JoAnna Novak


from Bad Animal

Billy, my first-ever guy friend with an eating disorder, my first-ever gay friend, period. Sophomore year, we’re in art and chemistry together. The son of a gynecologist, this proximity to the realm of sex and genitalia endowed him with an unbridled lease on audacity. He prattled on about feeling fat while going beet red in the cheeks. I didn’t admit to myself that, in a girl, I would find this trait annoying. I just knew that in Billy I found it tart.

“JO,” he says, stretching the “oh” so it sounds more like Jah-OH. “Diet Pepsi run?”

“Definitely,” I say, and we leave our table and saunter over to the empty cafeteria, our pockets filled with crumpled dollars. If we see one of the old men security guards monitoring the halls, we run.

Billy and I live on diet soda; we drink at least forty-ounces a day. I spend money from my grandparents, my last checks from the pool, money from my mom, on twenty-ounce bottles of pop. Our friendship is built on food talk and caffeine routines. Diet Pepsi, Diet Dr. Pepper, Diet Mountain Dew, which Courtney and I dub Halfway to Heaven. I don’t drink coffee yet, and I’m programmed not to sleep. I relearn it every year: when you are hungry, sleep is hard. I’m not alone in my insomnia. Shannon and Courtney are both wide awake, and if my parents don’t send me to bed, I stay up late on the Internet.

The nation thrums about the new dangers lurking online. We hear about them in Health class, we read about them in magazines, they’re always popping up on the nightly news: cyber-stalking, chat rooms, message boards—I know at least one girl who spends half of sophomore year emailing with a thirty-four year old man. (One day he calls her at home—she picks up before her parents—he’ll be in Chicago—he wants to meet—she hangs up.)

Better to troll the amphibious eating disorder circuit, a slippery terrain where, one moment, you might be taking responsibility for your health and recovery (on the very extensive, super-moderated pro-recovery website Something Fishy), the next reading someone’s post and feeling deeply triggered. Support Groups bleed into Chat Lists, with everyone’s unique screen name on AIM, and I spend hours typing to girls older than me (in Pennsylvania) and younger than me (in Oklahoma), girls who use laxatives (boxes and boxes of them, so bad that their parents lock the medicine cabinets) and girls who’ve spent real, serious time in the hospital.

These are genuine friendships, supportive friendships; instantly intimate conversations springing up from the understanding of our shared experience—and, even more than experience, our shared mindset. Because another girl with an eating disorder didn’t care if you were thirty pounds underweight or thirty pounds overweight—if you were genuinely sick, if you had a diagnosis and weren’t just a whiny dieter [fn. 1], it was clear.

But they also could be triggering friendships, or triggery, as my friends and I liked to say. A thin girl could be a trigger. (Thus, the notebooks nee trigger books we filled with pictures printed out on our families’ slow color printers and cut from fashion magazines, where you could look through the gap between a girl’s thighs and see your soul perish…) On pro-recovery web boards, numbers were banned. No weights, no calories, no tallying minutes in the gym. Numbers = definite triggers.

Song lyrics triggered us. The Goo Goo Dolls and Sugar Ray and Silverchair (a band we only knew about because their lead singer was rumored to be an anorectic), Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. But anyone could be triggering. Christina Aguilera, as I found out, could be triggering if I wanted to be triggered; if Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez fit your idea of “strive-for-it skinniness,” all the better—you wouldn’t have to hunt as hard for pictures. We knew Audrey Hepburn’s waist had been so nonexistent she could wear a dog collar like a belt. Karen Carpenter. A Swedish princess named Victoria. Half a dozen Lifetime movies meant to scare us away from eating disorders. The crochet of Tracey Gold’s backbones in For the Love of Nancy. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s starvation diet prior to filming the made-for-TV adaptation of Best Little Girl in the World.

