by Katherine Althen
Written for Liberal Arts Freshman Seminar: The Doppelganger (LARTS 221, Fall 2010)
It was terribly warm outside. The backs of my tiny legs stuck uncomfortably to the ugly brown school bus seat. I looked down at them, all spread out and flabby from sitting, appearing two times as wide as they really were. “I am fat,” I thought to myself. “You are fat,” hissed a voice. Tears welled up in my eyes. Little did my kindergarten self know then that the voice would haunt me for many years, controlling me and making me do things that I could not have ever imagined.
Sleeping inside my brain like a latent virus, that voice remained quiet for many years, waiting for its opportunity to grasp hold of my thoughts. In middle school it struck. “Worthless.” “Huge.” “Look at that stomach! You can do better than that!” it screamed. “But I’m so hungry,” I would whine. “You are weak. A chubby, weak excuse for a ballerina! 97 pounds? Work harder.” Fat grams became my enemy. She told me that if I would eat over five a day I would instantly balloon. I listened, doing everything I could to make her happy. If I did not obey her, there was punishment; jumping jacks and sit-ups and leg-lifts until I wanted to die. “Harder! Faster! Stronger! Eat less eat less eat less.” I could not take it any longer. I begged that evil girl to leave me. She left reluctantly and unwillingly. I gained weight and tried to be happy and normal as she rested inside my mind . . .
The summer before my junior year, all hell broke lose. It was as if a switch in my brain went off and I looked in the mirror and snapped. “I’m so sorry I disappointed you! I lied when I said I did not need you. Please please please forgive me. I cannot make it on my own.” She was satisfied; from then on we worked as a team. She told me what was needed to regain her trust and respect, and I did it. “Ballet three hours a day along with swimming for an hour,” she ordered, “500 crunches and 1,000 leg-lifts. 500 calories a day.” I existed on fat-free oatmeal and sheer willpower. It was so easy at first—that familiar high from starvation and over-exercising. I lived for it. 123 . . . 117 . . . “Keep going keep going keep going,” she would whisper to me as I lie in bed at night, trying to ignore the violent cries of my stomach. God forbid I would eat 1,000 calories, for the punishments became greater and were no longer limited to a run on the elliptical machine. “A bowl of soup? Do you know how many calories are in that?” she would scream in a deafeningly shrill voice. She told me what to do. “I need to take a shower,” I would tell my parents, lying through my teeth. Run the water, turn on the fan, strip down and hop in. No time to lose. Toothbrush down the throat until you have gotten rid of it all. Rinse off. Brush your teeth. Clothes on. Walk down to the kitchen where your family sits oblivious around the dinner table. Calm and collected. You are strong. You are so strong. I watched the numbers drop. 115 . . .112 . . . 109 . . . smaller smaller smaller. My world our world revolved around numbers. Counting counting counting. Counting calories, counting bites, counting laps swum in the pool, counting tendus at the barre. Fiona Apple’s song “Paper Bag” became our anthem, the lyrics “hunger hurts but starving works” our mantra. 107 . . . 104 . . . I was larger than ever! She refused to let me see the reality in the mirror. “Its much better this way,” she told me. “If you saw what you really looked like you wouldn’t need me anymore and you promised that we are a team again! Don’t let me down, Katie.”
The summer faded away, and cool breezes and colored leaves took its place, ushering in the new school year. I was a ghost floating down the hallways. I could have sworn we were floating. Everything felt so light . . . my head was dizzy and spacey, my stomach was empty and pure. Lunch was spent in the practice room. Scales and arpeggios furiously and compulsively were played. She would let me take a break from flute to do sit-ups and calf-raises. More flute. Another break to pop a diet pill and maybe, just maybe, eat a few raisins. It was as if we were completely different from other people . . . ethereal creatures who lived on the satisfaction from running our hands over our protruding collar-bone . . . we did not need food . . . we ate music and dance. How did she have so much power over me to convince me that I did not need the necessities of life? I was the exception—not deserving of calories and fat grams—not until I became perfect and thin.
