I’ve always been an indulgent person—from going to friends’ houses instead of studying for a final, to buying vinyls when I should be saving my money. But sometimes, I indulge in things that I know aren’t good for me. I’ve been obsessed with the feeling of a sewing needle dragging back and forth on my arm, and I still find a strange sense of glee figuring out what limits I can push for myself. I don’t think limits have escaped me; they’ve just never been something I’ve paid attention to. Friends have often told me they can’t believe I’ve survived everything I’ve been through. When I speak about my childhood they gasp and usually exclaim: “Wow, I probably would be dead by now if I were you!” I don’t quite know if that’s a compliment or not.
When I was 13, I went through a bout of racialized harassment that transformed my life and my psyche. To cope, I found what I thought was peace in eating things I knew I shouldn’t. It started off small: scratching at my mother’s unfinished sunroom and eating the drywall that caught underneath my nail, sand getting in my mouth at the beach and swallowing it rather than spitting it out. I didn’t know there was a term for it at the time, or that it was an eating disorder. It soon became a part of me, latching onto my spirit until I didn’t think it was strange anymore. It was a part of my teenage life, just as much as something like music.
After a couple of years, I recovered—never fully, but it was a start. I began to take care of myself and soon the compulsion left my brain. Along with this, I moved out of an abusive household, graduated high school, and finally went to college. It seemed like my life was getting better. I was finally learning how to be a person who could cope on their own—without this desire to consume non-edible things following my every step.
This changed toward the end of 2019. I got a job at a hotel in November, and although the staff was lovely, the work was hard on my body and my mental health. To stave off the nosebleeds and headaches I was getting daily, I began to drink. I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but every morning before work I would drink to numb myself before the day began. It started with a shot every morning, which then turned into two. Rapidly, shots became a glass of vodka paired with three cigarettes for breakfast. This got worse with the turn of the year, and in the first week of January, after an ill-fated phone call and a day of harassment, I lost every cent I owned.
In March, I quit my job. I’d fainted and hit my head on the bathroom counter and decided I couldn’t do it anymore. That same month, a movie called Swallow was released. It tells the story of a woman named Hunter who calms her isolation and pain by consuming objects such as thumbtacks and marbles. After I saw the film, I wrote a piece about how Hunter’s relationship with her father helped me cope with the disappearance of mine, which is still true. But I didn’t share that the film sparked a newfound obsession I thought had left me long ago. This time, it had a name: pica.
It started small again—paint shavings off the bedroom wall, biting at erasers. But then it escalated. Months followed and I continued to indulge in this compulsion that allowed me to feel some sense of control over my life. I began throwing up regularly, and sometime in June I vomited up blood and realized my habit wasn’t normal. I knew it was wrong and that I was hurting myself, but I was doing so by my own hand. For the first time in the year, I felt in control over my life. With every piece of lead or paint or sand that went down my throat, I felt alive.
While Swallow helped me grieve and heal, it simultaneously took a toll on my psyche. I was given a means to cope through the loss of my father, but I also endured one of the worst relapses I’ve ever experienced. I haven’t quite pushed through it yet, either; I still can’t stand the sight of pencils.
I sometimes feel that the only person who can truly understand what I’m going through is Hunter, but she solely exists on the silver screen. She may not be real, but my compulsion is. It fizzles in and out of my thoughts, wearing on me some days more than others. Sometimes I’m consumed with an overwhelming urge to harm myself, and I don’t know what to do with myself other than succumb to it. It’s an invisible disorder and an invisible pleasure I’ve kept a secret. It brings me joy just as much as it brings me pain. I know one day this obsession will subside, but I don’t think I can completely shed it.
By Kaiya Shunyata