When the opportunity arose for me to escape the dinner table, I locked the bathroom door behind me and raised my arms to see how badly I was sweating. The stains extended all the way from the sides of my breasts to the bottom of my rib cage; they were visible without me even lifting my arms.
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Seven years ago, at age 19, I was introducing my father to my first serious girlfriend, and although the night was going well, my body always reacted this way when I went to his home.
I sat down on the toilet, grabbed a bunch of toilet paper and quickly blotted my armpits with it. I felt like I was gasping for air as I wadded up three more squares and popped them into my mouth. My front teeth sunk into the chewy wad, and I scraped my molars against each other as I let the paper dissolve in my mouth.
After several minutes, I stood up and walked over to the mirror, bracing myself against the vanity as I looked at myself. I pressed my lips together and stared directly into my own eyes. I wondered what my father saw when he looked at me.
Then, I swallowed the lump of toilet paper, readjusted my dress so that my pit stains were as hidden as possible, and rejoined the dinner party.
I had been eating toilet paper every time I went to the bathroom since I was 8 years old, when my sister came home from school and told us that her fifth grade classmate had swallowed his spelling test so that he didn’t have to take it.
That night, I stuck a square of toilet paper on my tongue.
I would later learn that not all toilet paper is equally appetizing — cheap one-ply varieties taste like chemicals and fluffy overpriced brands are too thick to swallow without water. Our Angel Soft double roll had the perfect taste and consistency.
But what I liked best about eating paper was that it was calorie-free.
My mother had just taught me how to start counting Weight Watchers points. I knew I was overweight, but I had learned how to binge eat three years earlier when I started attending therapy. My therapist would bring in four bags of chocolate candies each session and, after preparing me a mug full of hot chocolate and whipped cream, lay the bags on the coffee table in front of me. I grabbed as many chocolates as my little fists would hold and unwrapped them one by one while telling her how alien I felt, about how little I got along with anyone at school, how my sister’s type I diabetes and my parents’ recent divorce was affecting me.
By age 11, my father remarried a woman who seemed to openly despise me, an incident on a family vacation caused them to kick me out of their home because I was a “danger to their family” and, despite me eating toilet paper and chalk and ice and erasers instead of food at every opportunity, I was overweight. I also started having panic attacks and depressive episodes and expressing how I wanted to kill myself, how something must be wrong with me because I felt so very unloved.
As I left the bathroom at my father’s house, I thought about how this dinner should have felt comfortable. It should have felt safe. He and his wife and their children should have felt like family. Instead, all I could think about was how manufactured it all seemed, from his wife’s fresh set of acrylic nails to my dad’s over-the-top efforts to make my girlfriend feel comfortable. It was all so different from the reality that only I seemed to acknowledge.
That night, when I got home, I took the entire roll of toilet paper to bed with me.
I had relied on eating paper any time I felt anxious, or sad, or angry, any time I wished I could reach for a candy bar or a bag of chips. But once my new girlfriend hit me shortly after our dinner at my dad’s house, toilet paper was no longer enough.
That summer, I worked at the ticket booth at a waterpark. My favorite shifts were the ones where I was alone in the tiny locker rental shack across from the wave pool. I gave swimsuit-clad guests a locker key in exchange for a single dollar bill, then recorded the number of transactions on a piece of printer paper. In between customers, I read from a paperback book that I had smuggled in under my shirt.
But reading wasn’t enough to calm my mind. During my breaks, I used my employee discount to buy nachos and Sour Skittles and giant cups of Sprite. I crammed toilet paper into my mouth and chewed on pens and bit erasers off of pencils.
I started coming up with ways to pass the time alone in my locker hut. I wondered if I could get away with pocketing some of the dollar bills I collected. A security camera hung on the wall next to me, and while I didn’t trust that it was actually recording me, I didn’t want to test my luck.
But I didn’t need to take individual dollar bills. As long as I didn’t write down when someone rented a key, I could track how many keys I didn’t record, and then take the total from the cash register before I left. I figured I couldn’t take too much money without causing suspicion, but at the end of my shift, I walked out of the shack with a carefully-folded five-dollar bill tucked into my sock.
Unfortunately, I only got locker shifts once every couple of weeks, which meant I needed to adapt my strategy for the ticket counter. It was a much trickier operation, considering there were not only cameras, but also at least five fellow ticket sellers and a supervisor nearby.
After a couple days, I figured it out. Once a day or so, a customer would come up asking for a replacement wristband because theirs had come off. Because we couldn’t print a new band without the cash register ringing it up as a transaction, we were instructed to make note of the number of replacement bands we handed out each day so that our registers would balance. During a slow period, or when the supervisor was on break, I would wait for a customer to come up and buy a general admission band. I rung up the transaction and gave them their wristband, but when they left, I took their $26.96 cents and folded the bills up as tightly as possible, abandoning the coins in the extra change cup on the counter. Then, I logged the transaction as a replacement band and found an opportune moment to reach down to tie my shoes, instead shoving the small bundle of cash into the side of my New Balance sneakers.
