Chapter 16
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The Ecstatic Moment

Christmas memories can be complicated

When I think of Christmas, I think of starving.

Not just starving, of course. I’ve seen fifty-three Christmas seasons come and go, and so I have a varied collection of holiday memories knocking around my brain. For instance, my childhood Christmases were wondrous—huge piles of gifts, splendid trees, endless feasting. The Brownings excelled at Christmas excess, and no one enjoyed it more than I did. Becoming an adult took most of the shine off the holiday for me. What had been magical became a mostly pleasant obligation. There is not much wonder in shopping and cooking and managing contentious relatives.

But there was a time when Christmas wonder returned. I was in my early thirties. My marriage was decaying, and I had a job I thoroughly hated. I found life miserable, and without quite knowing what was happening to me, I began to soothe myself with hunger. Refusing food became my chief pleasure. This is something no one tells you about anorexia: it is a great pacifier. Hunger—deep, profound hunger—ripples through your body like good whiskey. It jolts and then quiets you.

But hunger doesn’t last. The body stops crying out for what it never gets and soon turns on itself, consumes itself. Muscles waste away. Joints stiffen. Weakness and pain are continual. This is starvation. I was starving, and doctors told me I could die, but I was helpless to stop it. And I didn’t want to stop it because the physical misery was accompanied by a heightening of my senses that was exquisite, intense. Sights, smells, and sounds more vivid than I any had ever known washed over me all the time. I was having the best high ever. This is another thing no one tells you about anorexia: it is ecstasy.

And that’s where Christmas comes in. I was living in Chicago then, home in those days of the grand old Marshall Field’s department store. When the holidays rolled around, the store devoted an entire floor to spectacular Christmas displays. I will never forget the first time I stumbled up there in my skeletal state. The colors and the lights overwhelmed me. I stood before a tree decorated in purple and gold, and it was as if I had been given the gift of sight for the first time, so powerful was the effect. Every sad, mundane thing in my life fell away, just for that moment.

I am two decades past those days now. I’m happily single and I am well—not starving, not fighting the desire to starve. Life is sane and manageable. Christmas doesn’t mean much at all to me. But sometimes I think of that woman who marveled, awestruck, at the department store tree, and I miss her.