Maybe it was while searching for pictures of celebrities with eating disorders (or thin celebrities who simply revved my own eating disorder) that I discovered pro-anorexia websites, or pro-ana sites, where girls listed pages and pages of tips and tricks—how to burn more calories, how to hide your weight loss, how to purge yourself, ratings of different emetics (everyone seemed to agree that ipecac was a NO). Albums of skeletal women, naked bodies on scales, hospital shots, centerfolds, perfume ads, DIY arrangements of ribs and pelvic bones. I don’t entirely remember when and how I stumbled onto my first pro-ana website, but I do remember a simultaneous repulsion and attraction. I didn’t need a website to tell me how to shake my leg and burn more calories; I knew that I would lose more weight by staying thin and shivering off pounds; FIDGETING could wipe out something like 500 calories a day, depending on the fidgeter.

Yahoo! groups and private communities and more exclusive networks where one might post and be rated and ranked anonymously, where sometimes one needed to submit one’s self and one’s body to gain access. Courtney and I were on board. A lot of these sites weirded Shannon out. And Alice, naturally thin and really extra-thin from a summer-long hospitalization following a bout with appendicitis (IVs, Jell-O), merely tolerated our eating disorders in the flesh.

Homecoming, the end of October, sophomore year, the same big deal in the suburbs of Chicago as anywhere. People assemble into groups, groups in which they’ll go and their dates will go, and their friends and their dates will go, go meaning gathering for pictures; arranging an ostentatious luxury ride to the dance (black limos, stretch Hummers); dancing together on the crowded dance floor, ignoring notices about dirty dancing, grinding, sex dancing; heading to the bathroom together to fix make-up and discuss the dance’s climate thus far; dining somewhere pre-arranged and nicer than anyone would usually go for dinner with friends—or, if you’re part of a group with art kids or skateboarders or vegans (these categories often overlapped at my high school), maybe you’d be eating somewhere ironically shabby, like the restaurant inside the local bowling alley, Rolling Lanes, called The Country Cup, or just, The Cup; dinner to after-party (sleepover, bowling, house party), where dates may or may not part ways [fn. 2].

This is my first high school dance, and, somehow, the least important thing remains my date [fn. 3]. My first high school dance—weeks of lowering my weight and arguing with my parents about dress shopping, shoe shopping, the fact of attending a dance with a boy, the rigmarole of preening before the pictures, the necessity of pictures. We’re standing in the foyer of Courtney’s house, staggered on the split staircase against the red toile de jouy wallpaper. Courtney’s mother matches the wallpaper. Her pantsuit is printed identical to the walls. We grip the banister, I’m trying to smile, even though I’ve just spent the last half hour with my mother and a role of double-stick tape in Courtney’s foyer bathroom, the one where the walls are painted murals of a dense, almost tropical garden—where the knobs on the pedestal sink are gold, the towel bar is gold, even the flusher on the toilet: gold. I’m wearing a long strapless dress that has been adhered to my breasts with double-stick tape. I don’t have breasts to hold anything up. And, after four months without my period, when my weight is the lowest I’ve been in months (102? 98? Right around there…), I’m crushed that my body decided to act normal today, of all days…

But, here we are for pictures, surrounded by parents; we’re pinning boutonnieres and corsages, we’re laughing about sticking our dates. We go to the dance, which spills from two gyms into the hallways leading to the courtyard, where, during warm months, you’re able to cut from one wing of the school to another. After the dance, we go to dinner at a tony restaurant in Oakbrook; we order variations on “salad” with “no dressing” and “Diet Coke,” followed by an enormous slice of chocolate cake. When this is all over, we head back to Courtney’s house for a sleepover. No one kisses her date; no one even begins dating her date. When we are back and changed into pajamas and camped out in Courtney’s basement [fn. 4], we make fun of our dates [fn. 5], drinking liters and liters of soda, chattering and watching movies and, eventually, as the morning approaches, falling asleep, two to a couch, on two enormous couches.

We don’t wake up inseparable. Courtney’s mother offers to make us pancakes, and we sit cagily at their kitchen table, looking out over the patio, into the backyard, at the massive swing set, picking at our food. We don’t prick our fingers and mix the blood or carve into ourselves some secret symbol. But after Homecoming, we’re something together—and we can feel it. We’re four screwed-up girls, four skinny brunettes, too smart and high-strung to be cool. We’re not eating, we’re cutting, we’re barfing, and then, all of a sudden, we’re doing those things and matching our outfits. We call ourselves Stellas.

