I have always had a strange affinity for the fringe population, perhaps based in part on my feeling that I've always been a little off-kilter myself. When I first read Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar I felt as though I had met a kindred spirit, a feeling that was only heightened when I realized Plath's heroine Esther has an Angelicized version of my last name. Valley of the Dolls and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are two other favorite books of mine that also feature scenes in mental institutions, scenes that I remember far more clearly than the rest of the story.
While The Virgin Suicides doesn't offer scenes in a mental hospital per se, it does tackle the topic of teenage depression and offers one of the most poignant passages I have ever come across in literature: Within 5 minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets." And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a 13 year old girl.”
When I was in high-school, the film Girl, Interrupted came out. And while I've not only read the book it was based on but own both versions, it is the film I remember best, no doubt due to Angeline Jolie's Oscar winning performance. But, in fact, it was the character of Daisy (played by Brittany Murphy) I identified with the most. Secretive and aloof, Daisy had the only single room in their ward and she guarded her space and privacy with the fierceness of a lion. Albeit a rather bitchy lion, but for good reason: as an angsty and introverted teenager myself, I understood the need for secrecy and closed doors.
In one rather memorable scene, the characters played by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie get into her room by offering her forbidden laxative pills (an alternative form of purging). Winona's Suzanne does it because she's nice and feels sorry for Daisy while Angelina's Lisa does it because she's always wanted to know just what in the hell Daisy is hiding. Anyway, once in Daisy's room, Lisa notices a rank smell and looking under the bed discovers several weeks worth of half-eaten roasted chickens gathering dust.
I use this as an example because, well, that used to be me.
My sister and I grew up packing our lunches, something I still do to this day. Usually tuna fish for her and egg salad for me, with a turkey sandwich occasionally thrown in. Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches were a rare treat and buying lunch in the cafeteria an even rarer treat, but a treat I would prefer. As a senior I worked part-time at the Stars Hollow Public Library, so I had some spending money and would use that to buy my lunch. Or at least I would intend to: see, junior year I befriended one of the bus monitors. I always sat up front while the other annoying punks sat in the back and she and I would sometimes chit chat. Being nice pays off, because my senior year she was off the bus and working in the cafeteria and on days when she was running the cash register she'd just wave me through. I'd try to give her my money but she refused to take it so after awhile I stopped bothering.
Give a fat girl with a food problem a free pass to a lunch line that included breadsticks, Campbell's soup, fresh baked cookies and the most amazing Mexican pizza ever (or so I remember) and, well, it's not going to be pretty.
So. My mom would pack me a lunch. I wouldn't eat said lunch. But for whatever reason I wouldn't throw my lunch away at school. Nope, I'd carry it in my backpack all day long. Then I'd get home and think Crap, I have this lunch I was supposed to eat but didn't and if I tell her she's going to wonder what I ate and I'm going to have to explain I filled up on crappy junk food that I got for free and I can't put it in the trash because she'll see it and again with the questions, so I'm just going to have to hide it.
And under the bed it went.
Even now, twelve years later, I am unable to tell you why I didn't just throw the lunch away at school. Because this wasn't just a one time thing or even a once a month thing: this was an almost everyday thing. In Daisy's case, it seems to be a form of OCD. Me? No idea, although I think part of it was the idea that I didn't want to waste food by just throwing it away. Of course, I also can't explain how hiding it under the bed was any better.
Stash food often enough and you start to build up quite the collection. And, like food does if not kept refrigerated properly (as egg salad or a turkey sandwich with mayo and cheese should be), eventually it starts to break down and decay. Mold starts to grow and a pungent odor is released, kind of like Daisy's roasted chickens.
I knew the smell was there. I mean, it's pretty hard to ignore. It's also why I kept the door closed most of the time (although, ultimately that would only make it worse) and why I didn't like having people in my room. Sometimes I suspect I kept it there on purpose, as though I felt I deserved to be constantly reminded of my bad behavior. And since nobody else knew what was going on, I had to do it myself.
As my private collection grew, the worse I felt because I didn't know how to stop it. It was the snowball effect: the bigger it got, the more in denial I became, hoping if I ignored it long enough it would eventually go away. And, eventually, it did, but only after my mom went into my room one day when I wasn't there and realized something didn't smell right. When she asked me why I didn't just throw the food away at school, I couldn't tell her and I still couldn't tell her this past Friday when she and Sissy told me I should write about this (of course, I suspect they really had no idea of the Pandora's Box they were opening with that suggestion).
Until my mom reminded me of this incident a few days ago, I'd honestly forgotten all about it. Tucked it away, like we do with things we don't want to think about. I can't tell you how I felt after being discovered or how the conversation with my parents went. What I do know is that by then it was a bit too late: my shame over that behavior had already manifested itself into another behavior, and while the sandwich episode only lasted just a few months, its replacement lasted for years.
Story is continued in Part II
Love from the ashes,