The reason I haven’t posted anything recently is because I spent the past couple weeks working on a submission for a writing contest. Last time I was at the airport, I was skimming magazines while waiting for my flight to depart. Glamour magazine is sponsoring a writing contest with the winner to be selected by a panel that includes Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and Laura Hillenbrand, the author of ‘Seabiscuit.’
Enter and Win!
Got a great real-life story? Tell it to Glamour! Enter our fourth annual essay contest and you could:
* Win $5,000
* See your story published in an upcoming Glamour
* Collaborate with a top literary agent on a book proposal
Every woman has an inspiring true story somewhere inside her. What’s yours? We want to know. Write a 2,500 – 3,500 manuscript and enter it in our nonfiction essay contest. Our judges will be looking for original style and a compelling story that has the potential to be turned into a book. Ready to share the tale that only you can tell? We can’t wait to read it.
I couldn’t decide what to write about. I’d spend a night writing one thing, scrap it, write another, scrap it, do something entirely different, then get aggravated with myself all over again. I realized I had a lot of material from my blog, but that there wasn’t any common theme, blah, blah, blah.
I ended up pulling material from my blog, adding a couple stories, and tried to relate them all together. I clocked in several hours at the UCSF library, wrapped it all up, printed it at Kinkos, then headed to the underground post office at Macy’s (the only San Francisco post office open on Sunday) to meet the postmark deadline of Sunday, May 14th.
Here it is.
My Crazy Great Real Life Story
When I was a kid, I was electrocuted. I’m not exactly sure how old I was. But it happened.
My mom was crazy. She wasn’t the penitentiary-type crazy. Nor was she the psychiatric-ward type crazy. She was the overly concerned type crazy. It was the kind of crazy you knew you wouldn’t grow up to be because it was so fanatical. She would lock the front door, bolt it, and then shove our big Lazy-Boy chair in front of it. “You never know what can happen with all those crazy people out there!”
My mom also unplugged everything when not in use—VCR, toaster, TV. I think she did it partly to save energy, but mostly because she was scared a fire would break out.
Instead of a fire, I got electrocuted.
I remember grabbing hold of the radio cord and reaching behind the dresser to plug it in. Bbbzzzzappp! My whole body buzzed for a few seconds. Flinging the cord away from me, I retreated from the socket. I was numb and terrified. I think I was five or six years old.
The hair-raising experience scared the bejesus out of me. What if my brain was damaged? I knew school was important. My immigrant parents drilled us on reading books and studying hard. Did this mean I would have to work twice as hard? My parents would kill me if they knew I electrocuted myself.
It didn’t matter whether or not I needed to work hard. I did. Consistently at the top of my class, I collected numerous awards and scholarships. My most prized honor was an early acceptance to college. I came home from school one day; it was during the time when high school juniors receive unsolicited mail from colleges nationwide.
A thicker-than-normal envelope awaited me. My heartbeat quickened. The envelope lay in tatters on my bedroom floor as I scanned, “Congratulations, you have been accepted to the University of California at Berkeley through our Accelerated High School Student Program…” I screamed as I ran to the phone…to call that crazy mother of mine.
The receptionist of the English Department directed me to a faculty advisor. “Go on up. He has office hours right now.”
I was nervous. No one else was around. It was summer time. I wanted to investigate my academic options before classes started in the fall. Students were notorious for graduating from Berkeley in five years. I refused to be one of them.
I climbed two flights of stairs, walked down the corridor, and paused next to the open door. Deep breath. I took one step forward. An old man with wild white hair was sitting down engrossed in a book. I knocked lightly on the door’s edge. I didn’t want to startle him. He glanced up and smiled—a demented, brilliant smile. “Hello. Welcome. Please sit down.” He spoke as if he were in a play, a Shakespearian play, with authority and dramatic pauses. I wondered if all the English professors were like this.
“How can I help you?” He clasped his hands together and looked at me intently. The attention made me even more nervous.
“I’m starting here in the fall.” I stuttered. “I’m going to major in Biology. I’d also like to get a minor in English. I’ve been reading the course catalog. There are many classes I’d love to take. I just…well, I just wanted to get your opinion on which classes you would recommend. I need five for the minor.”
He continued to stare at me. “Why do you want to minor in English?”
I figured he was questioning my interest, my commitment. Maybe this was the prerequisite question all faculty advisors asked before admitting students into the minor.
I didn’t even think. My words flurried out, “I love books. Literature…I love literature. I can read the classics all day long. Hemingway, Faulkner, the Brontes. And writing. Oh, writing—I always have a pen and paper in hand. The written word whether I’m reading it or writing it—it’s my passion.”
He got up and thundered, “Then why are you minoring in English?”
I was frightened. What a nutty professor I had standing before me.
“You should major in it!” He spoke with fervor and gusto. Maybe he saw me as his Shakespearian audience; I was his guinea pig. “Do you even realize that this is the #1 English department in the country? We have the finest faculty, the best students. Minor in English? HA!”
