Essay: The Light of Day Is a Crucible by Dana Shavin

I’m in the nurse’s station writing fast, bent over the chart of a female patient in whom I’ve detected a pattern of self-defeating behaviors. I want to get my thoughts down so the psychiatrist can use them in his one-on-one with her. When I am finished with this, I will read over what the previous counselors have written and correct their grammatical mistakes.

“Come to lunch with me.”

My head snaps up. Stuart, one of the lead counselors, is leaning against the doorframe, his fine auburn hair glittering under the sickly fluorescent lights. There are two female nurses in the room, but he is looking at me. His eyes are dark and kind, and full of ache and longing. Or so I believe. The nurses look at him and then at me and then at each other. They cross their arms over their chests and smirk as they lean back in their chairs, which screak loudly in protest.

As part of my psychology major curriculum, I am a counseling intern at Georgia Regional Hospital. I live for my two afternoons here, off campus. In the year-and-a-half since enrolling at Oglethorpe University I’ve joined no clubs, attended no parties or events, and made no friends; I spend the bulk of my time in my dorm room with the blinds drawn, whittling away at a bag of popcorn the size of a human corpse. Some days this is my only nourishment. Most of the time, I’m afraid to go to the cafeteria. Occasionally I will rush in and cobble together a breakfast of toast (I eat only the crusts), hardboiled eggs (I eat only the whites), and coffee (with skim milk), for a total of 125 calories. For dinner I will buy a 50-cent bag of chocolate-covered raisins (an unsettling 225 calories but the fruit helps me justify it) from the dorm vending machine. This is progress. I’m 95 pounds, up from a low of 80 six months ago.

“Is that a yes?” Stuart says to my stunned and wordless stare.

My duties on the unit focus on helping break people of their addictions to alcohol and drugs. This I do by sitting in on counseling sessions and offering the kind of sterling advice that can only come from a college student deep in the throes of her own kind of addiction to food and starving. At the time, I don’t see the irony. In part it’s because I am excited to be learning the business of counseling, and already feel I am good at it. It is also because I don’t see how sick I still am. But mostly I don’t see the irony because I am not looking. What I am looking at, mostly, is Stuart.

Stuart is twenty-four, and along with glittery auburn hair and eyes of ache and longing, he also has thighs that cannot scissor past one another without swinging out in a small arc to accommodate their heft, making his walk an intoxicating display of brawn at work. The eyes and hair and beefy stride are what drew me to him in the first place. But what keeps me there is his tenderness toward the patients, how he listens to their sad stories and time-worn excuses without so much as a hint of impatience or judgment or cynicism, even the ones on their tenth or fifteenth readmission. I want to be like Stuart, and it is to that end, I tell myself, that I shadow him as much as possible. The nurses know otherwise, which is why they smirk.

“C’mon,” Stuart says, jerking his head toward the door. “It’ll be fun.”

“You mean today?’ I finally manage to say.

Stuart nods. An electrical current arcs through me at the thought of riding shotgun in the car. In my imagination I am already gaping at his glorious thighs spread across the driver’s seat, doing the work of accelerating and braking. But elsewhere in my body, a terror is growing. For half a decade of lunches, I have not consumed enough calories to power a small child through a nap. In Stuart’s presence I will not be able to separate my crusts from my toasts or my whites from my eggs. Knowing this—that behaviors you can pretend are okay in secret but cannot pretend are okay in public equals behaviors that are not okay—is a basic equation that all addicts must solve in their recovery.

“Oh, just go,” says one of the nurses.

“Okay,” I say.

 

My mother is leaving my father. She tells me this one afternoon when I go home from campus to visit. Nothing big or terrible is wrong, there is just the ennui that inevitably (she tells me) sets in after thirty-five years of marriage. She can do better for herself (she also tells me), which I understand to mean she could find someone who will lift her up and out of her thankless, unfulfilling role of wife and mother and set her down into the vibrant creative life she was always meant to occupy.

Her announcement satisfies me. I have problems with my father too. He’s distant and moody. He is plagued by mysterious aches and pains, the sources of which are never pinned down. He spends time with my older siblings—I can see him leaning back in his chair, feet on his desk, talking to my brother who, in mirrored pose, sits on the other side of the desk, feet up as well, laughing; I can see him standing behind my sister at the piano, flute raised to his lips, a breakdown in tempo causing one or the other to stop playing and scream affectionately. What I can’t see is him with me.

