By Chef Pippinacious
I was an addict. I denied it for a long time, came up with excuses as to why what I was doing was ok, convinced myself that I wasn’t hurting anyone, so it didn’t really matter, all the typical justification that are shouted up from the depths of a downward spiral. When Mom noticed, she attributed it to Middle Child Syndrome and said it was a ploy for attention. Dad shrugged it off, figuring there were worse things. My sisters were too busy being perfect to comment.
Dad was right, in a way; it wasn’t like I was selling myself on street corners for meth or anything. There were definitely worse things than eating myself sick constantly. What had started as comfort eating to deal with a combination of poor self esteem and bullying slowly morphed into a need, a craving, an itch I couldn’t quite scratch.
I couldn’t look at food without feeling the urge to shove it in my mouth in a vain attempt to fill the emptiness that churned in my gut. And when I did give in, there was such a rush and the desire was quieted, even if only temporarily. I felt so guilty, knew I was doing wrong, and that just made me want to do it more. I was caught in a vicious circle of self-hatred perpetuated by the only thing that could make me feel any better: eating.
It got embarrassing fast. I tried to be discrete, eating normal portions in front of others, but then gorging myself behind closed doors until I felt like I would vomit. I couldn’t look in a mirror without wanting to cry. My face was becoming rounder, my clothes became harder to pull on, tighter, and my sisters started asking if I was “retaining water”. That was their idea of tact. Mom was even more blunt.
“You’re getting fat.” She said over breakfast one morning.
Kelly and Jasmine feigned interest in their cereal, but I could see their amused smirks. I swallowed back tears and shrugged. I’d never been thin, something Mom prioritized, and it was a sore point between us. It didn’t matter what she tried, what she made me do, I could just never get down to the same ideal size that she and my sisters were.
“It’s disgusting, it’s lazy, it’s sloppy! Is that what you want people thinking of you? Of your family? You’re almost seventeen for God’s sake!”
“No.” I mumbled.
“Then what are you going to do about it?”
“I’ve been trying, Mom…”
“Trying to embarrass me? Because you’ve been doing a good job of that. Cathy Mulrooney saw you at the club pool last week and do you know what she said? She said it looked like you were really enjoying taking the summer off and relaxing. She was so snide! I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die, Natalie!”
“If you’re so sorry, then put down the spoon and go for a run.”
I did run, all the way up to my room, where I locked myself in and dug out the stash of snacks I kept hidden in the back of my closet. I sat on my floor and tried to drown out Mom’s cold, angry words with the loud crunch of chips and candy, but it only made them louder. I caught sight of myself in the mirror hanging on the back of my door and I paused, my hand still in the bag of mini Snickers. Mom was right, I was a pig; gross, unlovable, ugly.
How lucky was I, then, when she told me a few days later that she had a solution?
“If you won’t fix it, I will.” She had come into my room while was I cleaning and tossed a few pamphlets on my bed.
I picked one up and skimmed the front page, “Fat camp?” I asked, a sickening feeling bubbling up in the back of my throat.
“It’s one of the top rated programs in the country for…girls like you.”
“I’ll go to the gym! I’ll work out every day!”
“Yes, you will. At fat camp.”
When I tried to recruit Dad to my side later that night, he sat me down and let me cry against his shoulder. He knew about how strained my relationship was with my mom and he sympathized, but he was a pushover. He couldn’t stand up to her any more than I could.
“Maybe it will be good for you, sweetie.” He said gently, “You’ll get out of the house, meet new people, try new activities. It could be fun.”
“She hates me.” I said flatly. I had known it for a long time, but never said it out loud before.
“No she doesn’t! Your mom loves you, that’s why she cares so much about your weight. She wants you to be healthy.”
“She wants me to be skinny.”
“I’m going to bed, Dad. Goodnight.”
The morning I left for camp, Mom let me eat whatever I wanted for breakfast. She considered it a last meal of sorts. Despite the queasy knots in my stomach, I managed to scarf down French toast, bacon, sausage, eggs, and a bowl full of strawberries. Mom forced a smile, although I could tell she was repulsed. She gave me a pat on the shoulder as I headed out to the car with Dad.
“Your sisters wanted to say bye, but they went for a jog and aren’t back yet. We’ll see you in six weeks; good luck.”
