Tell Me about Yourself
“Tell Me about Yourself” is a featured essay in Lime Hawk’s debut print publication, a collection of personal essays that share the realities of mental illness and challenge its associated stigmas. The collection is due out in early 2015.
My mother is driving me to the interview. The reasonable part of me knows this is a bad idea and that I must hide her existence from my prospective boss. But her presence is not, in my twenty-one year-old mind, the main obstacle to getting this job any more than is my alarmingly low weight, or the fact that I bring no counseling experience to the counseling position for which I am interviewing. No, the major threat to my plan, as I see it, is my outfit. I am wearing a sheer, sleeveless white blouse with enormous ruffles on each shoulder and a third ruffle that frames my face like the E-collars vets put on dogs to keep them from licking their wounds. With this blouse I have paired a blue-and-white skirt with matching cascading ruffles that dust the floor. The absurdity of the outfit hits me two hours into the four-hour trip.
“I look ridiculous!” I gasp, as if I have only just now caught sight of myself. “I look like Scarlett O’Hara!”
My mother glances over from the driver’s seat.
“Don’t be silly,” she says. “It’s a very cute outfit.” This is her job, to act as a foil to my emotions, and to make sure I eat lunch on the way.
Dressed in tight black jeans, white silk blouse and smart, low heels, my mother looks more professional than I do, a fact I hurriedly push away from myself. Just fifty-three years old, she is beautiful: dark-haired with expertly lined eyes and a beauty mark she draws on every morning just above her angular jaw line. She loves clothes and dresses in a fashionable collage of funk and high style. But my mother has a fatal flaw that creates a vortex of worry and grief in her otherwise stylish life: she is short. And because as a young child she was also briefly plump, she has never allowed herself to eat as she’d like. Her adult life has been a never-ending maze of diets, exercise, and unrelieved hunger.
After a great deal of back and forth about where we should stop for lunch (she wants a salad; I might eat a potato, but not a big one, like at Western Sizzlin’), we settle on Wendy’s.
I order my potato dry, with chives, and my mother (unable to resist blurting don’t you at least want a little butter on it?) orders a side salad and black coffee.
“What kind of dressing?” asks the girl, to which my mother says she would like a cruet of vinegar.
“A cruet of vinegar,” my mother repeats.
“A what?” the girl asks again, at which time my mother looks at me, a tiny light of rage burning in her eyes.
“Do you have any vinegar?” I ask. They don’t. Disgusted by all of it—my butterless potato, the girl, the unavailability of anything other than full-fat salad dressings—my mother grabs me and turns away from the counter with her tiny plastic plate of lettuce. Under her breath, but not so low the girl can’t hear, she mutters, “Idiot.”
My mother’s supposed weight problem is why everything in our refrigerator is a low-calorie version of itself. We used Weight Watchers “butter,” low-cal salad dressing, diet soda, diet sliced bread, sugar-free jelly, skim milk, and tiny saccharine pellets for coffee. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen my mother eat a whole sandwich, drink a simple glass of juice, indulge in an ice cream cone, a sliver of cake, or even a little tub of flavored yogurt. If my father or brother orders dessert, she’ll dip her pinkie fingernail into a cloud of icing and suck out the contents, groaning orgasmically.
“I’m so fa-a-a-t,” she’ll moan, leaning into me, tenting her brow and whispering the ugly word that has become the key to the private room we share.
In the kitchen drawer underneath the stove, my mother and I keep a little pink-and-white calorie guide, our bible. Sometimes we look up a specific food (“Is fat fattening?” I once asked my mother, about the thin, whitish veins snaking through my steak, and we pulled out the book to see), but other times we simply flip through, looking for the biggest portion sizes for the fewest calories (lettuce weighs in nicely, with iceberg beating out darker, more robust spinach) and vice versa: those foods that could kill your diet in just a few bites. (We would never eat pâté, mayonnaise, or cheesecake!) To further arm herself in the war on fat, my mother race-walks our three-mile road every day, regardless of the temperature, illness (hers or anyone else’s), or her schedule. Even in stormy weather, she powers down our street in her raincoat and sneakers while my father trails her in the car—windshield wipers throwing off water in wide arcs—ready to fling open the doors in case lightning makes her think twice. It never does.
I look back at the girl behind the counter. She fingers the tiny gold cross around her neck, watching us tack away, my tiny mother with her protruding collarbones erupting from the neck of her crisply ironed Ralph Lauren blouse and her six pale lettuce leaves, and me, nearly six feet tall in my long skirt and platform sandals, weighing barely 100 pounds, a lone dry potato on my tray accompanied by a drink cup bigger around than my own face.