He sat back down and re-clasped his hands. I thanked him and retraced my steps back down the corridor. I saw and heard in that nutty professor a passion and fanaticism that ignited my own.
“Catherine, do you understand that if you deny your body calories your metabolism will shut down?” Nod-nod. I found myself on a biweekly basis affirming everything that the psychiatrist had to say. Everything she said made sense. Perfect sense. It really did. “Do you think that this time you can put the scale away for good?” Nod-nod. The psychiatrist told me my problem stemmed from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—psychological neuroses with order and perfection.
I didn’t care what it stemmed from. I wanted to know how to get rid of it.
Sitting in the backseat of our Volvo—the engine running—I used to roll my eyes, waiting for my mom to leave the house and join us. She was double-checking the doors and windows, and unplugging cords from their outlets. Then she did a final run-through in search of any security breaches.
I am my mother’s daughter. Crazy.
My mom eats like a bird. I eat like a bear. I chow down voraciously as if preparing for hibernation. It’s hard for me to stop. If I see it, I’ll eat it. Just like a bear.
I had a big appetite for a girl, but I had the body of a boy: flat chested and thin. I finished high school, weighing a mere 75 pounds. One year later, I almost doubled that. Freshmen are known to gain 15 pounds their first year in college. It’s called the Freshman 15. I gained the Freshman 50.
Put a junk food addict (who never learned the concept of moderation) in an all-you-can-eat buffet-style dorm environment and watch her grow. Burgers, French fries, stir fry, ice cream. The first time I walked into our dining hall, I thought I’d died and gone to food heaven. By the time I finished my first year, I realized I’d put my body through hell.
I weighed 130 pounds. I had been a small pixy cheerleader who had now transformed her five feet tall frame into a monstrosity. I was horrified. After moving out of the dorms, I easily lost the weight, but the fear of being fat again stuck in the back of my head. The fear never went away.
It must have gone into hibernation because I lived normally and ate well for many years after college. I don’t know what triggered it, but the fear eventually resurfaced.
I stopped eating. Sometimes, I’d go for a day. Other times, I’d go for a week. I’d take calories in through liquids, but for days and days I would not eat a single thing. It wasn’t only about not eating. I abused diet pills and drank laxative teas. I exercised to exhaustion. I constantly calculated calories, keeping a running total in my head at all times. I stepped on a scale as soon as I woke up, whenever I came home, every hour at home, and before going to bed.
I was told I was a textbook anorexic—a perfectionist with extreme behavior patterns and an all or nothing attitude towards life. Therapy was a struggle and a test of my patience. During sessions, I’d scream, “What is wrong with wanting to be 80 pounds? What’s so crazy about struggling to reach your goals? If I starve, I starve. No pain, no gain, right?”
This was my skeleton in the closet—literally a skeleton. I told myself, “Can’t you be average? Not fat, not skinny. With this one thing in life, you don’t have to be the best, the skinniest.”
I saw a slew of professionals for over two years—psychologists, nutritionists, and psychiatrists. At my nadir, I sobbed uncontrollably in front of my last therapist. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get over this.”
“Catherine, you just do.” My therapist said it sternly, but with concern and compassion. I knew she was there for me, I could feel she supported me. I stopped sobbing. I sat up. She was right.
Having an eating disorder was self-torture. It’s worse than a breakup. There wasn’t another person involved who was causing me heartache. It was all my own doing. To a certain extent, I’ll always be anorexic; that fear will never completely leave my head. But I no longer count calories. I don’t deprive myself. I eat when I’m hungry and even when I’m full, I still make room for dessert.
Those few words from my therapist got through to me—the way the nutty professor altered my academic curriculum. That was the epiphany. It ended then—the diets, the calorie counter that went off in my head every time I ate, the twice-daily workouts, the diet pills, the starving. I finally stopped detesting my body. And that’s when I started living again.
I lived one year of my life in love with someone who didn’t feel the same way about me. For him, I forgave rampant tardiness, a couple no-shows, infrequent communication, cheapness, and neglect. I kept hoping he would fall for me. I knew it wouldn’t happen, but still I couldn’t get him out of my head.
For love, I sold my soul.
He stood me up a couple times. He didn’t call to apologize. Weeks later, I’d hear from him and I wouldn’t say one angry word. Instead of blaming him, I hated myself for taking the neglect.
I was coming home from a business trip. On the return flight, I had an unexpected conversation. I felt like I had a life coach, guidance counselor, or therapist sitting next to me. She wasn’t any of those professions. Simply and profoundly, she was a mother of five kids ranging in age from 23 to 9. She was a beautiful woman—inside and out. She looked much younger than she must have been.
During the four-hour flight, she listened and advised. I felt like she sincerely cared about me. On my way out, she tapped my shoulder, “I’ll be praying for you.” She didn’t know my name. I didn’t know hers, but I’m sure it was God sitting next to me on that flight.
I’ve always placed a premium on intelligence. It was the underlying theme of my upbringing. Study hard, work hard, excel, go to prestigious schools. It’s important to me; it’s what I look for in a partner. I found, in Nick, someone who was extremely bright and the most well read person I had ever met. I dismissed the neglect because I was enthralled by his intelligence. It trumped all the negatives.
