When I was in my early teens I spent a few years feeling pretty emotionally unwell. Let’s be serious: even now I have varying stretches of time where I feel low, low, low. My feelings of poor health always start in my head. My mind feels dark and heavy and clouded. Then my chest hurts. Eventually the sensation creeps into my limbs, rendering me unable to get out of bed. My head aches, my muscles get sore, and I cannot bear to feed myself. I become stuck in a cycle of feeling physically empty and then ill. I pity myself. I curse myself. There is mental illness pumping through my veins and I lie in terror, fearing I am becoming my mother.
I´m better at combatting this now. Not perfect, but better. When I was 14 I hadn’t yet gotten any handle on my depression or the physical ways it manifested itself. I felt trapped in my house and turned instead to the typical angsty coping methods of my age group: poorly written poetry; mediocre drawings of anything macabre; and the late night touch of a razor´s edge to my thigh. I was found out by my mother at some point, of course. I don’t doubt that on some level she felt a kind of maternal fear for her troubled child. Despite this, her discovery opened the floodgates to such a seemingly endless potential for drama that she was incapable of resisting her urges to manipulate the situation. The months that followed were doubtlessly some of the worst of my life.
Following the afternoon she spent reading and copying my poetry and journal entries, she embarked on a lengthy track of humiliating me under the guise of mother love. She kept my notebooks and sketchbooks in a locked safe in her closet. I was brought to the emergency room for psychiatric evaluations, where my mother warned them I´d run away. She spoke at length to anyone who would listen and I was left helpless and ignored. Suddenly my mother had a list of phone numbers to half the therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, and guidance counselors in Franklin County. She purposely held her conversations with them in my presence, knowing that I was humiliated and enraged but could do nothing.
The days of tension were unceasing. When I was through with my evening shower, she would charge up the stairs and demand that I show her my naked body so that she would know if I had begun to cut myself again. I sobbed and resisted, but she wouldn’t relent. My grades, which were already poor, dropped even more once I had to attend upwards of five appointments every week. It was clear that I was suffering, and my mother–maybe subconsciously–did everything in her power to ensure I did not get well. She has always had a bit of a love affair with doctors’ appointments. When I presented her with new opportunities for such, her thirst became unquenchable.
My mother fancied herself to be the victim of my depression. The cupboard became filled with psychotropic medication. At appointments her comments outweighed mine and I eventually shrunk back as she grieved over and over, “She´s just so angry!” I don’t think the relentless cycle of appointments and medicine was ever about me regaining health. I believe that I was just another ailment about which to spend hours lamenting. I was just another kidney stone; another stomach ache; another night spent throwing up.
Eventually I fell ill. I remember the day clearly: I was in the ninth grade and my hair was fading from a vivid magenta. I barely ate at mealtimes, probably as a result of my constant Seroquel haze. It was April. I sat down next to my boyfriend in our school cafeteria, looking shapeless in my faded Tool tshirt, over-sized ripped jeans, and my pleated black skirt. I was sipping on some chocolate milk when I noticed a pain in my throat. It was not the normal, scratchy irritation of an oncoming cold. I felt as though there was a lump of some sort and no matter what it was that I tried to eat or drink, it’s presence was excruciating.
The school nurse offered no solution that was worthwhile. She doled out a horse pill-sized Tylenol and a raised eyebrow. My mother was, of course, happy to phone a few doctors and to take me to the emergency room the following day. I was weak from not eating and one doctor prescribed me Vicodin so that maybe the pain would subside enough to allow me to ingest something. In the car my mother declared, “I’m not letting you have narcotics!” as though she were alluding to an imaginary habit. If that script was filled, I never saw it.
As such, I spent the next couple days lying on the living room couch. I refused all food and the discomfort in my throat never waned. I could scarcely drink a sip of tea. I became so weak that my mother called an ambulance and, unable to stand, I was carried outside by an EMT.
The hospital was a blur. I vomited bowl after bowl of pure bile. The acid stung my throat and brought tears to my eyes. Trays were filled with vials of my blood and drugs were administered through needles that bruised my arms and hands. I nearly passed out on the way to the bathroom and nurses had to guide me back to the bed. I stayed there for a week. I weighed 98 pounds.
I regained my health slowly. Maybe it´s my imagination, but I always thought being out of my house made a tremendous difference. One day, after another uncomfortable visit from my mother, she snapped that maybe she just wouldn’t come to see me anymore because I didn’t seem interested in her company. I like to think her absence helped me get well.
I was discharged the day of my 15th birthday. The nurse came in and greeted with my first name: June. I hated being called June. She expressed concern that I hadn’t gained enough weight and said she´d have to speak to my doctor before they could let me leave. Frustrated, I laid back in bed. I had been off the IV for days. I had energy. I was eating normally. What was this obsession with my weight? I was a skinny girl; simple as that.
Years later, I sat at the dining room table with my newly-legal guardian. We pored over papers with official headings and handwriting in the columns. A manilla envelope, stamped, “CONFIDENTIAL,” lay a foot or so away.
“What the fuck?!”
My guardian looked surprised at me. We were reading notes from my former therapist and psychiatrist. I had found notes that pertained to the sessions I had missed while I had been in the hospital two years before. I learned that my mother had phoned to let them know I wouldn’t be in for my appointments. In their discussions, the doctor noted that they had come to the conclusion that I had been starving myself. The pain about which I had complained was thought of as an act. Suddenly I understood the knowing looks of the nurses. Everyone had doubted the legitimacy of my ailment. The realization sickened me.
I explained my upset and my guardian looked at me lovingly. “That’s so interesting,” she said.
We talked for a bit about physical manifestations of mental and psychological issues. She suggested that maybe I’d become so emotionally weathered by the onslaught of problems in my home life that my body had to demonstrate it in a different way.
“That is so interesting that it was your throat; that you just couldn’t swallow it anymore.”
I just couldn’t swallow it anymore. I just couldn’t swallow it. I can´t help but agree. Why don´t we listen to our bodies more?