Iowa Writes

THARIN SCHWINEFUS
Running on Empty


I sit on a blue vinyl couch in hospital clothes with tears streaming down my face. I sit very straight and erect; only lazy people slouch. Besides, I don't deserve to relax.


My friend is with me as always. He's my friend, coach, advisor, and cheerleader—some would say critic and master. "Coming here was a mistake," he says, "You're not sick.  You could leave right now."


As I cry, some other patients come over to introduce themselves and console me. I compare myself to them: Those two don't look that skinny. Why are they here? I decide that Sarah and I are the thinnest. Her cheek bones stick out prominently like mine. If the others could see me undressed, they would notice that all of my ribs can be seen front and back. Sarah and I are the strongest. We have the most self-control. We don't do things half-assed.


A young man with blond hair and a thin face approaches me.  His teeth seem too big for his head. "I don't usually do this," he says, "but I thought I should introduce myself.  I'm Ryan."


"Are you afraid of being fat?"  I ask.

I sit on a blue vinyl couch in hospital clothes with tears streaming down my face. I sit very straight and erect; only lazy people slouch. Besides, I don't deserve to relax.


My friend is with me as always. He's my friend, coach, advisor, and cheerleader—some would say critic and master. "Coming here was a mistake," he says, "You're not sick.  You could leave right now."


As I cry, some other patients come over to introduce themselves and console me. I compare myself to them: Those two don't look that skinny. Why are they here? I decide that Sarah and I are the thinnest. Her cheek bones stick out prominently like mine. If the others could see me undressed, they would notice that all of my ribs can be seen front and back. Sarah and I are the strongest. We have the most self-control. We don't do things half-assed.


A young man with blond hair and a thin face approaches me.  His teeth seem too big for his head. "I don't usually do this," he says, "but I thought I should introduce myself.  I'm Ryan."


"Are you afraid of being fat?"  I ask.

"A little bit. But mainly I just don't feel worthy of eating," he answers.


One of the first doctors I meet has an MD and a PhD. While talking we discover we were in the same college conference. He speaks of his dissertation and his groundbreaking research. My friend whispers to me, "You work at Wal-Mart and live with your parents. You're nothing compared to this guy. You're a loser."


Eventually, I meet the famous Dr. Andersen. "Are you beginning to identify your emotions?"  he asks.


"Yes," I say.

"What would your ideal body look like?" he asks. "Could you draw me a picture of it?"


I draw a man with wide shoulders, muscular arms, and a flat stomach with ripped abs.  I have drawn a bodybuilder. It's not that I want to be as big as a bodybuilder, but I love how lean and defined they are: the smaller the waist, the better they look. The more defined, the better.


At dinner one evening, I am eating grapes with a fork. "Oh, that's finger food," Cheryl points out. I don't like to touch food. That's one of my rules. The aid makes me use my fingers. Thanks a lot, Cheryl, for fucking up my routine. Why don't you just keep your mouth shut. I always eat slowly; undisciplined people eat fast. We aren't allowed to eat one food at a time: we have to eat around the plate. We can't save our milk for the end, or drink it all right away—we have to drink it with our meal. I hate their food rules.


"Don't worry," my friend says, "You can still count the number of bites and chews. You can eat as slowly as you want. You're still in control. Still strong."


Ryan always looks angry and disgusted at mealtime. "I hate it when they forget something on my tray and I have to tell them," he says. "It makes it seem like I want it—like I want more food. I look like a pig." In Kay's therapy group I squirm around in my chair. My rear end still has no padding, and it hurts to sit on hard chairs. Kay notices and silently hands me a pillow to sit on. That day I talk about not being much of a man.


"Where do you work?" someone asks.

"I just work at Wal-Mart," I reply.

"What do you mean you just work at Wal-Mart? Do you think that's not good enough?  Do you think we're going to judge you? We don't think any less of you," she says.
"Don't believe them," my friend says, "They're just being nice."

"I'm worthless," I tell my parents in a meeting with Mary, a social worker, who tries to tell me it's not my fault I have an illness. "But I should have done an internship in college. I should have went on to graduate school. But instead I'm a cashier at Wal-Mart and living at home. An embarrassment." My parents say they love me for who I am and assure me that they don't think I'm worthless. My friend and I aren't buying any of it.


One afternoon, Ryan and I are talking about starvation as a slow means of suicide. "Why not just kill yourself and save yourself the pain?" someone behind us asks.

Ryan turns to look the girl in the face. "The punishment," he says.

"Yes," I agree. "The punishment."

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


THARIN SCHWINEFUS

Tharin Schwinefus grew up in northeast Iowa and attended Postville High School and Wartburg College. He enjoys writing in his spare time.

This page was first displayed
on March 31, 2009

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