This piece discusses anorexia in detail and mentions suicide. Please use your discretion.
On the day I stopped eating, I was seated across from my father in a Denny’s.
He told me that he had been dabbling in infidelity. Only the brand of dabbling my father subscribed to was not so much a brief blip in poor judgment, but a lifelong commitment to a tyranny so myopic in scope that the only valid response was to fuck the world.
I only learned of his tyrannical commitment later — through snippets of conversation told of girlfriends stashed in far-off cities.
“One of them he was with for years,” my mother had told me.
“Years? How could that be?”
“He’d see them on his business trips.”
I tried to do the Days Away From Family math.
“I. . .I’m so sorry, mom.”
I didn’t know how to respond to her. The concept was unfathomable. I had no frame of reference for adultery. The only one I had was in sad-sack husband characters in movies, full ugly-cry-face on doorsteps, fists banging violently on the door in anger or remorse or desperation.
My father seemed to cycle through all of the Sad-Sack Husband emotions, but only one of them ever felt honest: the anger, hyperbolically effusive and fueled by anything that challenged his certain belief that he was the greatest.
Like the time he felt confident enough, after too many drinks at a work party he forced us to attend, to drive me and my two brothers on the freeway. His co-workers had told him we should stay the night at the hotel, that it wasn’t the best idea to leave. He did anyway.
I thought we might die on the freeway, a bloodied mass splashed in bits along the embankment ice plants. I sat rigid, feet firmly pressed against my invisible brakes on the passenger side, hoping we could just make it through the night. The fast lane was his, and his only. He drove like he owned the world, like every car near his had to part to his will.
We made it home eventually in one piece, which only served to feed my father’s ego further. I remember my legs aching the next day from all of my many attempts to slam on my imaginary brakes.
Later on, I gathered additional fodder to support the claim that my father’s infidelity was not just a passing phase, but at the very core of who he was as a human.
“We were separated when you were a baby,” mom told me.
“Oh, I guess that makes sense,” I responded despondently.
I wonder if that’s where it all began for me: malleable sponge of a baby saturating in mother’s anguish and independent spirit.
When my father called to invite me to Denny’s, I was simultaneously thrown by the wavering quality of his voice, and his desire to step inside a Denny’s, America’s Diner. Denny’s, after all, represented everything my father reminded us all so often that he wasn’t: ordinary, generic, less than the most superior being in the galaxy.
When I was a kid, on our weekly Sunday outings to our local vanilla Evangelical Christian church, Supreme Being of the Galaxy manifested himself in commands of benign, yet violent, superiority.
“Collared shirt!” he demanded.
We wanted to wear t-shirts and shorts, garb of the typical sort for us kids. I was particularly fond of a Pennywise t-shirt I wore just about everywhere. That t-shirt was a symbol of my rebellion, the contrarian cloth of my skateboard brethren, but ultimately a lackluster attempt to fight back against my father’s piercing cries for uniformity.
His demands, we knew, were written in stone. The only push back we could muster were mostly inaudible whining sounds.
Mom even had her say from time to time.
“Just let them wear t-shirts,” she pleaded. “Why does it matter? God doesn’t care how we look.”
But Dad cared, and he cared immensely — about how we looked, as a familial unit, to others. He cared about the perfectly crafted measurement of Christianity. He cared about how his beliefs set himself apart from the unsaved, the unclean, those who were not singled out, chosen by the Creator. He cared about how this mindset convinced him that he knows better than all, and that he should assuredly impose his will upon everyone he came across.
“Tuck in your shirt,” he’d yell, biting his bottom lip with such ferocity we thought he might tear through it, exposing his teeth through the shredded hole in his face.
The lip biting was a thing he became known for, a physical tell that would precede the oncoming rage storm. Whenever we saw it, we knew he was about to burst. Maybe it was his way, momentarily, to bite back his fervent urge to beat us into most, if not all, the characters from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
And the collared, tucked-in shirts were our uniforms, a grotesque facade for the Perfect Family.
When I visited his vinyl booth that day at Denny’s, I wore a t-shirt. A wrinkled one.
My Heart-Guard — a protective, cage-like layer around my most vital organ, battling valiantly in opposition to my too-soon death — was constructed early in life. Introverted and quiet, I learned to protect myself by keeping clear of his wrath.
