Sanguine: Attempting to Control Everything through Disordered Eating
by Kate Raphael
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The day I was diagnosed with an eating disorder I began the first period I’d had in years. It was jewel-bright, rubied, and spooled out of me like the yarn of a message I’d awaited for more than a decade. Listen, my body begged me.
I had not been listening. I’d directed my energy instead toward tuning out hollow growls of hunger, muting the prick of goosebumps with sweatshirts, abstaining from so many delicacies that I forgot what I enjoyed eating.
But at the sight of bright crimson as I sat on the plastic toilet seat in my third-story apartment bathroom in the middle of a pandemic, I welled up with menarcheal emotion, a rush of adolescent nostalgia for my first period. I texted my little sister, “I hope I remember how to insert a tampon” I tapped into my phone screen. “It’s just like riding a bicycle,” she typed back.
And it was. But nothing else felt natural.
My body felt used and lived in and not mine. Fake and foreign. I felt sharp corners of myself in the shower, jutting hip bones that could have sliced me open and cut me to bits. I had made a weapon of my body, and I wielded thinness like a sword. In my head, I went to war with myself, sure that my thinking was flawed, that I had some secret internal injury I couldn’t identify and, yet, didn’t want to discover. I stood naked under the hot water as blood trickled from between my legs and streamed, pink, down the drain.
Before anyone ever told me I was Sick—finally receiving my psychotherapist’s diagnosis over Zoom in the fall of 2020—I saw the signs myself.
Weeks earlier, my boyfriend played with my rings, which had grown loose around my bony fingers. We watched a movie while I sat chilled and curled into his body, my hands in his lap, allowing him to silently rotate the metal bands around and around. I kept my face stoic and guarded, while I retreated into myself, ashamed and disconcerted by how easily they moved, and yet, wedded to the space between metal and finger, married to empty.
Before that, I poked a new hole in my belt so that my now-baggy pants would stay up. I cinched my jeans so tightly that the excess fabric bunched around my waist, and I silently hoped no one would notice how ill-fitting my clothing had grown, how much I had shrunk within it, disappearing.
And months before that, as I drove across the country and stopped at my parents’ house in Indiana, I ran inside from a torrential downpour, my soggy shirt adhered to my chest, and I hugged my dad. “You look small,” he said, the first words uttered during the visit. I turned my head away and did not respond, terrified of being exposed as anything less than whole and healthy, and also gripped by the compulsion to make myself smaller still.
For years and years before that, I never had a regular period. Through college, I attributed this lack of cyclical signaling, the absence of waxing and waning and imagined synchrony with the moon to my intrauterine device. Light spotting would arrive unannounced on occasion, but disappear as quickly as it came, the ghost of a period. My doctors were satisfied when I told them I had an IUD, and I squashed my own concerns with the same nonchalant swiftness. I had inklings that I was not well, not myself, but I couldn’t pin down my thoughts or call the words to my throat to express that. It was easier to tell everyone—tell myself—what we all wanted to hear. No one was listening for anything more.
And even before that, when I was only a child, I spent the humid months after seventh grade running early miles and skipping breakfast, thinning and thinning until I returned to school in the fall as a blonde wisp of summer. My middle school cross country coach was alarmed by the change, and I found myself in the offices of doctors, therapists, dietitians, a racket of adult voices telling me I could not run a step until I gained ten pounds. Though I was faintly aware of the incessant needling of my undiagnosed illness, they did not tell me I was sick.
I imagined myself uncrackable and sat through many office visits, silently seething, my mouth sealed save when I was forced to respond, and then only in the shortest answers I could devise. I would not meet their eyes. I would not demonstrate the slightest evidence of vulnerability. Their directives filled me with rage, and I guzzled every high-calorie smoothie pushed in front of me, determined to prove that I had never lost control of myself, that I could easily flip this switch of losing losing losing in the other direction. I gained weight quickly and we called that summer a “blip on the radar.” We moved on. We pretended it hadn’t happened—I simply hadn’t understood how to fuel my body properly for my first year of competitive running—and dusted our hands of it.
It was easier to pretend this way, since I, too, wanted to believe I was not Sick. I lived inside this false reality for more than ten years, keeping the worst of my disordered thoughts pressed down beneath my shoulders, keeping my weight in the range that would appease the adults around me, keeping my Sickness tucked into the most private parts of myself, ashamed.
The pandemic called it all to the surface. It was a beckoning of every dark, silent thing twisting me in my aloneness. I quarantined in my apartment in an effort to ward off a new sickness sweeping across the world, and became slowly, deeply consumed by a Sickness that had never left me.
I felt its presence first not in my body—for so long, I had not been listening to my body—but on the shelves of the supermarket. Don’t go out to the store. One trip every two weeks, said the many voices of Public Health. And in those words, I felt my Private Health slipping. I rationed. I implemented rules. First in the name of safety, of health. Then in the name of thinness, of an efficient running body. Finally, in the name of a feeling I could not even identify—something powerfully hungry that I fed with my own starvation. I did not want to swallow, but to be swallowed up. I could not eat, for I was being eaten alive.
