Clare B. Dunkle

A Sample Chapter from Hope and Other Luxuries

By Clare B. Dunkle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015.
Edited by Ginee Seo.
Companion memoir to Elena Vanishing.
A mother's life with a daughter's anorexia.

Elena Dunkle shortly after her miscarriage

This page contains the first chapter of Hope and Other Luxuries.


My daughter Elena called me up last week, crying. She's twenty-four now, and she just broke up with a boyfriend she needed to break up with. It was a good thing, but that doesn't mean it was easy.

"Can you come out to see me?" she said. "If I had some company for a few days, I know it would really help. It could be an early Christmas present."

How could I resist? What mother doesn't want to be her daughter's Christmas present?

Three days later, my plane landed in Texas, and Elena picked me up and drove me home. We walked around the house together and admired how she had decorated it. The house belongs to her father, Joe, and me, but Elena's living in it while Joe and I are stationed overseas in Germany. That way, Elena has a rent-free home while she goes to nursing school, and we have peace of mind.

After the house tour, Elena moved on to what really mattered. She introduced me to her new fish.

My daughter doesn't have just one aquarium. Depending on what's going on at the moment, she has at least four, and as many as six. She can take up to an hour to choose a new fish, although nowadays, her finest beauties have hatched out in one of her own tanks. The colors of Elena's fish are rich and brilliant: turquoise, fuchsia, lemon yellow, or blood red. Her aquariums are bold, fantastic worlds where the normal rules don't apply. In these mysterious realms, the artwork lives and moves. It drifts through its liquid landscape, rearranging itself second by second in an endless series of fascinating patterns.

I watched my daughter's expressive face light up as she explained their little quirks and habits. If her fish act like pampered darlings, that's because they are. But I wasn't thinking about the fish. I was thinking, Elena's thinner than she was when I saw her three months ago. She's stressed. This isn't good.

When this young woman was seventeen years old, you would have thought she had it all. She was a beautiful, cosmopolitan teenager fluent in two languages and at home in two cultures: the United States and Germany, where Joe's Air Force job had taken us when she was eleven. She made top grades among the students at the military base high school overseas, but she read her Stephen King novels in German so she could discuss them with her German friends.

By her junior year in high school, Elena was an honors student who volunteered for hours each week at the nearby military hospital. She bought the furniture for her bedroom with her own babysitting money, she knew exactly what she wanted to study in college, she couldn't wait to get started on her schoolwork each day, and she never got into trouble—ever.

That's a lot of reflected glory for a mother to bask in.

But Elena has anorexia nervosa, a very dangerous eating disorder. Statistically speaking, it's the deadliest of all the mental illnesses, with a death rate four times that of major depression, even when you factor in the suicides. And when I had to see my perfect honors student, howling and twisting, out of her mind, held down by two frightened nurses... When I sat by her frail, damaged body as she lay in the ICU, strapped to a feeding tube and a twelve-channel heart monitor... When I helped her withdraw from college so that she could go into a psychiatric institution...

...that's a long, long way for a mother to fall.

And what has that fall taught me?

That it hurts.

That the first time the ax falls, it feels like a fluke. That the second time the ax falls, it feels like a curse. That the third time the ax falls, it feels like the new normal, so that, no matter how long things go well, a part of my mind is always waiting for another ax to fall.

And that's why, as Elena prowled from aquarium to aquarium and did her checks on her prized and petted beauties, I was doing checks and assessments of my own.

This isn't good, I thought. Elena is looking thin.

Here's something I've learned the hard way as the mother of an anorexic: Anorexia nervosa doesn't just disappear. It isn't a set of bad habits that can be unlearned, and—Whew! Glad we got rid of that! No, anorexia nervosa is a complicated ecosystem made up of nervous tics, odd compulsions, biochemical changes, neurological adjustments, obsessive anxieties, attitude issues, comfort mechanisms, and unconscious reactions. It can fade into the background for years, but when the pressure mounts, anorexia nervosa has a tendency to reemerge.

My daughter almost certainly inherited her susceptibility to this deadly disorder. Relatives on both sides of her family tree have battled anxiety, addictions, or clinical depression. But Elena's anorexia didn't emerge for the first time until she went through an episode of severe trauma and suffered severe stress as a result.

At thirteen, Elena endured violent rape. She buried it completely and focused on perfection. As long as nobody knew—as long as she was Superwoman—she could tell herself that nothing was wrong.

At least, that was the plan. What happened instead was an eating disorder that controlled her every move.

Torn by shame and bitterness, my daughter became a prisoner, isolated within her own body—a prison she did her best to destroy. It took everything we had and everything she had to bring her back from the brink. And even now, her recovery isn't a place she's reached or a goal she's checked off. It's a path. Elena will walk that path of recovery her entire life.

