Remember those times, either in memory or young fantasy, of huddling around a campfire, your skin simmering hot, and your eyes dancing to the erratic movement of the flames. The darkness at your back and the crackling of the wood. All together in a circle, and then the sound of a strong voice... Once upon a time, before any of us were born, sinister things roamed these woods... all excited, all scared, all on the edge of our seats. A ghost story. That is what those two words used to bring up in my memory, not anymore. At twenty years of age, while signing a greeting card, in a hospital bedroom, I heard the first true ghost story that will haunt me for the rest of my days. But like all stories, there is something to be learned from it.
The 46-year-old woman sat in front of me, on her bed. Tiny, wrinkled, and tanned. Her existence was unreal, she was a ghost, surviving beyond what her mind and body should have permitted, driven by a supernatural force. A tiny speck of dust that had attached itself to her brain, and now had begun to spread like a virus, the will to live. How many times had this body been on the brink of collapse? How many times had her heart stopped, before sputtering back to life? How many years had this body wandered through the earth empty, with no mind, no thought, simply carrying on with one command: do not eat. A ghost, with a shadowed memory, where lies, treachery, and violence had been churned to dust underneath the endless march of the treadmill.
And now the ghost had been chained to the dinner table, forced to eat, forced to consume the venom that is food, forced to come back to life. And with blood starting to flow again in those dried-up veins, and colour returning to her cheeks, came the memories of what she had done, to others and to herself. With life came fear, of who she was, and what she had pretended to be. Dread, misery, and guilt. The awareness of her lifelong dance with death, the awareness that the only thing that had granted her life up until this point was luck.
With life forcibly drained back into her through a plastic tube, the fog that had nestled itself in her skull was slowly rarefying. The cataracts of chronic anorexia were slowly dissolving. She had seen so much but never understood, she had existed so long but never lived.
What is it that marks our presence in the world? What reassures us that we indeed “are”? Is it our work, and the impact we have on others around us? Our relationships, stories, embraces, and tears. Having children, making a difference with our acts, be they good or bad. This 46-year-old woman had left no mark. For twenty years she worked in a call center and when she got fired at the age of 38 she found a job in a shipping company, where she would keep track of inventories. She had had many friends over the years, but not one of them was real, her contact person at the clinic was a second removed cousin whom she hadn’t seen in two years. I lived with her for two months and not once did I hear her calling a friend. Her parents were there, but they were old and already living in a retirement home.
Halfway through my stay, I remember she came to me with a question. She asked me if I masturbated, and I answered yes, I did. She looked at me with boggled eyes and in a shy whisper confessed she hadn’t since her teen years, that she didn’t remember how it felt or how to do it, she asked if I could explain. And so I did. For three decades this woman had not touched herself, nor others. She had never had a romantic partner and said she had never felt the need to.
During the last two weeks, her suffering became excruciating. She had gotten back in contact with her younger brother, who apparently now had a son of two years old. She could never have children, the truth hit her. The weight of her age suddenly became unbearable. Forty-six. The age of her second birth, a cruel one, a birth scarred by the knowledge of her thirty-year-long death. Those seconds, minutes, and hours are now lost, unretrievable, dead, no memory keeping them alive.
What struck me was that this woman had nothing to live for. All that her resuscitation had brought her was agonizing lucidity and excruciatingly hard truths. And yet I have never seen such a strong will to live. Those piercing brown eyes, bulging out of her skull, glistening under a veil of tears. The taut line of her mouth, always closed, always straight, except for those five times a day, when we would silently sit in the dining hall, and she would have to unclench her atrophied jaw, stretch her inert skin and mechanically stab morsels of food into her throat. Five times a day she would slowly kill a part of herself, bite by bite she was exorcizing her ghost.
To kill a part of yourself. That is what it feels like to kick an eating disorder. It is a voice, a protector, a companion. Toxic, but a friend nonetheless. The longer it has been with you the more important it becomes, the more you identify it, the more it is the only thing you are sure about.
I do not feel confident in saying that this woman will be alive five years from now. But I have never been so scared. Scared to see how staying in what we know and what is comfortable can lead to death, a death of the soul. And I will always be grateful to her for having let me hear her ghost story.