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So much of my world was beyond me—people I could not touch, places I could not go, things I was not allowed to want—but hunger was a predictable companion, a sensation over which I wielded unchallenged, brittle, intoxicating reign. When the pandemic made the rest of the world distant and inaccessible, hunger made its home in the shrunken pit of my stomach. It was mine alone.
And I loved my thinner body—my better body. I looked the way the world wanted me to look, and that felt like winning. When I felt my ribs through my skin, so close to my fingers, it was as if my body was beyond human. I was recklessly approaching a precipice of thinness that few could attain, and, immersed in my illness, I viewed my size as an achievement. I was good at being sick.
Parts of me have always been this driven, independent, and impenetrable. As I slipped more and more, I let no one in. I pretended nothing was wrong for months, talking to my parents on the phone in manufactured tones of upbeatness before finally rupturing my own projected “okayness.” After finally receiving a diagnosis, language that could contain and contextualize my experience, I sent my parents a late-night email with the subject line: Update.
My mom calls this my Seamless Public Face. “You are made of steel cables,” she said to me once. “I have carved myself out of stone,” I wrote of myself. “You have a will of iron,” so many have told me. It is against my every instinct to slacken this rigidity. But sometimes, I want to be cracked open. Fissured and weeping, spilling myself into the world until I am only soft and supple.
Sometimes, I want to bleed.
Much of my early adolescence was characterized by what I was not experiencing. I was the last member of my female cohort to experience the bodily changes that had begun so long ago for everyone else that discussing them was no longer novel, just a way to pass time in the bathroom. I’d felt left out of the conversations at first, then grateful for the convenience of not leaking blood every month, perhaps even special that I was exempt from the bloody baptism of normalcy.
When I finally did get my first period, in my high school bathroom nearest the band room during lunch, I was sixteen, too old to confess to anyone that it was indeed my first. My friend peed in the stall next to me, and I emerged from behind my plastic door, acting as if nothing had happened, my indigo-washed jeans dark enough to hide the blood, a wad of toilet paper sufficient to absorb the trickling flow of my first time. I got my period once more two months later, and then not again for a very long time. And what I felt in not getting it was relief.
I did not want to be beholden to these animal cycles. I did not want to be normal, to be ushered into this world of menstruating women whose bodies waxed and waned. Who shared tampons with each other, passed beneath stall doors in the bathroom. Who woke from sleep or rose from chairs in a scarlet pool of their own making. It looked so feral to me. Corporal. Carnal. Out of control.
A sense of control was my comfort when the world felt unbearable, but it also distinguished me as extraordinary. I imagined myself beyond, or maybe above, this culture of blood. I imagined that I was different, that I controlled my own body and could grant it permission to bleed or heal, run or rest. I held in my head the discordant thoughts, which I was not yet willing to recognize as in opposition, that my body did not have to follow the same rules as those of every other menstruating woman, and yet, that I would still, one day, be able to bring life into the world.
In casting off the solidarity of womanhood, I found myself alone. I was not a body that bleeds. And some days, I barely felt like a body that breathes. I wanted to be swallowed by my bedspread. To disappear into a sweater. I wanted someone to find and recognize me as a bag of bones, and then make a nourishing soup of what was left of me. And sometimes even what was left felt paltry: I felt frail, a ghost of myself. Some days I wanted to evaporate, as if the wind might lift me up and disperse me into the night.
And yet, through it all, a sliver of me survived, a wrought iron core that would not wither. In the clearest signal I have ever received from my body, my period arrived, proof that my body was not a machine or instrument, as I had long believed. It was mine to make home in, but not mine to abuse. That realization was liberating; it was a path toward healing, previously invisible, painted in blooming crimson. Listen, my every cell said to me.
And for the first time in a long time, I did.
On my twenty-fifth birthday, I inked a small olive branch into my middle finger. The skin between joints is thin and delicate, and each pinprick of the needle is acute and close to the bone. I stuck myself with the sharp point again and again, relieved to know with certainty the source of the pain, and for what end. A desperate solace that each tiny wound came from without rather than within, its origin outside my body, a pain not of my own making.
With each surgically precise stab of ink, I felt a loosening of myself, the relaxing of a stranglehold that had gripped my body for half of my life. I felt the first letting go of a fight I wasn’t winning—I’d never been winning. It was powerful to give name to the Sickness that had felt like a facet of my character. I identified it not as something essential to my existence, like an organ or a breath, but something I could recover from.
In my surrender to healing, I found solidarity in the community of bodies that bleed. I found power in asking for help from behind a stall door. With the tender realization that I did not have to be so fiercely independent, I felt the fissuring of my Seamless Public Face, a righteous crack in false okayness.
I finished the tattoo and I stretched out my hand, extending the olive branch. A quarter century into my life, I began, hungry with hope, to make peace with my body.
A few pricks of blood made their way to the surface of my skin, and I bled into the world.