As a teenager, my favorite band was the Cure. This was pre-Radiohead, pre-Editors, before bands—even alternative bands—tended to be literary. Yet the Cure turned out songs like “Killing an Arab,” based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, and “How Beautiful You Are,” an echo of Charles Baudelaire’s essay “The Eyes of the Poor” (both facts that I discovered, in those dark ages before Google, when I fortuitously—serendipitously?—stumbled upon the originals… one in a borrowed book that I came this close to not taking home with me). In that arid early-90s musical landscape, the Cure was an exception in more ways than one (the Smiths were another, but Morrissey has gone so far off the deep end with his white nationalism these days that I find it hard to listen to his music). I remember, during those years, several vivid dreams featuring the band’s teased-haired, heavily made-up vocalist Robert Smith, including one in which he appeared at my Shelby, North Carolina home to take me away with him.
I mention the Cure because the title of one of their songs—“Charlotte Sometimes”—afterward became a kind of euphemistic shorthand with which I would refer to the period of months I spent at two different mental institutions during the fifteenth year of my life. My parents, at their collective wits’ end with my depression, self-harm, and runaway attempts, had decided to “send me off,” as it was referred to in the common parlance of my hometown of Shelby, North Carolina. (In retrospect, I have to say that I think my depression was justified; a close friend had recently been left paralyzed by a stupid, completely avoidable accident, and my reading of a college environmental studies textbook had convinced me not only that the adults running the show were doing a shit job of it but that the entire planet was in imminent danger, both of which have turned out to be all too true.)
The lyrics to “Charlotte Sometimes” fit the circumstances of my internment with an eerie similarity. The hospitals were both located in Charlotte, and my stays there were intermittent, first one, then another, over a period of months. The song describes a girl who lies in bed, eyes open, in a city in which the streets look strange. It mentions the “expressionless games” that the people (nurses? psychiatrists?) around her play. There are many of these strangers—they have “many different names”—and they’re too close to her; they crowd in on her. The song describes the wall around the girl, “glass-sealed,” and refers to unfamiliar sounds and lights (industrial, fluorescent?) that seem too bright and glare off of the (hospital’s?) white walls.
There’s a line in the song about the girl preparing herself for bed, which stands out because, one night as I lay in bed, eyes open and not yet asleep, one of the counselors came into my room to “tuck me in” and rubbed his hand from my cheek down my neck to my chest, where he got a good feel before finally bidding me good night.
I spent the next day nervous and uneasy. I suspected that Jamal, the counselor, would come back into my room that night, and that his groping might escalate into something more. Finally, in the evening, I made what I thought was a discreet inquiry: “Is Jamal working tonight?” When Nurse Radcliffe told me he was, I must have looked worried enough to prompt concern. “Why, April?” she asked gently, at which point I burst into tears.
I was a minor, away from home, and under the care of a group of adult healthcare professionals. Today I see clearly the potential for a lawsuit, just as the hospital’s administrators must have seen at the time. Jamal was phoned and told not to come in that night. Kids were questioned. It turned out that, although no one else accused him of sexual misconduct, he was well-known for making jokes and comments of an inappropriate, often sexual, nature. Jamal was fired, I was apologized to, and my parents were called in, presumably to head off any thoughts of litigation.
The administrators needn’t have worried. The only anger my parents expressed—privately, in my room, after a meeting with several hospital bigwigs in tailored suits—was with me. They were miffed at having to drive all the way to Charlotte on a weeknight for what they viewed as a tempest in a teapot, and my mother blamed me for provoking the incident. “You must have done something,” she concluded peremptorily, “to make him think you wanted it.”
When I look back on Charlotte Sometimes, I’m surprised how vivid my memories of that time are. I can still taste the spicy Blistex handed out to soothe the effects of the canned heat, and see the city’s rosy morning skyline as it was framed by the window of my room. It was a welcome revelation to encounter doctors and counselors who blamed my parents for most of my problems, who told them to stop making me sleep in the bed with my nine-year-old brother or capitulate to his other demands. Forced to eat a healthy diet for several months, I realized that I felt better. When my period came, for the first time in my life, it wasn’t heralded by gut-wrenching cramps. One of the counselors, a dark-haired young man named David who wore cloth shoes, told me that I should go vegetarian. “You’re too compassionate a person to eat meat,” he said with a smile.
He was right. A month after I was discharged from the second hospital, I dropped all meat from my diet. My only regret is that I never got to tell David what a difference he made in my life. For twenty-eight years, I’ve eaten considerably more vegetables than typically figure in the American diet. When, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I learned about the importance of a vegetable-based diet in combatting the symptoms of the disease, my first thought was, “If I’d eaten like other people all these years, I’d probably be in my grave.”