I know what she’s thinking: we look like the starving people in the tabloids with the caption “Dying to Be Thin.” I know because when you have an eating disorder, everyone tells you exactly what they are thinking in an effort to force some sort of reality on you, and it turns out that everyone thinks exactly the same things: You must not be able to see yourself. You can’t think you look good. You’re going to die if you keep this up. They believe that if you could just hear the truth about how you look, it would make a difference.
Twice my mother asks how my potato was, and twice she suggests it’s not too late to get some butter. She cuts her lettuce leaves into twelve bite-sized pieces, eats them, drinks her coffee, and reapplies her lipstick. When she’s through with everything, she looks up at me chewing a rubbery part of the potato skin. I can see her mouth moving, working it right along with mine. I ask if she’s still hungry. She says no, she’s stuffed, but if I want a Frosty I can have one. As if a Frosty were a real option.
“Do you want one?”
“Why not?” She licks the corner of her mouth where I have a little piece of potato caught on mine.
Rage and frustration well up around the hunks of potato listing in my belly. Every so often, my mother feels it necessary to suggest I do something so extraordinary it doesn’t even merit answering. Always they are things she herself would not or could not do. It might be something seemingly simple, like eating butter on a potato or ordering a Frosty, but other times it’s something complex and far-fetched, like calling the head of the State Merit System and explaining that the jobs they offer don’t pay well and suggesting they pay more. If I say that’s ridiculous, that I’m in no position to challenge the State Merit System, she’ll say of course you are. As if, just like that, I really am. At times, the absurdity of it makes me want to scream, because her suppositions are at once so naïve and so confident. I sometimes worry she could be right, that maybe people who are ordinary (like me) but don’t see the world as withholding and unforgiving (like I do) are the very ones who become catalysts for change.
“A Frosty wouldn’t hurt you,” my mother says at last. “It might even help you.”
Back in the car, I push half a piece of gum into my mouth. My mother takes the other half dutifully. She smiles wide and silly to ease my nerves. A sign announces we are sixteen miles from Savannah. I look at my watch. My interview is in thirty minutes.
“How close is Tifton to Savannah?”
“You’re the one navigating,” my mother says.
I open the map to the earmarked page and realize I failed to guide us around the spur that funnels traffic east toward the coast. We should be headed south. We’re at least an hour off course. A sudden surge of perspiration jets out onto the ruffles encircling my underarms.
“Mom, we’re going the wrong way!” I yell.
“What?” She pumps the brakes, as if she is going to turn around in the middle of the interstate.
“We weren’t supposed to get off seventy-five!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She aims the car toward an exit ramp. “We have to find a pay phone. You can call the center and explain what happened.”
“How can I explain what happened?” I yell again. “It’s a straight line from Atlanta to Tifton! If I say I got lost, they’ll think I’m an imbecile and won’t hire me, and if I tell them it was your fault they’ll know my mother is driving me to the interview!” I’m shaking so much my ruffles are vibrating.
There is silence in the car as my mother considers what I should do.
“Just say we,” she says at last.
“Just say, ‘We took a wrong turn; I will be there at two o’clock.’ Period.”
I fold my arms across my chest and wait for my mother to pull up to the pay phone at the Gulf station. It’s a perfect solution, which only further annoys me. I get out of the car, careful to slam the door as hard as I can. I poke my head through the open window.
“I hate this outfit!” I say. “I’m never wearing it again.”
Here was anorexia’s opening salvo: Eighteen years old and a sophomore at Bard College, I sat in my boyfriend’s car in front of Stereo World eating an apple. As I ate, I felt the pudge beneath my shirt, the ten unwanted pounds I’d been trying to lose for three years. I blamed everything wrong with my life on those ten pounds—my bad grades, my unpopularity at school, my winless streak at horseshows. That extra weight was the wallpaper of gloom that backdropped everything I did. As I ate and pinched my pudge, wondering whether the apple could hold me through dinner, I came to an extraordinary realization, which I would later liken to a bird falling out of the sky: I had the power to fix myself. Like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, the answer had always been with me, hiding in plain view.
Weight loss was the stuff of the magazines I read, the goal of my aerobics classes, the substance of my self-help books and almost every conversation with my mother. Deep down, I knew losing weight was the answer to all my problems. It was a simple math formula even I—a terrible math student—could understand: calories burned over calories ingested equaled pounds lost. But I saw in this great moment that fixing my life was within my power; it simply required losing enough weight. By the time my boyfriend walked out of Stereo World, my epiphany was fifteen minutes old and I was anorexic.
