Back in college, I used to ride the subway from South Philadelphia all the way to West Philadelphia, a process that involved transferring from the Broad Street line to the Market-Frankford line. At the time, I had memorized the stops, mouthing the words as they billowed overhead – Tasker-Morris, Ellsworth-Federal, Lombard-South, Walnut-Locust, City Hall. Stop, transfer. 15th St, 30th St, 34th St. It was a tedious errand, one that I would spend the entirety of standing upright by the train car doors, staring at my reflection. My skin was pale, my face gaunt, my body hauntingly thin. For most of the ride, I would try to convince myself that I looked “thin enough” to warrant the trip to the other side of town. That I was “sick enough” to warrant the attention of medical professionals. That I needed the attention badly enough to spend the money on public transportation fare. The rest of the time, I would harshly criticize the girl in the reflection – too large, too fat, too big, the terrible, terrible toos.
At 34th Street, I’d clamber off the train and carry myself up the dank, cement subway steps and out into the heavy, summer air. In West Philadelphia, I would walk several blocks to the University of Pennsylvania hospital to sit in waiting rooms and be probed by doctors. Karen, an absurdly patient woman, would take my weight and vital signs, and then try to convince me to drink Gatorade or eat a full meal. I’d spend the majority of these weekly visits in denial, sometimes yelling, usually crying, but always absolutely adamant that my diagnosis was wrong. Sitting on crinkly tissue paper, I would plead with Karen that I weighed far too much, my period only missing due to the stress from school, and that I most definitely was not anorexic.
In addition to the weekly weigh-in and doctor visits, I was required to have weekly therapist appointments. I would show up every week at the same time, to sit in the same chair, in the same room, to say absolutely nothing. Week after week, hour after hour, I would sit in complete silence, unwilling to discuss my personal matters or the private life of my eating disorder. Instead, I’d stare at the wearing grey carpet beneath my feet and give one word answers to questions like, “how is your anxiety this week?” or “when was the last time you spoke to your parents?” My therapist, Alice, didn’t seem to care either way until eventually, I stopped showing up at all. Phone calls and threats were made – my team of doctors swore that I would be pulled out of school for a second time, swore that I would be hospitalized immediately, but I never did show back up to my appointments.
I reconciled myself with the fact that I would die from my eating disorder. I spent nights in agony, holding my starving body tight, unsure if I would wake up in the morning. I spent days traipsing around the city, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and walking, walking, walking. I lost too much weight, and yet never enough weight. And when my roommate finally had the courage to confront me, I blew her off. I was fine, I most definitely was not anorexic.
And then something funny happened. One day I drank my coffee, smoked my cigarettes, and walked, walked, walked all the way through my college campus and into a bathroom stall in the building of my next class. I could hear a girl next to me, could see her painfully thin legs beneath the green, metal stall barrier, and could do nothing else but sit quietly as I listened to her empty the contents of her stomach. Maybe she was sick, or hungover, or pregnant, but in that moment I felt as if I were witnessing a version of myself. The version I swore didn’t exist.
I thought about all the people who might have loved the girl in the bathroom stall. All the friends and family and acquaintances who were maybe even eating in the cafeteria with her only moments before. I thought about the desperation that must have been racing through her mind, the suffocating feelings of worthlessness and pain and fear. The incredible anxiety that must have been ripping through her blood veins and setting off emergency alarms in her brain. There, surrounded by our own private, green, metal barriers, the girl next to me and I were one in the same.
I cried for a long time after this incident. I didn’t know what it meant or what was next, but I knew that I couldn’t be the girl in the bathroom stall any longer. What ensued were many painful and horrible years of trying to claim recovery. Many, many fits and starts and laughably bad days. And somewhere in the rubble, I found running.
Krysta Gunvalson is an amateur runner and not-so-amateur writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her current work can be found at tinyletter.com/ktanwrites