I hid in corners, uncomfortably silent, removing myself from engaging with the cacophony. I left the house on what I always imagined to be Calvin & Hobbes-like adventures. I lost myself in books.
But when I couldn’t keep clear, when the wrath monster spread its wings too expansively for me to escape, I built Heart-Guard, to protect the thing I figured I could control. Heart-Guard was, in a sense, like an imaginary friend whose sole purpose was to be there for me during the tumultuous patches.
When I was a teenager, Heart-Guard was there to support me during a particular brand of elitist criticism my father enjoyed.
“Why don’t you just go work at McDonald’s?” my father would ask, embittered and angry that I was not interested in business, not taking life seriously, not living life the way he wanted me to live my life, not him.
“Maybe I will,” I responded, glibly enough to show him that, maybe this one time, in this one particular instance, I wasn’t terrified.
Heart-Guard give me strength. Heart-Guard give me power.
“Then do it!” he’d yell, so angry that I even considered it. Through his eyes, McDonald’s was less than him; a minimum wage job for the peons; misaligned with the pearly-lined path, the one with the pearly gates at the end, he likened himself to be on.
I was in wholehearted opposition to this egotistic putridity, to this glaring lack of humanity. It made me overwhelmingly uncomfortable, like when he would boss the serving staff around at restaurants with the family, blowing up if, say, the wrong soup was served. I felt, in a sense, it was my duty as a human to stand in opposition.
And Heart-Guard was there to support me in my opposition.
So when he yelled that I should just go ahead and work at McDonald’s, I made a point to simply walk away, not smiling broadly enough for him to notice, but smiling nonetheless.
My silent victory.
I pulled my forest green Ford Taurus into the parking lot at Denny’s, and took a deep breath.
Stepping inside, I saw him almost immediately, seated at one of those shiny vinyl booths.
He got up when he noticed me, leaning over awkwardly for a hug. We hugged, also awkwardly, him trying to make eye contact, me staring at the half-full maple syrup container on the table.
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I replied. “What’s this about?”
“Do you want something to eat?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” I said, not because I wasn’t eating. I hadn’t started controlling my eating by that point. I hadn’t yet heard the “go eat a sandwich” exultations from passersby who wouldn’t ever understand the pain I was going through; not that it was their fault.
The controlled eating came later; it was, in a phrase, a veritable shit storm of emotions in me and in the visceral, horrified reactions I evoked in others. It was just a shit storm I wasn’t eating.
I had started, for years prior, associating my father with negativity — in the emotions he evoked in me, and in the actions he tended to wallow in.
One action found its vengeful place in the innocent actions of my brother and I, aged ten, expressing our unconditional love to a wayward kitten.
We slid the downstairs living room door open and let the kitten inside. Its fur was matted to its neglected frame in stalagmite spears of grime. Under the grime, its bones were visible, like the shifting plastic protuberances of a massage chair. Its eyes, and the surrounding fur, were cavernous black orbs.
Despite its physical state, the kitten had a playfulness about it, as though it were not yet done fighting for the life it deserved.
My father walked in fifteen minutes later.
“What are you doing?” he had yelled. “I’m allergic. Get that cat out of here now!”
So we did. But the kitten just hung out on the downstairs porch, staring in at us through the sliding glass door. Despite what our father had barked, we let the kitten back in five minutes later. We were young enough then to not have developed the emotional clarity and maturity that would typically keep one from opposing the wishes of a tyrant. We were young and stupid and mesmerized by a creature that needed love.
And then it all went to shit when my father surfaced a few minutes later.
“I told you to get that cat out of here,” he yelled again, storming his way toward us. He grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck.
“No, no, stop, no,” we pleaded.
But my father stormed back across the living room with the cat in tow, walked up the stairs, through the kitchen, out onto the second-floor balcony and flung the kitten a hundred yards into the air before its body mashed and rolled and reverberated violently against the grass of our front yard where my two brothers and I would play baseball together and throw ourselves across the homemade slip-n-slides.
I was stunned. Horrified. A kitten’s body isn’t meant for that. No creature’s is. But my father, in his inestimable power, found a loophole in the Precious Creature Care Clause that afforded him the window to unleash his vengeance.
“I wanted to tell you something,” he said, shifting in his seat at Denny’s. His voice wavered at that, and I averted my eyes. He was staring, Emotion Stare, one of his trademark emotional manipulations.
