Healing the Temple of the Soul
by D. Watt
Cynthia Stevens hugs herself as she stands in front of the girl’s bathroom mirror at her high school. She’s wearing her father’s blue cardigan sweater and its warmth comforts her. Over her thickening blonde hair sits a Blue Jays baseball cap her older brother Chad had given her after his last visit to The Valley Stream Home where she stayed for more than six months. On her left wrist dangles her little sister Faye’s gold bracelet. For a long moment she stares into the school’s mirror, no longer afraid to face herself. There are still dark bags under her blue eyes and her cheeks–though fuller–still look too shallow. Her father, brother and sister are going to help her continue healing, but without Dr. Lyndon and the Girls’ Gang she doubts she would still be alive today.
The gaunt reflection that stares back at her reminds her how it all started three years ago in Grade Nine after gym class…
“Cynthia’s hips are too wide for her boobs,” one of her classmates said behind her back in the girl’s change room.
“Do you think she’ll ever stop gaining weight? I hope I don’t end up like her,” another girl said.
Cynthia tried to ignore the comments but they hurt her. It made sense to her even a year earlier in Grade Eight that her body was changing, for what she believed at the time, the worse. Her mother had wide hips and a small bust. The thought of her mother made the girls’ comments hurt even more. Her mother had died of breast cancer that year. Cynthia bit her lower lip hoping the crystal clear image of her mother would go away but it wouldn’t, it lingered with her and that made her think of her father.
Her father never seemed to mind that Cynthia’s mother had wide hips. He was so happy when she was alive. He wrote her love poems all the time. Now all he did was work overtime or tinker with his Ford Cavalier to keep it going a little longer.
Cynthia remembered going to the school bathroom in silent tears after the girls’ comments. She wanted to get into a stall and hide her pain until it went away. As she entered she heard a girl retching in another stall. She went to the door of the other stall and whispered, “Are you alright?”
There was more retching, then the girl mumbled, “Fine.” The stall door opened and a tall girl with short, dirty blonde hair stepped out. Tammy Baker was the all-star track and field female athlete at Sandlewood High School. She was also ultra-thin.
Cynthia saw fluid on Tammy’s right hand. Tammy obviously noticed Cynthia staring because she quickly hid her hand. “It helps me keep my weight down,” Tammy said defensively.
“I won’t tell,” Cynthia replied. “Does it work?”
“Yes,” Tammy said as she hurried to wash her hands. Cynthia watched Tammy pop two breath mints into her mouth. “It’s the only way I can keep my weight down,” Tammy said as she left the bathroom.
In gym class Cynthia was terrified of the high school gym teacher and track-and-field coach, Ms. Ferguson. With her slight athletic build and stern energetic attitude Ms. Ferguson would only accept perfection. Cynthia was so intimidated by her she never tried out for track-and-field. The girls who did, either quit in tears because of Ms. Ferguson’s fat list that was so prominent in the Girl’s Phys-Ed room, or became obsessed with their weight–like Tammy.
“Sometimes I hate her,” Tammy once told Cynthia, when they met in the bathroom. “If I put on a few pounds she just glares at me. I’ve done everything! Sometimes I take diet pills. One time I stole my mother’s keys, wrapped myself in plastic wrap, and sat in the parents’ car with the heater on full blast. If my parents ever catch me doing any of this they won’t let me compete. I don’t even get periods anymore.” Tammy was in tears so Cynthia rubbed her shoulders and told her it was all right. At the same time Cynthia knew she had memorized all the ways Tammy had lost weight.
Remembering how her eating disorder started made Cynthia stronger. It gave her purpose to her life and reminded her that she had to get healthy to help Tammy and other girls from destroying themselves because of eating disorders.
Cynthia turned on the water in the Valley Stream Home bathroom and gently splashed it over her face. She was washing away tears, happy tears for once. It was night and the radio was on ever so slightly near the beds she and the four other girls slept. She could hear Alanis Morissette singing Ironic from her CD, Jagged Little Pill. The song brought back memories, not of Ironic but another song called Mary Jane.
There was a verse in the song that kept playing over and over again in Cynthia’s head:
I hear you’re counting sheep again Mary Jane
What’s the point of tryin’ to dream anymore
I hear you’re losing weight again Mary Jane
Do you ever wonder who you’re losing it for?