I never mentioned my mother’s food and exercise habits to my counselors when I was hospitalized. Looking back now, this surprises me, but I recall at the time it seeming too facile and too ordinary to make note of, as if these cravings, these denials, these grim hours of fanatical calorie-counting and calorie-burning were the foundation, not of obsession or illness, but of ordinary womanhood. And therein lay part of the problem: restriction and denial, as my mother and I saw it, were worth the trouble and discomfort for the reward of rendering our bodies disproportionately thin. And the myriad ways the game of extreme weight management announced itself, which included not just diet and exercise but chilling tenets like empty is full, hunger is good, food is the enemy, had something of the flavor of anorexia in it from the beginning. Food terror—and it was safe to say my mother and I both had it—was a labyrinthine web of anxieties spun by one generation, catching hold of the next. My own mother’s mother policed her size, denying herself and her chubby daughter sweets, dangling the promise of happiness through self-control. A generation later, my mother spun the twisted web into my life.
Within a year, I had lost not ten but fifty pounds. My thighs turned black from the spontaneous bursting of blood vessels (the result of not enough protective fat encasing them) and my ropy black hair fell out in chunks. In the midst of this high-speed, yet (I somehow believed) clandestine descent into the landscape of wasting away, I was summoned to Bard’s administrative office for what I thought was the presentation of my Dean’s list certificate from the previous semester. It was a cold day, and I was dressed in odd, capricious layers of clothing (two skirts, two sweaters, plus striped tights and furry boots) meant to both keep me warm and conform to a level of funkiness expected at Bard. In truth, the outfit, which hung on my gaunt frame, made me look rag-dollish at best, homeless at worst, as if, lacking a suitcase or grocery cart, I was forced to wear everything I owned at once.
Despite the layers, the hard wooden chair in which I awaited the Dean’s arrival sent piercing pain through the skin to my butt bones. I was restless, hungry, thinking of the quarter of a stale bagel waiting for me back at my room in my sock drawer. When, at last, the Dean appeared, accompanied—troublingly—by the campus psychologist with whom I’d been sharing my weight struggles, I was numb with cold and discomfort. The Dean and psychologist sat down across from me. The Dean spoke in a monotone as the campus psychologist tented her eyebrows and grimaced, the effect a kind of emotional ventriloquism. Later, I would recall words like “medical danger” and “student in your condition,” but at the time, all I heard was I was being expelled and my mother would arrive in the morning to get me.
I was incredulous. By the following night, I would be back to lying on the shag carpet in the room next to my father’s office, doing leg lifts and sit-ups until I lost count. Back to long, pointless days and nights unbroken by sleep. Back to the unspeakable boredom of wasting away. It was all too unreal.
“I’m going home?” I asked, to which the campus psychologist finally composed herself and said, “No, to a hospital.”
My mother arrived on campus the next day. In a last desperate attempt to prove I was fine and that she could leave without taking me with her, I bought a bag of sunflower seeds and ate four of them in front of her. We boarded a plane that evening. My brother and sister were home when I got there, which was nice but also alarming because they rarely came to the house anymore to spend the night. The next morning, my sister made hot chocolate, asked if I wanted some, then erupted into laughter. I was admitted to the hospital shortly after.
Four months later and thirteen pounds heavier, owing to a carefully scripted routine of cottage cheese, corn bread crusts, and Raisin Bran, I was released at ninety-five pounds. The addictive cycle, I told friends and family, had been broken. Except that addictive cycles, as a rule, have a purpose, and while I had done the initial work of recovery, true healing, the kind that involves not just eating enough to survive, but also the ability to tolerate the complexities of soul and spirit—i.e. real, live living in the real, live world—was still years off.
My mother and I pull into the parking lot of Bridgeway an hour late. In addition to getting on the wrong highway, we drove around town for twenty minutes looking for the halfway house, only to discover that “house” is a misnomer. Bridgeway is actually a wide, three-story brick building sandwiched between a library and a church in the middle of downtown Tifton. The only feature that suggests something other than “state office building” is a narrow concrete front porch with two rocking chairs. So no one will see her, I instruct my mother to drive away as soon as I get out of the car. But as we pull in, I’m mortified to see two people on the porch rocking and watching us. I jump out of the car before she comes to a full stop.
“Go!” I say, slamming the door and waving impatiently at some unknown destination up the street. I turn, gather the train of my skirt, and run up the steps like a bride.
“Well, well, well,” says one of the men on the porch.
“Uh huh,” says the other.