So, while the glorious fish floated back and forth, and while Elena launched into small lectures about aquarium salt, swim bladders, and peas, I watched, and I listened, and I looked for ways to lower my daughter's stress. Because that's something else I've learned about having a daughter with anorexia nervosa. You can't just wait and hope. You have to do.

That's how I ended up where I am today.

I am driving my cat to the vet.

I hum along with the radio as I make the ten-minute drive. In his carrier beside me on the passenger seat, Tor crouches on his haunches. But his ears prick forward, and his golden eyes glow with a drowsy, benevolent light. He is as relaxed as a cat taking corners in a car can be.

Over the years, this lanky gray tabby cat and I have made many trips to the vet. He's always been fragile, and a little clumsy, too, going through his nine lives at an accelerated pace. The first of his lives was already gone by the time I met him as a six-week-old kitten, with a dog's tooth marks deep in his tiny rear end. He was alone when two tourists rescued him in a forest near France and took him to my German vet. They could find no sign of his mother or littermates.

The dog bite quickly healed, but the trauma of losing his first family has haunted Tor all his life. He suffers from separation anxiety whenever he's left alone. Once, when we went away for a week on a family vacation, Tor threw up so many times that he polka-dotted our new beige carpet with dozens of spots of bloody foam.

I've been absent for months this time. I know my old cat has been worried. But I'm beside him now, and that's lifted his spirits enough to start him purring in his carrier.

We come to a stop sign, and I reach between the bars to scratch him under the chin. He closes his eyes and revels in the attention and the affection.

Tor trusts me. He's not worried about going to the vet.

Tor is wise in the ways of vets. He's been through more than his fair share of medical procedures. Once, his claw snagged on a rug and tripped him while running, and he busted several teeth. In the middle of winter, he escaped out the back door, fell into a rain barrel, and almost died of hypothermia. He needs special food. His delicate tummy requires antacids. One time, it even had an MRI.

Just last year, Tor almost died, and he had to go through two excruciating surgeries. They kept him alive, but they couldn't be called a success.

Considering how bad vet visits have been for Tor, the old cat has no reason to look so pleased. But he's with me, his favorite human, and we're doing something together. That alone makes all the difference to Tor. So I turn up the music as I drive, and I force myself to sing along. I focus all my attention on the road.

Tor knows me well. He'll notice if I start to cry.

What's happening now is nobody's fault. If it's anybody's fault, it's mine. I'm the one who moved back to Germany. Taking Tor along was never an option. When I left last year, he was happy to stay behind in the house and yard he already knew so well. And I knew leaving him was the right thing to do. Transatlantic travel is terrifying for a cat.

But that was before the last awful surgery. That was before Tor's recovery didn't go well. That was before Elena called me up in tears and I saw for myself how stressed she is.

Tor's care is difficult and thankless these days. He leaks urine, so he can't sit on a lap anymore or sleep on the bed like he used to. His stomach has gotten more and more sensitive, and Elena has had to give him antacid pills on a daily basis and hunt for new foods he can tolerate. As he's aged, he's started to get odd infections and abscesses. In spite of Elena's worried care, he's gotten thin and bony.

The simple truth is that Tor isn't happy with his new life. He struggles to keep himself clean, and that causes irritation. He misses curling up in laps and napping on the sofa, and that triggers his separation anxiety. Elena does what she can to make him feel loved and included, but it isn't easy with his new limitations. She feels his unhappiness, and that stresses her. She wishes she could do more for him, but no one can give him what he really wants: the comfort and health he's lost as he's gotten old.

Elena loves Tor. She would never for a second think of asking me to do this. That's why I'm doing it without her asking—to carry that burden for her. Because that's something else I've learned as the mother of an anorexic: This disorder isn't about weakness or laziness. Anorexia nervosa is a burden so painful that it drives many of its victims to suicide. Life with anorexia nervosa requires tremendous courage.

For Elena, eating is an act that can trigger panic so severe that the effects of it have landed her in the emergency room. It's like taking an agoraphobic to a crowded shopping mall. It's like locking a claustrophobic up in a closet. For an anorexic, eating means facing terror and despair—again and again and again.

I know how brave my daughter is. She's brave every single day. I'm glad I can do this for her. I know it will help.

The vet's office is in a low brown building next to a small, dusty asphalt parking lot. Six lanes of heavy traffic crawl by it every morning. It's such a modest establishment that most of the commuters probably don't even notice it. Nevertheless, this place looms large in the history of the tabby beside me. Even the smell of it alarms him.

