My sister, Leona, was nine years older than me. The age gap was one of many reasons we were never close. Our inability to connect fueled by insecurities and parental criticism. In another playing field we might’ve bonded and helped each other soar.
We both dreamed of becoming journalists. Leona longed to work for The Washington Post, while I imagined traveling the world as a reporter for National Geographic. Neither of us succeeded. Why? Because we were fat.
WAIT— don’t click away— a reframe is on its way. Promise.
Leona was always on a diet. As far back as I can remember, a single carrot, an apple, or broiled fish was the extent of her food intake. Stepping on the scale was a daily activity that determined whether or not she would skip a meal. This is how I grew up, and why I believed every girl in the world went on a diet as soon as she turned thirteen.
The day we took her to college to study journalism, she weighed 120 pounds. When she came home for Thanksgiving she tipped the scale at 200. No longer under our mother’s critical eye, Leona swapped carrots for pizzas. Ate them every night while trying to beat the record for how many girls she could cram into a phone booth. She finished out the semester, but dropped out halfway through the second. A job as a teller in a bank allowed her to get an apartment in the Windy City and attend night school. But she never got a degree in journalism, never tried to get a job at one of the Chicago newspapers, and she never found her way back to 120 pounds. Not because she was fat. My guess— because of the insecurities that led her to overeat.
Unlike my sister, no one forced me to go on a diet. I was never Pick-up sticks thin. My body was muscular from athletics and dance. I was proud of how my strength and agility allowed me to win races and earn spots on teams and in dance pieces. But I was always aware of how un-thin I was compared to the girls in my school thanks to the nicknames given to me by boys like the Hefty Hustler and Thunder Thighs. Part of me didn’t mind because I knew they admired my skill. I was always chosen first for their teams whenever gym class was coed. But those nicknames hurt like an open scab. And I feared the size of my legs in combination with my silver tooth— a story for another time— was the reason none of them asked me to go steady. Not that I would agree because, well, I could never date a guy who was thinner than me. Just the thought made me self-conscious.
The final insult came during try-outs for the Cheerleading Squad my freshman year of high school. Tryouts were held in the little theatre. After warming up on stage, I headed out to the hall to wait my turn. One of the male student judges looked at me and said, “You’re cute, but your legs are too big for a cheerleader.” He was right. I didn’t make the squad. On my way home, I stopped in a drug store, bought a calorie counting book, began a 500 calorie a day diet, and hello anorexia!
I loved anorexia. My parents praised my discipline. I won a spot on the Cheerleading Squad. Guys flirted with me. But even though I lost a lot of pounds, I was unable to shed my hefty thunder thighs body image.
Romantic interlude— David Ruthenbeck entered my life before anorexia. He was four years older than me. We met one Sunday night at our church’s Youth Group. No bells, no birds, no tummy flutters or blushing, yet from the moment we met, we talked about everything. Everyone else in the group would run around in a frenzy, while we sat and talk and laughed. He’d been battling leukemia for years. It was a fact. We didn’t ignore it, but we never dwelled on it. Too many topics interested us. He was the first person I shared my poems with. Our unconditional acceptance of each other made me feel safe and sure, and I never felt self-conscious about my body when we were together.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a love story without complications. Dave’s leukemia escalated. He spent more and more time in the hospital. That’s where I saw him last. My poems decorated the walls around his bed. A few weeks after that visit, I was studying for a history exam. My radio tuned to the classical station playing Stravinsky’s The Firebird. I was hunched over my notes, engrossed in names and dates, then energy rushed through me. I shoved history away, seized a piece of paper and wrote a poem— about David’s death. It weirded me out but I wasn’t able to stop. The next morning before first period started, the minister’s son asked me to walk down the hall with him. When we got to the end of the corridor, he said Dave passed away the night before— the same time I was writing the poem.
I haven’t thought about my heart and soul connection to David Ruthenbeck for some time. But when I went to my last therapy session, where I hoped to learn how to end my obsession with being F-A-T for good, our relationship bounded forward as soon as my therapist asked, “What made you swing away from anorexia?”
Dave’s death triggered binge eating. I ate little in front of people, while in secret I stuffed, stuffed, stuffed. And I had all kinds of weird rules to prevent myself from thinking I was breaking the anorexic rules. I’d buy twelve Snicker bars, but only eat the chocolate coating and throw the rest away, or eat all the half peanuts in a jar of Planter’s peanuts. I’d sneak scoop after scoop of peanut butter or ice cream when no one was looking, and believed no one would be the wiser.
My therapist poked— “How did that make you feel? This secret eating?”
Eating was a safe haven. Whenever I shoved food in my mouth, I didn’t have to feel the emotions running amok.
“But how did you feel?”
It was this double-poke that brought the swell of my lost love into focus. “I was nervous,” I said. “Thinking about it now makes me nervous.” Why? “Because I was afraid I’d never find someone to love and accept me as unconditionally as David Ruthenbeck.”
My therapist looked me in the eye. “Maybe it’s time to do that for yourself.”
Slide sideways into my writing life— and the journalism degree neither my sister or I completed. It would be easy to chastise myself for not following through. But why waste the energy. Journalism was not the path for me. Granted, it might’ve quickened my progress with Kaitlyn’s story, but I needed to take the circuitous route. Which led me to you dear friends, readers and voyeurs, and these Notes from the Toolbox, which helped me dig deeper into Kaitlyn’s journey, which in turn has healed my heart and soul.
Now, here I am with a revised and polished manuscript. An accomplishment neither Leona or I ever imagined. But it’s true. And even though rejection will be part of the process going forward, the joy of having completed this labor of love doesn’t make me nervous, or want to shove food in my mouth. So, I’m thinking prepping the materials for the query process is the best way to begin with loving and accepting myself. And something tells me, Leona and David will be cheering me on. Why? Because I can feel them dancing in my heart.