As I reach for the handle, the door swings open. Standing in the threshold is a tall, trim, black man dressed in blue jeans, a red shirt with loopy white stitching, smiling a broad, lopsided smile.
“Young lady,” he says.
“I’m here for an interview?” I push my long hair out of my face. “I’m a little late.”
“You’re here’s all that matters.” He introduces himself as Rodney Jenkins, director of Bridgeway. He shakes my hand. And then his eyes take a worried tour of my body.
Here’s the truth: a year and a half after leaving the hospital, my recovery is far from complete. If I have any doubt, I need only walk down the street—or into an interview—and register the way anxious gazes travel the vertical axis of my body. Oh come on, people, I want to say, I’m not that thin.
“Yes, you are,” says my mother.
“Yes, you are,” said two employers, who fired me for it.
“Yes, you are,” said my friends, my siblings, my ex-boyfriend, who just a few pounds earlier had taken close-up photographs of the outline of my spinal cord, visible through the skin on my back.
“Do you see it now?” he asked, thrusting the pictures at me the way one might shove a mischievous dog’s nose into the piddle in the floor.
And so I have learned to keep my protestations to myself, the way schizophrenics learn not to stop hearing voices but to refrain from answering out loud. I vow, regardless of how not-thin I feel, I will not argue with others’ view of me as skeletal. I agree to agree. While this will not make me any heavier, it will make me appear less crazy.
Rodney Jenkins leads the way into the main office. It is a large, open room with six smaller offices off of it. Mismatched chairs—some aluminum, some wooden, two on casters—are lined up against the brown paneled walls, forming a wide circle. The floor is a dirty, mint-green linoleum that looks unswept. The smell of weak coffee and Clorox mingle in the chilled air. The whole place feels like the waiting room you are confined to while expensive repairs are made to your car.
Mr. Jenkins motions me to a chair beside the only desk in the big room. I sit down and hand him my resume, which suggests by omission that I attended not three colleges but only the one that conferred my degree, and which lovingly details a six-month internship at the state hospital but says nothing about my collection of lost jobs. As Mr. Jenkins looks over what I have typed, the cold aluminum chair presses uncomfortably against my butt bones and an unpleasant memory of the Dean’s office pops into my head. A chill touches off in my spine and goose bumps erupt up and down my arms like a time-lapse film of moss growing on a damp log.
Mr. Jenkins returns my resume to its folder and lays it on the desk. “You cold?”
“No, I’m fine.” I clamp my teeth together so they won’t chatter.
“Well then, young lady,” he says, “tell me about yourself.”
I sit quietly in my chair. The intensity with which I want this job at Bridgeway is in exact inverse proportion to my preparedness for it. I know that. My actual counseling experience—as one, that is, not across from one—is practically nil. Suddenly, everything I thought I had going for me on the way here—my survival credential, my renowned listening abilities—seems both too large and too small to mention. Without those, all I have is my bachelor’s degree, one six-month internship that I wasn’t fired from, and an eagerness I am trying not to let spill over into desperation.
“I’m from Atlanta,” I begin. “I graduated from Oglethorpe University in May. My senior year, I did an internship at the state hospital on the alcohol and drug unit. I sat in on rounds and assisted with treatment planning and counseling sessions.” (“Assisted” is pushing the envelope. What I did was watch, and in truth what I watched was more often than not a handsome young counselor named Tracy.)
What I do not say: at the state hospital, chronic substance abusers checked in and out like traveling salesmen, most not seeking help but rather food and a place to sleep. (“Three hots and a cot,” spat the admitting nurse every time she staffed a new patient.) My job was mostly to shadow the counselors and glean what I could from the questions they asked. How does your drinking interfere with your life? Who has been impacted? What’s been the cost? How will you do things differently? Hard questions, whose answers—I knew from personal experience—demanded more time and space to flower than the days or hours allotted.
What else I don’t say: prior to securing the internship at the state hospital, I took a volunteer position on a private eating disorders unit, a tightly-run program that boasted holistic, individually tailored treatment plans for the eating disordered daughters of families with money. It did not occur to me to dress carefully so as to camouflage my emaciated frame; in my mind, release from the hospital was proof enough that I was cured. After a morning touring the sunny unit, appreciating the blue-and-peach color scheme and overstuffed sofas perfect for passing long, hungry, weepy afternoons, the director invited me to lunch. A part of me suspected this was a test: Would I eat? Could I eat? And yet I did not register that, by her very need to test me, the director was already having doubts about me. Technically, I could eat. But not without engaging in a few of my more tenacious food compulsions: the mashing of my food with a fork and eating off the back of it, only eating things I could divide, like the whites of eggs and the crusts of breads, eating while tapping my foot. And so I explained—in a casual voice that I somehow believed conveyed matter-of-factness rather than lingering food terror—that I would leave for lunch and report back for work at one p.m.
