NONFICTION February 4, 2022

The Parasite

 “To question food is to question everything.
To question food is to recognize the impossibility of ‘home.’”
–Chris Kraus, Aliens and Anorexia

Is it surprising that we’ve all but forgotten The Beetle? Richard Marsh published his novel the same year as Bram Stoker did Dracula, and at the time The Beetle sold six times more copies. Yet since 1897, when we close our curtains to block out creatures that creep in the night, the irrational parts of the brain say we hide from vampires, werewolves, zombies—stalking monsters with a bite. It never crosses our minds to check under the bed for ancient goddesses that take the form of a rabbit-sized scarab and hypnotize their prey. Maybe there’s a visceral fear at the thought of teeth clamping into flesh that keeps the fanged monsters alive in the shadows. I fear the insect, though. Like a vampire, I have faded into a wan, hungry shade of myself. I have sprouted pale fur like a werewolf; I have prowled around, dead-eyed and zombie-like, in search of something I can eat, but the insect has seized a part of me that keeps my jaws from working. I remember the beetle. I named the insect anorexia.

The bite I don’t remember getting changed me. Growing up in Hawaii, it was not unusual to wake up and find my skin speckled with weltlets made by insects I never saw; during the breeding season, mosquitos came in the night and left the little pink lumps like calling cards. A few of these, the best of them, became lava lamp-red with tumescent whiteheads bulging from the inflamed spot. I popped them and was cleansed. This sting, though, the one I don’t remember, the one from years ago, left no trace, no bite for me to burst. I know it happened, though, because I’ve been different since then.

I blame my altered state on some relative of the emerald cockroach wasp, a parasite so subtle it can slip its sting through the roach’s shelled back before the victim registers. The venom disables the roach’s escape reflex. Without instinct to instruct it otherwise, the roach obeys the wasp, who rides its newly broken mount into its burrow, tugging at the antennae like reins. The cockroach stands still as the wasp lays eggs on its abdomen, makes no move as the wasp seals up the entrance. In the dark, the hatched larvae gnaw into the roach’s abdomen. Over days, they consume the internal organs. After weeks, they crack open the until-then-still-living roach’s exoskeleton. They emerge iridescent.

To the extent a cockroach can know anything, it must be aware that its complicity is at odds with its survival. Then again, having been bitten by the wasp’s cousin, I can attest that awareness of an outside agent tinkering with your inner mechanisms does not make it easier to remove its spanner from your works. Rather, the personality splits, and the rational self walls itself off in some fold in the cortex where it watches the venom seep into the circuitry. As Marya Hornbacher says in her memoir Wasted, an altered mind can “know that what you are doing is hurting you, maybe killing you, and . . . be afraid of that fact—but cling to the idea that this will save you, it will, in the end, make things okay.”

Since my rewiring, I have developed a fear of—a repulsion to—my flesh of the kind I used to feel toward cockroaches. Pre-bite, I used to dread midnight forays into the kitchen, which, in the dark, was territory ceded to the roaches, and switching on the lights could unleash a flurry of vermin scurrying and flying in all directions; post-bite, I just dread the kitchen. Blind, in the pitch black, my hands would land on the cereal in the front left corner of the third shelf of the cupboard, the 2% milk wedged between the mayonnaise and the ranch dressing in the fridge door, the loaf of bread under the temperature gauge, the peanut butter beside it, the various tin-foiled bowls of recent meals my family had eaten while I had steamed cabbage. Instead I try to focus on the exteriors—the sun shining on the new cabinets, the old wooden magnet of a WWII pilot that I used to think was an illustration of my dad because it had his mustache. The food inside doesn’t bear thinking about. The food inside is all I think about. Just as a room with one fewer cockroach is a room easier to be in, a body with an inch smaller waist is a body easier to inhabit. If only bodies were as readily fled as kitchens; the disgust with my own—its softness, damageability, impermanence, excess—is so acute I want to claw my way out of my skull, convinced as I am that I would come out weightless and luminous. 