There was another benefit to my Girl, Interrupted interlude. Though I had always been a voracious reader, in the first hospital I was exposed to a new kind of literature, writing so fresh and exciting that, I’m ashamed to say, I tore several pages out of a literary anthology—including poems by Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Ted Berrigan, and Sylvia Plath—to take with me when I left. Like the Velvet Underground’s Janie, whose life was saved by rock and roll, in a very real sense, my life was saved by literature. That delicious tome and others I found in the seventh-floor library offered me a glimpse of a new world, one in which I would immerse myself just a few years later, when I majored in literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
When my parents had me committed, I don’t think they expected to be blamed for my problems. They resented my talking about my home life to doctors and counselors, “telling their secrets,” as they saw it, and they retaliated by declaring that they’d spent enough and wouldn’t be shelling out a penny for my education. The last time I visited them, twenty-eight years after Charlotte Sometimes, my mother was still complaining about what my stint in the hospitals had cost them. As if I’d asked to be locked up.
I’m sorry that my parents feel this way, because, in spite of the downside, I view the experience as one of the best things that ever happened to me. Today, as “a woman standing where there was only a girl” (to come back to the Cure), I see Charlotte Sometimes as formative in my life, a turning point. Those months “off” taught me that the world was bigger than my parents’ house, bigger than the town of Shelby, broader and grander and more interesting than anything I’d yet seen. As Robert Smith would say, “the party just gets better and better.”
The drawer on the right side of my desk is similar to the drawer my mother kept under the counter, next to the refrigerator in my childhood home. One I opened daily in search for something, but never finding what I needed inside. Hers held
old pens with the names of realtors and contractors;
mini-calculators, mostly broken;
half-eaten Snickers bars and bags of M&Ms.
Mine with old ticket stubs,
ash from cashed pot pipes,
candy wrappers and
antidepressants spilled from the broken, child-
proof lid, lost somewhere beneath the chaos.
I am fourteen years old and on my way to take a shower. My bathroom is adjacent to my parents’ bedroom, her door is slightly ajar. I walk in, hoping to grab a towel, freshly washed, dried and warm: it is laundry day.
When I turn the corner, I see my mother, stark naked, digging through a makeup drawer. We gasp at the same time, and I run from the room, apologizing all the way out. I skip my shower, warm water already swishing through my stomach.
Later, at breakfast, my mother is over the stove, cooking eggs. She scrambles them with cream cheese, so they are soft and light and creamy. She keeps her eyes down in the pan when she apologizes to me. I tell her that there isn’t a need to, that I shouldn’t have walked in, that I should have knocked, that I’m the one who should be sorry.
She sets my plate down in front of me and turns, avoiding eye contact.
“No one should have to see their fat mom naked.”
There are unfinished, pocket-sized Moleskine journals in my drawer, covered in long forgotten imagery. Inside each is nothing more than abandoned, half-baked short story ideas: a writer who turns into a pencil, a bed that consumes its sleeper, a man who implodes from the stomach. I title each entry “Fiction,” trying to hide my confessions even from myself.
I am attempting to coax my brother off the Playstation. He beats me home from school every day and usually gets first dibs, but our permitted school-day hour of video games has long since passed, and I want to get my time in before mom gets home. I tell him his feet stink, that his breath is putrid, that maybe what I had for lunch isn’t sitting too well in my stomach. I begin to gag.
Not buying it, he tells me to stop and continues playing his game, not looking away from the tv. I continue to fake-choke, telling him that if he doesn’t leave soon, I’ll puke everywhere, that the stench of his presence is just too much to handle.
I gag and gag and gag until, finally, my body takes action and purges me of the contents of my stomach, onto the brand new carpet, installed not even a month ago.
My brother runs screaming from the room, grabbing my father, “Andrew puked! Andrew puked!”
I apologize to my dad and attempt to explain the situation: that I didn’t think I was actually going to vomit, that I didn’t even feel it coming until it was already out.
Dabbing the carpet with a rag and cleaner, my father mumbles, “This is what gluttony leads to. This is because all you boys do is snack and snack and snack. This is what happens when all you do is eat.”
It is 4:00pm and I am making a PB&J sandwich at my parents’ house. They are both at work, and I am home from college for a few days’ visit. I am shaky and aggravated, my stomach grumbles with anticipation. It is my first meal of the day.
I go to pull a butter knife from the drawer. I open three other drawers before I find the one with silverware. When my mother gets bored, she rearranges the rooms of the house. Every time I visit, something is somewhere else.
The drawer opens halfway but catches, so I can only see the hilts of each utensil. There is a spoon caught between its tray and the top of the cabinet. I push the drawer back in and pull out once more, but the spoon does not budge and the drawer, again, catches. My mother’s cat watches as I do it again, and then again. I am not sure why I keep pulling instead of reaching a finger in to flick the caught spoon down, but I keep pulling, until the spoon is bent, until I have chipped away at the cheap wood holding the drawer in place. I am shaking and close to tears. I scream “FUCK” and slam the drawer shut, scaring the cat from its perch on the table’s chair. I cannot reach a knife, so I lift the trashcan lid, and pour what’s begun of my sandwich into its mouth.
