On a sunny day in June we picked up my daughter’s prom dress from Lena, our favorite seamstress. After a frenzied online search it had arrived — the perfect yellow dress with its delicate spaghetti straps — and it had only needed simple alterations. As Lauren tried it on to make sure the length was right, Lena said, “It ees too big,” in her lilting Italian accent.
“See? In the shoulders and in the width. The dress does not fit. What happened? I fix right.”
I glanced at Lauren. Her face had a peculiar smile, one of pride.
I tried to ignore the icy fear that was building from my stomach to my neck. As we got into the car to drive home, I said, “Why have you lost so much weight? I think we need to see the doctor.”
“You can’t make me go,” said Lauren. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
It was a statement I would hear many more times.
She was 16 when she slid into anorexia. She cursed at me. She stopped smiling. She ignored her friends. She chewed Peppermint Stride gum. She counted almonds.
It’s not that I didn’t notice changes in her behavior in the three weeks before her junior prom and before she had her final fitting for the dress. No more chocolate after dinner, only tea. No interest in warm bread fresh out of the oven. No interest in skating, her passion; instead, a sudden daily interest in going to the gym. No laughter at her younger brother’s silly comments.
Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without clear borders.
“Teenagers,” I thought to myself. “It’s a phase, she’ll grow out of it.”
But intuitively, I knew something was wrong. She was secretive, quiet. Her eyes held a curious look of defiance.
And her dress for prom looked two sizes too big.
Anorexia? Not my daughter. She was too smart to have an eating disorder, wasn’t she? But her sudden, calculated 13-pound weight loss in three weeks said otherwise.
Lauren was petite. On the ice, she had a natural grace that wasn’t from being thin. She disapproved of skeletal skaters and called them “sticks.” Eating disorders are prevalent in the skating world, and so it was a topic we had discussed. I never thought my daughter would become one of those waif-like, unsubstantial girls, floating on the ice, like a ghost.
But like everything else she did, she was determined to perfect it. The quest for a flawless double axel had been replaced by something much stronger: a challenging journey of self-starvation.
She played the game. She manipulated the system. She stayed one step ahead of the experts. Gain one pound to keep the doctors satisfied was her strategy, lose three to please herself.
For two years after the junior prom and the ill-fitting yellow dress, I took her to doctors in Buffalo and Rochester where teen-age girls with broken limbs sat in waiting rooms, and doctors discussed the importance of food scales. I listened to her complaints about doctors and changed therapists when the first one asked her to play with dolls in a sandbox. At home I didn’t comment when dinnertime turned into a war zone or when her younger brother kept darting glances at her plate.
I didn’t tell her I was afraid of her wrath or I was afraid she was going to die.
When my daughter was four she lined up her stuffed animals in her walk-in closet according to color.
I thought it was cute that she liked to have them in order.
When she was ten, she told me she practiced double-jumps in her dreams, often landing on the floor of her pink-carpeted bedroom.
I thought it showed her passion for skating.
When she was fifteen, she refused to get off the ice, even after practicing for two hours, even when the Zamboni threatened to run her over.
I thought it showed her persistence and determination.
Then, at sixteen, her focus shifted to a world where victory was measured by eating half of a banana.
I thought about the life cycles of mothers and daughters, how the attention had shifted from scraped knees and lost blankets to sterile doctors’ offices and sullen glances. I had always been able to sense when something was wrong with her—when she had a fight with a friend, got a bad grade, or had a crush on a boy. But I couldn’t have predicted this disease happening in the throes of her teenage angst. I didn’t know this girl with dead eyes who said “I hate you” as easily as she once said “I love you.”
I missed her infectious laugh, and her ability to tease her little brother without making him angry; I missed the sparkle in her eyes.
The truth is, I couldn’t fix her. And yet, how could I stop trying?
As high school graduation grew closer she began to slip away, pound by pound.
And then one night, after a graduation party, she came home, hysterical. Flinging her purse against the door, she cried, “They had hot dogs at the party. I went to the bathroom, and Elyse was talking about how I went there to throw up. But I don’t do that. I never do that!”
I felt like saying, “No, you don’t throw up. You prefer to starve yourself.”
But instead, I said nothing. I didn’t understand how for her, sickness equaled power. I wanted to shake the eating disorder out of her brain, rattle her to pieces, exorcise every demon. When she left for college she had made some progress, but still, I was worried.
After one semester at Miami University, where she maintained a 3.8 average and earned multiple gold medals in intercollegiate figure skating competitions, she came home. She was 88 pounds. It had been four months since I had seen her. I recoiled in shock. Pencil thin, her cheeks were hollow. Her dark, luminous eyes were dull and sunken. Her wrists looked flat, grotesque, almost broken. She did not look like my daughter.
It was my job to protect her. Impossible, I know, in a world filled with terror, where suicide bombers appear at Parisian cafes, and children are shot at their elementary schools. In such a world, of course I can’t protect her. But in our world, our cocoon of tree-lined streets and manicured front lawns, I might have done better.
I may never know why being a good mother wasn’t enough to keep my daughter safe.
Perhaps for her, like everyone, the future will always be a fill-in-the-blank question, and this uncertainly worries me. For I remember how she preferred essay questions with lengthy, open-ended explanations—a blank canvas on which to create words of meaning.
Sometimes, though, it is enough simply to fill in the blank.
One word. A beginning.
And maybe a new yellow dress.
Amy Rumizen is a freelance writer and former Dance Critic for The Buffalo News and the mother of three. She is currently working on a series of essays about mothers and daughters.
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