I looked up. For a split-second I thought he might be dying. It might have been easier, a rip of the band-aid after an asphalt burn.
“I’ve been unfaithful,” he blurted.
I couldn’t say anything at first. Part of me knew that was coming all along. It made sense for the man I was sitting across from. He was always about him, and himself only. That’s all he ever seemed to care about. The other part of me simply wanted to take the fork, the one with the water spots, and plunge it into his eye socket.
The space around me suddenly became a surreal juxtaposition of soft and sweet, maple syrup-drenched pancake towers, and the harsh man with the fleeting face of remorse.
Before I could say anything, or end his life with a fork, he said, “I’m sorry.”
He looked so pathetic and sad and, in a small way, I felt sorry for him. In that moment, I realized he would never be capable of connecting to others on a level worth living for.
I cried then. Cried as the sad empathic sponge I was, cried because this person was the man who positioned himself as my father, cried for mom and the experiences she had and the experiences yet to come — sticking by his side through tireless tyranny.
I cried because, in the end, it was all just a show.
On that day at Denny’s, I learned two things.
My father is a cheater.
My father is the ultimate manipulator, time and time again to position himself as King Martyr, as Fallen From Grace, as Human Sinner Who Just Needs to Turn Back to God.
The former made sense to me. The shittiness of it was clear, its impact cut and dry. The latter I couldn’t stomach, as my interest and belief in Christianity had already started to wane. Years of my father yelling WWJD at me, years of anti-human sentiment, years of systemic narrow-mindedness.
By the time I figured out he had actually been adulterating around the globe for the entire duration of their marriage — proved continuously over the course of his marriage, separation, marriage again, and divorce from my mother — I became a staunch supporter of Team Mom.
Team Dad was a team of one.
From that point forward, for the next few years, I took on the role my therapist would call the “mediator of my parents’ marriage.” I just called it the day I stopped eating. It’s easier off the tongue.
Boy Mediator! He’ll be your emotional sponge! He’ll fight cluelessly by your side! Kapow.
I told myself I did it for mom.
“He’s so. . .” Angry. Mean. Violent. Abusive. Petulant. Arrogant.
“I know,” I’d say. And then she’d cry and I’d feel the tears soak through my not-collared t-shirt and onto my skin.
“You need to leave him, mom.”
An hour or two passed like that. Me attempting to defend her honor, her explaining that it was what her God wanted her to do.
And then I’d walk across the house to speak with my father.
“What are you doing?” I’d ask, but he was always too angry to provide a reasonable answer. He was too focused on how mom didn’t get it or how mom couldn’t spell (she had dyslexia) or how mom’s Christian standards were a constant reminder of his own failures, Christian or otherwise.
“You can’t do this to her,” I’d say, which was about as far as I’d go, as far as Heart-Guard would allow.
Until the lip biting surfaced in response, and he’d violently throw his weight around, stomping to and fro as I watched from afar, out of reach, out of harm’s way.
I was stretched thin and raw and saggy like the waistband of an old pair of cotton sweatpants. I had enough of it until I found peace in control.
The control led to the Not-Eating thing, which is really the ultimate form of control. Anorexia Nervosa it’s called, which is characteristically described as self-starvation.
But hey, I had control. I was starved for control.
Control in exact portions.
Control in protein bars of precise caloric intent.
Control in numbers on a scale — 170 to 150 to 130 to what the fuck is happening.
Control in gaunt, stalactite-like protrusions littered across my once-full frame.
Control in eventually choosing to study abroad in Wales during my second year in college, to get away from my parents, my mother’s palpable pain, my father’s manipulative tyranny and abuse, the esteemed position as Boy Mediator.
Control in thinking that perhaps I was going to dig deep into this depressed state like all the great writers, romantics, seekers.
Control in slowly dying.
Control in figuring out that it was only going to get worse before it got better.
My frame melted down to a sack of paltry skin and bones, a pallid palate of sharp angles and sunken atrophies and aches that went on for days.
Hair fell out in clumps, a chemo-patient without the chemo. At the time, I had a Harry Potter pillowcase. I awoke every morning to young Potter’s face littered in sickly brown scruff.
I was cold all of the time. Without the slightest bit of fat on me, my body learned to shake, each time reverberating up and down my bones like a tin can telephone.
Sleeping was close to impossible, even though I felt perpetually exhausted.
