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On Health

By JoAnna Novak

Essay

JNovak

There is no clear path around the Park District. I’m one of sixty-four second graders led across busy Wolf Road in Burr Ridge, a small suburb dense with green and white ash trees. It’s 1993. Cars idle as we dawdle through the crosswalk.

I’m in the middle of the line, my last name centered in the alphabet, but I wish I could fall back. I wish I could hide in the chapter book stacks at the library or chisel out my linoleum block print in the art room. As a new kid at Pleasantdale, I don’t like gym class, where I’m reminded of my lack of friends every time we form teams. I also don’t like this walk, which means we’re running the mile.

I’m not the worst-looking girl. But I’m close: chubby plus homely. I have round cheeks. A pudgy stomach. Legs like tree trunks rather than twigs. My hair is a brown mushroom, and every girl at my new school seems smaller and blonder than the last. Even my front teeth came in too large for my mouth. Sometimes I wish I could just be fat—really fat—so I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle.

“Drama Queen” is my nickname at home, where I transform my gauze-white curtains into jungle vines (and yank the rods out of the wall as I swing myself over an imaginary swamp); but at school I’m no one. As I run—around the playground, to the left of the droopy weeping willow, over the sputtering creek, across the wooden bridge, past the fenced-in tennis courts, repeat—my chest tightens and my discomforts multiply: Are my allergies acting up? My side hurts. I can barely breathe.

Who would make us do something this pointless? Why me? I think, puffing through each arduous turn. I pray for an invisible rabbit hole into which I can fall and twist an ankle, a slick board on the bridge that will send me into the creek. My limbs leaden, I can barely launch my feet off the damp grass, let alone find the gazelle’s stride I see in Mike Magnesen, our grade’s shortest and swiftest kid, who laps me. Then Patrice laps me. Eric next. Then Alex. When I hit the finish line, I turn around and face an empty course. My time is 12:59.

***

It doesn’t necessarily get worse from there because my mile never exceeds thirteen minutes. Aside from my hair growing and adult teeth replacing my baby teeth, not much changes about the girl who sucks at running until February 1998. In the middle of seventh grade, two things happen: I read Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher, the first of many eating disorder books I study like scripture, and I get the flu. I’m too sick to eat, for the first time in my life.

When I lose three pounds, I decide to capitalize on my momentum. I stop eating. Maybe becoming an anorectic isn’t even a choice; starvation comes naturally, like the ability to hotdog my tongue.

At thirteen, I don’t operate under delusions of democratic talent; the everyone-has-potential dictum that Health and P.E. teachers intone. I know I’m not athletic. I took swimming lessons, but couldn’t freestyle without breathing with every stroke. Summer softball was staring at blubbery clouds drifting over left field; summer soccer was sidelines. I’m resigned to the fact that my talents are of the indoor variety—I can write hyper-detailed stories, sketch super skinny girls, and buzz in really fast at the Jeopardy-inspired intramural called Scholastic Bowl.

Still, I want to excel at my natural abilities. I want to be the best. If starvation is one of those skills, I know I need to do more than peel the Velveeta off my lunch-meat sandwiches to be a proper anorectic. And so, in the middle of February 1999—two weeks after I’d begun to restrict my eating—I start to run.

No matter how bound I was to the rules of my new diet, in school I was free. No one made me go to the lunchroom. No one asked me to eat. Instead, during rec, I’d let myself into the middle school gym, pass through the green double-doors, and enter the vacant girls’ locker room, where I clicked out the combination on my pink Masterlock: 6-18-24. I was greeted by a magazine shot of Matt LeBlanc looking rakish, and I applied a cautionary swipe of Caribbean Breeze Teen Spirit deodorant before changing into my P.E. uniform: a baggy T-shirt quickly becoming baggier and soft blue shorts.

And then I was off, running through the gym, beneath the basketball hoops, on the springy floor the color of Band-Aids, where I usually hovered close to the shiny vanilla walls and shied away from ricocheting volleyballs. I didn’t think about going fast because there was no one else running who might pass me. Alone, inside the gymnasium, the slap of my gym shoes synced with my pulse. I listened to my breath, a tiny sibilant engine. For the next three months, I ran twelve laps—the equivalent of one mile—during my lunch period. I didn’t time myself. I didn’t try to increase my distance. I trained my focus on the whoosh in my heart and the surge in my legs as my body burned the nothing I consumed.

***

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I not been diagnosed at the end of seventh grade. I could have starved forever. Sporting downy lanugo on my stomach and walnut-sized shadows under my eyes, I stood on the platform scale in my pediatrician’s office while my mother hugged her bulging brown purse to her stomach and sobbed.

“Do you know how big a problem this is?” Dr. Froehlich asked. She wore purple eyeshadow. The rubbery black cord of her stethoscope hung around her neck like a snake.