I realized I was becoming more like my father, who was a known liar and cheat. But I knew that my sneakiness was different than his. It looked more like me doing everything I could to control my environment, my behavior, my brain. It looked like praying and ruminating and isolating and never being vulnerable with anyone. It looked like pulling strands of my hair out one by one and eating handfuls of toilet paper and sticks of chalk and the lead out of mechanical pencils when I was alone. It looked like binge eating in my room and shoplifting candy from Savemart and later bouquets of flowers from Safeway and Rice Krispies Treats and Diet Cokes from the campus café. It looked like never telling anyone about how my girlfriend treated me and continuing to post cute couple photos on Instagram and lying to my friends about why I couldn’t see them so many times that eventually they stopped asking.
It took 15 years of therapy before anyone mentioned that my relationship with my parents might be contributing to my worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.At my third appointment with Claude, he pulled a drawing out of his filing cabinet. He sat close to me on the couch and held it up for me to look at.
“You see… the mom’s looking at the baby, and the baby’s looking back at the mom. The baby is able to see herself mirrored in her mother’s gaze… she knows her mother is watching her. What happens when the mom isn’t looking at the baby, or isn’t really present with the baby, is that then she has no one to mirror her experiences back to, and no way of getting confirmation that she’s OK. She’s essentially alone.”
“This was your experience as a baby… even when your mom was physically there, she wasn’t with you emotionally… because of her relationship with her own mom, and the way she was raised, she wasn’t able to ever be emotionally present with you. So you as the baby, you’re looking up at your mom trying to get that confirmation that you’re being held, you’re OK, but you can see that Mom is somewhere else. So you never formed the secure attachment that you needed to feel safe in the world.”
“OK,” I said. None of this was surprising to me — I’d known that my grandmother, who had struggled with alcoholism and severe depression since the death of her husband and two young sons before my mom was born, hadn’t exactly been an engaged mother. But I’d never had a therapist suggest that it might still be affecting me, hadn’t yet heard the phrase “anxious attachment style.”
“I just feel like we’re kind of skipping over my dad, though…” I said after another moment of staring at the drawing, which was beginning to make me angry. The way the mother so lovingly looked down at her child and the baby smiled back up at her felt almost repellant to me, like something I needed to make fun of. “Like he’s really the one I’ve had issues with.”
“Even if you two aren’t having direct conflict, this is still at the root of all your symptoms. You have a fundamental feeling of not being safe in the world.”
After leaving Claude’s office, I got in my car, only somewhat aware that I couldn’t fully feel my body anymore. On my drive home, I blasted old, angsty Tegan and Sara albums and screamed. When I got home, I ate sour candies until my mouth bled.
It took three more years for me to understand what Claude meant. It took three more years for me to start using words like “trauma” and “emotional neglect” to describe my childhood. It took three more years for me to understand that I had pica, an eating disorder involving compulsive consumption of nonfood items, not because I had an iron deficiency or autism, but because I had been living in a state of fear and emotional overwhelm for over a decade.
At age 23, over 15 years after I had started eating toilet paper and days after I cut my father out of my life, I decided it was time to quit. I was humiliated by my close-to-hourly habit, and I was tired of hiding it from loved ones and not getting any help from doctors or therapists.
I replaced all the toilet paper in my home with baby wipes for more than three months. For the first time, I intentionally abstained from buying boxes of chalk at Target or swallowing paper wrappers or eating ice at restaurants. I ate food when I was hungry. I drank water or chewed gum when I was bored.
At the same time, I worked on making my life my own. I found a low-stress career in massage therapy and surrounded myself with people who were good to me. I worked on the chronic feelings of emptiness and shame and guilt and hopelessness that I had ignored my entire life.
I thought I had everything under control — until last year. Two years after I stopped eating toilet paper, I started a new antidepressant, which made me feel so jumpy and anxious I couldn’t sit still. I also began dating someone new, someone who made me feel panicked and out of control, both because I liked her so much and because her affection for me was fleeting, constantly being doled out and then taken away for no reason I could understand.
For several weeks, I returned to my old, seemingly innocuous habits — I pulled curly strands of my hair out as I watched TV and bought bags of chips instead of groceries. I reached for squares of toilet paper and folded them under my tongue, remembering how many times I had been able to hide my disturbing habit from people in my life, how many times I had harbored strange items in my mouth without anyone noticing.
Then, I began to self-harm. When the woman I was dating spontaneously broke up with me again and blocked my number, I hurt myself. When I told my therapist the night before our session, I added, “I’m fine, though. I’m not really hurting myself. I just need to make it through four weeks of side effects before the meds start working. I’m still in control.”
When I saw her expression, I knew she didn’t believe me. She had only been seeing me for several months, and she knew me as a small business owner, as an aspiring writer, as the kind of client who was always seven minutes early for appointments. What I meant to say was, it’s been worse before. Trust me, I can handle this level of dysfunction.
But in her office, cradling my mug of decaf peach tea, it suddenly occurred to me that just because I could handle it didn’t mean I had to handle it. Just because I had half a dozen destructive coping mechanisms to fall back on when things got dire didn’t mean I had to force myself into situations where I had to resort to using them. Because it was never really about the toilet paper. Eating it was just one of many ways I tried to stuff down my feelings, to try and regain control over my life. But it led to even more toxic behaviors like shoplifting, restricting calories, self-harming. Ignoring my own distress could no longer be an option.
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When I left her office, I scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist and switched medications. I took a week off of work and confided in friends about what had happened. I read books and wrote essays and cried.