But he rubs his face against the tips of my fingers and relaxes. Lucky for him, he's got me.

Tor's carrier is heavier than I expect it to be. I hold it away from my legs so he won't have to bang into me at every step. Then there's the job of getting the office door open. I keep up a cheerful stream of talk as I navigate these obstacles.

The smart, sassy receptionist greets me with a solemn face, and for a second, the pain in my chest stops me cold. But I give myself a shake and smile at her. We're only here for shots, I tell myself. Be happy. We're only here for shots.

How many times have I buried my feelings for the sake of those around me? For animals and children, so they wouldn't be frightened. For a grumpy family, so they could let go of a bad mood. For two hysterical teenagers, so their world could stay safe and stable while they learned how to handle their emotions. For the strangers I've met who didn't need to know that I was having a rough day.

Explore your feelings—how does a mother do that exactly? What we feel, the whole family feels. A mother's private bad mood can almost instantly turn into a screaming fight between two preschoolers. It can turn into raised voices, slammed doors, and miserable evenings.

So I don't explore my feelings. I force them down. I smile.

Just shots, that's all, I remind myself. Just shots.

"Room 2," says the receptionist, and I take the carrier into a small square room about ten feet by ten feet. It smells strongly of pine-scented disinfectant, but that's better than any of the other strong smells it could have. It has no windows. Frightened animals try to launch themselves out of windows. It's loaded with hard surfaces: stainless steel, linoleum, painted cinderblock.

Persian rugs wouldn't last very long at the vet.

"Hey, Tor, want to go exploring?" I ask as I hoist the carrier up onto the narrow table. Tor strolls out and stretches as I rub his skinny shoulder blades. His purr starts up again and fills the quiet space.

"You'll be good for the doctor when you get your shots, won't you?" I tell him. "You know you have to be good." Because that's what we're here for, I insist with stubborn optimism. Animals read body language. Be calm. Feel the calm.

The door slides open, and the receptionist leans around it.

"Do you want to check out now?" she says in a low voice. "So you don't have to... after?"

A wave of emotion breaks over me, but I hold firm. I don't just keep the smile on my face. I keep the optimism in every single muscle.

"Later," I tell her.

Because later, it won't matter how I feel. But right now, I'm busy with a living, breathing, adoring tabby cat. Nothing else matters but him.

This long stripy kitty is the smartest cat I've ever owned. Joe accidentally taught him to roll over at mealtimes; he gave the command jokingly, but before two weeks were up, Tor could roll over faster than the dog did. From then on, Tor learned every trick the dog knew, from sitting up and begging to lying down on command. He knew he was clever, and he enjoyed that advantage. While our ragged little terrier, Genny, was struggling to master a trick, Tor would do it over and over just to show her up.

"Well, old boy," I tell him, "you're quite the cat."

Tor pads over to rub against me, and his purr gets even louder, a hum of contentment in the quiet room.

Tor's purr lasts all the way to the very end. He bears the vet no ill will. He likes the tech. Gently, peacefully, he slides into a furry heap on the examining table. His purr sputters once. And then it's gone.

My cheerful resolve breaks down at the very same instant. I surprise myself by wailing out loud. Sobs rack me so viciously that I struggle for breath while the vet presses a Kleenex into my hand.

It's all right. I'm with friends. I can let myself grieve for the loss of this small, faithful companion, this unique little life that has left the world forever.

There will never be another Tor.

Out in the car, I wail again and beat on the steering wheel with my hands. I let myself feel the pain Tor deserves—this intelligent, accepting, trusting creature whose companionship I banished. I keen and sob over the difficult years we had together and the way it had to end.

I could tell myself that Tor's life was painful. Yes, it was. I could give myself false comfort with the platitude that the poor, fragile, chronically ailing beast is finished now with medicines and surgeries. But the truth is different. The truth is that my love for my sometimes-fragile cat crossed my love for my sometimes-fragile daughter. And a mother's love crushes everything in its path.

I can cry, but I know: I would do more than this. To spare my daughter pain—to make her well—I would do so much more than this.

Because, at the end of the day, life with an anorexic isn't about triggers and causes. It isn't about reasons and right or wrong or blame. It isn't about success (although I pray for that) or failure (although it haunts my dreams). Strange as it sounds, it isn't even about life or death.

Love: That's what life with an anorexic is about.

I love my daughter absolutely as much as I am capable of loving. Each time I feel my strength giving out, I love a little more. There is nothing love can give that I wouldn't give for her health and happiness. There is nowhere my daughter could go that love won't lead me after her.


That's all.

It's the only thing that matters.

That's what I've learned as Elena's mother.

Copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Chronicle Books.

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