“I guess,” I said, lying. Of course I knew what a big problem anorexia was. I wouldn’t have started a diet if I thought it would be a moderate thing: a phase, a stage, a lark. I wanted to be the thinnest. The best starver. Our school’s first anorectic. Before I stopped eating, I didn’t know I wanted to be a good runner. I didn’t know I wanted the lowest body fat percentage. Suddenly, though, I wanted all of that: the spoils of anorexia.

I offered none of this information to adults. My lunch-time runs remained private, secrets of my eating disorder’s inception, known only to middle school girls.

I spent a summer seeing professionals. There was Debbie, my nutritionist, with her acorn-shaped red coif; Lisa, my snub-nosed social worker; and Dr. Froehlich, my pediatrician since birth. Supervised, I gained back ten of the thirty pounds I’d lost. But I kept running. All I was permitted were small loops around our subdivision, as knotty as a tangled necklace chain. On the patchy sidewalk, I trained my eyes on my shadow, always ahead of me.

***

In the fall of eighth grade, for the first time, I looked forward to P.E. Especially the running. When we were charged with warm-up laps, I sprinted, zipping past the speedy girls who were now too cool to try. Running offered me a chance to control my activity. We had five minutes to warm up; it was in my hands whether I made those five minutes count or not. Running also took me outside of myself. Now that I was thinner, I could really move. During laps, taking corners, I heard wind in my ears, a sound common to all creatures moving fast. The muscles in my face tensed and slackened. My arms pumped. I felt powerful. When it was mile-time, I was the third fastest girl in our grade, running an 8:43.

By Christmas of 2000, running had carved out a space in my daily life, as routine as brushing my teeth. Alone outside, clutching a Frisbee-sized CD player, I explored the suburbs by foot. Accustomed to a world of car rides and school buses, running let me see that world up close: cement, gravel, crushed hydrangeas, rotten tulips, mud and dirt, rubber bands, fluorescent glyphs and sodden sale ads, broken bottles and aquamarine windshield glass, flattened mice, bird skeletons, used condoms, baby socks. Men catcalled. Sometimes I was too fast to catch what they said. Other times a whistle or a honk or a yowl made it clear, and I felt potent, a viable being, bodied. Running made me feel whole and capable, like someone who could trample through a piddly creek, no bridge required.

I’d be lying if I said that, while I ran, I tried to understand the emotions at the root of my eating disorder. I wasn’t running for peace of mind or to get rid of what my parents saw as “my problems.” I was always running to lose weight, burn calories, make room for some slice of birthday cake or holiday meal I knew I’d have to eat; I was running to tone my thighs, trim my calves, tense my abs. I was running to push myself. To see how far I could—and would—go.

By the time I was fifteen, I favored a seven-mile route. Often I passed the Park District where I had struggled on that first mile-course; often I realized that the younger version of me would not recognize my current self.

***

What determines which activities will adhere to us and become crucial to our characters? As a child, I wanted to be an extremist, the better by which to assert my fledgling identity. Of course I was young and didn’t know who I was, so saying I am an anorectic became tantamount to saying Im someone. Often I have identified as a runner. It became easy to do so in high school, come junior year, when I joined cross country.

This is when I knew that running was separate from my eating disorder, no matter how many calories I hoped to burn. During the two years I ran cross country in high school, I developed as an athlete. I became serious about running in a way I’d only been serious about art or books.

Maybe my sensibility was cemented by the team. I ran with the A-Group, a level below varsity, and the girls I made friends with were fast but not first, committed but not compulsive. On cross country, I didn’t learn to run through an injury or try to blackout, practices I read about in the eating disorder memoirs I continued to consume. Instead, I learned to stretch before and after a workout, to write the alphabet with my ankles, to splash through mud and pump my arms up a hill in a forest preserve on a soggy Saturday. I got dirty and sweaty. I could be myself in a group of people.

During the cross country season, I ate lunch for the first time since my diagnosis. I ignored what I knew—that a better anorectic would capitalize on a school-sanctioned, two-hour workout. Instead, I let the advice of coaches and my teammates—pasta the night before a race, protein in the mornings—determine my behavior. I let myself relax with the girls on the team, whose self-standards weren’t as cruel as my own. On bus rides to invitationals, I chattered easily while a squirrel-faced blonde, whose calves were impossibly tight and tiny, pulled my hair into an inside-out French braid. I didn’t like my legs in the shiny blue short-shorts everyone called buns, but for three months their appearance was secondary: my legs had races to run.

After the season ended my junior year, stunned by the absence of regular practice, my eating disorder renewed itself. I stopped eating lunch and I started vomiting everything else, breakfast and dinner, the only food I consumed.

An eating disorder is marked by periods of wildly unsustainable extremes. This post-cross-country period of not digesting anything was one of them. It lasted five weeks, and was capped by all the blood vessels in both my eyes breaking on Christmas. My eyes matched my scarlet sweater.

