Kristen Forbes has been quietly dealing with her binge disorder in therapy and felt that she earned the right to keep it to herself, but she wants and needs help.
“Do you want to jump?”
My boyfriend and I gazed at tall rocks overlooking the turquoise ocean in Hawaii. After driving on the road to Hana for hours, we were out in the salty air, feeling the heat of the sun as it pressed down on us. A group of travelers with fun accents took turns jumping from the rocks into the water below, ecstatic screams escaping their throats as they hurled their bodies downward. Come on in, they seemed to be saying. The water is fine.
Did I want to jump? Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
“I’m not sure,” I said to my boyfriend. I pulled at the fabric of my dress, rearranging it over my swimsuit. I felt queasy, both from carsickness and nervousness. When it comes to swimwear, I’d prefer to wear something as close to a snowsuit as possible. I’d like to cover myself in sand, sink into the ground, and blend with the earth. Instead, I was wearing a bikini. Jumping into the ocean would have required standing on that ledge in front of a crowd—and in front of my boyfriend—with most of my skin exposed.
I felt like a little girl, and in many ways I am. When I was young and living in a small town, my shyness was so consuming, I would stand behind the fort at recess and hide, waiting for the 15 minutes to end. I would not talk to anyone. I would stand by myself and wait.
Somehow, I thought I could fake my way through Hawaii. I thought I could wear boy shorts and pretend I don’t hate my butt. (Is it possible to look at that much cellulite and not feel failure?) I thought I could put on a sundress and pretend not to be bothered by my stretch marks, the result of years spent not eating enough and then eating too much, of depriving myself in public and then going home and eating everything in sight.
I thought I could meet his entire family (mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, two young nieces) and hang out for a week wearing minimal clothing, and somehow come off as being OK. I thought my secrets were securely hidden.
I do not tell people about this thing of mine. I do not say: “My name is Kristen and I sneak behind closed doors and stuff myself with food to avoid feeling anything real. To avoid dealing with my shyness, my awkwardness, my sense that I’m unlike anyone else in this world. To avoid my fears of death and love and ending up alone. I want someone to hold me and love me, but who could love a mess like this?”
I do not say these things. I say that I’m excited to go to Hawaii when I’m terrified. I say that the plans for dinner sound great when I know my relationship with food is terrible. I say that I am working on my writing even when I’m not, when the fear of failure sits so heavily on my shoulders that I spend hours at a time staring at the wall across from me instead of attempting to flit my fingers across the keyboard.
I once walked down the hall of the retirement center where I work behind a dead body. Of course, it didn’t look like a body: It was in a bag, being wheeled out on a gurney. But I knew it was a dead body, and I knew this woman had been alive only moments before. Here, and then gone. Alive, and then dead.
Who was the first one to see my grandma’s body after she died? My aunt had to remove the jewelry from her hands and said it was the hardest thing she ever did. I wear my grandma’s wedding ring on my right hand now and sometimes I think about it being there on her dead hand. Sparkling. Glimmering. Shining in the stillness of death.
The thing about older people is that they die. There is no way around this. And if they’re not dying, they’re dealing with physical ailments and mental decline. They shuffle in their walkers or roll around in their wheelchairs and ask the same questions again and again and sometimes when I’m at work I feel like I can’t breathe.
I should run. I should run and run and run while I have the opportunity. While I have the body and the health and the youth to be able to keep putting one foot in front of another, covering the earth with my footsteps.
My residents in their 80s and 90s do not care what they look like. They do not lock themselves in their rooms and stuff pieces of bread and cake into their mouths, feeling the weight of everything pressing against their full bellies. They do not eat until they feel sick, and they do not let that sickness act as a source of comfort.
The familiar feeling of sickness: This is my home. Feeling bloated, immobile, and disgusting. Do I try to clean up the extensive mess I just made in my kitchen? Do I try and write about my feelings? Or do I sit in the stillness, feeling my sickness, victorious in the knowledge that I put off the act of real living for another day?
I eat normally in the company in others. I miraculously keep my weight down to a normal-enough level, so others wouldn’t guess that I just polished off a bag of chips and a king-sized candy bar in my car.
This thing I have with eating, with food, with hating my body, and being unable to appropriately deal with stress: This thing has led me to more out-of-body experiences than I can count. And there I am again, watching myself from the outside as I stand in my kitchen, surrounded by opened boxes of crackers and cereals, bags of frozen vegetables and veggie patties, pans filled with pasta and cheese and nuts and cookies and teriyaki sauce. I will eat it all.
I once ate four bagels while taking a shower. I knew I wanted—compulsively needed—to eat, to drown my emotions, to stuff everything down inside of myself. But I also knew I needed to take a shower, to get myself ready, to make myself presentable. I multi-tasked. There were seeds from the bagels in my shower drain for weeks.
My grandpa died when I was 14. He was quiet, like me. We would often sit together in a room in silence. It was home. I couldn’t stop eating after he died. There isn’t enough cake and pizza in this world to absorb or cover up my feelings.
I once changed my outfit nine times while my boyfriend waited for me at Happy Hour. A coworker had asked if I was pregnant (I wasn’t), and I was humiliated. So I downed glass after glass of wine as I changed my clothes again and again.
“In a healthy relationship,” my therapist tells me, “You would have been able to call your boyfriend and say, ‘This is what happened. I feel awful. I don’t know what to wear. Help talk me down.'”
I didn’t ask for my boyfriend’s help. I’ve been quietly dealing with my binge disorder in therapy and I thought I earned the right to keep it to myself as I made my way through the healing process. I didn’t tell my boyfriend or my parents or my friends or anyone about it, ever.
And somehow, I thought I could fake my way through our trip to Hawaii. I thought I could act impervious to a society that tells me I’m less than something if I don’t look like the airbrushed bodies in the magazines. I know that counting the calories in salad dressing and shunning the birthday cake at office parties is both encouraged and expected. I thought I could shut my mouth and play along, the same way I did when I was a teenager, after I learned that it was normal to say “Oh, I’m not really hungry” like all the other girls and it was not normal to just eat a sandwich.
I didn’t jump. It’s too late to go back and reclaim that moment. It’s too late to go back and reclaim any of the moments I’ve lost as a result of this thing I have with food and my body. I’ve been waiting for that time when I’ll have fewer fears and more bravery. More confidence. When I won’t just sing along to the radio when I’m in my own car. When I’ll stand next to my boyfriend on the rocks in Hawaii and take his hand and jump into the water together, feeling the wind and the sun and the beauty of this life instead of feeling fat and scared.
I’ve been standing by myself and waiting for such a long time.
Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon whose articles, essays, and short stories have been published in The Rumpus, Bluestem Magazine, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, Crack the Spine, Modern Love Rejects, Bartleby Snopes, and other publications. She holds a BFA in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University.