I’m well educated and disciplined. When it came to this relationship, though, I chose the wrong course of action. I was stupid for putting up with it. I disregarded the hurtful comments: “I’m not in love with you. If I were, I’d tell you.” He said it out of the blue, the same way he said, “You know I’m never going to marry you,” in the car while we were driving in silence.
I don’t converse with people on planes. I bundle-up and hibernate until touchdown. On that return flight, I happened to ask the woman next to me her reason for going to San Francisco. She said she was going to visit her sister who lived near me. The common bond launched us into a flight-long conversation.
Woman: “Look for someone who has the most important qualities: kind, hard-working, patient…”
Me: “AND you have to be attracted to him. Don’t forget that one.”
Woman: “That is not an important quality. That does not matter.”
Me: “Well, if you’re not attracted to the person, then…I mean, all those qualities you just mentioned, those are the qualities I look for in a friend, not in a husband.”
Woman: “You want your husband to be your friend. You’re looking for your best friend.”
Woman: “So you’re dating.”
Me: “Yeah, but, uhhh, yeah. He’s not really right for me. I mean, he doesn’t even pay for me, which is fine. But not even on the first date, not even when he first asked me out.”
Woman: “Then you’re not dating. You two are not dating. You’ll know when you’re dating someone. He’ll treat you like a queen. I guarantee you that. He won’t be able to grab the bill fast enough.”
On What’s Ahead
Me: “I feel so immature for my age. I’m still dating. Clearly I’m dating the wrong guy. Maybe I’m just meant to be single. Maybe that’s God’s plan for me.”
Woman: “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if God meant for you to be single. You will find him. Don’t forget what I said about those important qualities.”
Me: “I don’t cook. I radiate.”
Woman: “A household isn’t about 50-50. People who believe that are on their way to getting a divorce. Do you want to be a statistic? You have to give 100%. 100%! You’ll be surprised at how much you get back if you give it everything you’ve got. I’ve been married for more than thirty years. Learn how to cook. ”
I couldn’t thank her enough. I taxied home. Tears trickled down my face. A stranger had cared about me enough to listen, to tell me exactly what I needed to hear—sternly and affectionately.
Nick was out of the country for the next couple weeks. It didn’t make a difference. Even if he had been around, he was always miles away—cold and distant. When he returned, I was too busy. I was searching for kindness, patience—a true gentleman…my best friend.
I’m turning 30 and I can’t help but grapple over one question—am I happier in a committed relationship or single? I go back and forth. And when I come to a decision, I believe my judgment to be clouded and eventually change my mind again.
As I sit here at the bar in one of San Francisco’s ritziest restaurants, I’m surrounded by a bevy of gay men. They’re laughing heartily, chattering back and forth. Question: Can they truly be happy amidst a restaurant full of couples?
The jazz, the wine, the cake—nothing ameliorates the loneliness. I used to think of myself as a loner, a shy girl who appreciates her solitude. But on a Friday night…the night before my 30th birthday. I want to drown in a sea of alcohol. If enough is consumed, it dulls the pain.
There are so many couples: the young sweethearts holding hands across the table, the married couples out for a night on the town, and the bizarre. A beautiful middle-aged woman is gazing at a crinkly man with spectacles. She’s caressing his shoulder as she smiles. He’s missing a tooth. He leans in occasionally, asking her to repeat what she said. He looks like one of the Nobel Laureates from my graduate school—only older.
I want to laugh out loud. It’s ok. I’m comfortable. I’m content. This is what I dreamt for myself after thirty amazing years.
Good news came in time for my big day. My sister called to tell me of her pregnancy. There’s too much happiness in the world to feel despair even as I question it on the dawn of my birthday. I have a loving core family and an extended family whose members are more like my sisters and brothers than my cousins, and aunts and uncles who are more like my own parents.
I may be alone now, but I’m never alone for long. I spent all day fielding early birthday wishes. While working from home, the emails and instant messages fired rapidly. Someone had delivered beautiful red roses that were sitting on my desk, brightening up our open workspace.
At this very moment, there’s no one I can call even if I wanted to; it’s too late. But whether I have someone to come home to or not, love is all around me. I feel blessed. I am happy. Every sip, every bite. Yummy. This is what I wished for: self-contentment, love, and happiness.
Happy birthday. Happy 30th birthday to me.
How many instances in time shape who you are? Which events moved you, changed what you thought about the world, what you thought about yourself?
I learned a lot from being crazy. Each story was an epiphany that collaborated to shape who I am. I found a deep connection with my mother. I discovered a passion. I rediscovered a love (chocolate chip cookies). I realized that there are supportive people out there—loved ones, friends, and strangers—who are there when you need them and can change your life in an instant. And I learned that when I least believed it, when I was alone and scared, I could draw strength from within.
A great real life story is everyone’s story: experiences that shock us into believing in ourselves again, experiences that ignite a fire inside, and experiences that have made us who we are. Thanks for reading my crazy great real life story. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.