For the next six years, I scrambled for anything to keep linked to my eating disorder. I starved, binged, purged, swallowed diet pills, restricted calories, counted calories, ignored calories and punished myself with cuticle scissors and needle-nose tweezers, earring posts and straight razors. Exercised compulsively: synced my knee-lifts with Richard Simmons, memorized Spice Girls dance routines, did old-school sit-ups and knees-up crunches, bicycles and side bends in my bedroom; Arc Trained, elliptical-ed, Pre-Core-d, treadmill-ed (both with and without an incline), took yoga, practiced Pilates, and hefted a five-pound dumbbell for thousands of tricep lifts. Sometimes I ate alone at the desk in my dorm, deconstructing Luna bars by the soy protein kernel, scraping off the fake chocolate coating with my two front teeth. In some pictures, at twenty, I’m smaller than my twelve-year-old sister. Sometimes I ran a.m.’s and bled-out three hours on the elliptical p.m.’s; other times I book-ended the day with a binge-and-purge.

Somehow, though, running never catalyzed my eating disorder. Running never made anything worse. It was too valuable. Running was more than exercise, it was like therapy—but for my mind and my body.

***

The most dangerous combination of behaviors occurred during my senior year in college. In September 2006, I stood in the kitchen of my off-campus apartment, making myself breakfast. I drizzled hot water over the coffee grounds waiting in the French press. I sliced a Red Delicious apple into twelve wedges and fanned them out on a plate with two tablespoons of natural peanut butter. One moment I was chewing the apple and the next I was eating peanut butter straight from the jar with my index finger, sucking my finger, a spoon, barfing until I saw blood, wandering to the school gym and Arc Training for two hours. Dizzy-dazed, I came home, showered, and heard my stomach gurgling. I sat through class before returning to my apartment and repeating the same behaviors—start moderate, gain binge-y steam, big puke—with different foods. Eventually, after two months of binge exercising and binge eating and so much purging, I was too exhausted to continue. I left school in November and checked myself into an inpatient treatment program, clinging to the idea that I wasn’t getting better—I didn’t want my eating disorder going anywhere—but simply removing myself from a rapidly-deteriorating, already-bad situation.

At the hospital, an intake counselor asked me to describe what brought me to Linden Oaks. I relayed the dry facts of my eating disorder quickly:

“I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in 1998,” I said, bouncing my knee up and down. “Purging anorexia in 2001. Probably right now I’d be ED-Nos. I still get my period. Sometimes I binge and purge. I workout a couple hours a day.”

“Don’t you think exercise is partly the problem?” a therapist asked during my time at the hospital.

“Purging’s the problem,” I insisted.

A dietician, preparing my exit plan, told me to “avoid the gym.”

I didn’t avoid the gym, but I never returned to machines. I was tired of pedaling up the same incline, regardless of how it wasted my thighs. Running, I could be moderate: I wanted too much the clear-eyed bliss of tromping across old rail yards beyond campus. I wanted the sun to clutch my neck. I wanted to hear a calm coaching voice in my head say go, go, go. I wanted to feel the ground passing underneath me, steady.

***

Today you might not know I have an eating disorder just by looking at me. My eyes aren’t blooming blood from too much purging. My cheeks didn’t stay puffed. My teeth are white. My hair is naturally brown, lustrous and thick. Sometimes my arms look thin. My thighs, external vexation, are strong. As my therapist recently described it, my body is “healthy.”

“Healthy,” I balked. I was panicking about premenstrual weight gain, which shocks me every month, regardless of how depressingly regular my cycles now are.

“You look healthy,” she said, fumbling. Then she smiled. “I know what’s inside your mind.”

When does a disorder, a disease, an illness, an identity fade away? What if I don’t want it to? When am I no longer who I was? Every time I run, I think about my body. I track my miles, sometimes my pace. After all, I still count calories, I still weigh myself daily. I measure my limbs: left arm, right thigh. I know that fat is a feeling, and when I’m feeling fat, there are people I won’t see and places I won’t go.

Still, I am, according to my therapist, at least in appearance, “healthy.” I accept that I can be both restrictive and restrained. Sometimes, though, I’m just too sensible to pay attention to my eating disorder. I don’t have to like my reflection when I’m running, if, just for an hour, I might marvel at what my body can do.

 

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JoAnna Novak JOANNA NOVAK is the Pushcart-Prize-nominated author of two chapbooks: Laps (Another New Calligraphy) and Something Real (dancing girl press). A finalist for Sarabande's Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and a nominee for Best New Poets 2014 , her writing has recently appeared in BOMB, DIAGRAM, the New Orleans Review , and Entropy. She is a co-publisher and editor of Tammy. She lives and runs in Massachusetts, where she is working on a memoir.

2 Responses to “On Health”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    This is a fine piece of work, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t attracted any comments.

    I’ve been a runner for 40+ years. Of course your essay is about more than running, but it’s one of the few I’ve read — anywhere — that links physical activity to the inner life so effectively and with such grace and understanding of its complex roots. And its ambiguities.

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