This doesn’t seem, to me, all that implausible. I imagine my gray matter writhing like a bunch of maggots, creating a shifting network of fissures and gyri from which my pearly, larval self could crawl.

This story I tell myself is bullshit. I came up with it after I’d been nibbling away at my brain for a few years, and though even then I knew it was wrong, it was easier to believe that anorexia came on the wing than that it was something that had hidden latent in me from the beginning. The analogy made me feel like an eating disorder was a mosquito I was a second too slow in swatting, a mistake I made, a thing I could fix. The alternative—that circumstances, external pressures, my anxiety, and my perfectionism would catalyze a self-destruct instinct in my biology—was and is less pleasant to think about. And even though I have started feeding myself again (not normally, never without fear), I still slide back into this story because I miss my thinner, more troubled, more troubling body like a lost loved one, and I can hear this hungry purr telling me how I can see her again. Anorexia bisects my consciousness so that, at low points, the hungry voice constructs my self-narrative as my well one tries to contradict; on better days I find other stories to tell, but they are footnoted by the whispering disease. 

We are what we tell ourselves. Sane or in the thick of mental illness, our stories are the skeletons for us to hang our histories and form our futures. But as Katy Waldman explains in her essay “There Once Was a Girl,” “The narrative impulse is one entwined with anorexia itself. Being sick means constructing an alternate reality, strapping it in place with sturdy mantras, surrendering to [its own] beguiling logic.” And its logic is beguiling. Like all compulsive disorders, this disease concocts rituals to keep the fears away. Ever since my yearlong episode of agoraphobia and separation anxiety as a nine year old, I’ve told my parents “drive safe love you bye love you drive safe” because I still haven’t shaken the suspicion that the time I forget will be the time my negligence kills them. My anorexic rationale engendered similar repetitions. To keep off extra pounds, I have used every eyelash for the last seven years to wish for the same thing: “lose weight, productivity, safety.” I rotate the order because I’m not sure whether, in the economy of eyelashes, sequence carries weight. It doesn’t really matter, though, since these words have come to mean the same thing; if I keep busy, work myself to nothing, I’ll surely have made something of myself and deserve the love I’ve been given. I’ll be OK. 

I run over these deluded invocations like a rosary. For centuries, like reasonings of hunger told women how to transform their bodies into the means for their salvation. The “holy anorexics” and “miracle maidens” of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were revered for their renunciation of food, their sacrifice marking their devotion to God. Catherine of Siena popularized the anorexia mirabilis trend. Rather than marry her dead sister’s husband, she fasted in protest and wed herself to Christ instead. She ate a few morsels from God’s green earth and the Eucharist; mostly, though, she “survive[d] by little but faith alone.” Other women followed suit and taught themselves to keep their bodies at a distance. They wished themselves ugly so as to leave the world untouched. As well as communing with the divine hunger, they slept on thorns, wore hair shirts, and drank pus from beggars’ wounds. By the Renaissance, the church called them heretics, claiming that their restricted diets were “satanically inspired.” If enough women claim inhuman bodily feats—dining on faith while their priests eat dinner—it begins to reflect poorly on the spiritual authority of the patriarchy.

After extreme religious fasting fell out of fashion, the connection between starvation and salvation persisted into the 1800s, when women were expected to be “The Angel in the House”—wispy, dutiful, too focused heavenward to have physical needs. The lighter women were, the easier they were to hoist onto pedestals of moral fortitude; the more space their bodies occupied, the stronger the implication that they were, in fact, carnal beings. Women needed room in their stomachs for the expectations of goodness and purity thrust down their throats. Thus diminutive stature represented abstention not only from temptation but also from the world’s polluting elements. In Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, Anna Krugovoy Silver cites Christina Rossetti as a clear example of the nineteenth century’s taste for the religiously slight. Throughout Rossetti’s work, feasting and restraint juxtapose each other in texts saturated with spiritual craving, illustrating the belief that “secular appetite strengthens the body but corrupts the soul, whereas secular hunger signifies the self-denial that brings one face to face with Christ.”

