The Emergency Room was crammed with people that day. I looked around as I felt someone practically forcing me onto the bed. So many people in agony, with their loved ones by their side, genuinely praying for the gift I’m trying to turn down.
“When did you take the pills?” The nurse seemed concerned, shoving fluids into my veins.
“An hour maybe?” My voice was fading. My gut was telling me to run away, but I was barely conscious. The lights were bright, almost blinding me. Eventually I gave up and looked into the lights. Is this what’s on the other side?
“You’re going to be okay.” At that point the doctor was just a white talking blur to me.
“I don’t care.” Just let me die. Please.
I woke up hours later, with the nasogastric tube hanging out of my nose. I felt dizzy. Even the slightest ray of light coming through the blinds felt like a knife stabbing my eyes, piercing through my head. I looked around, trying to recollect what had happened. Too many images were coming to mind, following no logical sequence at all.
A few hours ago, I was in the bathroom staring at the medicine cabinet. Sleeping pills, tranquilizers, antipsychotics and the most arrogant of them all, antidepressants. I’ve been taking a shitload of them, do I look happy yet?
I caught a glimpse of the empty bottle. Coming to think of it, why wait? There is an easy way out and it is spread all over my table. The “happy pills” winked at me. I had a choice. I could end the pain right then and there. The downside was that I had to give my life in exchange.
I grabbed a bottle of vodka and poured some in a mug. I reached for the pills and took a big mouthful of them. I downed them with a big gulp of vodka. I repeated the process a couple of times until every single one of the pills was taken.
Half an hour later, my haziness was brutally interrupted by my brother bursting into the house.
“Where on earth have you been? I called you six times. Just pick the damn thing up already!”
“Around here, I’m just… chilling or whatever.”, said my oh-so-wasted self while chugging the last gulp of the bottle.
“God, you’re so drunk!” he said as he lifted my head from the pillows. “Why are you even drinking in the middle of the day?”. As he said it out loud, those words morphed into very familiar and greatly disturbing, images. He froze in terror. The prescription bottle was laying empty on the coffee table.
The hospital’s bed was way too uncomfortable. Not as much as the tube they inserted from the nose through my oesophagus and into my stomach. But I was familiar with the whole scenario. It was attempt number two for me.
A couple of days later, with the same dead eyes, I visited a different Serenity. With a small suitcase and my family by my side, I stood outside the imposing building: Serenity, Psychiatric Clinic.
“Do you know why you are here?”
The doctor smiled. He gave me the impression I wasn’t going to get rid of him anytime soon.
I sighed reluctantly and told him in short: “I’ve had an eating disorder for the past seven years. It started as restrictive anorexia and progressed to full-on bulimia. These states now co-exist and I swing between them depending on what I’m experiencing at the time.” My voice echoed in my head. Every word was cold and detached from all the years I had lost, all the pain I have suffered. It was clear and composed, with no outbursts at all. I sounded like a stranger to me.
The look on his face became very familiar. He pitied me. Or so I thought. I couldn’t tell apart pity and compassion. And I hated that look.
“Do you want to analyse that a bit more?”
“There’s nothing more to analyse. I’m sick and tired of trying to be normal, I can’t ignore the voices! Never had, and I never will.”
“What voices?” The pity in his eyes gave place to scientific curiosity.
I bit my lip realizing my mistake. My rage let a big one slip. The voices.
“Don’t tell him! Come and play with us!” I looked over the doctor’s shoulder and saw them standing in the corner. I thought they’d leave me alone in the clinic. But there they were both, in their twirly dresses and innocent smiles. It was nearly impossible to perceive that they were the devil, in his most convincing disguise. But I knew them too well. We were friends. They were always by my side to check on me. Or rather control and manipulate me to an unattainable perfection. I was either perfect, or a piece of trash to them. There was nothing in between.