She remembered going over to Tammy’s to see the nutrition outline and exercise schedule Ms. Ferguson had given her. Cynthia had heard working out burnt a lot of calories and that fat cells were made up of the most calories. She decided to do aerobics every day for an hour before classes and an hour after school. Not too much weight training because that put on muscle or “bulk” as the gym rats called it. She wanted to get rid of her bulk so most of the time she would stick to the exercise bike and jogging. Tammy told her to keep her calories down to six hundred a day until she started to lose weight and to never go beyond eight hundred calories.
“You have to count your calories by following this chart,” Tammy said knowledgeably. “No fried food like battered fish or chicken. Eat lots of vegetables, and absolutely no junk food.”
Cynthia looked at Tammy’s wiry body and figured the girl knew what she was talking about. The next day Cynthia went to the school’s gym wearing blue sweatpants and top. She headed for one of the two exercise bikes and started riding vigorously. Even though it was nearly zero degrees outside she was determined to ride for twenty minutes before jogging on the track for another half-hour.
After ten minutes on the exercise bike she thought she would faint, but she kept telling herself that she had to lose weight and forced herself to keep going. The twenty minutes finally passed and she headed out to jog. She was so tired she felt sick but she forced herself to keep going. She looked at her watch constantly to make sure she made the half-hour.
The half-hour finally passed and she was sick in the grass. Maybe it was better the jogging made her retch, instead of using her fingers.
At first, the days passed miserably. She hated working out but at least some of the guys started paying attention to her so she knew they didn’t think she was too fat. Soon she was obsessed.
Cynthia remembered thinking she knew how to keep slim and she didn’t want other girls to suffer the name calling she had. She once said to a girl she thought was too heavyset, “Janet, do you want me to help you lose weight?”
“I hate exercise,” Janet had replied.
Cynthia was shocked. She wondered how the girl ever expected to get a date if she didn’t take care of herself.
Tammy’s exercise routine worked well for Cynthia–for awhile. The guys started paying a lot more attention to her. They commented on how good her body looked. She took their praise in until finally her body was the sole purpose of her existence. She had to look good no matter how rotten her stomach felt. Missing periods wasn’t so bad, so if she decided to do it—-have sex–there was less chance of her getting pregnant. Even making herself sick became easier.
She would constantly look at herself in the full body mirror in her bedroom. There was one time when she traced her right index finger between her breasts. She stared at them disapprovingly. Would guys find them attractive? They were kind of small, not as large as they were before her diet. She ran her finger to her waist and smiled vibrantly. Her diet had kept her waist so tiny. The guys liked that!
Sometimes she wished she didn’t act so dumb around the hot guys in her Grade Nine class, like Derril Shant or Peter Forbes. They were so muscular! She touched her ribs and cried out. She wished they didn’t show so much. At least her stomach was thin. She cursed, she had eaten a doughnut with her lunch and that would put her calorie count too high. “Darn it,” she grumbled. Now she would have to skip supper and lie to her father by telling him she had eaten earlier. He was so depressed all the time she figured he wouldn’t notice anyway.
For almost six months she felt like the centre of attention. It was afterwards that the body she worked so hard to create began to rebel and she started binge eating. She just couldn’t get rid of the sugar cravings. She would gorge out on junk food then skip anything nutritional because it would affect her calorie count. Instead, to get rid of the extra calories she made herself vomit more often and after watching a body building show on TV in which the athletes took diuretics before a competition she sought out other avenues to keep her weight down. She had asked Tammy about diuretics and Tammy had told her about a boy in school named Kurt Ryans whose father owned a drug store. Using allowance money Cynthia was able to buy diuretics from Ryan. Ryan told her to call the tablets he gave her, water pills, because the pills were normally for people with water retention or hypertension. She didn’t like to use them they made her go to the bathroom a lot. She tried not drinking too much water but that caused dizzy spells and her abdomen would hurt. The diuretics made her look thinner as the water in her body became more depleted.
She recalled how, later, at The Valley Stream Home, Dr. Lyndon had explained that sodium was a necessary electrolyte, part of the sodium and potassium mix in the body that allows the muscles to contract. He had told her without enough electrolytes the body could start having muscle spasms. She promised herself never to take diuretics again.
Cynthia ran her fingers through her hair, thinking about Tammy and how her own bulimia had started. The strands felt a lot softer now that she was eating. She pulled the ends of her hair over her chest so that her hair made a heart shape around her face and chin.