We call ourselves Stellas, and won’t tell anyone why, but it’s no mystery. It’s my lame idea lifted from this movie about heavy metal fans in the disco era called Detroit Rock City, where some stoners try to get to a KISS concert. Along the way they see a group of disco girls.  What a bunch of Stellas, the stoners say. Stellas. Stella works, Stella sticks. We are Stella like Marlon Brando, and oh do we love that. We are a social ring away from theater people—throughout high school, all of us are in plays or working backstage. Stella, like star. Stella, like disco slut. We want to be our own category because we’re not in a category. We’re not the jocks or the cheerleaders or the nerds or the truly, out-there crazy. We still believe in the types life and popular culture feed us. Spring, I get us all silver ID bracelets engraved Stella from an open market in Mexico. I barter for these bracelets. They’re so tight, they mark our wrists. We love this and hate this. We love each other’s tender wrists like we love our own tender wrists. The bracelets do their job; they barely fit.

Our friendship has an appetite of its own. We are intensely hungry for one another’s Problems, yet, because of our Problems, and despite our Problems, we are still typical teenage girls, still suburban and not particularly popular or unpopular. It is safe to say that we notice ourselves more than others notice us. Our friendship is rituals and routines. We are frighteningly close, we are immature and sometimes cocky and often scared. We are scared for ourselves and one another, and we’re scared for who we’re capable of being or not being for one another. None of my friends ever get involved in drugs or alcohol. No one even dates seriously until the last year of high school. But by fifteen, we felt world-weary and rebellious. We wore our insecurities, our compulsions, our bad habits, our obsessions around our necks like shiny new jewelry.

Stella Songs Volumes 1, 2, and 3. We burn mix CDs in sets of four. We drive around in Courtney’s car, from one campus to another, to McDonald’s with her Speed Pass, to Kentucky Ducky so Shannon can get one piece of chicken. We plan our outfits and match on Fridays. Black cats for Halloween one year, runaway brides in vintage gowns and gym shoes the next. We overanalyze everything; we associate songs and music and movies and everything with everything else. We watch Gia and A Secret Between Friends; For the Love of Nancy; Girl, Interrupted; we watch Best Little Girl in the World, even though Shannon gets squeamish when Kessa rips out her IV. We give each other nicknames that correspond to movies with groups of girls like The Virgin Suicides and Sugar and Spice—we become Lux and Mary and Cecelia and Bonnie, Cleo and Kansas and Diane and Lucy, we are Snow White and Ariel and Cinderella and Aurora. We are still little girls. Blue and pink and green and purple. We decorate each other’s lockers for birthdays with sparkly wrapping paper, pearlescent bows, streamers, glitter, signs; we stuff them with safe things like diet soda and gum, trinkets and toys. We paper Alice’s locker with pictures of Robert Downey, Jr., who she’s loved since seventh grade. We understand Thursday to be code for a bad day, playing hockey to mean throwing up just like partying comes to mean throwing up. “Last night I played hockey,” or, if you were to overhear me anytime before junior year, “Why can’t I hockey, what is wrong with me.” Or, “Of course—it’s a Thursday.”

We call our problems “cats,” after Alice slices her wrist so severely she’s in gauze for a month. “I told my parents Zoe did it,” she says, referring to her kitten. Our “cats” are one-legged, two-legged, three-legged. One leg per problem.  Meow, Billy says. He’s got cats, too. In Chemistry, he and Courtney and I convince Mrs. Harazin to try freeze-drying Diet Pepsi. We get very serious when we burn a peanut to calculate the calories. Sometimes, Billy stands near the garbage can with a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie that he bites and chews and promptly spits.

Every day I am so cold my goose bumps show all the way to Mrs. Harazin’s desk, and every day she loans me her own personal lab coat.

