My introduction to Rosewood, before I met any of the patients or doctors, before the paperwork and rules, was toast.
I was taken into the dining room and sat at the end of a long table with a nurse. The hush and whirr of a communal kitchen without any community present is like an empty church – a ritual space devoid of content. Third grade level construction paper cut outs on the walls and paper doilies on the table worked too hard for cheeriness. I was jet lagged and adrenaline crashed and gripping onto my sense of self like a free climber dangling from a rock.
The nurse, a Latina woman slightly older than me, wearing shapeless scrubs with printed teddy bears, put a plate in front of me. Two slices of toast. Crispy, almost overdone. No butter. Just enriched wheat and stabilizers, possibly some high fructose corn syrup, 90 calories a slice, crinkled and cooled.
I was to eat the toast.
I could not eat the toast.
I must eat the toast.
You don't understand, I tried to explain to the nurse. I can't eat the toast.
You don't understand, she tried to explain to me. You must eat the toast.
I had not realized until that moment how deep the divide between me and what is generally recognized as food had become. I could not remember the last time I used my teeth to bite off a piece of cooked food, created saliva to break down a complex carbohydrate. I ate yogurt and sucked on candies. It was possible I could crunch a vegetable. I could wrap my head around the calories, but the idea of sending dry, spiky crumbs down my throat to gather in my stomach and turn to rock, to carry that rock in my abdomen which would stretch and strain against it, and worst of all to sit with it all, to hold it in and not allow my intestines the chance to stretch and use gravity to help rid myself of the rock – this idea shook me. Literally, I shook, and the nurse kindly put her hand on my arm and I realized here was another thing I hadn't experienced in a very long time, a human touch casually breaching my barrier and making contact.
More than the intervention, it was the toast that showed me the precipice I had been dancing on blindfolded. Filled with loss, regret, shame, terror, there was definitely no room for the toast. It could not be eaten. I want to eat it, I tried to explain to the nurse. I understand that 180 calories wouldn’t kill me. But I cannot bite it, crunch it, chew it, swallow it. It cannot be done. I felt like I was on the ropes course, age 12, feeling strong and ready to take risks and yet unable to move.
But in middle school, they let me come down. Here, there was no going forward without eating the toast; I would not be admitted without toast. I stopped to hold on to the dual meanings of the word admit. No one would admit me. No one would confess to my existence, I could not be brought to light without toast. I must admit failure in order to gain admittance. Acceptance, allowance, access. There was no going back – I did not have money for a plane ticket, and my entire life had renounced me unless I stayed. I could not admit myself to myself. I could not be admitted to myself without the toast.
I remembered the fourth grade writing exercise to break down the steps of making a peanut butter sandwich. Most of my classmates had ten or so steps – open cupboard, get peanut butter, take out two slices of bread, etc. I wanted to win the exercise, and I knew that there were an infinite number of steps most people were glossing over. Send brain signal to arm to rise. Send brain signal to fingers to flex. Synthesize optical information with touch sensory information. I broke down the steps of eating the toast. Lift arm. Move arm to table. Put fingers on toast. Feel nubbly roughness. Hold toast by bottom crust edge. Examine toast for least threatening corner. Determine that to be top right. Raise top right corner to mouth. Open jaw. Close jaw to relax back of throat. Breathe into heart. Open jaw. Insert toast corner. Close jaw. Close eyes. Feel nubbly bits on roof of mouth. Move them back and forth like sandpaper over tissues. Imagine a mountain, a glacier, a flower – anything other than the nubbly bits – and gulp. Gulp. Gulp again. Breathe. Open eyes. Repeat.
Thus began my time as a patient at Rosewood Ranch Center for Eating Disorders.