This conflation of hunger and goodness prevailed at the same time as the consumptive physique became a bodily and artistic benchmark to strive for. Tuberculosis plagued much of the world for most of the nineteenth century, and so this disease that afflicted the young in particularly large numbers became part of the zeitgeist. Its symptoms also fit prescribed beauty standards of the day: rosy cheeks against snowy skin held up by a petite frame. And because tuberculosis also caused a loss of appetite, it did naturally what corsets did with whale bone and string. Up until the very end, sufferers could die prettily. Artists reinforced this image of beautiful youths perishing nobly with no hint of hysteria. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, for instance, shows Beatrice Portinari sitting on her deathbed, lips upturned as if to kiss the angel about to take her away. So many other painters and writers depicted the subject in a similar light or, like John Keats, Frederic Chopin, and Robert Louis Stevenson, died of it themselves, that the illness became entwined with intellectualism—an affliction of artistic souls too sensitive to last long on earth. Apart from the coughing, the anorexic looked so similar to the consumptive that she easily slipped on the latter’s guise of the quietly suffering creative genius.

By the middle of the century, an association with thinness and creative prowess had begun to eclipse religiosity as the predominant anorexic mythos. Figures such as Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë—minds that burned so brightly that they seemed to consume the body—set the mold for future generations of artistic women. As Waldman writes, “The new anorexic’s hands overflowed with pencils and brushes. When she suffered, her suffering became oil paintings, poetry.” I can attest to this. The only miracle I experienced while fasting was running a half marathon moderately hungover on just a few frozen cherries mixed with a handful of oats and not vomiting. But the thrill of crossing the finish line never matched the sense of accomplishment that came with writing a perfect sentence. Anorexia became a way for my creative inclinations to convince me that I was indomitable: a striking, artistic powerhouse who could produce work without food to fuel me. And so “anorexia emerges,” Ginia Bellafante says, “less palpably as a humiliating physical and psychological affliction than as an elevated state of mind, an intellectualized hallucination.” 

My hallucination has been colored by the image of the starving artist. Churning out well-turned phrases and pretty objects assuages the constant fear of failing to use time well, to live up to my potential, to inhabit that intellectual and artistic persona fully. Food doesn’t fit in the internal movie I play of myself. The scene instead shows a waif curled up with a book in the cool morning light, nursing coffee after coffee after coffee. Think Marianne from Normal People, all eyes and oversized sweaters, always writing. She was living the dream. She could forget to eat. Just forget—to have too much in your mind to remember food!

I think about little else. I am not surprised that I’ve come to fear an unregulated appetite. Since elementary school, I have had a list of fears that range from nauseating to crippling. When I was an agoraphobic nine year old, I went from being the tallest girl in my grade to being the fattest. By high school, I found that I had stretched out into someone lean. In my first year of college, in my worst depressive episode, I gained enough weight that the dresses I had sewn no longer zipped. I had no real friends, loathed my roommate who never left her desk, and spent most evenings crying while watching the nutria, America’s ugliest water rats, paddle in the stream across from campus. At the end of my senior year, I won all the awards possible in university: one from the English department and three from the art department. During the ceremony, I made the walk from my seat to the podium so many times it became a joke. My collarbone looks great in the photos, prominent even thirteen rows back from the stage where my mom sat taking pictures and beaming. All this to say that as well as having metabolized the thin bodies in media used to advertise material signals of success, I came to associate my small size with academic and creative fulfillment. 

I know that this is a false correlation. Still, having something as fundamental as eating slip away from my identity, I built a sense of self around a smaller frame. I forgot who I was before my thoughts were only of food and ways to avoid it; maintaining that thinner body becomes a way of expressing the only self I remember and the only one I want in the future.

