schedule to have lunch with Mom, and you just -- you can't. You can't tell her why. You can't explain to her that she's saving your life -- for this week, at least -- every time she agrees to eat with you. You can't break that happiness. You can't do that to her.

So you'll smile, this big, mega-watt smile and insist that anyone with a mother like her would be crazy not to spend time with her. You clutch your napkin in your hands and order something big. It tastes like ash, but you eat until you feel sick.

(It's taking less, you notice, to make you feel sick.)

You tell your mother that the two of you have to do this more often. She's so proud of you. You go home and you close the door behind you as quietly as you can, and you cry. Right there, against the doorframe, knees pulled up to your chest, you sob because, God, you've really fucked this up, haven't you?

You want -- no, you need -- someone to open the door you're leaning against. You want someone to see you breaking apart, and to reach out to you. You want to be found. You want to be saved. But the door stays closed, and you shuffle away from the door to recover. After all, you're not like those girls in the Lifetime Movies and magazine articles. You're not a skeleton. You're close to being healthy, just a little off --

You've gotten used to ignoring what you need. You don't consider anything necessary anymore. You begin losing hope. It's gone on so long you start to think -- well, even if you "get better," you've probably still messed up your insides so completely that you'll be dead by 40 anyhow.

And then you think of your mother again. The smile on her face. You think of how she'll look at your funeral, the confusion, the sadness.

You call her.

You stumble and trip over every word you say -- it comes out in a rush and a breath and you're crying again, goddammit, and you hardly even know what's coming out of your mouth, you don't know what her reaction must be, you don't even know if she's listening. But you talk. And maybe it's easier because you think she's probably hung up on this crazy person, because you don't have to think of the look on her face right now. You tell the phone everything, you tell it how terrified you are, the way you can't breathe anymore, the dark circles under your eyes, the lies, the half-truths, the little things you've convinced yourself of.

You tell it how your mother has saved your life so many times over, and how you're so ashamed that you're here, begging her to save you again. You tell the phone that you've broken yourself so completely you don't even know where the peices are anymore, let alone how to put them together. You tell it that your food tastes like ash and your legs don't work like they should and you can hardly seem to keep your eyes open.

You finish your long-overdue explanation, and you feel so drained, so empty, that you don't think you can stand. You're still crying, and there's silence on the other side of the phone, and you can't help but think -- the one time you really desperately truly needed someone, the one time you finally let go and begged for help, no one was there.

And then she says that she's on the way. That's it -- no consolation, no advice, no anger, no disappointment. Just, she's coming.

You aren't alone anymore.

You don't move until she gets there. Gently, your mother takes the phone from your hands, and half-carries you to a doctor. It isn't until you're in the waiting room that you see she's crying, as hard as you still are.

And this is the moment -- your mother holding your hands, the sterile smell of the doctor's office, the dry and choked feeling in your mouth -- this is when you know that you can survive this. Because you've been alone the whole way, and this started because you were alone, and now someone else is there. You lean against her chest and tell her that you're so sorry.

She tells you how proud she is of you, and you realize you were never alone.