Wednesday, June 20, 2007

chick at the Y inspires a trip down memory lane

Today I went to the Y for the first time in, like, forever. And because the Asheville YMCA is perhaps the most used facility on the planet, at 3pm on a gorgeous day there was only one cross-trainer available.

I climbed aboard and noticed a severely anorexic woman working out on the machine to my right. She looked to be about 45--she was wrinkled, her hair was colored and dry--but you never know; she could have been 20 years younger. She was cross-training away and intermittently reading a sports nutrition book at the same time, underlining and circling some apparently critical points about day-long endurance events and the nutritional values of various energy bars.

I wanted to tell her to get some help. But not in a nice way. I wanted to say it as an insult, with vitriol, the way I might say, "Get a job," or, "You are such a freaking scumbag loser."

Here's the thing about anorexic women, whom I seem to come across often enough that I can say this with certainty: their presence inspires in me an almost uncontrollable belligerence, an animosity that astonishes and embarrasses me.

I tell myself that they ask for it--that they walk around with irritating smugness. Ha ha, this woman today was thinking, assessing my totally normal body, or the totally normal body of the woman next to me. I can outlast you on this machine. I can cross-train for two hours and then eat a carrot for dinner. I'm better than you, you fat fuck.

I didn't want to stare--not because I was afraid of seeming rude, but because I didn't want to give her the satisfaction. I didn't want her to think for one second that I was looking at her skeletal body with envy.

But was I? The truth is, she was totally absorbed by her book and her workout--and, probably, herself. I don't know that she even noticed me. All these thoughts I assume she was thinking are attributions I myself am making.

They say once a drunk, always a drunk. I think the same may be true of eating disorders--which are especially tricky because you can always cut drinking out of your life, whereas food, not so much. I spent nearly a decade "battling" bulimia by way of a brief stint of anorexia. One of the first pieces I published (eight years ago in The Sun) was about this experience. In it I wrote:

There was a hierarchy of eating disorders rooted firmly in my head: at the highest point hovered a see-through, anorexic angel; below her, a row of bulimics stood at attention like sentinels guarding the throne; and below them--below us--swarmed a legion of overeaters, commoners.

And while I really do see my weight as healthy now, and really do understand what's wrong with starving yourself, the ghost of this mindset lingers. I deny myself food to achieve control sometimes and feel proud; sometimes I overeat to compensate for boredom or distress and then am plagued by self-hatred. I'm obsessed with how my clothing fits, though I long ago threw out my scale and have intentionally obliterated my encyclopedic recall of the caloric value of every food known to man. Working out makes me feel better in a one-step-removed kind of way: my mood doesn't automatically improve when I exercise. My endorphins maybe got flushed down the toilet on all those trips to the bathroom years ago. My mood improves because I see the way a pair of shorts hangs at my waist.

So when I notice an anorexic woman at the Y or anywhere I else, I can't help feeling competitive. I get that she is miserable. I get that chances are, she has no rich relationship with a wonderful man like I have, no laughter, no cold beer on the deck at the end of the day, no friends with which to share a nourishing meal. Still, I find myself intrigued by her sense of discipline, curious about her routine. I find myself wondering why I could never manage it myself--w0ndering, I mean, what's wrong with me, and where I am lacking.

What I wish I felt like saying to this woman today is this (kindly, looking into her vacant eyes): "You need help. This is no life for you. You deserve more, you deserve better, you deserve to enjoy a fine meal after this punishment." And then, with complete conviction, putting my hand on hers (probably cold): "You can fix this problem you have--or fix it enough, anyway. And it will be worth it."

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