I forget because the brain changes. Certain biological predispositions make one more susceptible. What begins as penance, or a desire to delay sexual maturity, or a fear of failure to be beautiful grows into an altered brain that keeps you from eating even when you want to. The parts of the limbic system and frontal cortex that regulate energy, disgust, body image, and self-awareness shrivel. Even Catherine, desperate as she was to live off only what her spirit provided, wanted to succumb to temptation, wanted to eat but couldn’t. Denial of food was a torment that she overcame only to prove that demonic forces did not keep her mouth shut. When she did eat, she often purged. When I depart from my safe menu, which is mostly plants, I do so to prove that I can. In the summer, in England, I sometimes brave a scone or slice of cake in a tea room. I feel powerfully wicked. For a moment I tell myself, I can eat this and be thin. Fuck it. As I meticulously cut up my portion, smushing crumbs into the gaps between my fork tines to make it last an hour, I hope that this ritual might make my short-lived confidence persist. It never does, and that fuck yeah turns to fuck me and I step out from the threshold with a layer of shame coated thick upon my tongue. Religion may have triggered Catherine’s fasting behaviors, but those behaviors reshaped her brain into the same conflicted organ—half begging to eat, half too afraid to part her lips.

The body is full of crannies for opposing truths to hide in at once. I’ve been guilty of pathological determination, which feels like strength but isn’t. It feels like going to a powerlifting class on an egg and half a cup of melon; it looks like crying in the locker room bathroom because I can’t decide whether the exercise makes it safe to have a nonfat latte instead of an americano, which always makes me nauseous. I’ve learned to keep my body at arm’s length, which creates space for delusion to settle. It enables me to pin all my faults on my flesh—the tangible part of the self and thus (seemingly) the more pliable. In Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, one of the characters describes this perception that physicality is a hindrance, lamenting that “the body may be the home of the soul and the pathway of the spirit, but it is also the perversity, the stubborn resistance, the malign contagion of the material world. Having a body, being in the body, is like being roped to a sick cat.” I wonder how much better I could be, free of that stinking animal.

Writing about the understanding of self as sentience distinct from the body, trapped in an imperfect cage, Atwood gets to that part of anorexia that stems from feeling internally fragmented. Her debut novel, The Edible Woman, follows Marian, a recent college graduate who feels herself crumbling under the pressure to find a direction; the expectation that she be a good girl consumes the pieces of her that fall away. She is an Esther Greenwood with a sense of humor, mocking femininity while she cows to it. When I read it in my senior year of undergrad while trying to suppress the dread of entering the real world, I felt as if Atwood was speaking to me. Family friends kept asking what I planned to do after school with an English and art degree, which I suspected were worth fuck all, and the only answer I had was, “Hell if I know.” Marian showed that I could be a beanpole in lipstick, funny and interesting, lost for a little while, and then eat cake in the end. Both The Edible Woman and The Bell Jar are masterfully written accounts of high-achieving young women spiraling in the face of losing the academic apparatus in which they excelled. Disciplining what they put in their mouths was a compelling recipe for them to make themselves into something admirable.

I don’t mean to imply that starvation is a play for control when feeling otherwise helpless. That is partly true. Thinness is one thing to be good at in the doldrums of upheaval and directionlessness, when I feel parts of myself unmoored and starting to drift. Controlling my body is not an attempt to control the outside world, it is an attempt to lash myself together again.

Perhaps this explanation, like the bug bite, is bullshit, another scapegoat. Anorexia is, after all, just another mental illness. I do feel cavernous rifts between my mind, body, and parts of my personality, but I also feel that I have to justify eating disorders as mental illness, not pathological vanity, not diet culture skipping a few meals too many. Having experienced both, I can promise that there is a difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder, though they look similar. When I was just a strict dieter, I ate the same low-calorie thing, or versions of it, every day. I relied on exercise to make a dent in the energy I took in. As an anorexic, I eat the same thing every day but worry that even my 150-calorie breakfast of mushrooms, peppers, and tofu is too much. I rely on exercise to erase my caloric transgressions, so much so that I once left a party, went to the gym to burn off one drink and a few nibbles, then came back an hour later calmed and empty. 

