at nine years old, i held in my hands a shiny, clear plastic box like a glass coffin encasing the barbie, princess jasmine. she was clothed in royal purple, had eyes that didn't even approximate human, and a broad round forehead even bigger than the golden child's when she slicked her bangs back. the proportions of her body were exaggerated as well, with a head far too heavy to be supported on a average neck, much less the one she had, which was the same width as her wrist. in short, she was gaudy and hideous to anyone but a little girl. but i wasn't really enjoying myself, looking at her, because i was fighting a battle within myself. i could taste the bile creeping up the back of my throat.
i was at disneyland, celebrating another milestone with my parents and my adopted almost twin. it was the end of the day, after we'd made our rounds off the best rides in the amusement park, and i'd been told that i could pick out whatever toy i wanted at the gift shop for my present. at nine years old, i knew that what i really wanted for my birthday was to be a better big sister to the female sibling closest to my age than the golden child or my eldest sister were to me. so when my dad greeted me cheerfully and asked if i'd found something good, i told him, very solemnly, that i wanted to get this for my little sister. i wasn't trying to brag; in fact, admitting my proposed act of kindness i felt deeply ashamed and vulnerable. the real reason i told my dad of my intention was so that there would be a witness to my vow, so i couldn't chicken out on it later.
my dad got very, very quiet. he lead me to where my mom browsed the isles, and then related to her very seriously exactly what i'd just told him. the pride shone in his voice. i just stood there, mute with horror, wishing myself invisible and not daring to look at my mom's face.
"she's just saying that so she can get two toys. she just saw one of those stuffed dogs and is trying to get us to buy her one of those, too."
the harsh casualness with which my mom dismissed me turned my insides into jelly. it would be several years still before i learned to purge my insides my puking myself clean of both food and creepy, uncomfortable feelings. but that day i felt the internal agony that would drive me to compulsive self harm during my teen years. my dad tried to defend me, championing the sincerity of my intentions, but it was no use. the entire trip was ruined for me. i ended up taking home one of the stuffed dalmatians my mom had referenced, mostly because my dad prompted me to, trying to infuse into me a little life after i'd become so devastatingly shut down. but as soon as i got home i tossed the thing in some corner, and even when my dad placed it at the end of my bed, trying to encourage me to sleep with my "new buddy" i refused to touch it. i don't really remember what happened to this plush canine, but i do know that when good will or the garbage man eventually got it, it was in absolutely pristine condition. virtually good as new.
once upon a time, i'm told, my family ate only health food like veggies and meatloaf, and we were all skinny. this period of blissful ignorance of fast food and candy and other junk foods may have been ruined by the malicious whisperings of my aunts and uncles, who judged my mom for everything she did. or it may have been ended by the coming of the russian boys, when their poisonous influence introduced sin and evil to eden.
by the time my memories are fully developed, there was already evidence of dysfunctional thinking attached to food in our household. there were good foods and bad foods, which carried the moral weight of godliness verses sin, and there were girl foods and boy foods. because girls, i was told, have slower metabolisms and store fat easier in the interest of making babies, therefore we had to work harder and eat less in order to maintain a slim body. boys were luck in this way, but they weren't to be envied; because something about the y chromosome made them stupider, and lazier, more subject to their passions and emotions and appetites, with less of a pain tolerance. so females were supposed to eat salads and yogurt and fruit and protein shakes, and for a young lady to chose instead meat or potatoes or bread or other evil carbohydrates made her mannish. i fell into the trap of being mannish and sinful many times, eating like an animalistic male rather than building my character.
there was a particular buffet restaurant that we would go to. my dad called it "the trough" but it was my mom's and the golden child's favorite, so we went relatively frequently. by the end of the night my insides would be a churning, toxic stew of ranch dressing, bread, chocolate chip cookies, hot lava cake, rainbow sprinkles of which i took straight shots, and frozen yogurt. the next day i'd invariably come down with a case of the twenty four hour stomach flue, which lead to the speculation that i might be lactose intolerant. i'd refuse to get out of bed, lying curled up in a fetal position, bloated and dehydrated. on one such occasion, i remember standing in my mom's room, listening to her breakdown of my gluttony. "just look at your arms," she told me, "you can tell that you're unhealthy." i glanced at the puffy flesh wrinkling above my elbow, ashamed of the dry skin pockmarked by pimples and an unidentified red rash; if i could have hacked it away with a knife, i would have gladly done so.
