By Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015.
Edited by Ginee Seo.
Companion memoir to Hope and Other Luxuries.
A memoir about adolescent anorexia nervosa.
My daughter Elena makes her debut as an author. Our book, Elena Vanishing, tells the story of her struggles with adolescent anorexia nervosa, which almost killed her. You can read more about the story behind this memoir, as well as see more photos, on her website here.
This page contains the first chapter of Elena Vanishing.
I wake up in a panic, and acid churns in my stomach. A nurse has walked into my hospital room. I was asleep. How long was I asleep? How long has it been since I last reached for the makeup bag under my pillow? Does the nurse see a girl with a bright future ahead of her? Or does he see a sweaty, tearstained mess?
As it turns, out, I don't need to worry. All the nurse sees is my lunch tray. "You didn't eat any of this," he says. "You didn't even unwrap it."
I feel my face settle automatically into a polite, neutral expression: forehead smooth and lips curved slightly upward. And I hear my voice speak in the voice I save for strangers: slightly higher and more childlike than my normal voice, with a gentle lilt. People like that voice. They relax and smile when they hear it.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I fell asleep."
"So, if I leave it, will you eat it now?"
No. There's no way I can force that stuff down. This morning, I had three bites of pudding, and I'm still full. At the thought of more food, the familiar pains knife through me. But if I say that, I know what he'll think, so I purse my lips and arrange my face into a thoughtful expression.
"I don't know," I say. "I'm still sleepy. Maybe later, when I wake up again."
The nurse isn't happy with my answer. He growls and mutters as he takes my pulse and updates my chart.
I like this nurse. Yesterday he yelled at me, but I could tell he only did it because he was worried. Now he huffs, "Anorexia! You and my niece. Two beautiful girls, destroying your lives over a diet!"
I take careful note of the comment: beautiful. This nurse is the fifth person in the last four days to call me beautiful. But worry poisons my relief. What do I weigh now? I need to know the number that's made me beautiful.
"How's the heart?" asks the nurse. "Any pain in the chest?"
"No," I say, trying to keep annoyance out of my voice. That's because there's nothing wrong with my heart.
"Are you noticing any tightness? Any shortness of breath?"
"No." Of course not! One echo exam, and everybody freaks. Doctors read those tests wrong all the time.
"Do you need anything?"
"No thank you," I say with a shake of my head and a smile, as if he's a waiter taking my order. I feel the smile stay smooth and perfect on my face until he leaves the room.
As soon as the nurse is out of sight, I double up in agony, clenching my teeth to keep from groaning out loud. If I make a sound, I know he'll hear me and come rushing back to help. And I don't want anyone's help.
Anger and bewilderment are forms of admiration. It's pity I can't stand. Pity wraps you up inside your problem until the problem is all people see. "Did you hear what happened to her?" they whisper behind your back. "Can you just imagine? No wonder!" And when you do something amazing, nobody's jealous anymore. They hug you and cry and call you brave, when what they really mean by that is damaged.
So I lie still and take deep, quiet breaths. Pain doesn't bother me. I'm not afraid. I'm used to living with pain.
He saw you looking like a mess, warns the voice in my head. You weren't careful enough. You let down your guard.
That's my conscience. We all have one. Mine never lets me settle for second best. There's no place in life for losers.
So, even though the pain in my stomach still has me clenching my teeth in agony, I pull the little makeup bag out from under my pillow and touch up my face in the compact mirror.
Perfection. That's what I want people to see when they look at me. Nothing but perfection.
Anger is honest. Hatred is a backhanded compliment. Envy is the best gift of all. But let them turn you into a victim and you're labeled for life.
Pity is the sea you drown in.