Veronica has kind eyes that are small and creased at the corners, and a smattering of freckles across her cheekbones. She looks to be in her early fifties and doesn’t wear a trace of makeup, but there is a youthful energy about her. A single silver pendant necklace adorns her nondescript ensemble of a white blouse and denim long skirt, but her disarming smile proves her best accessory. Veronica makes it a point to smile before she speaks, and that alone makes me like her.
I watch as she strikes a match to put a flame to a small tealight, then invites me to make myself comfortable, which isn’t difficult. The room is cozy and carpeted, and one of its walls features a painting of one tree depicted in four ways: from spring through winter. The brush strokes are heavy, the colours stark and vibrant, and I’m especially taken with Autumn’s dusky orangey tones. In white-cushioned wicker chairs, Veronica and I sit facing but also somewhat adjacent to each other, talking like two old friends and in such a forthcoming manner that surprises me. Actually, I’m doing most of the speaking, and she most of the listening.
“What would you say was the turning point for you?” she finally asks.
I pause to search for an answer. There and then, I cannot immediately pinpoint an exact who-what-where-how-why that might’ve triggered the quintessential a-ha! moment where one intrinsically knows, Yup this is it , I’m well and truly done. There were certainly times when I (thought I) heard a tiny voice in my head go, this can’t be right—though they were never so compelling as to constitute a key defining moment. But as I sit ruminating, a more concrete memory sets in.
I roll up my right sleeve and show Veronica a raised scar. “This,” I say.
“I don’t understand,” says Dr. S, examining the gaping wound on my shoulder that just wouldn’t close.
Surgical glue had first been used to seal the incision site where a mole used to be, but two weeks later the wound hasn’t healed nicely—or at all. So he turns to the traditional but foolproof method of suturing, thinking that’d do it. Another two weeks go by and when I turn up at his clinic to get my stitches removed, I find myself staring into a pair of eyes that grow more worried with each snip and tug. What’s going on? Why did this happen? I can almost hear his thoughts racing and sense his panic towards what appears to be an unprecedented botched case in his decades-long profession as a plastic surgeon. Meanwhile, I glance down at a red, raw, and angry open wound that looks nothing close to the smooth, mole-free shoulder I’d envisioned when I opted to undergo a simple mole excision procedure. I am surprised, but then again, not really.
Poor Dr. S. It isn’t his fault. He’s done his due diligence. You see, I never told him the whole truth, which is that I’m completely unable to not exercise (what, and let myself become a fat pig?). After this simple day surgery, I’m told to limit movement, rest more, and practise good wound care. Fine, I’ll compromise. So in the days that follow, instead of running, I walk—OK, brisk walk—home after work everyday. Well, it’s just a few kilometers, and that’s as strenuous as it gets. It’d be absurd to associate such light exertions with a wound’s stubborn refusal to heal, right? Dr. S is also in the dark about how I spend my days starving and my nights bingeing. Why burden the poor man with such useless, irrelvant info? Except, it isn’t. Years later I would chance upon a research article that discusses how eating disordered individuals are more prone than the average person to suffer from chronic wounds, or take a relatively longer time to heal. But for now, it doesn’t sink in that maybe that’s what I am (eating disordered), and that’s what I have (a chronic wound).
Dr. S waives off his consultation fees and sends me on my way with more antiseptic ointment and wound wash. “There’s no choice but to let it close by itself. Just keep it clean and dry,” he instructs, and I nod, realizing for the first time what my starving-overexercising-bingeing routine is costing me. After years of conditioning, I’m now forced to do the reasonable thing of taking care of body instead of punishing it. As I leave, the self-blame game begins. Great, I think, why’d you have to get that mole removed? Now you’re gonna get fat or die, or both. I lightly place my hand over the patch of gauze dressing that’s taped over my shoulder and feel the dull ache of a self-inflicted injury. Will I ever heal? My mind goes into a tizzy. Maybe there is another way to stay thin without exercising. Perhaps I could cut back my food intake even farther.
But something in me snaps. I feel an uncharacteristic surge of righteous anger against such a disgusting suggestion. Listen, I hear myself thinking, do you wanna live or do you wanna die? The rules of the game have changed, and I’m faced with a choice. What if you longer get to be both alive and skinny? Then what?
Am I being melodramatic? I don’t know the odds of people actually dying from chronic wounds—but now that it’s come down to it, the thought of could I? rather than would I? wins the day. Maybe the deathly quest for a thin body is just wearing me out too much. Perhaps I’m sick of dying and want to live for a change. I’ve allowed this fear of getting fat run the show for so long, and this life no longer feels like mine. But it is my life, and I decide to wrest it back into my own hands.
I spend the ensuing weeks holed up in my bedroom binge-watching all four seasons of The Tudors—I detest Anne Boleyn until the piteous scene where she makes a futile plea for mercy with baby Elizabeth in her arms—and for as long as I’m immersed in the 16th-century English court, I escape the horror of witnessing my physical transformation from waif to blimp. By the time Jane Seymour dies, my wound finally closes, and I have not become a whale.
I’m thrilled to discover after these long sedentary weeks that I’ve gained only an imperceptible amount of weight, and along with it the freedom of knowing the truth. All hell does not break loose with more food and less exercise, and it feels pretty good to just let myself be. I even come to appreciate the irony of relinquishing control to stay in control, and the beauty of leaving things to take care of themselves.
These nuggets of wisdom come at a price, however. The closed wound gradually develops to form an unsightly keloid. Larger and way more conspicuous than my original mole, this raised mound of flesh is the answer to Veronica’s burning question, and quite rightly my turning point.
[to be continued]