dieting was a sign of moral fiber. a person's weight could be used to gauge their level of self control, their work ethic, and even how responsible they were. people were fat because they were lazy and chose to whine about their problems instead of putting down the french fries. most of my childhood, i viewed myself as overweight, so i carried around the burden of a lot of other derogatory adjectives: "slovenly," "selfish," "immoral." the golden child was on her first acknowledged diet at eight years old. i held out a little longer, absorbing her scorn and abuse without acting drastically on it until i was about eleven or twelve. of course, before this turning point i was still subject to the "family health plans" my mom would instigate, dramatically clearing out the pantry of all contraband items that had infiltrated, and increasing the number of long walks she and a select few embarked upon. my mom used to remark, before i shed my first fifteen pounds in only a few weeks, that i'd never do it. i didn't have the self control. i was always going to be chunky because i didn't have it in my to really rigorously diet. at the time, i was addicted to the chemical msg, experiencing a violent craving every afternoon that could only be quieted by top ramen. it could be over a hundred degrees outside, but i still wouldn't feel right until i'd had a steaming bowl of that soup and noodles.
losing the fifteen pounds was a really big deal. i did it by procuring for myself carrots and celery to snack on, and by fixing tiny tuna sandwiches, a process that caused all my siblings to gag violently and hold their noses as they teased me for it. when i had my new body, for a fleeting instant i felt really proud of it, and resolved to never stray from my self imposed spartanism. my mom took my shopping and let me pick out a whole new wardrobe, "skinny" clothes to replace the oversized, tent-ish t shirts and baggy jeans that would have made a rap star proud, which i customarily wore. though sometimes i would have felt more comfortable keeping my body carefully hidden behind billowing folds of cloth, it was nice to feel presentable in a form fitting white t-shirt studded with cherries when i went to my thursday night band rehearsal. a few years before this i'd started taking flute lessons from a very nice woman who came to our house so strung out on pain medications that she never noticed i didn't practiced the drills she assigned to me. when she invited me to take part in a community concert band with which she practiced one night a week, i mostly just said "yes" because i wanted to appear dutiful and enthusiastic to her. it was there that i met jack, perhaps my first acknowledged crush. i only spoke to him the once, on the thursday night that i wore the white shirt with the cherries, but when i eventually became a high school sophomore i looked for him behind every corner for about a month, hoping i'd run into him as a member of the new freshman class. he was a year younger than me, had tightly curled blond hair, and the one time we spoke he told me stories about stealing from vending machines. i thought about him while stepping out of the shower one afternoon following our introduction, and decided that i should wait until i was fifteen to be in love. but i'm getting sidetracked.
the tone of voice my mom used, discussing my newfound self control with unknown parties on the phone, gave me my first momentary impression that she might be proud of what i'd accomplished. achievement was the way to win approval. but the thing is, after my brief high from losing the fifteen pound faded, i didn't really feel that i was skinny or attractive. i just knew that i wasn't quite as fat as i used to be. i wasn't satisfied with the results of this first, meager effort.
one result of this turning point in my young life was that, whenever my mom or the golden child proposed some fad diet or exercise routine, now i jumped at being involved, and i competed bitterly to outdo my siblings' efforts.
one diet in particular stands out in my mind, because it truly did change my life. i was never able to look at food or myself the same way, afterwards. it may have been the origin of my seizures. the very first time i remember experiencing one was in my spanish class, while on this particular meal plan. i was sitting at my desk, my gaze directed at the whiteboard to which the teacher pinned flashcards using colorful magnets, when a terrible pain stole over me. first, my head got very very hot, as though all of my blood were rushing to the same locus at the back of my skull. as if drawn by the pull of all this heat, the tops of my eyes felt like they were being tugged at by an invisible hand. the skin of my neck and shoulders began to tingle, and i lost awareness of every other part of my body and of everything going on in my surroundings. i could not keep my eyelids from closing, and a pulsing began in my brain, the thrashing of some invisible electric eel, yanking me in and out of consciousness. i felt as though i were teetering on the edge of a cliff, on one side of which lay nothing but a dark void and endless pain. this episode could have lasted a few seconds or it could have eaten an entire half hour of my day; i have no way of knowing. when i did come out of it, i was groggy and confused, and vaguely ashamed. nobody around me gave any indication that they even suspected anything out of the ordinary had taking place behind my eyelids.
i don't know how many seizures i had before i was eighteen. it is difficult to recall when a seizure has happened to me on account of the extreme slowing of my thought processes that takes place during both prologue and epilogue, especially since i am the only one who ever notices i have them. i never mentioned them to anyone until the summer of my ostracism, while i was staying at my grandparents' house. the episode that i have recounted, which took place in the middle of my freshman spanish class, may not have been the first time this phenomenon took place inside my skull, but it was the first time i realized that my experience was abnormal, that probably everyone around me wasn't also plagued by these same mental short circuits.
