“A Cornucopia,” oil on canvas, by William Stuart, 1858.

by Chloe Cook

In the clinic’s common area, Jamie tells us, “We’re going to BP for the afternoon snack outing today.” Hear: muffled parade of groans. It’s Sunday, which means instead of eating in the cafeteria, one unlucky counselor (sorry, Jamie) must lead our small recovery circus to an undisclosed location for food. Us patients remain unenlightened to said location until minutes before we leave (the counselors don’t want anyone googling menus—or calories—ahead of time). Today, we will go to a gas station.

My therapist said the goal of these excursions is for patients to directly engage in a challenging meal situation, then sit in the anxiety while surrounded with support. This method of treatment is a variation of “Exposure Response Prevention.” I look down at my arm; my wrist bone appears less prominent each day I’m here. I already feel exposed.

I’m sitting at a long table, shoeless, water-coloring a rather lovely rainbow gradient as Jamie makes the announcement. I have to put my shoes back on for this? I groan. Eat a snack. Be anxious. Wear your shoes. So many rules.

I tidy my art station and walk to the other side of the room. There’s about 10 green, plush armchairs arranged in a large circle (a prime setup for deep, soul-exposing group discussions). The walls are filled with colorful, patient-made motivational posters professing the likes of “Progress Not Perfection,” and “You Deserve Recovery.” There are woven baskets filled with toys, little twisting gadgets, and long, stretchy ropes to fiddle with. Sat next to every armchair lays each patient’s matching “Eating Recovery Center” bag, a complimentary gift given to us on our admission day.

I put on my sneakers and file into the reception area with the others. It takes two elevator trips to haul all 12 of us down to the main floor of the building. I peer over the crowd of my group’s heads until I spy the tall boy whose auburn curls bounce with each step he takes. I maneuver around until I’m near enough to nudge Kaleb’s arm. He likes to joke about the whole thing, too. Our self-proclaimed slogan: “#TeamRexies, we don’t bite!” It’s sick, I know. Literally.

Kaleb is gay. And religious. So therein lies his problem. He often talks about existing in a dichotomy during group therapy—how he inescapably is two things at once. Although I try not to, I find myself criticizing his belief system. How could he love the very thing that tells him he’s so wrong? I think it’s kind of rude that, this supposed God who made Kaleb, would soon enough condemn him for being the way he was made. Doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t care about it much, though, Kaleb is great. I look up at him and admire the coppery highlights in his hair. “Looks like the calories are doin’ your locks good,” I say, smiling. He rolls his eyes.

We aren’t supposed to discuss individual diagnoses—patients can get competitive over being “sick enough” to fulfill particular DSM-5 criteria—but it goes against our nature not to guess. Do they routinely select raw carrots for snack? Anorexic. Red marks on the knuckles? Bulimic. Bulging, veiny arms or bulky muscles? Orthorexic. There are always clues, and always people screwed-up enough to try and decipher them. That likely sounds incredibly superficial to an outsider, quite presumptuous; but really, our symptoms explain more about us than our words ever could. We are defined by our bodies—that’s the whole reason we’re here.

We step outside into a tide of heat and begin the short journey to BP. Despite my deep loathing of snack outings, it can be amusing. How peculiar we must appear to the average onlooker: a large, random group of people bearing no fathomable reason to be lumped together. Male, Female, Black, White, as old as 59, as young as 16, tall, short, blonde, brunette; there isn’t an outwardly obvious box we collectively fit into. Strangers stare. I look across the parking lot and meet the eyes of a middle-aged looking man. The question on his mind is palpable through his scrunched eyebrow: “Who are you guys?”

“We’re a bunch of bulimics headed to the gas station, my dude,” I wish I could reply.

We slowly arrive at our destination (rule number 1,025: no heart rate increasing activities, like neighborhood-soccer-mom-level-speed-walking). As I cross the border between the outside world and the interior of BP, I’m relieved by the temperature drop. And that’s the only redeeming quality about this place. My body stiffens as I see aisles upon aisles of shelves stacked to the brim with fear foods and caloric nonsense. My peers disperse into the matrix to make their snack selections. I creep about the aisles. I cross paths with Little Debbies (440), Skittles (260), Pizza Lunchables (320), and Muddy Buddies (470). I try to recall a time in which I would allow myself such little pleasures; I can’t. I discover a small freezer holding Bomb Pops and assorted Ice Cream Bars safely tucked between metal racks. It reminds me of how penguins huddle together to keep their eggs warm. I wonder how many calories are in a raw penguin egg.

I decide on a large popsicle (190) from the freezer. It’s enough to satisfy my meal plan while still being the bare minimum. It’s probably mostly water anyway. It’ll do.

I have my snack approved by Jamie. As she pays with the company card, I go back outside where everyone is dispersed. I sit next to Kaleb on a yellow parking block, its hue faded from years of rain and dirt. I try not to think about my melting popsicle. I convince myself its presence is as dull and ignorable as cement. One bite after another, repeatedly, until it’s gone. I read the small words spelled out across the soggy stick: “Why do basketball players wear bibs? They dribble a lot.”

