Embarrassment hurts like having my blood drawn hurts. I clench my left hand into a fist and look away as the nurse anchors my vein with her thumb and pulls my skin taut. The insertion is quick and hurts less than the fresh groove on my thigh carved by my nails in the waiting room. She presses a cotton ball into the tiny speck of blood and secures it with a bandage. I rip off the bandage as soon as I’m back on the street — I’m not bleeding anymore.
Embarrassment is knee-jerk, shallow, fleeting. Shame is different.
I am 11 years old in a sunburnt pink hospital gown. A tube pumps nutritional fluids into a vein in my left hand — it’s been punctured, again. That insertion hurt less than answering the questions the doctor now prods me with:
How often do you restrict? Have you ever harmed yourself? Do you force yourself to urinate? To defecate? To vomit? What did you eat today? Yesterday? Every day? Do you ever hide food, or lie about what you’ve eaten? When was the last time … ? How often … ? What makes you feel … ?
Each question makes all 48 pounds of me cringe with embarrassment. Mom and Grandma sit across from the hospital bed, intermittently looking at me with pained love and looking away with something else I can’t identify. I haven’t felt it yet — that thing their eyes are revealing in flashes. All that I feel right now is the scratchiness, at once comforting and overbearing, of the thick wool blanket Grandma brought from her apartment. She laid it over my bruised legs, tucking its edges under the thin cot like a cocoon, she said. “You’re my little butterfly in a warm cocoon.”
My heart flutters at “little.” I remember the warm, tight, big hug Grandpa gave me last week, cut short by him pulling away to say, “Your shoulders are like tiny bird’s wings. I’m afraid I’ll break them.”
That memory is filed away in my brimming mental dossier labelled Reasons Why. It stores all the moments like the one with Grandpa, when the sheer fact of my smallness makes me feel seen and taken care of, when the numbing pain of hunger is defused by an electric current of pride. Pride for withholding, for bearing the perpetual throbbing behind my belly button, for re-routing a necessary and recurring life instinct. This pride never lasts; the hunger inevitably returns and I am brought back to the hard work of railing against my body’s needs. So I record each of these episodes of triumph and hold them close, ready for easy retrieval.
The memories echo one another, collectively reassuring me that I am small. I relish feeling so fragile. Looking like this, I signal to everyone that I need to be handled gently. Held. I feel powerful scaring people this way. This tiny body is actually giant. I take up so much space in a room, my very lack of body mass absorbing all the sideways glances and concerned stares and ballooning into something bright, brave, and beautiful. A butterfly that is not at all little; a butterfly that has grown out of her cocoon.
Now the doctor turns to my mom. He asks her all the questions that he thinks I cannot answer:
When did you notice Frances’s symptoms starting? How much school has she missed? Is there a history of anorexia or bulimia in the family? What about mental illness? Are you married? What is your relationship with your husband like? Have you tried … ? When did you … ? How long has she … ?
I wonder why he didn’t move her to a different room. It embarrasses me to be spoken of as if I’m not there. I feel the prick of the needle over and over, each intimate question a shallow cut along the indigo veins staining my translucent skin. I’m getting faint, perhaps from listening to the questions, probably from low blood sugar, most definitely because I’d rather black out than stay in this room. As my ears ring and dark circles blot my vision, my flimsy sparrow’s wings flap hard, my beak sucks the air hungrily, and I discard my broken human body in the bed under that scratchy wool blanket.
When I come back, the blanket is damp with my sweat. The sticky perspiration confuses me; it’s been so long since I last felt hot that I’ve forgotten what sweat is, how it looks and how it tastes. I’m embarrassed. The embarrassment soon fades to make room for more pressing physical sensations: first nausea, then lurching, then glorious relief and a return to the emptiness that I am accustomed to. Nurses are checking my vitals and plugging me into new machines and speaking terse medicalese to each other. The doctor has ceased asking his questions; he’s moved to another room, another patient, another mother.
Mom leaves the room to make some calls. I am alone with Grandma and I am embarrassed, again. For months, my parents have been warning me: “Keep doing this and you know where you’ll end up . . . ”
I didn’t know. I don’t know. Is this where? Some part of me, I think, was trying to get to this very room — room 314 in the cardiac care unit, two doors down from the nurses’ station. A room where I can hand over the hunger tormenting my body because doctors are telling me that I must.
But there was a greater motive in my refusal to just eat. Perhaps “motive” is not the right word — it was more a lack thereof. Being so tired, so hungry, so truly empty, nothing mattered except for avoiding mealtimes. I could focus on just one thing, my thing. And that pushed everything else far away. It protected me.
Whatever the motive, I am here now, taking up more space than I ever imagined possible. My body has assembled a team of doctors and a suite of medical equipment and a battery of tests and a stack of forms and this scratchy wool blanket and an impending mandate for inpatient treatment and then there will be dieticians and psychiatrists and psychologists and group therapy and art therapy and dog therapy and so many packages of Carnation instant breakfast powder. Grandma pulls out a Kleenex from the pocket of her cardigan. She folds it into a neat triangle, unfolds it, folds it again. She opens her mouth to speak but hesitates and falters. Finally, she tells me, “Your mom had something too, you know. One day I came home from the store and she was vomiting into the kitchen sink. I think she was about fifteen . . . It was right after her first boyfriend broke up with her.” She sighs with relief, having narrated this arc for me (or for herself?). Fifteen-year-old Nancy threw up; her 11-year-old daughter won’t eat.
The story writes itself, almost.
I then apprehend it — that feeling I saw in Mom’s and Grandma’s eyes. It’s deeper than embarrassment and somehow broader, thicker: I feel myself sinking down into the cot from its sprawling weight. I feel it for myself and for Mom and for Grandma.
I won’t eat, Mom threw up, what did Grandma do? I am ashamed, for all of us.
Mom returns to the room and smiles, forcefully. “Your dad is coming after work. He’s very worried. He sends his love.”
I prefer love directed this way, alongside concern. It is trackable, quantifiable. I can hold it in my 11-year-old hands and trace its contours to find out where it’s coming from and where it’s going.
But this new feeling — shame — is too big for me to hold. Mom looks at me and recognizes her own shame looking back at her. She looks at her mom and sees it there, too. I clench my fist and squeeze my eyes shut, waiting for it to pass, but it’s not like embarrassment.
It will hurt for much longer.
Frances Thomas is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, she moved to the United States in 2014 to study communications and creative writing at New York University. Her work has appeared in The Maine Review and Academy Press.