I couldn’t help but stare at them in panic. Cold sweat started dripping down my spine. Oh God, not again. I can’t be a race horse anymore. I’m tired of running for the gold medal and having no choice but to get it. Yet every single time I tried to distract myself with a different task they were after me, to remind me it was either perfection or rejection.
“Lisa. What voices?” I understood that the doctor would keep on asking until he got an answer, so I did what I’m best at. I lied.
“People’s voices around me. I can’t keep up with their expectations.”
Kind of a white lie when you think of it. Being judgmental, especially to myself, was my favourite sport. Along with defining myself merely through my victories and collapsing at my defeats.
The doctor remained hesitant. He grabbed a chair, took a seat right in front of me and looked directly in my eyes. Face to face. One on one. I wasn’t used to being perceived as equal. I started liking him a bit. Not that I trust my instinct on stuff like that. I treat others the way I treat myself; I hover between idealization and demystification like a pendulum. A single word or act can make one a hero to me, but it takes only one mistake to turn them into villains. I follow the same pattern with myself but I can’t fool me anymore. Every time I lose control, all my victories are erased and I sink deeply into the darkness of shame and guilt.
“Listen to me, Lisa. It’s okay if you lie to me at times, or hide things. It’s part of the process. Trust has to be earned.”
“You don’t understand, no one does.” No one does, because no one listens. Because I’ve never learned how to weep, or yell, or cry out loud. I quickly hid any socially unacceptable feeling – guilt, shame, anger, pain – in hopes of it going away on its own, so my cries have always been silent. But they were inside my head. All of them. I tried to strangle them but soon they grew into massive monsters and I could no longer wrap my hands around their necks. My only choice was to let them be and acknowledge them as part of my existence. We shared my body, my food and water, my thoughts and pain. Of course, I didn’t tell him about the voices. I locked my feelings in a safe drawer in my head and prepared for the preaching that I thought would follow.
I looked at him suspiciously. I must admit it was a nice try. He seeked the green light with patience and persistence, but he was neither needy nor arrogant, because his worth was not defined by others’ approval like mine was.
Other people are counting sheep to fall asleep; not me. I count mistakes. I count moments of youth I let pass me by, friends I chased away, even my word’s long gone reliability. No one believes me now. I can’t give them my word for it, because my word means nothing anymore. All that’s left from me is a crooked shadow and empty talk. They thought I was made of gold, but when I scratched myself they could clearly see the tin hiding under the paint.
“I’m a junkie, longing for the feeling of the empty stomach. And when I finally eat something, I eat everything, so I can empty it right after it sits in my stomach and feel that precious empty moment. Because puking is a salvation for me.”
The doctor was puzzled. “A salvation? Why? Don’t you hurt, don’t you suffer?”
“That’s the point.” I almost enjoy my crushed reflection in the mirror when I finally lift my head off the toilet. Crushed, beaten, raw. In that brief moment of clarity I get my only opportunity to ask myself: What on earth are you doing inside other people’s eyes? But that’s only a fleeting moment before my two little friends come again to wipe the puke off my face and congratulate me for bringing them their beloved feeling of the empty stomach.
The doctor looked fascinated. “I know we just met, Lisa, but I can assure you of one thing: You haven’t lost everything. Your intellect is still there. And you really know how to use it.”
He smiled at me and a tired, faint smile was drawn on my face. It was the very first sincere smile that’s been on my face in a long, long time.
My days in the clinic were identical. Breakfast, puke, pills, lunch, puke pills, dinner, puke, pills. Between breakfast and lunch, my doctor’s daily visit. One day, during such a visit, he decided it was time to spark off an experiment.
“You need to beat the disease, Lisa. Only you can save yourself. Try not to vomit one meal. Pick whatever you feel safer with, no more, no less. It’s just one meal. Your body is lo longer processing nutrients, your test results are… very bad.” His gaze darkened. “Your body won’t bear it for much longer.”
The clock kept ticking against me. Lunch time was almost there. I could hear the food trolleys coming out of the elevator. My heart synced to the merciless ticking.