In my desk drawer, beneath everything else, are old pictures of me and my friends, before I had a beard, before I grew my hair long, before I was this skinny. I keep them there as reminders of how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown (or shrunk).
The weight was not dropped on purpose, but lost like a memory in a move. Placed in the wrong box labelled “Misc.” and stuffed in the back of whatever closet had enough room.
Before I take showers now, especially after a few drinks or after I’ve been crying, I do not look at myself in the mirror, opting to stand off to the side by the toilet. When I am sitting or staring down at myself, the curve of my stomach looks larger than it actually is, but I still get shivers whenever the underbelly touches the cool metal of my belt. When I am brave enough to look at my figure in the mirror, I notice how my skin bulges over the band of my underwear.
I watch the mirror fog as the shower warms up, staring into the emptiness it reflects, just a door with dirty towels hanging from hooks.
I am in high school when the Denver Museum of Nature and Science begins its Body Works exhibit, where those who donated their body had their flesh stripped away to show only the muscle and bone and fat underneath. My mother takes my brother and me, although she seems disturbed by the prospect. She waits outside the exhibit and allows us to roam through freely.
I expect the room to reek of decay and blood, like meat unknowingly spoiled in a broken freezer, but it smells sterile, like sheets on a hospital bed.
Some bodies are standing like mannequins, propped up by poles welded to what used to be their person. They stand in different poses, showing how different exercises affect different muscle tensions. Some move mechanically, attached to pedaling bikes or walking in place.
In one corner, there are torsos with the flesh and muscle stripped away to show the inner organs beneath the rib cage. My brother is fascinated by the beating heart and breathing lungs, while I’m intrigued by a body bigger than the rest, one that shows more yellow than red and white, implying the fat buildup over the lifetime of unhealthy eating. On the body’s torso, there are handles, so I grab and pull to reveal the things this body has consumed, things that made it swell like a balloon: candy, pizza, soda, hamburgers, fried chicken. Above the body is a sign that says, “You Are What You Eat.” I grimace and close the drawers, continuing to wander around the room of bodies that are all but living.
This is what I keep within myself. It is a deep sense of shame with every bite I take, every bit of me that I no longer want to love, that I want to watch wither and fall from my body like leaves from a hibernating tree.
I tell myself
that I do not have a problem, rationalizing the constant rumble in my stomach. I still eat something every day. I snack, late at night, pulling peanut butter pretzels from the cabinet, hiding Ben and Jerry’s deep within my freezer (not in hopes that my roommates won’t get to it, but that I may forget about it behind the frozen strawberries and flour), candy hidden in the glove compartment of my car. I can put down an entire box of pasta over the course of three meals, as long as those three come between 5 and 11 at night.
I tell myself
that this is not a problem that men have, even if I have worked to break down every other gender stereotype forced on me throughout my younger years. I have even read other stories of men that share in my shame, but I see them as smaller versions of myself, further cementing the idea that I am overreacting when I think otherwise.
I tell myself
it isn’t a problem in and of itself, but one that sprouted from my depression. A way of coping with the sadness I feel. It’s not that I’m wasting away because I’m ashamed of how I look, but simply too sad to pull myself from my bed or my couch or my desk to nourish myself. A body unused is a body unneeded.
I tell myself
that even if I do have this problem, it is my burden alone to carry as I have carried this extra weight I believe that I have. I learned to politely cross my legs so that I do not see my thighs spilling out over the bone, to suck in my belly when the seatbelt pushes against it so that I do not have to see what bulges over from where it hugs me. I only take a single piece of pizza, maybe two if the party is small, and I see someone take three.
When I am hungry, I spread peanut butter on a piece of stale bread folded in half, drink a couple cups of coffee, chew gum to swallow the sweetness—anything that will satisfy me until I can’t stand the hunger shaking in my hands, blurring my vision, phasing my mind.
Eventually, I may fold all the way into myself, implode and disappear, my stomach a black hole so hungry it begins to swallow itself. It is not my goal to be nothing, but I often find myself envying those who can disappear into a crowd instead of stand out in one.
I am a drawer within which I keep all the things I have lost and no longer want or need. The clutter within myself has become so unmanageable it has since been forgotten. I hide my problems as much as I try to hide myself.
Maybe I will eventually tackle the organization of my drawer, unhook it from my track and shake out all the dead pens and crumpled sticky notes, find myself amongst the chaos, find peace in the simplicity of order. Maybe one day, when I feel broken or incomplete, I will be able to point myself to the right drawer and pull out all the tools I need to fix, to clean, to eat,
to feel worthy in the space where I exist.
Aug. 15, 2018 | Felix Contreras — Some folks around the NPR Music office said they felt an almost spiritual connection to Erykah Badu during her visit to the Tiny Desk. And that was before she and her band even played a single note. It came from the waft of earthly scents that followed in her wake, to the flowing dreads and clothes that hung on her like robes . . . SO MUCH MORE.