cw: self-harm and disordered eating
My foster daughter Janine stares me straight in the eye as she rips off one fingernail after another, dropping each into the bowl of oatmeal I have served, sure that I will not make her eat it now. Her blue eyes pierce me. Her soft brown curls frame her sweet face, belying an entrenched self-loathing. Some people cut. Janine starves. Some people’s self-inflicted wounds are visible: knife lines on wrists. Janine’s damage is deep inside.
I calmly take the bowl to the sink and dump it down the garbage disposal. (How many meals have I wasted this way since Janine came to live with me three years ago?) I remind myself that this behavior is coming from the anorexia itself, the mental illness, not this fifteen-year-old child before me. In the therapy sessions we have been attending—two hours a day, three times a week—the counselor even encouraged us to name it. Edie. As in E.D. As in Eating Disorder. Edie is the one wasting food. It is Edie who is being defiant, refusing breakfast. Edie is inhabiting the body of my child like a demon.
I inhale deeply, then take out a carton of eggs and crack two into a yellow ceramic bowl. Janine walks over to the counter next to me and takes a measuring cup from the cabinet. She pours her glass of milk into it, surveys the meniscus at eye level, then tilts the cup letting one drop dribble into the sink, then another, then another. After each drip, she scrutinizes the measuring cup again. When she is satisfied it is down to exactly eight ounces and not a milliliter more, she sits back at the table. I let myself breathe knowing she will drink it now. Now that she has convinced herself it is not one iota more than required by her meal plan.
I feel her eyes boring into the back of my head as I mix the eggs with a fork, then place a pat of butter into the frying pan.
“That’s too much fat!” she shrieks. “Why is everyone always trying to make me obese?”
She flees the room, sending her chair crashing against the ceramic tiles. My heart thuds dully into my stomach. If Janine loses more weight, she will have to be hospitalized again, her doctors have told me.
If Janine does not eat, she will die, I tell myself.
I bite my lip to keep from crying.
I stand on the sandy shore of Lake Gardner. It is not yet daybreak. The lake is dark. I peel off my sweatshirt and shiver in my swimsuit. Only as I toss the fleece into my gym bag do I notice Janine’s pink thong, all static and stuck to its inside. I pause and smile before pulling on my wetsuit and wading into the water. A chill spreads out in layers against my not-quite-awake skin. The dark shadow of an occasional kiver flits around my feet as I set my watch. I adjust my goggles and head out toward the center of the lake, swimming fast. My breath comes quickly in the spring cold as I stroke efficiently, leaving the remnants of Janine behind me.
The pink thong.
The ruined cereal.
The overturned chair.
I soon find my rhythm, alternating breathing left then right every three strokes. A few hundred yards out, I turn slightly, now swimming due north, aiming for the mouth of the Powwow River. The sun rises slowly over the low hill of pitch pines and white oaks, sending murky rays down below me, briefly illuminating pond weeds: gently undulating milfoil, bladderwort, and water lilies. I remember learning in junior lifesaving class how to roll the vines down my legs if they ever got wrapped around my limbs. Until then, I had never contemplated being drowned by such beauty.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” bawls one mother in the eating disorder parent support group. Tears and snot stream down her face. I find her words both astonishing and a comfort. She recounts the name-calling, the food-throwing, the school refusal, all achingly familiar. These are my people.
I have guiltily thought the same thing countless times. I can’t take this anymore.
But as a foster parent, I literally can opt out at any time.
“You only need to give us ten days’ notice,” Janine’s social worker has told me on more than one occasion.
“No one would blame you if you did,” she adds gravely whenever we face a new challenge. A drug overdose. Another hospitalization. An arrest.
I cringe at her words. How can I even think of walking away from this child? Because she cannot walk away. Not from her past. Not from her alcoholic mother. Not from the death of her father. Not from this terrible disease that has her in such a stranglehold.
If I were to let Janine go now, she would move onto her twelfth foster placement in five years.
And really, who would suffer more?
As I slip across the lake’s flat plane, I watch my shadow, long and lean, glide along the bottom below me. A dark, thin wisp, no resemblance to my truer brawnier frame. I wonder if this is the polar opposite of the distortions Janine experiences—seeing obesity in the mirror where the world sees emaciation.