When I walked, my knees ached as though they were in need of replacement, as the bones ground together and the ligaments slipped from side to side like a rubber band rolling back and forth against a rough river stone.
If I were to get on all fours, the brittle, spindly spine of mine would’ve made me look like a rare breed of Stegosaurus.
I tried to run, to numb whatever madness suffocated my brain, but I could barely muster the energy to shuffle.
It felt like I had perpetual stress fractures in the bones of my feet, like I was always walking on eggshells, and yet I joined the University of Swansea at Wales Running Club, along with one of my flatmates, Francois.
The joy that I used to glean from running was something I had lost in my desperate attempt to save a marriage, protect a mother, dig into a depression, and control my slow death by not eating.
It was my choice after all. Not anyone else’s.
And despite the pain, I still chose not to eat; or, rather, I chose to eat as little as humanly possible to keep me alive long enough to show my parents what they did to me.
“See this body! I am dying and you are the reason!” That’s what I wanted to scream. That’s the information I wanted to relay. But hadn’t the energy to make that seem less petty. Intellectually, I realized these were my choices. Emotionally, their role in my diminishment was unmistakable.
During that time in Wales, my friend Kyle, someone I’ve known since high school, came to visit. It is, to this day, one of the most caring things anyone has ever done for me. He could have traveled around Europe with a friend whose physical stature was not so similar to Skeletor’s. He could have traveled alone and not have been burdened by my emotional heft. But he didn’t.
He didn’t feign to understand what I was going through; he listened, and was there, by my side, a lesson I find myself being more mindful of these days.
Later, when my mother came to visit, her first reaction wasn’t one of joy, a running start and warm bear hug in the airport. She had a face full of tears.
“I don’t recognize you,” she said.
“You don’t look like you,” she said in between sobbing fits.
She was right, of course, but I couldn’t see it then. My control was blinding.
My parents’ marriage, as I told myself again and again, was the instigator of my downfall into depression, the sadness, the feeling of losing control, the eating disorder. The control I tried to force upon their marriage was never a control I could realistically manage. It was never mine in the first place. It wasn’t my burden to carry.
But that didn’t keep me from trying to carry it all.
And, eventually, before I was able to pick myself back up, I lost all the hope I had but the control I had over my physical self.
That is, at least until I had my first suicidal thought in a bathtub in Wales. I was shaken by this confidence-affirming realization. It was, after all, a way out, a peaceful sign-off from the pain which was mine and mine alone.
Sitting in the tub, I thought about how the white porcelain would look lovely with a splash or two of maroon, my own domestic Pollock. I grew fond of that tub. The hot water felt good on my perpetually goose-pimpled skin. It was a place I found that I could be alone, away from flatmates whose eyes sunk with confused worry.
In the tub, I peered down at my body, sharp angles dulled under the water, and thought that maybe I wasn’t actually dying.
I wasn’t dying.
I wasn’t dying.
I wasn’t dying.
The doc had explained to me that the alternative to eating (not not eating) was full-time hospitalization, tubes protruding from my mouth pumping caloric sludge into my belly until I was my former (physical) self. I couldn’t live with the drama of that decision. I couldn’t live with the last vestige of my autonomy, my control, to be taken away. So it was at that point I kicked off my slow climb toward recovery.
It was the nudge I needed. Not aching bones. Not hair falling out. Not new smoking habit as yet another means to dull my senses. Not even suicides in white porcelain Welsh bathtubs.
It was a medical imperative that nudged me into the decision to try and get better. But it was also, above all, the decision to let go — of the pain, the turmoil, the fretful, frantic worry that convinced me that my parents’ relationship was my fight to win or lose.
It was telling myself that their lives were not mine to live.
I looked up from my vinyl seat across from my father on the day I stopped eating. My face, red and splotchy in salty caverns from the tears I didn’t want to shed but they came anyway.
I knew then that things would never be the same from that point forward: the anorexia as resistance, the depression as loss of control, the fleeing to another country as delusion, the dying and then not dying and then dying and then not dying.
Looking at my father then that day at Denny’s, I knew then that my life would change forever.
And I was content.
Nōn Wels is a writer, doggo lover, mental health advocate, creator of the weekly podcast, You, Me, Empathy, and founder of the collaborative mental health community, The Feely Human Collective, where you can grow your capacity for empathy, vulnerability, and emotional curiosity! Join Nōns feely adventures on Instagram @feelyhuman and @youmeempathy.
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