We are islands, my father and I. When he speaks to me, his questions are rote and repetitive. How’s the car functioning, or How long did it take you to get here, he asks me every single time I make the drive from school to home, even though the car is new and always functioning fine, and the drive time never changes. And then, minutes later, not remembering he’s just asked, or not having listened to my answers, he asks again. When we pass in the narrow hallway of our home, one or the other of us casts our eyes downward. When, at seventeen, I go off to Bard College a thousand miles away, he doesn’t trust me to behave; when I write home that I am depressed and struggling with my classes, he sees only depravity: his money wasted on an education I can neither navigate nor appreciate, the reason being that my life has become an orgy of sex and heroin. This last, a fabrication borne of news reports highlighting the 1970s drug culture, he announces to my family; this I discover through my sister, but if he truly believes I am in danger, he never mentions it to me.

It wasn’t always like this between us. Somewhere in a slide carousel is a picture of me with my father when I was about six. We are kneeling in the driveway with my brother, my face buried affectionately in my father’s neck. He is smiling broadly. These were the halcyon years when he could do no wrong, when I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep at night without first getting a kiss from him. When, though he refused to buy me a horse, saying we couldn’t afford it, he built me a near-life-sized one out of two-by-fours. When, four years later, though nothing had changed that I could tell, he relented and bought me a real horse. What happened after that, or why it happened, neither of us knows.

“I can’t connect with her anymore,” he tells my mother when I am sixteen. “I don’t know what she wants.”

“Ask her,” she tells him, but he never does.

Five years later, it feels like my mother is leaving my father for both of us.

 

Stuart is wrong. Lunch is not fun. I do not ogle his thighs in the car because I am too worried about what I am going to eat, and at the same time praying for something to deter us on the highway—an accident, a fire, a small-engine plane crash—so that we will have to return to the unit unfed. At the deli counter Stuart stands patiently by while my heart heaves itself against my rib cage and I scan the menu for items that will not be a caloric disaster. Finally, I order what I used to eat, when I used to eat: turkey on rye. My teeth rattle, making it sound like “turtle on try.”

“I’ll have the same,” Stuart says, and we sit down across from each other at a small table against a wall.

“So what do you want to do after college?” Stuart asks.

“I’m not sure,” I say. I mumble something about maybe going to graduate school, though how I am going to go to graduate school when I can hardly go to lunch, I don’t know. I then watch with horror as our sandwiches—mounds of meat on fat rafts of rye bread—are set down before us. Stuart picks up half of his and takes an enormous bite.

“Mmm tho hungry,” he says, his mouth full, his eyes half-closed in pleasure.

When I am at my parents’ house, I can pretend to eat by waiting for my mother to jump up for something, and then hiding parts of my food in my napkin. This I can do even with my father sitting across from me, so focused is he on the television set in the next room, which is never on during meals, but whose blank screen he stares into anyway. I am always elated to get away with the ruse, and at the same time sad beyond words. If my father were paying attention, he would see the stupid games I play with food.

I look down at my sandwich and then around the deli, pretending to be distracted from the business of eating by the comings and goings of other diners. My face burns. The clock on the wall ticks grotesquely, announcing thirty-five minutes of lunchtime still left.

Stuart takes another bite, and then another. I can feel his eyes on my face. I fight back a wave of tears. Stuart must see it, because he sets down his sandwich, leans in across the table, and puts his hand on my arm. He waits for me to meet his eyes. When I do, he nods toward my plate.

Go ahead,” he says quietly.

Stuart’s hand on my arm is warm and gentle and his eyes are wells of empathy from which I don’t dare look away. My choices are clear. One, I can eat, and deal with the caloric fallout later. Two, I can not eat, which will only confirm what Stuart probably already suspects, the reason he invited me out in the first place: that in spite of all my stellar observations about the patients on the unit, the keys to my own healing remain a mystery. In the end, it is my desire to fake well for him, coupled with how cradled in safety I feel in his presence, that makes me pick up my sandwich and take a bite.

Within seconds my is mouth awash in the electrifying salty sour mashup of deli meat and coarse, fragrant rye, sending a message to my ravenous brain, which lights up like a city grid. I fight back a wave of terror and take another bite, and then another, and another, each accompanied by a sting of panic shot through with almost unbearable pleasure. Mmm tho hungry. If Stuart registers either my terror or my pleasure he doesn’t let on, and for this I am grateful. The last thing I want is for him to act as if something momentous is happening, even though it is.

In the days following our lunch, I continue to sit in on counseling sessions with Stuart and to share my thoughts on the patients and their treatment. There is never a second lunch out, and after my internship ends, I never see him again.

I finish college. I work at an alcohol and drug halfway house in South Georgia for a year, and then go to graduate school. My mother doesn’t leave my father; instead, he gets cancer, and she take cares of him until he dies, when he is sixty-one and I am twenty-six. For the rest of my life, I will struggle to feel the loss.