We send emails nightly; we fill out the same long quizzes that people send around, again and again. We three-way call, we four-way call. We talk each other out of cutting and hockey. No one has cell phones—we sneak our families’ portables. There are times when we are closer in pairs, but these intimacies are always in orbit: Shannon’s in a play with Alice, I’m in a play with Courtney; Alice and I are in art history, Courtney and Shannon are the same height. We pass notebooks back and forth between the four of us, between two of us; we gather for sleepovers and dances and emergencies. After school, we’re in rehearsal or Scholastic Bowl or Speech Team or Art Club. We’re in Shannon’s bedroom reading “_Cosmo_ Confessions” out-loud; we take quizzes, we talk about sex acts in color code—did you red or pink or blue or green? Our fantasies are based on nothing. We have crushes, intensities, infatuations, obsessions, pining moods; our affections are thwarted, we let our hearts break and break.

Before school we meet outside of my locker or camp out in the cafeteria, drinking diet soda. If it’s a late arrival day, someone’s mother drop us off at Starbucks. We order Frappucinos and eat nothing but whipped cream strung with caramel.

Someone orders nothing but a cup of whipped cream. We know no calories. We know all calories, every single one down to the pith of a lime, a teaspoon of semen.

On the two-mile walk to school, we pass a large, blue Victorian with a turret, and a rounded window that we would like to buy and supply with a food-free refrigerator. We’re going to grow up, move to New York, stock a mini-fridge with whipped cream and handcuffs. Sometimes we drive an hour to Steak ‘n Shake just to pass the strip mall with Lover’s Lane.

Someone spills something blue on Shannon’s white bedspread, and we use hair spray for hours to get it out.

On Ash Wednesday, we match our outfits and attend Mass before school. Even Alice, though she’s not Catholic—her family isn’t anything.

Through an online Catholic forum, Shannon and Courtney email a priest to see if a friend of theirs (ME) will go to Hell because she extracts the Eucharist from her mouth after Communion and covertly sticks it to the underside of the pew.  She is sick, he replies.

Over spring break sophomore year, I go to Mexico with a group of fifteen students. For two weeks, I live with a classmate in the house of an elderly couple. I attend classes at an English-Spanish school in Cuernavaca. Spanish teachers chaperone our day trips: our group buses to Aztec pyramids, Mexico City, a remote resort where Tarzan was filmed in the 1930s—I swing off a vine and plummet into a crystal stream. I think I understand depression on the bus driving up the mountain to Taxco. The bleached brown landscape grows tinier and tinier below me. This beauty, this vastness: bleak spiritual void we rumbled toward. In Taxco I blind myself on silver while a passion parade floods the streets.

I worry about my weight constantly. I run around dusty neighborhoods, and butt up against unexpected walls. I eat galleta ice cream, Mexican spaghetti, black bean and plantain stew. In the parks, vendors sell ears of corn slathered with mayonesa and sprinkled with chili. My mother sends me with a bag of oatmeal raisin cookies; I eat these until I feel sick and wish I could hockey. I chew café-flavored Trident.

I buy clothes; for the first time in my life, I wander around boutiques and malls alone. This involves: trying on dresses, my body in the mirror, a different country of sizing.

All the students go drinking and dancing at night. There are fluorescent nightclubs and bars for teenagers and, for the first time, I see my peers drunk. Daft Punk’s “One More Time” is always playing. When I take off my hoop earrings in the bathroom of a discoteca, and try to scratch up my wrists, I think must be depression. I don’t think, displaced or lonely. Instead, I focus on the ease with which people grow bright and loose-limbed; their caprice aggravates me; I am watching people change; they are not their student-selves. I feel bodiless, all interior.

The Stellas send me long emails every day:  They miss me! They have decided to start sewing! They measured Shannon (she’s used to tape measures from modeling) for a tunic—it will be red; it fails! Group emails, solo emails—they save up money and buy a phone card and when my host father picks up, they are shocked by his hola and hang up the phone.

Tan and convinced I’m depressed, I return. Courtney tells me, “We were so worried about you. We didn’t know if you’d be eating, you look thin.”

“I weigh exactly the same,” I say. I weighed exactly the same. I’d been waiting those two weeks, breathless and eager to see my number: 114.

“Your arms look skinnier,” she says, suspiciously.

“Oh…thanks.”