it's difficult to isolate individual memories at this time, because my thoughts were scattered like raindrops striking the pavement. i went totally and completely insane. i believe that i probably hallucinated, because i would see myself get up and perform actions or have intricate conversations that lead to whole sequences of action, and then all of a sudden i'd be right back where i started, sitting cross legged with my head bowed over my knees because it had become too heavy for my skinny neck, ensconced on one of my high school's enormous cinderblock benches. and i could pour over my hazy memories for hours and still never know conclusively whether or not i'd really said or heard certain words or whether or not something i remembered actually took place at all.
the idea behind the new diet was that we, my mother and siblings and i, would eat "healthy" for six days out of the week, without any cheating at all, and then have whatever junk food we wanted on the seventh day. i think there was a group consensus that sunday would be our free day, because that was the day we ran the donut shop. about a year before this, my mom had conceived of the idea to supplement the building fund of the catholic church we attended by selling shaved ice at an outside table after mass. it started with a shaved ice machine, my siblings and i recruited to work at the pump or pour neon colored flavoring over a customers' desert. then my mom began picking up several dozen donuts every sunday, and selling those as well. then was coffee and there were costco muffins, blueberry, poppyseed, apple streusel, and chocolate chunk. at some point, an abandoned building only about ten feet away from the church that had previously be used only for storage was cleaned out, and our little enterprise moved inside. we acquired a soft serve frozen yogurt machine, kept chocolate syrup and whipped cream and candy in the fridge. though my family still persisted in the delusion that our not so healthy food habits at least had some limits because we didn't eat candy, contraband such as m and m's, reese's peanut butter cups, heath bar, and oreos because a regular part of our lives as "toppings." the point of this all was that nobody wanted to miss out on sunday, when our wages for working seven hour shifts at the cafe consisted of as much free desert as we wanted. and though the implication of a free day originally may have been that we could have a as in one indulgence, it quickly progressed to an all out feast day, on which we gorged ourselves beyond belief to make up for the depravation of six days of dieting. correspondingly, in the interest of earning this unrestrained orgy of snack foods, the definition of "health" eating became more and more strict, until the goal really was to consume during the week as little as possible.
most of my siblings only made it two weeks on this diet. but even they did not make it out unscarred. they could not return seamlessly to normal, balanced eating. a snack or a desert wasn't just food anymore, by the definition of the word that we'd all recognized preceding the sunday diet. quantity became more important than quality. every time you ate something, be it something special or not, there was a nagging voice at the back of your mind telling you this might be your last meal. or at least, even if you didn't hear those words whispered to your consciousness, instinctively this mindset took control, overwhelming your intuitive ability to say enough is enough.
of course, i had to do everything bigger, and better, and crazier than anyone else in my family. i went from three meals a day on weekdays to two, to one. i counted calories, and my upper limit for a day's worth dwindled from eight hundred to two hundred and seventy maximum. there were some days that i ate nothing at all, but chewed gum balls furiously, and repeated to myself over and over again as though my skull were a broken record player how much time i still had to go before the reprieve of another sunday. i crouched on those cinderblock benches at school and hugged my knees against my ever more prominent ribcage, feeling that i was becoming so small i could hide all of my behind just my two skinny arms. my skin became a kind of sickly, cheesy pale that had nothing to do with pigment; i could lay in the sun all day long and still be so white i practically glowed, my body sheathed in a papery coating as translucent and fragile as a butterfly's wing. i refused anyone who offered me food with a vehemence that constituted the last spark of life still present in my walking corpse. my bowling ball of a head lolled on my neck as i propped myself up against the rows of grey green lockers, a marionette whose strings had been cut. even the obnoxious, domineering, narcissist boyfriend of one of my friends whom i believed i was desperately in love with asked me in a tone that almost sounded caring if i was okay. the glazed eyed image in the mirror that tried to stare back at me became boney, a skeleton padded by flesh no thicker than nylon stockings. my belly was a thin pad centered between the two deepening parenthesis of my hip bones. after only a few weeks, i was no longer able to enjoy sundays themselves anymore, because with the first few achingly irresistible bites of apple fritter or fluffy white frosting or whatever else it was i chose, i became so nauseated and was seized by such a violent pain that i had to stop.
i stayed on the sunday diet for approximately sixty days. i dropped thirty pounds. the day of my freshman aware ceremony at school, my parents tried to stage an intervention for me. it would not have had any effect on me except that i'd hit what was, at that point in my life, rockbottom. i lacked the physical or mental stamina to continue.