At my most disordered I feared food with the parched terror that a person with rabies feels for water. Once, I was taking the train from a small town outside Portland to meet my mom in Seattle, and then drive together up to see my twin sister in Bellingham. I left too early to exercise, and I wolfed an orange in the empty kitchen before my boyfriend came down to take me to the station. While I waited for the train, I ate an apple and two carrots to scrape the dregs of hummus out of a container. When I met my mom at three, we drove out of the city, and she stopped at a supermarket off the freeway. I walked in, but they didn’t have any safe foods—the thought of picking up another carrot with hands already stained yellow from so much keratin made me sick, and I’d already met my apple allowance. I speed walked out of the store and hyperventilated in the car. Because I hadn’t exercised, I wasn’t allowed to eat, though my stomach felt so cavernous the rumbles seemed to echo. My mom got a sandwich, which she didn’t eat because she was busy driving and trying to calm me down as I sobbed, writhed, and kicked the car floor for the next two hundred miles. By the time we got to Bellingham my eyes felt shriveled, my lids heavy. She took us to a Thai restaurant, where I drooped across the table from her as I ate my curry and apologized every few bites. I was ashamed of myself for the curry and for the tantrum. I asked her not to tell my twin. 

My twin sister, Shannon, understands the terrifying rift between mind and body. When she stopped eating in high school, I told myself she had eaten something rotten, and it had put her off her food for years. I wanted something else to blame for the nights, before and during treatment, that she wailed so loudly from down the hall that I wondered whether we were dying. Other than the infrequent occasions when I coerced her into a walk, we never talked about it because the dissonance between her stomach and her brain left her speechless. And because it is frankly embarrassing to admit to anyone that you’re afraid of sandwiches. 

Apart from being born, she did everything first, and when I went off my food a few years after she did, I learned that “hunger is more basic than love.” Love can make you a cannibal. Trying to make myself feel more whole, I needed too much. She pulled away. She couldn’t hear my desperation from down the hall; she heard it clawing over the phone. I can’t blame her for not picking up. My grief for our separation and for my inability to look at food without my insides writhing was draining. Is draining. The insect anorexia had swallowed the intimacy between me and the person I care about as I care about myself, and I believed in it more than ever. Why else would I have consumed the relationship I value more than anything and then asked for second helpings?

For most of college, I mourned that, not being part of each other’s daily lives, we were no longer integral to each other’s identity. I saw a Shannon-shaped space at my core, and I had no idea how to fill it. In the worst years, I gained twenty pounds, then lost it, then lost more. During my senior year, when I grew used to her absence and reached my lowest weight, I began each day by padding across the cold hardwood floor to face the mirror and inspect the crests and valleys of my ribs and hips in the pale morning sun. This is my foundation, I thought, this is me. Not the me that was made of Shannon and me. These bones are me alone. 

But it’s not just me and the bones. It’s me and my bones and anorexia and the story I tell myself about them. I tell myself that I’ve been bitten because I want something other than my own brain to blame for the fact that not eating has devoured our relationship for the past decade. While I’ve never been an aggressive person, I’ve been fierce, nasty, in guarding this anorexic bite because I don’t know what would happen if I let her clean it, whether it would make me well or how much that would hurt. It would hurt to return to a body so heavy, still hungry. Denying myself the pleasure of really sinking my teeth into anything has turned me into the parasite—needing my sister more in an attempt to regain some sense of a whole as she pulls away because it is hard to be close to someone as they actively ravage their own body. 

It doesn’t feel like ravaging, though. After a while, the rock of my stomach came to feel like solid ground. Unrestrained appetite has become the stuff of nightmares. Once I dreamt that I was lying in bed, one hand ferrying scones from a Ziploc freezer bag to my mouth and the fingers of the other between my legs—perversity under a blanket of crumbs. More often, I prowl around looking for something to chew on. Another night, I dreamt of the illusive dream cake, which I’ve heard occasionally appears to sleepers from ovens tucked away in the mind’s back rooms; in the dream, you can touch it with your hand, never with your tongue. I found the dream cake at a party. Guests mingled in my friend’s living room, occasionally disappearing into the kitchen, where they ate it in fistfuls. I don’t know whether I tasted it too; I remember picking up some large crumbs and scabs of hardened icing where a slice had been cut away. Then paralysis struck, and I blacked out. A second later, someone entered the kitchen, and I crawled back into my senses, lowered my hand, and left.