In the years that follow I think about Stuart from time to time, mainly in the context of my recovery. I think about how, with his encouragement, I ate a sandwich for the first time in years, and about how that led to a breaking of a fast of sorts: after that day I ate a sandwich for lunch every day; I began to eat in the dining hall at school; and I stopped hiding food in my napkin at home. Why the lunch with Stuart was pivotal—why I went on to eat as opposed to continuing to starve—I can only guess. Maybe I felt, in his touch, a gentle push that moved me past my loneliness, my lost-ness, my fear. Maybe I saw, in his eyes, an invitation to move beyond the fence of illness, beyond the disconnect where I was trapped with my father, trying to starve away the unbeautiful, in a misguided search for something worthy to keep.

 

I’m fifty-three when the movie The Breakfast Club comes on TV. I’ve never seen it, and I’m immediately drawn into the world of the five high-schoolers by the familiar, cringe-worthy markers of the 1980s: the kitschy music, the puffy blow-dried hair, “cool” boys wearing single earrings. In the movie, the kids who are forced spend a Saturday in detention hall are as ignorant of one another as they are contemptuous. But in the pivotal moment, they gather together and, one by one, reveal uncomfortable truths about themselves and their lives. It is in the spotlight of vulnerability that they come to see themselves and one another for who they really are, and in doing so, find a measure of acceptance.

Central to the movie is actor Judd Nelson. He is impulsive and angry and compellingly unlovable, and the sixteen-year-old in me is undeniably attracted to him—so much so that a few days after watching the movie, I pull up images of him online. I scroll through slowly, clicking on various shots of his young face, enlarging them, studying them. At twenty-four, the age he was when he played seventeen-year-old John Bender, his features—the glossy hair, the soft, set jaw, the nose like an equilateral triangle—were flawless. And underneath the angry, untouchable Bender, his eyes were still beautiful—dark and kind, and full of ache and longing. A memory wakes, ascends through a labyrinth of other memories, surfaces. I catch my breath. It’s been three decades since I thought about Stuart.

His Facebook profile is easy to find. Although his name is not uncommon, there is no mistaking the Judd Nelson eyes. He is grey-haired now, and bearded. Still handsome. At home in my tiny lamp-lit office, the memory of that day at the deli comes flooding back. I click on messenger and toy with a note.

You probably don’t remember me, but thirty years ago you made a huge difference in my life…

 I stop. I scroll down the page, my computer screen a window into what looks like a busy, happy life. “Happy Father’s Day to both of you!”reads a post beside a picture of Stuart and a man who looks just like him, only older. “Daddy-daughter day!” reads another, next to a picture of Stuart with his arms around a little girl. I think of the photograph with my father in the driveway, my face buried in his neck, his arms around me. I wonder how old Stuart’s daughter is now. I wonder how often they talk, if they are still close, or whether she might have lost her father the way I lost mine: not to tragedy, but to attrition, a slow wearing away of affection after years of bewilderment, of not knowing how to connect.

Then I recall another photograph. It was taken on my father’s sixtieth birthday, in my sister’s living room. I am perched on the edge of my father’s chair, not smiling, clearly leaning away—unable, even on the occasion of his birthday, even though I know he is ill, to feign affection.

I always assumed we would one day find each other again, my father and I. That after a certain number of years, when I was older and he was old, I would no longer be angry, and he would no longer be remote. I believed that we had time, and that we would, eventually, be healed by it.

I click off the computer and sit in the lamp glow. Just before my father died, when I was twenty-six, I visited him in the hospital. I was sitting on his bed talking to my uncle, his older brother, when my father shuffled in from the bathroom, dragging a pole with a tube that snaked up his nose. He looked startled to see me, like he didn’t quite recognize me. After I left, my uncle told me later, my father was overcome with emotion.

“My God, she is so beautiful,” he said to my uncle, about me. I was stunned to hear this. I can no longer recall whether I thought it, or whether my uncle said, that it was as if my father had suddenly caught sight of me after a lengthy absence. Which, of course, was true.

Later I would wonder if my father had always believed me beautiful, and whether, had I known, it would have made a difference. Would I have found, in his admiring gaze, some desperately needed measure of acceptance? Had he looked at me at the dinner table; had he not cast his eyes downward in the hallway; had he, rather than vilifying me, asked, What seems to be the trouble? when I wrote from college to say I was miserable; had he reached across the space between us and laid a hand on my arm, let me know it was ok—I was ok—might I have been, in fact, ok? Might I, in the search for something beautiful, have found us?

Dana Shavin’s essays have appeared in Oxford American, The Sun, Psychology Today, Fourth Genre, Alaska Quarterly Review, and others. She has been a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press since 2002, and is the author of a memoir, The Body Tourist, about the intersection of her anorexia with her mental health career. Her website is Danashavin.com and she is on Facebook at Dana Shavin Writes. 

3 responses to “Essay: The Light of Day Is a Crucible by Dana Shavin

  1. Pingback: INTERVIEW: Dana Shavin, author of the Body Tourist - My Antidepressants·

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