“All right,” the director said.
Twenty minutes later, I was standing in my mother’s kitchen, meticulously hollowing out a half-bagel in preparation for a thin smear of low-calorie Weight Watchers butter when the director called.
“I don’t think you’re quite far enough along in your recovery to be a good role model for our patients,” she said.
“Enjoy your internship?” Mr. Jenkins asks.
The question jolts me back into the moment. “Oh! Yes,” I say.
Mr. Jenkins waits. I grope for something to add. “I learned a lot about addiction. And relapse. And I got to see how an inpatient unit operates.” I don’t tell him about all the counseling conversations not had, all the ins and outs of dealing with addicts not learned.
“Tell me about relapse.” Mr. Jenkins’s eyes are fixed on my face, where the sharp angles of my cheeks have been chiseled by three years of 600 calorie-a-day dieting. My heart, the one organ I cannot will into submission, does a triple axel.
“People—addicts—relapse because they lose touch with how they feel and what they need. They get overwhelmed and stop working their program. When they stop working their program, they’re more vulnerable, which makes it easy to start using again.” I stop talking, but my heart is like a noisy fan in my chest.
Mr. Jenkins looks down at his hands. “Spoken from experience?”
A ripple of pain shoots from the pointy ends of my butt bones all the way up to my neck. My arms are ice cold and rubbery.
Mr. Jenkins flicks a piece of lint from his blue jeans. The clock on the wall ticks with obscene patience. Outside, a gassy truck lumbers up Worship Avenue. I wrestle with how much to reveal and what constitutes lying. Mr. Jenkins looks up at me carefully. “Are you speaking from experience?”
“I-myself-have-never-had-an-alcohol-or-drug-related problem,” I say. A wall of formality and absolutes, practiced and false-sounding. “I’m extremely responsible,” I add, as if to say, and anyway, addictions are simply a function of dependability.
There is a long pause. I wonder if Mr. Jenkins is waiting for me to say something else, something reassuring about myself, or brilliant, or personal. I imagine what he must see: me, twenty-five pounds underweight (“Thirty,” says my sister; “Forty,” says my mother).
I think about how it takes something outside of me—a job interview for example, the outcome of which will determine whether I return to live in my childhood home with my parents or begin life anew as a true adult—to break the opaque ice of body blindness and reveal the truth of me to me. Because suddenly I can’t not see that my collarbones protrude from the neck of my ruffled shirt like etched mountain peaks, or that my shoulders, narrow and birdlike, are more befitting of an eight-year-old child, or that the faintly visible, knotty rungs of my spine scream in protest because they are protected from a hard metal chair by only a thin sheath of skin. It is a maddening game the anorexic consciousness plays with itself, a kind of Now I See Me, Now I Don’t, further complicated by the fact that the longer one goes without being able to see oneself clearly, the harder it becomes to know, in any given moment, what clear really is. It is like living in two worlds whose intersection is brief and small and always a surprise.
“Fair enough,” Mr. Jenkins says at last.
Bridgeway House has a problem. Hundreds of clients pass through the program in any given year, and the state would like to increase this number. But for six long months they have been in need of a third counselor, the number required to keep their doors open. The pay is low, admits Mr. Jenkins, but the experience invaluable. Did I have any questions?
My extremities are numb. I wag my foot in little half-circles to keep my blood flowing. What I have heard is that Bridgeway needs me. That I am going to save Bridgeway.
“No,” I say.
“How do you feel about relocating?”
“That’s where we are.”
I practically jump out of my chair. “I’d love to relocate!”
Mr. Jenkins smiles. “Then go tell your momma you got the job.”
Dana Shavin's essays have appeared in Oxford American, The Writer, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Sun, Puerto del Sol, Fourth Genre, Third Coast, Hawaii Pacific Review, Willow Review, and others, and in numerous alternative health, arts, and entertainment newspapers. She has been a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press since 2002. Dana has spoken and read about recovery and issues of self-acceptance at venues as diverse as the Unitarian Universalist Church, The Jewish Cultural Center, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Meacham Writers Workshop, Keystone College, and at various book clubs, writers groups, and performance venues. She received a literary arts grant in 2008. She has a master's degree in clinical psychology and is a certified professional life coach. Her memoir, The Body Tourist, is forthcoming from Little Feather Books in October.