The drive upstate was long and quiet. Dad made a few attempts at conversation, but I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to get it over with.
The camp was beautiful, I admitted grudgingly to myself as we pulled up. A lake sparkled invitingly from behind a row of log cabins, neat paths wound off into the trees, and colorful flags and banners had been erected all around, welcoming the newest campers to their home for the next month and a half. As soon as we’d parked, a bright, overly bubbly woman practically pulled me from the car into a hug.
“Hello, I’m Stacey, a counselor! What’s your name?”
She scanned her clipboard and tapped it twice enthusiastically when she found my name, “Ah! Here you are! You’re in cabin three with Ashley. If you want to grab your stuff, I’ll take you on over.”
Dad gave me a tight hug and whispered, “If it’s horrible, call me. I’ll come get you.”
“Thanks.” I said, but I knew he wouldn’t.
I was assigned a bunk and given just enough time to unpack before they ushered us into a large dining hall. I was surrounded by other girls, all of whom looked as excited as I was about being there, and I felt the familiar twinge of nerves that set in whenever I was faced with a new situation. I wanted nothing more than to go home, curl up in my favorite pajamas, and eat. My stomach rumbled in agreement.
The counselors introduced themselves and did their best to be upbeat in the face of such a reluctant crowd, which didn’t have much effect. Apparently fat camp wasn’t anyone’s idea of a fun summer get away. After an awkward skit about making new friends, they served lunch; turkey burgers on whole wheat buns, a garden salad, steamed broccoli, and a popsicle for dessert. I was still ravenous when the meal was over, but they shuffled us out to go through a series of ice breaker activities.
By the time dinner rolled around, I’d become friendly with a couple of girls from my cabin and was starting to think that, maybe, camp wouldn’t be so horrible after all. We were given a disappointingly small portion of fish and rice to eat and, halfway through, I noticed that I was unusually sleepy. It had been a long, stressful day, so I didn’t think much of it and was happy when they gave us permission to return to our cabins. The other girls seemed to be similarly warn out and, sluggishly, we all went back to our bunks and collapsed into bed. I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
“Huh?” I pried open one eye and had to blink the room into focus.
My head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, making it hard to piece thoughts together. My arms were stretched uncomfortably towards the headboard, but when I tried to move them, cold metal bit into my wrists.
I shifted, craning my neck to look up, and it took a long minute of staring to figure out what exactly I was seeing. A pair of handcuffs. Someone had cuffed me to the bed. I blinked dumbly, trying to process what this could mean in a mind still muddied with sleep. Around me, I heard similarly confused murmurs and the curious tugging of handcuffs.
“What’s going on?” Gloria, I managed to remember her name from the day before, asked from the bed beside me.
The murmurs became more frantic as reality set in. All six of us were chained by our wrists to our bed, unable to move beyond a pathetic squirm. One of us started to scream and then we all were. The door to our cabin burst open and Ashley, our counselor, rushed in.
“What’s the matter?” She asked, looking between us with wide eyes.
“Someone cuffed us!”
Instead of becoming more concerned at learning our plight, she relaxed, smiling.
“Oh, girls! It’s ok! No need to panic. I did that!”
There was a collective demand to know why.
“To start you on your journey to a healthier, happier you! You’ll see, girls, it’s all part of the plan!”
Somehow, that didn’t help. We shouted at her to unlock us, but she just shook her head, her hands on her hips, smiling all the while.
“Aw, listen to all of you! It’s only day one and you’re complaining already? Tsk tsk!”
It didn’t take long for my arms to ache. I tried to sit up to help take some of the pressure off of them, but no position was comfortable. I wondered if the other cabins were experiencing similar treatment. I hadn’t seen anyone walk by our window or heard any voices outside, so I assumed that was the case. Ashley walked up and down between the beds, humming, cheerful, while she watched us struggle in our restraints.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” Morgan said pleadingly.
Ashley paused beside her and crouched, “Ok, hon! Just go!”
“Ashley, please, it’s an emergency!”
“No one’s stopping you!”
I couldn’t see Morgan from where I was, but I could hear the desperation in her voice as she begged to be released. It went on for another few minutes before she couldn’t hold it any longer. She started to cry, humiliated, and Ashley shushed her good naturedly.
