How to Stay Alive: Chapter One
Below is the continuation of a book project I am working on called How to Stay Alive. Catch up on the first portion (prologue and preface) here. Trigger Warning: substance abuse, alcoholism, suicidal ideation, sexual trauma, disordered eating.
I. EMOTIONAL EATING
Patrick wrote about himself in third person sometimes, because he often felt like he was observing his own life. Perhaps it was easier to narrate his character’s experience from afar than to feel his feelings. The first time he chose to write about himself in third person was in a private word document titled, “Emotional Eating.”
He started binging as a preteen. Patrick was skinny, 5’8, with long toes and a stubborn refusal to engage in physical activity. He hated sweating. The Texas heat dampened his natural sense of optimism. He fought it by staying in air conditioning, limiting outdoor activities, and feeling weak. Somehow, he never felt bloated during this time – adolescence and growing pains to thank for the late start in body image issues. But he was certainly afraid of being called fat. Of being ugly. Of being unloved.
For breakfast, he would drink coffee with hazelnut creamer and cook 4 eggs with almost a cup of shredded cheddar cheese. For lunch, he often used Dad’s quarters to buy fresh chocolate chip cookies, pints of ice cream, Doritos, or whatever else he could get his hands on. Lunch was never enough, but school distracted him. Despite living across the street – quite literally – from his school, Patrick insisted on getting a ride home. As soon as he entered the house, it was go time. Two hotdogs on buns with more cheese. Two bowls of cereal. Two bowls of Blue Bell ice cream with chocolate chips or sprinkles. Then Goldfish crackers. Cheez-its. Plain tortilla chips. No salsa needed. Fruit snacks. He ate and ate and ate and ate. No one else was home.
He watched Oprah, then transitioned to Ellen. He sat on the couch for short breaks from scouring the kitchen. Back and forth. He was desperate for love and attention. He didn’t feel desirable. He felt guilty for wanting to feel desirable. His first experience with a boy happened the summer between eighth and ninth grade. He did not like it. He broke up with Stan after their first date. After he put his hand down Patrick’s jeans. After Patrick wiped Stan’s pubescent slobber off his face.
Patrick felt like there was more to figure out, so he wrote about his high school years, as well.
Ninth grade was exciting because he had new friends. The two junior highs mixed together, so it felt like a brand-new environment. More cute boys. More bravery with his fashion choices. His outfits grew more outlandish with each day. He had crushes on everyone he talked to. No one crushed back.
He filled his time with platonic girlfriends, acting silly, making music videos, having as much fun as he possibly could. He worked as a host at a fancy French restaurant in uptown. One night, a short server named Jorge pinned him against the wall outside on the patio. He felt excitement and disgust at the same time. He did not feel safe, but he did feel desired. He led two lives: one as a 14-year-old child going to school and performing in choir, the other as a pretend adult spending his hours at Starbucks, wishing he was older. Wishing someone would love him. Wishing to be seen.
The afternoon eating stayed the same, but he added on. Often eating two dinners. One with the family. One with friends. Then more dessert. Nighttime snacks. Massive breakfasts. Fruit snacks and crackers all damn day between classes. Nothing filled the void.
When the French restaurant decided to rebrand as a Tequila bar, he started wearing an ivory white suit to work. Horny men gazed him up and down, never wanting to know his age. They preferred to assume he was old enough to flirt with. Or they didn’t care that he wasn’t. Patrick kind of liked it sometimes, but he felt like a fraud. He also hated it sometimes, but he got used to it. Eventually, it was too much to experience without anyone to talk to about it.
He started over in tenth grade. Quit the hosting job. Time to act like a high schooler again. This would be easier, he thought, with the independence and freedom that comes with a driver’s license. Then the health problems started. Migraines. Seizures. Headaches. He loved staying up all night in his bedroom – the only time he allocated to experiencing all the bottled up emotions he hid from all four siblings, both parents, every friend, and every teacher.
He was legitimately sick, AND he took advantage of it. Back to acting like an adult. He daydreamed about becoming a model. He questioned whether he was skinny enough or attractive enough. In reality, he was beautiful. But he couldn’t see it. Nobody told him.
If nothing else, he expressed himself through fashion, hoping his clothing choices would say what he couldn’t verbalize.
“I’m trying to be cool.”
“I’m not cool, but do you think I’m cool?”
“I’m trying too hard.”
“I need to try harder.”
“Please love me.”
He started going to school dances with boys. He was strategically invited to join different social circles. He clung to his faith, feeling loved by some creator of the universe. He tried to get male attention by being an extra good friend to everyone. But every time he got a little bit back, he felt that same disgust that Jorge brought up against the wall.
He felt trapped. He watched sunrises. He searched for clothing at thrift stores and vintage shops that would express his individuality. He went on long walks. He obsessed over music. He snacked his way through life. Lots of candy was added to the mix.
When he started taking medication to relieve his headaches and seizure episodes, his appetite disappeared. Trying to chew and swallow bites of his favorite cereal, Quaker Oatmeal Squares, brought tears to his eyes. He wanted to disappear into his food. But his body wouldn’t let him. He got extra skinny. Maybe skinny enough to be a model, he thought. Maybe skinny enough that someone he liked would like him back and he wouldn’t hate it. Maybe skinny enough that his parents would pay more attention to him. Maybe skinny enough to be happy.
But he was depressed. Without the possibility of binging as an escape, he was stuck in his head. Stuck in his body. He listened to love songs, waiting for the day the universe would bring someone into his life that he wouldn’t get tired of.
“What’s wrong with me?”
He hated himself, hiding behind a false confidence and a quirky personality. If he could make people laugh, they couldn’t make him cry.
Once a month or so, he would come home from school, flop down on the bed, and burst into uncontrollable tears. For no apparent reason. One day, the tears started while he was still at school. A caring friend caught his gaze in the hallway and asked the dreaded question,
“Are you okay?”
He wove in and out of the crowd, beelining to the bathroom. Trying not to be seen, wishing he had chosen a different outfit that day.
He had no escape. He had nowhere to go. No one to talk to. His friends expected him to bring all the fun, laughter, silliness, and jokes. So, he delivered.
Looking back over these words on his laptop, Patrick gazed out the window into his parents’ backyard and wondered what broke him and when. He could clearly see that even before he started abusing alcohol, he used food to numb his pain. He spent much of his life feeling guilty for experiencing feelings of depression and sadness. He felt like he should be happy. He should be grateful.
11 days sober
And 11 days mad
He filled his head with ‘shoulds’
And continued to be sad
He tried his best
To begin again with purpose
But the dark in his soul
Still crept up to the surface