I watch the sun’s rays dive below me, blurry beams shimmering in the chop. I know their source is the sun, but they seem to arise from me. Or that nethermost version of me down on the lakebed. My abridged self.
When I was a child, gazing up at the summer sky, I thought the sunbeams streaming out from gaps in the clouds were God. Maybe that was how heaven was depicted in my Catechism books: rays of sun erupting from the halo of a saint. Or maybe it was just the optimistic hopes of a lonely little girl. Sometimes I long for that simpler time. When a beaming deity had all the answers. All I had to do was pray.
Now, in the lake’s depths, those rays both piercing me and issuing forth, I am the fount and the vessel both. The limning rays feel like mercy. An absolution. Their emanations like God. Tethering me to an answer, if I could just follow it far enough. A guidewire home.
The first time I see Janine with a feeding tube up her nose, the capped end taped to the side of her face, is simultaneously disturbing and reassuring. I am sick that it has come to this. The tube feels like a symbol of my failure. But she is getting vital nutrition, albeit against her will.
The eating disorder unit treats both children and adults with anorexia. It is disheartening to look at these forty-year-old women still struggling to feed themselves. The thought that Janine might need me, decades from now, to still feed her weighs me like an anchor. Some of the patients on the unit are so skeletal, I wonder why they aren’t in an ICU. They teeter around the ward on legs thin as twine.
Janine balked at being transferred here from the general psychiatric ward she was admitted to after her latest suicide attempt. (Was this the fourth on my watch? The eighth?) She’s been suicidal practically since I’ve known her. Since before I was her foster mother. Back when I was her pediatrician.
On the general psych ward, she could get away with not eating. She could hide sandwich crusts up her sleeves and spit squirreled-away almonds down the sink when no one was looking. Here on the anorexia ward, the patients are parked in geri-chairs in front of the nurses’ station with their lunch trays, the nurses monitoring their eating like pre-school teachers watching toddlers snack.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Janine asks me, a heavy fatigue in her voice.
“I guess I don’t,” I answer. “What do you mean?”
“My eating disorder makes me competitive,” she mutters, head down.
I look at the girls on the ward with their waxy, gaunt skin, their hollow blank stares. Most of them have feeding tubes, too. They play with them like jewelry accessories or hair extensions, twirling them around their fingers or flipping them over their ears. They seem proud of them.
“You mean you want to be like them?” I ask, aghast.
She nods her head, looking ashamed. It sickens me. My daughter striving for bones.
The porcelain half-moon is fading over my left shoulder. The sun has not yet fully risen on my right. A light fog hangs on the water; it will burn off before I reach the halfway point in my swim. But for now, the mist obscures the shoreline, making it hard to find an object to sight. Holding a far-off target at the center of my vision keeps my swim on track, my course steady. Every six strokes, instead of turning to the side to breathe, I sight. As the fog clears, a bright, tall oak, its leaves rusting in the autumn sun, becomes my focal point today.
On long-distance swims, I sometimes lose my stroke count. If the sky is a particularly brilliant cyan. If a soaring great blue heron lights on a piece of waterlogged wood in the lake. If the air suddenly smells like rain. A thousand things distract me from sighting. Pull me off course.
On my return swim, I use the beach as my sight point, its yellow sand carving a rectangular patch against the lush foliage. But until I’ve rounded the bend past Powwow Hill, I can’t see it. So instead, I use a far-off church as my target. Six breaths, then a shimmering spire. I watch my hand come over my head with each stroke, elbow bent before reaching out in front of me toward my sight object. Grasping for that far-off spire. Holding out for God.
“You knew what you were getting into when you signed up for me,” Janine mutters from underneath her comforter, her voice muffled. “You don’t get to say that to me.”
I sit on the edge of her bed, pausing before I pull back her blanket. Her blue eyes blaze with sincerity, a spray of brown curls framing her earnest expression. Two days earlier, in a rare bubbling-over of frustration, I had muttered the words, “I’ve had it,” before leaving the room where we’d been battling. I regretted it immediately. Now, sitting here on her bed, I am back-peddling.