“It’s ok, hon!” She said, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed! You already live such a sickening lifestyle, why is this any different?” Her tone remained friendly, even sympathetic, “Pigs live in their own filth, Miss. Morgan!”
“What’s wrong with you?” Gloria asked angrily, “You can’t talk to her like that! You can’t do this!”
Ashley approached slowly and stood between our beds, smiling down at Gloria, “Oh, hon, I know that being reminded how yucky you are is hard, but we’re in this together! Think of me as your shepherd and you, my little flock of fat piggies! I’m just doing what you’re too weak to; making sure you stop shoveling food into your mouth long enough to lose some of those rolls!”
“This is kidnapping!”
“No need to be so dramatic, Miss. Gloria, your parents signed waivers! Now, I’m going to go grab some breakfast, but I’ll be back soon! You girls have fun, ok?”
She left us in a stunned silence. Our parents had signed us up for this, knowing what it would entail? I wanted to cry, to be surprised that my mother would do something like that, but all I felt was numb. Some of the girls tried screaming again, but no one came, and so they cried instead. Tears were replaced by anger and we all swore and made empty threats at the closed door. We tried to comfort one another as best we could, discussed possibilities for escape, but it was only half hearted and eventually we all went quiet, lost in bitter thought.
Hunger settled hollowly in my stomach, grumbling and groaning for relief. My mouth watered at the thought of everything I wanted and I shook my handcuffs irritably. In the back of my mind, I could hear my mother’s voice berating me for being so concerned with food at a time like this and I was immediately flush with guilt and shame. I shut my eyes, praying for any kind of relief.
Ashley didn’t come back for many hours, and by then all of us were lying in our own waste. I was so embarrassed that I could barely bring myself to look at the other girls, much less Ashley and her steady, sunny grin.
“Whew, it smells like a ‘sty in here! Who wants a shower?”
I perked up slightly and saw that Gloria had done the same. We’d talked briefly about overpowering Ashley and making a run for it the moment she freed us; maybe this would be our chance! That hope was washed away with the first spray from Ashley’s hose, which I hadn’t seen tucked discreetly behind her back. I gasped and sputtered under the wave of icy water that was spread liberally around the cabin, soaking all of us equally.
“There, don’t we feel better?” Ashley chirped when she was through, “Now, since we’re all nice and clean, let’s have something to eat!”
My stomach roared in response and she laughed, turning to me, “Well well, Miss. Natalie! Your mom warned us about that appetite and now I can see what she meant!” She clapped her hands together, “Ok, piggies, lunch time! Tara, bring it in!”
Another counselor came in wheeling a large garbage bin.
She beamed at us and, as she and Ashley each pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, said, “Hi, gals, I’m Tara! I’m part of the kitchen staff here! I just know you guys must be starved, I mean, have any of you had to go this long without eating before?”
Ashley shook her head and laughed like it was one if the greatest jokes she’d ever heard, “Have you seen these fat asses?”
Together, they moved the bin beside Gloria’s bed and Ashley reached into it, pulling out a handful of what looked like a combination of yesterday’s meals; half eaten burgers, bits of fish that I could already smell turning, wilted salad bits. Gloria shook her head when Ashley held it up to her lips, her mouth clamped shut.
“Oh, this little piggie isn’t hungry!” Tara pouted, “What do you think, Ash? Are any of them?”
“Let’s find out!”
One by one, we were offered the food from the garbage and one by one we refused. I was confident they wouldn’t let us starve, they couldn’t, and I would not eat garbage! They didn’t try to force us, just moved on when it was clear we wouldn’t take any. They followed it up with fresh water, which they ladled from a bucket. I slurped greedily until Tara took it away, tsking at me with amused reproach.
“Wow! What a great first day!” Ashley said once they’d finished, “You guys are already learning to listen to your bodies, eating only when you’re truly hungry! I’m so proud! Ok, I want you all to really think about how much you accomplished today! Me and Tara are going to take your food back to the kitchen, but don’t worry! We’ll bring it back tomorrow! Waste not, want not, right?”
They laughed and covered the bin back up before heading towards the cabin door. As she left, Ashley half turned one more time, “Congratulations, ladies, you’re all on your way to a healthier, happier you!”
The door shut loudly behind them, leaving us wet, hungry, and, for the first time, more than a little afraid.