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Counting Monsters
Pamela St. Clair
Graphic by Deborah Randall

I. How, for a very long time, I've wanted to look.

II. I have two favorite cousins, identical twins. I'm a Gemini.

III. Despite having a brother three years my junior, I don't understand boys. I don't understand why they don't like me.

IV. My mom is thin. While I devour pizza with abandon, she inhales cigarettes and Tab. I ask, Why don't you eat and just exercise more? Even as a young girl, I have an innate sense of what constitutes a healthy weight loss regimen.

V. Our house stands on the corner in a new development of capes and ranches in assorted taffy colors. The land behind the house is woods, swamp mostly. In my nightmare, when I'm five, my mom stands in the backyard wearing only a thin bathrobe. Monsters live in the swamp. I can see them, but she cannot. She walks toward them, fading away in that surreal slow motion of dreams.

VI. I'm afraid of men with beards. Santa Claus terrifies me. At the local bar, where my brother and I spend many late afternoons and evenings, we're appeased with exotic drinks, various juices mixed with ginger ale. My mother dances with someone. He's not my father. He has a beard. I kick him. Hard. In the shins. At six, I know monsters when I see them.

VII. Dad:

  • Trips to the ice cream stand on hot summer nights after cutting the lawn.
  • Popcorn with basketball games.
  • MacDonalds shakes after hockey games.
  • Hotdogs and peanuts at Fenway Park.
  • Doughnuts on Sunday mornings, when we're supposed to be at church.
Boys don't like fat girls: his response when I ask for a second helping of ice cream.

VIII. My perfect nine-year-old summer afternoon: a couch in the air-conditioned den, lemonade, saltines spread with peanut butter, and a Nancy Drew mystery. My mother storms in with the vacuum cleaner. She vacuums every day.

IX. Anorexia often occurs in families with a history of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

X. Boys flirt with my best friend. They don't flirt with me. At ten, I don't understand boys. I don't understand why they don't like me.

XI. Some experts theorize that the female anorexic is afraid of becoming a woman, so she diets away all signs of puberty.

XII. When I'm in eighth grade, the scale in the doctor's office inches up, up, up and for the first time tips over the three-digit mark.

XIII. I start jogging with my mother. I figure I can eat an ice cream cone if I run two one-mile laps. I continue to earn straight A's. I stop growing. I'm no longer the tallest girl in my class. I get my first period.

XIV. I'm in high school when the twins visit. I haven't seen them in years. At dinner, my mother mentions how I will not be modeling in the local fashion show this year. I weigh too much.

XV. A teenager with anorexia seeks some form of control over her life by not eating and losing weight.

XVI. I eat no more than 800 calories a day. I run three miles. No sweets. No butter. Encouraged, when pants hang on my hips, I eat no more than 700 calories a day.

XVII. The average age of onset of anorexia is seventeen.

XVIII. In college, I decide to major in math. I've always been good with numbers.

XIX. I spend a semester in Italy. With all of the pasta, friends back home warn, you'll probably gain ten pounds, at least.

XX. Weight loss fails to alleviate an anorexic's intense fear of gaining weight.

XXI. I stop eating. No pasta. No gelato. I have an innate sense of what constitutes a healthy weight loss regimen: caffeine and cigarettes. I lose my period.

XXII. Amenorrhea, the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles, is a common symptom of anorexia

XXIII. My Italian semester ends. At JFK, I wait for my luggage to circle. Through swinging doors, I see my father see me. He tries to climb over the barricade. What happened to you? he asks. You look awful. I guess he doesn't like my orange stirrup pants. I weigh ninety-eight pounds.

XXIV. Back at college, I barely make it to classes. I earn mostly C's. I spend a lot of time in my dorm room, in the dark.

XXV. Previously over-achieving women become socially withdrawn and have difficulty concentrating.

XXVI. Have you done something with your hair? my logic professor asks. I'm tired. Morning classes are difficult. No, you just haven't seen me in a while.

XXVII. An increasing number of studies suggest that a body's inability to regulate serotonin may play a part in bulimia, a cycle of binge eating and starving.

XXVIII. During my senior year, I gain weight. I do not want to graduate, move back home or find a job. I throw up wherever I can. In bowls. In showers. In plastic bags. I hide in closets to muffle the noise. I will do this for years and years and years.

XXIX. Too little serotonin leads to depression. Irregular serotonin levels contribute to bipolar disorders or manic depression.

XXX. One twin begins to write letters about government conspiracies. He doesn't always take his lithium.

XXXI. Anorexia often occurs in families with a history of depression.

XXXII. I envy those who can charm their way out of traffic violations. Only once have I been able to cry my way out of a ticket. I was pulled over for running a red light I hadn't even noticed. The more I tried not to, the more I cried. The cop gave me a warning. I was on my way home from visiting my mother, who was away fighting demons of her own.

XXXIII. Anorexia often occurs in families with a history of substance abuse.

XXXIV. I dislike my job. My boyfriend criticizes me. I visit a psychologist. He criticizes me, too.

XXXV. I quit my job. I quit my boyfriend. I quit my psychologist.

XXXVI. I meet the man I will marry. He has a beard.

XXXVII. My new psychologist says, It's not your fault, and the more I try not to, the more I cry.

And the monsters begin their slow retreat to the swamp. It has been years and years and years.

Too many to count.

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