“Okay, call me when you’re done to give you your pills.”, the nurse said as she walked away and closed the door. I looked at the tray and sighed. Can’t it just grow little legs and go away on its own like the nurse did? Well, apparently not. I’m stuck here with a steak, boiled vegetables, two slices of bread and a jello.
I picked up the plastic knife and cut the steak in half. I took one of the halves and two boiled carrots and set aside the rest. I grabbed the carrots with my fingers and went to the bathroom to wash off the oil. Then I put on the smaller plate my meal of the day: two boiled carrots and half a small steak. The tray with the remaining goods was set out of my view range. The less I’m eating, the stronger I feel. My meal was small but not small enough to satisfy the empty stomach feeling. Not enough to make me feel in control of the situation.
“Why are you eating, Lisa? Did they force you to leave us?” The little girl burst out crying. Her twin got mad.
“What the hell are you doing? That’s beef, half of it is fat!”
“Shut up!” In an attempt to impose logic on them, the only thing I managed to get out of my mouth was a faint cry. The sweat gathered on my brows was dripping down like a river and my heartbeat was fast and irregular. With shaky hands I grabbed another napkin and wiped my forehead. At that point, making it to the end seemed ridiculous to even consider.
“Are you dumb or something? Why didn’t you eat everything? You’re gonna puke it anyway.” The girls started mocking and laughing at me. They were aware of the power they had on me. One word was enough to crush every fragment of logic I had left.
I’m just me. Neither gold, nor tin.
The pain was unbearable. With an awkward, sudden move I turned to the faucet. I opened it and clumsily started tossing cold water on my face. The water was ice cold but it still couldn’t wake me up from the nightmare. I started gasping for oxygen as if I was running out and the water was neither refreshing nor soothing, as if I was sinking deeper and deeper into the deep dark ocean with a ball chained to my feet.
“What are you doing? You’re wasting time! You have to puke right now, or else it will start digesting!”
Instinctively, I turned back, leaving the water flowing and leaned again over the toilet.
“Come on already! The nurse will come any minute for your pills. You don’t have time, do it now!”
In a desperate attempt to fight off the girls’siren voices, I smashed my fist against the mirror. I leaned on it breathless. The mirror fell to pieces, yet my hand was still there.
The nurse rushed worryingly in my room and opened the bathroom door.
“For God’s sake, Lisa! What have you done?”
“I made it”, I whispered as I kneeled to catch my breath. This time I didn’t do it for the praise, I only did it for me. To save me. To love me and accept me, with all my flaws. I’m not saying I’ll never cave in and lose control again. The ‘perfect’ judges will frown upon me once more. But, from now on, they’ll find me standing up in the defence of the accused. I might die trying. But I will fight with all the strength I have left. Because it seems I wasted a ton of it in just one race. My life can’t be a constant race. I don’t want to be a race horse anymore, with nothing to live for but the next victory. I don’t want to be shot when I get old; when I’m no longer able to please spectators in the racetracks collecting victories. I won’t stop collecting though. But this time, I’ll be collecting happy moments.
I take a deep breath, as if I swam all the way back to the ocean’s surface and my head just emerged from the water. As if a strong hand out of nowhere offered me salvation, pulling me out. In such a breath lies the essence of life. I take a good look at my two friends and smile, knowing that I can’t hate them. They brought me here. And the journey from Serenity to my own serenity taught me so many things.
Mainly that the only hand that can bring me back to the surface is my own.
Vivian Boukouvala is an actress and writer based in Athens, Greece. While creating her first novel, she also channels her vivid imagination into making short stories both in Greek and in English. Her work is featured in online literary magazines such as Idler and Storyland Literary Review.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. Her work can be found in many journals and anthologies, such as the Molotov Cocktail, Maudlin house, Menacing Hedge, Jellyfish Review, Asymmetry Fiction and others. She has published two books in Greek and a collection of short stories in English.