My first visit to Remuda overlapped with Alicia’s third. Like an old pro, she led me around the facilities.
“This is the main house.” She swept her right in an arc around her, while her left continued to steady the pole where her feeding tube kept a life-giving vigil. “We eat here in the dining room, and then through that wide entryway, is the everything else room. Every morning, we have chapel in there, but during the day, it’s more of a den with the TV in the corner, comfy couches and board games.”
I stood with my toes hanging over the small step down into the den. Three telephones lined the far well. So much for privacy when you call home. Alicia moved on. Later I would marvel at what psychiatrists call her ability to disassociate. Pieces of her story came out slowly. On the spectrum of maturing experiences, Alicia had lived ten lives compared to mine.
At twelve years old, she stood no taller than four feet. She had wide, round stars for eyes, bright, spicy and alert. They belied the trauma of her short life. As early as three years old she had been physically abused by various men in her family. By age five, she refused to eat. Each time she had been to Remuda Ranch, she had stayed until insurance quit paying, then until her parents could no longer afford it. The third time, she was there on the support of an anonymous donor.
“And if you’re lucky enough to be allowed to exercise at all, three nights a week some of the girls do line dancing in there, or a Richard Simmons aerobics video. I’m not allowed to participate, but it’s almost more fun to laugh at them.”
The main lodge served as the hub of all life for the forty women and girls at Remuda. It was an expansive, cheery place. A serving bar, like the one in my grandma’s kitchen separated the dining room from the kitchen. The cooks were the plumpest, kindest people in the world. With forty women eating three meticulously portioned meals and snacks everyday, their job never ended.
Heather came to Remuda three weeks after I got there. Her story was similar to Alicia’s, but she was thirteen and her eating disorder had only begun three months before. Heather was not at a dangerously low weight, but excessive purging had already torn her esophagus and her heart had begun to flutter irregularly. Depression haunted her eyes, and anger. Deep gray, they still creased with a ready smile, but storms raged below the surface.
Heather was never aggressive or violent toward anyone else, but she was on suicide watch from the day she arrived at The Ranch. For some reason, she took to me. Her assumption of my courage bolstered my own recovery. Sick, frail and shipped off, I believed that my role as big sister in my family was only another place where I had failed.
One night, the nurse came to my door, tapped a few times and then shook me awake. “Abby, wake up. Honey, Susan caught Heather with a razor blade in the bathroom. She is up at the nurses’ station now, she is going to sleep on the cot up there. But she’s really upset and is asking for you.”
I knelt on the floor next to Heather’s cot for the next three hours. My bony knees dug into the wooden floor. For once, I wasn’t the broken one. I basked in the joy of being asked for, needed. I belong here, I thought. Everyone wants to live in a world where they are necessary.
I determined to be a “compliant” during my stay at Remuda. It seemed the only logical way to be discharged in a reasonable amount of time. Compliants were those girls who cleaned their plates at every meal, among other things.
Each girl met individually with a dietician and medical doctor to determine her dietary needs. Based on the diabetic exchange lists, every meal was tailored for each girl so that she received a precise weight of meatloaf, or exactly 1/3 of a cup of mashed potatoes, or 1/4 of a bran muffin, or five hard boiled eggs. If a girl refused even the smallest portion of her meal, she had to drink its equivalent in Ensure.
The consequences were nonnegotiable. Dani, a tall, exotic looking girl, once sat at the table for four hours between lunch and dinner because she refused to eat her chicken nuggets. At dinner time, she was still staring at an Ensure supplement, carefully supervised by a nurse.
I was there during the final weeks of the spring semester, so as a compliant, I dutifully met with the resident tutor and completed all the homework assignments forwarded to me by concerned teachers. I worried about going back to school.
Compliance also meant attending twice weekly, one-on-one meetings with my personal therapist, Keri. On a well-refined rotating schedule, all of girls at Remuda participated in didactics, classes focused on the practical aspects of learning to function and eat again in society. We also had body image sessions and art classes.
Julynn was the body image therapist. As much as I despised her workshops, Julynn was impossible to hate. Barely five feet tall, she sported a wind-swept, short blond hair style. Her eyes were slate gray and with a knack for accessories, she highlighted her high cheekbones with a variety of glasses frames. She was perfect to lead body image classes; if any girl could imagine herself normally sized, she would be thrilled to look just like pretty, petite Julynn.
“You’re going to love body image this week,” said Karen, an older woman who was on a different class rotation that I was. She sounded sarcastic. “Just wait.”
I walked into Julynn’s office under a cloud of foreboding. Alicia was right behind me, telescoping her feeding pole out of the golf cart that transported all of the girls whose health was considered to precarious to walk the grounds. I waited for her.
“Hi girls,” Julynn grinned looking up from last minute notes. “Are you ready to work?”
“Not really,” I mumbled.
“What are we doing, Julynn? I’ve heard rumors that it’s awful.” So Alicia had heard the same warning.
“Today we’re doing body tracings,” Julynn stood and pulled a giant roll of butcher paper out from under her desk.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope, as soon as Dani, Shelly and Jenn get here, we’ll get started.”
“You’re going to need double-wide butcher paper for me,” Alicia voiced what we were all believing about our own bodies.
“That’s what this exercise is about,” Julynn’s smile dropped a bit of it’s brilliance. “Most women with eating disorders, and a lot who never develop eating disorders, really struggle with body dysmorphia.”
“What’s that?” Alicia asked.
“To be precise,” Julynn picked up a massive book from her desk and read, “Body dysmorphia is a type of mental illness, wherein the affected person is concerned with body image, manifested as excessive concern about and preoccupation with a perceived defect of their physical features. The person thinks they have a defect in either one feature or several features of their body, which causes psychological distress that causes clinically significant distress or impairs occupational or social functioning. Often BDD co-occurs with emotional depression and anxiety, social withdrawal or social isolation.”
“OK, I admit it,” I sought to get out of the exercise. “I’m body dysmorphic. So can I go to the art building to scribble out some aggression instead of doing a tracing?”
“Abby, why don’t you go first.” Julynn closed the door behind the last three girls.
I stretched out on the floor on top of the butcher paper. I knew I would fit. Somewhere in my rational psyche, who wasn’t quite dead, I knew I would fit. Julynn began to trace around my body. The room faded. All I could hear was the squeak of her black marker. It tickled between my fingers.
“OK. And I didn’t get any black marker on your clothes.” Julynn stood and then helped me to my feet.
Wordless, she picked up my tracing and hung it on the wall.
“Here, take the marker. Actually, there’s the box,” she said pointing to a chair nearby. “Pick any color that suits your mood. Now, I want you to write all over this picture. What thoughts or feelings come up when you look the tracing? What do you see?”
I grabbed a green marker. The therapist voice in my head, the one I was learning to imitate after so many hours of counseling told me that green was a good sign. Instead of red, indicating anger and frustration, my choice of green might show Julynn that I was happy, optimistic.
I started at my outline. What to write? I knew how this worked. A progressing compliant would write things like: Healthy, normal, loved by God and unique.
A more honest telling would reveal: Scared, fat, strange, average, not-good-enough. So I wrote a little of both.
Finally, I placed the markers back in the box. I had used red for a couple words, just so Julynn didn’t think I was lying. She smiled at me.
“I’m going to give each of your tracings to your individual therapists for processing later this week,” she said. “Jennifer, will you go next?”