I immediately break the stick in half as if the act will have some sort of cosmic resonance. It’s the middle of summer and I’m dreading over a popsicle. What am I doing? There are homeless people. There are dying people. And here I am. And here is a stick telling me that basketball players dribble a lot. But this isn’t a joke.

Kaleb ate some sort of Nature-Valley-hike-and-be-vegan-and-worship-the-dirt shit. He was vegan, in the before. Here, in the now, the clinic doesn’t accommodate veganism (the dieticians say it’s too restrictive for someone in recovery), so he’s stuck being a vegetarian. I wonder when, during his effort of not killing animals, that he began to kill himself. I don’t know what he’ll be in the after. I don’t know what I’ll be, either.

The popsicle settles into my stomach, and, despite its minimum caloric density, I want to purge it. I notice Kaleb’s long, pianist fingers; they’d so easily slip into his throat, effortlessly entice his snack to eject itself. Kaleb pops his knuckles and suddenly I am a hypocrite. We are the same: I, too, love the thing that condemns me. I, too, feel most at peace when I am empty and obedient.

The BP is busy. One by one, cars pull into a slot and await their sustenance. The owners act quickly, eager to escape the sweat-inducing summer weather. A debit card—undoubtedly holding a lesser amount than what I’m currently costing my insurance—is slipped into the proper slot. A 4-digit pin pays the bill; then, the gas glides into the car’s throat, settles into its tank-stomach. One particular sedan looks at me with its headlight-eyes and, suddenly, its bumper-mouth smirks: at least I can keep it down.

I remember a hiking trip I took with my family to Hocking Hill State Park a few weeks before I was admitted to rehab. I found it incredibly ironic that my parents, fully aware of my disorder’s existence and severity, would have me to engage in strenuous physical activity at a place with the word “hocking” in its name. It ended up being beautiful, though. The grottos and streams vibrated with life; colorful plants I didn’t know the names of outlined the walking trails. At the end of one particularly wet route, piles of boulders crowded the edges of a deep creek. It surprised me how perfectly round they were (as if constructed by math-whiz humans)—it was strange to admire something that wasn’t slender. Most of all, I loved the smell. The park didn’t really have a scent (the same way water doesn’t really have flavor), but I was addicted to how clean it felt in my nose. The air was open, wild, fresh, free to be itself. It felt so good to breathe.

However, during the first night at the cabin, my uncle cooked shrimp alfredo pasta. Except he didn’t have any heavy cream to make alfredo sauce with. So, it became shrimp olive oil pasta. I was achingly hungry as my body wasn’t accustomed to so much movement. I ate as much as I could. The oil was unnervingly thick and coated every millimeter of the pasta; the shrimp was dry and rubbery. And there was nothing else. I forced myself to act extra normal and, when most everyone went out to the hot tub, I snuck away to the cabin’s only restroom. I hocked up the oil pasta into a toilet in Hocking Hills State Park.

But something was different that time. My stomach contracted stronger than usual; my throat constricted tighter after each heave. My heart panged harder against its enclosure. I slumped against the base of the toilet and waited to catch my breath. My tongue was stained with a warm, moldy smell; my nose was clogged with puke chunks. I sat back up and stared at the contents which came from me. The bits of noodles looked like wormy parasites from that “Monsters Inside Me” show. I felt disgusting; I was the monster inside me. The realizations of I do not want to die and I do not want to be my own parasite fell over me.

That was when I decided to try. I’d loved the park and something about it made me want to be brilliantly alive the way nature was. I couldn’t really say why that particular instance was the final push I needed to get help. But it was. And I ended up here, in the parking lot of a BP.

My daze is broken by Kaleb’s voice saying something about bee honey and its non-vegan classification; this reminds me of home. I can’t wait to return to my back porch tonight, sit there for a while, and watch my dog try to catch bees in his mouth. It amuses me when he attempts those off-kilter, four-legged jumps, then clamps his jaw around air (hoping to catch the small, buzzing things). I know he doesn’t know that the bee will sting. Maybe I started there, too; maybe some car knew that I did not know that Anorexia would sting. Still, I tried to catch it in my mouth.

Watching all of these BP customers makes me think, though. When gas pumping is conducted improperly, the results can be volatile, explosive, and catastrophic. When gas pumping is conducted correctly, the result is freedom. I suppose, then, I can come to one logical conclusion about my illness: when done improperly, feeding oneself can be volatile, explosive, and catastrophic. When done correctly, though, feeding oneself … can lead to freedom. Perhaps that’s worth sticking it out for a while longer.

Chloe Cook holds a BA in English from Northern Kentucky University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of Loch Norse Magazine. She is the author of one chapbook, Surge (dancing girl press), and her writing is featured in Stoneboat Literary Journal, The Journal, Ghost City Review, and Tule Review, among others. Her honors include an International Merit Award from Atlanta Review and third place in the Kentucky State Poetry Society’s 2022 Grand Prix Poetry Contest (selected by Joy Priest). She is currently an MFA student at the University of Florida.