The school day would end, and I would rush frantically home and lock myself away in the little dance studio over our garage, my safe haven. Plies and tendus and degages over and over and over. Blistered toes and dizzy-spells. Never perfect enough! Although my actual ballet classes were hours away, she convinced me that it would be best to dance until then. “You’ll burn more calories this way,” she advised. “Trust me, no one wants to see you looking that large in a leotard and tights!” “But I’m so tired . . .” I would complain. “I’m only trying to help you, Katie!” The work never ceased. As soon as I was done with my workout we would go straight to ballet class. We took secret pride in the fact that we had most likely eaten less than any of our classmates and had already burned more calories than they would all day. “See? You’re so much stronger than them. Who cares if you aren’t the best dancer? Soon you will be the thinnest. That is all that matters.” Dancing seven days a week and practicing flute in all my spare moments—she pushed me so hard I thought I would break. Nutcracker rehearsals began, and I found myself immersed in the Land of Sweets. Sweets that I could never allow myself to indulge in freely. Sugar plums danced in my head taunted me. Food meant greed and guilt, pain and punishment.
For a long time, I was able to keep up this crazy act of over-exercising and starving and purging without my family noticing. I told them I needed to exercise so often because I was trying to get into better shape. They believed me. My mother would later tell my doctor “She has so much willpower it is scary!” They were envious of us. They were all envious of our control and focus and determination. We could do anything together. We rejoiced over small victories such as tricking our parents into thinking that we had eaten or avoiding temptation and exercising instead. “Anything could go wrong but I can still lose weight and we will always be a team,” I would think to myself. “We will always have this secret to keep between us. Safe and clean and controlled.”
Then it happened. They discovered her.
One night we purged in the bathroom downstairs, not our usual spot. Perhaps we were getting too cocky or maybe I secretly wanted to be caught and have this terrible burden lifted from my sick body. My mother found the toothbrush we had used, covered with vomit and thrown away in the trashcan. Lying in bed, trying to ignore the sounds of our own stomach . . . footsteps on the stairs . . . frantic . . . then she was there in our doorway.
“You’ve been purging, haven’t you?!”
“Katie, be strong! Don’t tell her. They will try to take me away from you!”
“No, mommy, I haven’t,” I whispered as I choked back tears. My mother was not satisfied. She searched through our things, finding the scale under our bed and the laxatives and diet pills carefully stashed away in our drawers. We were caught. This was the end.
Therapy began. We were expected to sit on that stupid little couch and spill our secrets to a stranger. They were trying to take her away from me. The doctor tried to pry open our head and extract all the bad stuff. “This isn’t going to work if you don’t cooperate with me,” he told us. “What isn’t going to work?” we would think to ourself. “What is the problem? This is the way we live and no one can change it.” Week after week and month after month. The entire process became exhausting. We I cracked. I let him see inside our mind. I had to speak for her since no one else could hear her voice. She wasn’t happy with me. She glared at me. She kicked her legs and flailed her arms and cried and threw a temper-tantrum. She threatened to punish me. He told me I could stop all of this if I wanted to. Did we I want to? Maybe. It was so hard to tell. It was so difficult to differentiate between what my other self wanted and what I wanted.
We I began to let go.
Some days I feel like half a person. We co-existed together for so long that I feel like I have lost part of my identity. She whispers “You aren’t anything without me,” but I’ve learned to ignore her lies. I do not need her anymore.
Other days I miss her more than ever. She calls to me in the middle of the night, promising that she can take away any sadness or worry I feel, whisk it all away with her magic. She reminds me of how we used to live. I begin to crave that emptiness I lived for, for so long. Her offer is often tempting and she speaks so sweetly. “I cannot let you back,” I tell her. I have become stronger without her. I have become whole again.