An Unfinished Book Saved My Life

The February-gray lanes of I-95 South unfurl before me, the dashed white dividing lines like hyphens separating Hannah-then and Hannah-now. 

Hannah-then: the girl who, five days earlier, drove this same road north to begin her spring semester at her small New England college.

Hannah-now: the girl who flees that college campus to return home to Boston, knowing nothing but that she craves the arms of her parents around her, telling her they will fix her. 

And I need fixing. For the past five months, I have been spinning wildly off my axis. Alone in my dorm room, I eat baby food spooned from tiny jars — pears diced to the size of an adult fingernail, chicken and gravy pureed to the consistency of wet dog food, peas soft as geriatric skin — though I am 20, a college student who analyzes Derrida, Foucault and Butler, who gets into heated debates about Joyce, Austen and Fitzgerald; a woman 252 months too old to be eating food mashed into unidentifiable pastes for “supported sitters.”

Still, I use the toddler-sized spoon to scoop the mush out of the glass, the entire utensil coated in brightly colored rubber made to protect delicate baby gums. I chew gum. I swallow caffeine pills. I run every day on the treadmill in the dorm’s common room, wrapping my torso in saran wrap because some trashy women’s magazine suggested it as a method to boost weight loss. 

Instead of counting sheep, I count bones. Lying flat on my back in bed at night, I trace the valleys in my ribs, the sharp jutting of my hips, the knob in my wrist, the concavity of my sternum. Each night I note with satisfaction the shrinking of my flesh, that tautness of skin at my pelvis, the way my skeleton hovers close beneath the membrane that holds me together. The palm of my hand fits neatly into the hollow bowl of my stomach, and when I push down on my belly, my empty intestine gurgles. I work hard to compose this lullaby that lulls me to sleep every night, the mesmerizing rhythmic counting that marks each step I take toward nothingness. I wrap the comfort of this thought around me like a blanket, fall asleep with one hand at the crook of my pelvis, the other resting in the canyons of my ribcage, as though the warmth from my fingertips will coax the bones closer toward the opaque webbing of skin. 

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Those three hours driving south on I-95 are three of the most terrifying hours of my life. Starved and suicidal, I drive myself home because the college’s Health Center suggested I take a medical leave, had thought it was a good idea to put me in control of a 3,000-pound vehicle even though earlier that morning I had been murmuring “I just want to die, I just want to die” over and over in a counselor’s office as a psychologist spoke to my parents in hushed tones over the phone. 

Just one turn of the wheel, and I could end it, I think. I could smash myself into the concrete divider that separates me from the northbound cars. I could escape the pervasive hopelessness, worthlessness and self-hate that talk to me nonstop, that make me feel as though my brain is no longer mine, that convince me my body is the enemy. 

But I’m in the middle of reading a book. I’ve wracked my memory for years now, trying to recall its title, but my body was so starved then that I couldn’t focus on or retain information, and the name of that novel truly escapes me. 

No matter. The point is that I was reading a book, and I never leave a book unfinished. Never. Not even when I want to end my life. 

Thinking about reading the end of that book ensures my safe passage from Maine into New Hampshire, from New Hampshire into Massachusetts, over the Zakim bridge and into my parents’ living room, where my mother watches me slowly eat an apple and looks at her daughter’s face as though seeing it for the first time. It gets me through the emptiness of the month that follows, my parents unsure how to help me, the music of the Vancouver Olympics the soundtrack to my slow march toward organ failure. It gets me through the months of residential treatment that follow, the anti-depressants that make me so nauseous I vomit whatever food I’m being forced to consume at militaristically-enforced three-hour intervals. 

I am a believer of stories. Of reading them, sharing them, talking about them. Now a (healthy) English teacher, I spend my days enthusing about the beauty of literature, how a text awakens us to our shared humanity, our pain and our pride, our love, lust and loneliness. A story saved my life, a life whose ending is not yet written.

“We read to know we are not alone,” C. S. Lewis says.

We read to know we are alive, I say.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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