The last quarter of the school year:

A short-lived job at a bagel store in the plaza beyond the high school. I slice bagels, refill bagels in their bins, toast bagels, build bagel sandwiches and clean bagel-smelling bathrooms (bathrooms that I will frequent, once the job has ended, to throw up in since I am familiar with their single-occupant privacy, their antiseptic light). The bagels weigh down flimsy paper plates; they’re doughy and creviced on the inside, the sort of bagel that I’d eat by peeling [fn. 6]. I fill up a jumbo cup and drink Lipton unsweetened iced tea grainy with Sweet ‘n Low. I wear a visor, and bring home long plastic tubes of leftover bagels at the end of every shift until my mother runs out of space in the freezer.

Driver’s Ed, which is taught by a man who is also my manager at the pool. We drive old coupes around cones near the tennis courts, or sit at clunky modules called simulators, shifting gears and gripping a rubbery wheel and watching a screen. My parents never learn to let me drive. They hate to practice with me. There’s no point in practicing, they insist, because you’re not going to be using our car. Unspoken, it is clear that this is a punishment connected to my eating disorder.

Occasionally, my grandfather will let me drive his big tan Suburban around the Stickney cemetery, past the mausoleum and the Chinese graves where people leave flowers and oranges.

Meanwhile, I slowly stop attending school. I just plain don’t go. I stay home sick, taking long showers and sleeping all day. Does my mother call me in? I’m in the midst of a yearlong project in Honors English (ingeniously referred to as the Honors Project, or, sometime after Jennifer Lopez becomes J-Lo, the Ho-Pro) and I’ve been rereading Salinger, wearing down the pages with highlighters that code plot or theme or character. Night upon night I stay up, typing at the computer in our living room, while everyone else is asleep, the television playing silently to my father, asleep in his La-Z-Boy. I type and drink Halfway to Heaven; I instant message with Courtney, who’s in Honors English with me; she’s so hungry, so tired she may be hallucinating: she just saw the bones in her hand float away.

I cry with little prompting, and think about death. Or, I breathe shallowly and focus on not thinking about death. Not suicide, not funerals, but a final state—I inhale and imagine my consciousness ceasing, the eternal nothingness. I try to hold my breath and grind my face into my pillow. I am so weak. I haven’t lost anyone in my life yet. Am I somehow exempt? Until eighth grade, every Sunday I went to church. I’d been an altar server with my brother. At sixteen, it was as though the person I’d been growing up was lying in a casket in front of me.

These thoughts slow down when my therapist, Maria, suggests I see a psychiatrist. Dr. Orland prescribes me Celexa, which, in spite of the first week of crippling nausea, seems to come without side effects (I am like myself, but just not so sad); he also spends a therapist’s hour talking to me, to my mom and me, to my mom alone in his office decorated with cartoons and statues of friendly moose. I’m lucky. Courtney sees a female psychiatrist who’s done with her in five minutes, and prescribes a whole cocktail of SSRIs and antipsychotics.


1 The sort of dieter who says “If only I could be anorexic, I wish I were anorexic! I would love to be bulimic!”_

2 Enough of our parents are strict—we parted ways.

3 Poor Chuck Martin, whom I never really liked. He was in chemistry with Courtney and me; his eyes were icy blue, and, in conversation, deeply vapid; his arms were ropy; his hard-on, as we grinded in one of the lit-up courtyards turned dance floors, puny.

4 Where we will always get together for sleepovers, even into college (as recently as our senior year of college, Courtney, over Christmas break: “Guys, my parents said I could have a sleepover.”) And which none of us mind—Courtney’s basement, with its working soda fountain, its pool table, its Pac-Man machine and its Golden Tee machine and its closets filled with Escada garment bags and its navy and gold themed bathroom where millipedes skitter, with its sunken, green-carpeted golf room (net against the wall, rows of golf videos, bags of clubs, camcorder to record your stroke), its television system, complicated and needy and always wired differently than the last time Courtney used it—we loved Courtney’s basement.

5 See FN 3.

6 Peeling the thin golden crust from the dough in thick flaps, eating the flaps one at a time, until I wound up with a naked, raw looking ring of pocked dough—if I was feeling indulgent and unhurried, swiping each piece, flap or guts, into a plastic to-go container of soft salty butter.