Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bottom of the Second, Part III: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Lucky Pauline, surrounded by
a group of men with evil thoughts
on their minds
"When last we left our heroine..." With all these serial installments, I'm beginning to feel like a silent-movie actress, facing one dramatic crisis after another, leaving audiences breathless as the screen fades to black with me tied to the railroad track.

Isn't the Damsel in Distress one of our recurring female archetypes? The role certainly has held an irresistible appeal for me: from arousal as a kid watching made-for-TV movies in which women were kidnapped (or worse godforbid); to making my sister play a game called "Bad Man, Good Man, & Girl," where she was the first two title characters who respectively kidnapped then rescued the Girl (i.e., me); to my adult predilection for being bound and dominated (and worse godforbid) by strong men. Yeah, I know, I'm far from a passive person, but the theory goes that our sexual personae tend toward the opposite of our "real life" selves -- if strong-willed, we are relieved to surrender control; if timid, we crave erotic power over another. That's what "they" say, anyway.

So, where was I with the whole broken-heart thing? Oh right, my mother had cast me out because a found condom implied I was having sex (duh), and Sam's family opened their door to me until I could find my own place. (Hmmm, the phrase "cast out" just struck me. It brings to mind sentences like "Rebellious angels were cast out from heaven" or "The exorcist cast out possessing demons." Angels? Demons? Damn, I had good company.)

Ultimately, I think the stress of being homeless, not speaking to my parents, going to school, working two part-time jobs, and getting an apartment took its toll on me -- and on my relationship: feeling insecure and uncertain, I became insanely jealous of Sam's porn collection and other girls he always seemed to notice. Gifted with a deep voice and quick wit, he transformed himself from a tuxedo-ed mobile D.J. spinning weddings and bar mitzvahs into a sexy sidekick on a top-rated morning radio show -- and his public appearances as a station personality certainly attracted nubile groupies. Sam was like a kid in a candy store and I, a motherless child, felt like Lucifer in the picture.

Hating my new haircut at 19
Looking back, it seems so fucking crazy and out of character that I hated porn so intensely then, but I think it just became a symbol for me of being unloved and abandoned. I was desperate for attention and assurance and painfully unhappy with my body -- bad combination, especially with a boyfriend who was vocally appreciative of other women's assets. I started arguments and cried a lot and generally was a real drag to be around. I mean, seriously, what 22-year-old stud who ruled the world would have stuck with me? I even cried after sex, mourning the connection after he pulled out. I soon hid that reaction, but vividly remember lying on my back on the floor after he came, hot tears rolling silently into my hair.

Doorway, my apartment at 1126 Spruce
I was a mess, obviously, but to be fair to my younger self, Sam was kind of a dick, too. He didn't fight for me after his father banished me (cast out again!) because our late-night arguments supposedly interfered with Sam's schoolwork. He cheated and lied. He broke up with me over the phone after three years of being together. And after I hung up that day -- in my tiny apartment on Spruce Street where I shared a bathroom down the hall with a little old black hermit-man -- I just sat in the middle of the snot-green carpet and started wailing. No words, just a loud, long, sad sound coming from deep inside me. It lasted in some ways, I think, for years. The love of my life was gone, and it was all my fault. In fact, I was so unlovable even my own parents didn't want me. Inhaling was hard, exhaling impossible. My heart broke into a thousand pieces on the floor. How could anyone survive this?

At my thinnest (and a regular at the tanning salon) at 20
So I made up with my disturbed mother and went home for a few weeks. She was thrilled to once again be taking care of me -- and god knows I needed some kind of mommy and a place to go. I didn't leave the house. I wept for hours on end. I stopped eating. And the tiniest of bright spots appeared as a result: I lost weight. Never really more than ten or so pounds overweight, I had perceived myself as being huge and loathed my body. But, voila! Twelve pounds gone in a week!  Bad breakup = good diet plan. (This, despite my worried Jewish mother begging me to eat, following me around the house with a hard-boiled egg in her hand and a cigarette in her mouth.) I continued to severely limit my caloric intake and started long-distance running again -- the first time since cross-country in tenth grade. And  over the course of that summer, from the end of my romance in May to the beginning of the fall semester, I lost 60 pounds, "tipping" the scales at 5'9" at 106. My boobs rounded down from a hated D-cup to a cute little B. For the first time since probably I was a fetus, I was wearing a size four and felt great going bra-less and tucking snug t-shirts into skinny jeans. I went back to Temple in September feeling like hot shit, anxious to bump into Sam with my new body (literally and figuratively).

Sure enough, ironically at the same lunch-truck benches where we first met, Sam eventually caught sight of what was left of me, and literally dropped his plastic fork into his chef salad. I quivered in delight as he looked me up and down, shocked at my appearance but obviously pleased. (As a matter of fact, I got lots of positive feedback from friends and family -- but this was before anorexia, bulimia, and eating disorders in general became such a part of the American collective conscience.) I tried to do the friends-with-benefits thing with Sam -- and we did manage to fuck each other for a little while -- but I just couldn't deal with the agony that inevitably followed our encounters. Remarkably, considering my fucked-upness at that time, I was the one to finally end it -- maybe I just needed to have the last word.

I spent the next couple of years dealing with anorexia and then bulimia; a semester in Rome led to bingeing (minus purging) and I returned to the States weighing almost 200 pounds. Within a seven-month period, I had gained almost 100 pounds (extremely fast weight gain often follows anorexia because of the body's slowed metabolism in an effort to thwart starvation). Since I could never make myself vomit, I turned to laxatives (often 30 or more at a time) and running  again (yes, not a good combination back-to-back, as many a frenzied rush to a Burger King bathroom can attest). A bunch of weight came off, but my weight has gone up and down ever since. It's not uncommon for me to have three or four different sizes in my closet at once (currently wearing an 8 or 10 slacks). The eating disorder may not be in full bloom anymore, but disordered eating and skewed body image now seem to be a permanent part of my psyche.

I've given a lot of thought (along with endless discussion and years of therapy and personal research) to what triggers such self-destructive behavior  -- even now the origins of the illness are little understood. Was it punishment for chasing away Sam? Some experts believe anorexia is an attempt to return to a very small state -- i.e., a child -- when we were loved and cared for unconditionally. Others think anorexics morph themselves into human shrinky-dinks because they subconsciously believe they don't deserve to take up space in the universe. Researchers conjecture that eating disorders are inherent in certain people, and traumatic events can set them off. Perhaps it's none or all or completely different explanations. I just know that it often feels as if I'm in "remission," like alcoholics, rather than "cured." Our society certainly doesn't make recovering easy, but I also believe that being a highly emotional person doesn't help either.

To this day, I still wonder about Sam and follow him a bit on-line (he is a long-time Houston radio personality), occasionally sending him a message on Facebook (he ignored my friend request, the sonuvabitch bastard), even offering him a radio exclusive when my (alleged) sex-for-tix story broke last year, but never receiving an acknowledgment in return. Really, was I all that horrible? Any worse than any other overachieving, neurotic teenager from a dysfunctional family living in a strip-mall wasteland? I do wonder. Yep, sometimes I am a confident and unstoppable cougar taking on the world, but I can also be the self-doubting girl still trying to impress an ex-boyfriend -- along with about 20 other Susans as well. But as Edith Piaf, one of my favorite artists, sings, "Je ne regrette rien"; everything that has ever happened to me and everyone I have ever known make me who I am right now -- and I like that person a lot.