When You Have to Schedule Your Living Around Surviving

On Thursdays, our socks must match. Tuesdays, you should wear nice underwear. Wednesdays, it’s best to put on a dress or something loose enough to hide the painful, jutting corners of your hips. You don’t want to trigger any of the others, she said to me, gently.

My illness is my part-time job these days. I keep consistent company with therapists, doctors, nurses, needles, pills and scales.

Their job is to keep me alive. They poke, prick and prod my body. I wince, and they tell me, repeatedly and patiently, that I must do as they say to keep from dying.

On Thursdays, our socks must match — we remove our shoes to step on the scale, and the first week, my toenail polish was chipped. Tuesdays, you want to wear nice underwear—that’s the only thing you leave on when the doctor and her resident take inventory of your anatomy. Wednesday, it’s best to put on a dress or something loose enough to hide the painful, jutting corners of your hips — because that is Group Day, and you’re the only one underweight, and all of us can’t help but notice the shapes of the others.

Sometimes I forget my classes, but I cannot forget my “recovery team.” They have my number and each others’, and as I criss-cross town I am aware of being always on their grid. It’s a safety net. It’s a prison. It’s a bridge and they swear on the other side there is Real Life. I choke down chalky protein shakes, alone and unamused, their promises ringing in my ears.

If things had been only a little different, I might be in an institution, they say. I’ve endangered myself, they remind me, so much that perhaps I don’t deserve custody of my own body. But I’m over 18, and I’m stubborn. I listen to them count my ribs and I hear them say just how serious it is, really. I take what they give me and I try to swallow.

Mondays we can wear what we like; on this day it’s just a quiet couch and 45 minutes where I try to say the truth to an understanding stranger with a Ph.D and a notebook. I wonder if he thinks I’m crazy. When I tell him I don’t “feel thin,” he can’t hide his surprise. When I tell him I’m doing better, he asks me to explain. My favorite is when we talk, not about food and poundage, but how hard I find it to believe in my pen and all the pages I hope to fill.

It’s a strange walk so far, a path high and narrow. From my perch I make long-distance calls to loved ones and beneath our conversations run the dark waters of their questions. They’d love to see a picture — are my elbows rounder, do my legs look thicker yet? But they’ll never ask. I tell them about my studies, my projects, and what surprised me this week. I don’t tell them I typed a paper in the student health waiting room between my blood work and nutrition appointments. I don’t mention my trips to counseling, my prescription refills, the maddening meal plans that eat up so much time and mind space.

I am taking steps across this bridge, trying to believe in the shore that so many speak of. Dry land where my body will be safe to use in the ways I used to love, without the need for chemical calibrations and endless cautionary lectures. “We’d rather you be an inpatient,” they’ve said, so many times, but I tell them I’m too in love with the world to leave it. One friend, an angry angel, said to me, “Then you have to keep yourself from dying.”

Sometimes my closest ones ask me for the numbers. I tell them what I can about the data — but the doctors keep some secrets. I told my sister I think I’m getting better because my bones hurt less when I sit on wooden benches.

I’m still chasing life, I swear I am. It’s what’s at stake, after all, but for now I must schedule my living around surviving. This week I spent 20 hours in treatment offices and on the subway to and from them.

But I’m still chasing life. I’m still trying to make art. I’m going on dates, and I’m drinking vanilla shakes, and I’m trying not to hate myself for landing so far from shore. I’m pinching my arms, hoping and dreading to find them growing soft with flesh, and I’m peering into books and trying to feel those old, fiery feelings that literature once ignited. I am looking for the parts of me I shed on my way down, for the pieces that were dropped while I fell victim to the poison in my head.

No one said a word for all those months I was melting. Maybe they felt their language would be clumsy. Maybe they were afraid to see. Either way, they were wrong to be quiet. It would have hurt, and healed. The truth, I mean.

Now, I live alone and it’s up to me to listen for it — the truth. It’s frighteningly hard some days. Doubt can echo so quickly against empty walls, and the thing called hope is mostly a trick in lighting. But there are things I’m still certain of. Moments I nail to the wall, like Peter Pan’s shadow, scraps of love, art and faith. On bleak mornings I find them there, a little limp and looking small in harsh light, but proving that once on a Yesterday I felt real, true, good. And I remind myself that I can count on time to keep on rolling, as little as I know why.

Yesterday I wore blue socks. I stepped on the scale, backwards, another ritual of the closed-doors world. She told me a number, for once. One pound. How many more, I wondered? She said we’ll take it one pound at a time. At the end of her emails, she always writes me, “Take care of you.”

I don’t know if I’ll regain what was lost, or if I’m building something new. But I stomp my foot just to feel the ground, hard and real, beneath me. And I swear I want to stay here, on this soggy-sunny half-dark rock, and to keep learning what that means.

I want to stay here.

Follow this journey on Sarah Aziza.

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