“I didn’t mean I’d had it with you,” I say. “I meant I’d had it with Eating Disorder.”
But this is a cop-out, and we both know it.
The fact is I’ve hurt her. For two days, we’ve avoided each other, me out of shame and disappointment in myself, her out of not knowing what to say.
The truth is, I didn’t know what I was getting into with Janine. I thought, being a pediatrician, that I would be the perfect person to foster a mentally ill teenager. I have treated countless young women with eating disorders. I have diagnosed girls as young as seven with the disease. But I was unprepared for actually living with anorexia. I didn’t know what I was getting into when Janine tried to jump out of my car in the middle of a highway because she felt such shame and guilt after simply eating a meal. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I spent the night sleeping next to her on the couch because she told me she had never felt so suicidal in all her life.
When I started family therapy with Janine—after I came forward to offer to be her foster mother but before that arrangement had been finalized—her therapist would tell me to slow down. When I would rub Janine’s back as she struggled, he admonished me, telling me that as an abuse victim, she would misinterpret that touch.
“Think of Janine as having a gaping wound,” he told me. “You wouldn’t hug someone with a gaping wound, would you?”
Well no, I remember thinking. But isn’t it the child with the gaping wound who needs the hug the most?
When I said I love you too soon in our relationship, he said she would read it as pressure.
“Providing structure and routine, that is how Janine will feel love,” he explained.
All that feels like such a long time ago.
I slip under the comforter with Janine and wrap my arms around her. She snuggles her head into the crook of my arm. I kiss her curls.
“I love you,” I tell her.
“I love you too,” she says, her breath warm on my skin.
Sometimes on my long-distance swims, I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. I briefly startle, thinking it’s a turtle or a bird. But when I turn to face it, there’s nothing there. At times, I think there’s another swimmer in the lake. Or a paddle-boarder gliding by. I stop mid-stroke and tread water, circling, looking for the person I am sure is somewhere nearby.
Over time, I’ve gotten used to these illusions. I know it’s just the prisms of light, water on my goggles playing tricks on my eyes. There is not another being in the water next to me, I tell myself. There is nothing to avoid, nothing to fear.
But there is a presence. I feel it. A watchful spirit in the lake.
I think of these apparitions as my swim angels, these beings who are and are not there.
I take my comfort where I can.
“You made a very poor decision letting Janine go to that party,” Janine’s current social worker tells me.
“It wasn’t a party. It was a sleepover,” I correct her uselessly.
We are sitting in a hospital conference room at Janine’s discharge meeting after her latest suicide attempt, a drug overdose on a friend’s anti-depressants. The Department of Children and Families wants to put Janine back in the residential treatment program she was living in when I became her foster mother. The one where she spent nineteen months not getting well. Her psychiatrist is inclined to discharge her back to me with stepped-up home services, a visiting therapist, a mentor, and a therapeutic school. It is not the first time I have been at odds with DCF. It is not the first time her doctors have sided with me, sending her home instead of back to an institution. But it is the first time the agency has filed a 51-A on me. Charged me with abuse and neglect for letting her go to the sleepover at which she overdosed.
There will be an investigation. Supervisors with briefcases and pumps will come to my home, ask me questions, write my answers in spiral-bound notebooks, then turn on their heels and leave. I will fight as hard as I can to keep Janine. I will ask her team to write letters of support. Her doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists. Her nutritionist, her mentor, her nurse. I will gather them all in my own notebook. Present them as evidence of my caring. Plead my case as her mom.
If I lose her, I will break.
A stiff wind blows across the surface of the lake. The sun is wan, too weak to warm. I’ve been swimming for almost two hours. I can’t feel my toes. My arms pull fiercely against the chop. My goggles fog. Tears stream from one side of them to the other as I breathe, turn, stroke, sight. Breathe, turn, stroke. The droplets catch the sun’s reflection, shimmering in my peripheral vision.
But I have no swim angels today.
No abiding oak.
No shining spire.
I am alone.
I take a ragged breath and bury my face in the water, letting out a cry no one will hear.
Swallowed by the murk.
Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a mother, foster mother, grandmother, and retired pediatrician. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Poets & Writers, and many other venues. She lives and swims in Maine and Massachusetts.