Like the flavor of the dream cake, I remember the wasp somatically. It forms as a sensation rather than as a recollection of the thing itself. A flicker of shadow in my waking mind’s periphery, it disappears as soon as the morning light hits my retinas. I can never dredge up its image, but I know it has darted into my dreams because the sighting of that insidious something tinges the rest of my day; I feel slightly off, vaguely nauseous, like the eighth hour into a bad hangover. Sometimes, when I detect the sting quickly pulled from the brainstem, I lie in the cloying half-asleep haze and try to fix the wasp in my mind’s eye. Rather than let in the day through open lids, I adjust to the dark to keep it from retreating.

Even now that I have started eating, have gained enough weight that no one would guess my palms start sweating every time I pick up a knife and fork, I still feel safest when my stomach is growling. That growl sounds the self that I have come to know. I’ve been telling myself stories about the disease because I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it. Leslie Jamison claims that over-thinking “obfuscate[s] the illness itself[.] It’s another kind of bait, another tied-and-baited fly: the notion that if we understand something well enough, we can make it go away.” I saw the lure and bit. I’d hoped that by repeating my anorexic myths, rolling them around the mind and across the tongue, I would crack open the wasp’s skeleton and emerge as something brighter.

I know for that to happen, though, I’ll have to let the insect anorexia fly off. It is taking breath away from too many other narratives, like a story in which I enter treatment because I’m tired of prowling food-heavy tables in my dreams, not because I want to fix my metabolism to lose the weight I gained. I want the new story I tell to include the kindness the nurse showed me at my first appointment. I’d been sniveling in the waiting room, and when I stepped into the exam area, I realized they had put the eating disorder specialists in the pediatric area. I felt like the biggest baby there. After I stepped off the scale, my back to the numbers, the nurse took my elbow like I used to take my ninety-nine-year-old grandmother’s and walked me to a table where she listened to my heart. She asked me to get up very slowly to avoid a rush of lightheadedness; I’m sure she’d seen some fainters. She treated me as if I was sick—as if I’d been sucking the fat from my brain, as if I had leached the nutrients from my bones until they were honeycombed with osteopenia, as if my heart beat with a marathoner’s efficiency because it didn’t know when it would be fueled again. While I know that anorexia can be three hundred pounds, can be a man, can be anyone, I told myself what I knew to be false: that I was not thin enough to really have a problem. I was afraid that she would lead me to a doctor, who like the one from a dream would tell me I didn’t look like someone with this condition should, that I was half-heartedly acting out behaviors that took up my whole head. When that nurse touched my arm with those “there there” pats, she validated the fragility I didn’t feel I had earned. 

I don’t know why it took a stranger, not Shannon, to convince me I was sick. Shannon had told me, sometimes more kindly, that I was fucking insane. She had said that she wished I wasn’t legally an adult so that someone could make me go to treatment. Since I’d stopped eating, I don’t think we’d had a visit without a shouting match. To be fair, it is infuriating to be with someone who panics at the prospect of brunch or needs all plans to allow for time to work out beforehand. It is infuriating to be with someone who begs for closeness when all their behaviors exclude other people. I don’t know whether I’ve had more good days since starting treatment. While I don’t have face-in-the-carpet tantrums anymore, I haven’t been able to look at myself naked for almost two years. I still dissociate a little during sex because nothing reminds me of my dimensions like the feel of my body wanting to retract under someone’s hands.

Shannon and I have had more good days together. Last summer when I went to see her, she, a few friends, and I went to a bioluminescent cove near her house in western Washington. She and I took the two paddleboards to a shadowed patch where the water was blackest, most like the sky where the Perseids were streaking. As I steeled myself to slither off my board, I asked whether peeing would set off the algae like urine-sensing chemicals in a pool. She nearly slid into the water for laughing. In the water, clouds of bioluminescence billowed around me, glowing like galaxies. Her belly laugh was the sound of coming together again.

Jana Purington is an artist and writer living in Boston and Hawaii. She got her MFA in fine arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts in the spring of 2021 and works there now as the post-graduate curatorial fellow.