In my state university dorm room, the cinderblock wall in the bathroom of the private suite I shared with my roommate was the color of khaki pants during the day, but after dusk, it appeared grayish, like the camo American soldiers wore to storm the desert in the Middle East. At nineteen, I’d mastered the art of Looking Normal, with my perfect GPA and the sorority letters stitched across my t-shirts. I’d become the kind of girl that Texas celebrated: thin, smart, peppy, interested in boys who drank Lone Star beer. But the bulimia had gained speed as my sophomore year ticked by; the weekends became a haze of spiked punch and bingeing, the weekdays an endless hustle for perfect grades and long runs on the quad. The world frayed around me as I crossed lines I’d drawn in my head: No bingeing on weekdays became bingeing every other day. No stealing food from my roommate or the campus store became only swipe food if you won’t get caught. No eating other people’s discarded leftovers became scavenging half a pizza from the dorm trash bins to stuff into my face.
On a Sunday evening, too hungover from Goldschlӓger shots and Teddy Grahams to join my roommate at the library, I turned on the shower in my army-navy-surplus colored bathroom. I didn’t know how other girls managed drinking, eating, studying, kissing, surviving. Across campus, were there others hiding in the bathroom after maiming themselves too? As steam billowed around me, I sank to my knees and the world went slate gray, and then black. Before the darkness swallowed me, I realized: I will die like this, in some shit-hole institutional bathroom after a night of uncontrolled eating and drinking. Moments later, I blinked awake, slumped on the floor, wet and afraid. I had my first sane thought about food in years: I need help. In that nondescript four foot by four foot box of a bathroom, I decided to rise up. I wanted, more than anything, to become a girl who would live.
Everyone sipped red wine from clear plastic cups or held dark beer bottles with intricate, seasonal labels. A tower of cheese cubes loomed in the center of the table: cheddar, Gouda, Swiss. Oh how I wanted one of the Pete’s Wicked Ales. Wouldn’t that make it easier to be a graduate student in Humanities at a cocktail party in this gothic building on the south side of Chicago a million miles away from Texas? Wouldn’t it help me understand how to be a woman in this freezing cold place where everyone wore giant winter boots and bulky sweaters? Wouldn’t it help me untangle the knots that Texas had tied inside me: the big hair, tiny waist, full breasts, red lips, and easy laughter? But if I drank, I would end up bingeing and throwing up, I just knew it, and I hadn’t done that in five years. I didn’t want to fall back into all that mess, the terrible calculus of how much do I need to drink to be sure I can throw up 5,000 calories consumed from the garbage by the end of the night?
A Classics scholar from Annapolis cornered me into a conversation about the Chicago Bulls, which I knew less about than Classics, even though they’d won four championships by then. “I have to go,” I blurted out when she pressed her lips to her cup of wine for the third time. This conversation makes me want to drink, and I don’t want to die in the bathroom. I shoved my arms through my thin coat as I ran across the Midway to my one-room apartment. There, in the tiny white bathroom with the mildewed shower curtain and the window that sat unevenly in its warped frame, I called my sponsor back in Texas. “I don’t know if I can do Chicago,” I said. “Maybe I should come home.” She stayed on the phone with me as I balanced on a broken toilet lid with my coat still on. Help me help me help me. I didn’t believe I could survive outside the safety of that cramped, decrepit bathroom.
I did, though.
I eventually put myself to bed that night. The next day I went to a recovery meeting, and a few weeks later I attended another happy hour. I avoided the table loaded with alcohol and started up a conversation with a scholar from St. Louis, who had the smooth full cheeks of a baby. I could tell by the way he shifted his weight that he was as uncomfortable as I was. I promised myself that after twenty minutes, I could retreat to my bathroom where everything, though not in tip-top shape, was quiet and safe. My bathroom was my sanctuary, the only place in Chicago where I didn’t have to know anything special about French post-structuralism or hold forth on any big ideas. I simply had to sit still until the urge to harm myself passed.