Between What is Said, and Heard

On our drive from school the other day my teenage son told me a classmate had offered him a joint. I’d been preparing for this moment, staging it in my head for years, ready with my bag full of allegorical stories of my reckless youth before easing into the “Why drugs are bad for you,” speech. But as I drove home searching for how to begin, I remembered back when I was a teen, walking in on my sister’s confession, and my twisted interpretation of her troubling story...

I was fourteen, finishing 8th grade. Another sunny day in L.A. and I came home sweating from my twenty minute walk from middle school. I heard my sister talking in our parent’s bedroom, which was usually off limits. When I got to the doorway I saw her and mom sitting next to each other on the end of our parent's bed. They stared at me standing in the threshold, looking more like siblings the way their short, thick red hair framed their tear-streaked freckled faces.

I migrated into the room looking back and forth between them and asked what was going on. They shared a non-verbal exchange as I sat across from them on the little cushioned chair in front of the mirrored vanity. After some time mom revealed how my sister had been vomiting and starving herself for the last several years to stay thin. In the telling she became overwhelmed with grief. Fresh tears slid down her cheeks and she covered her mouth and succumbed to her sadness.

My sister took over, sat perched on the edge of the bed and confessed to years of fasting and purging because skinny was in, and she didn’t want to be left out. Like most of her high-school girlfriends, she’d finally achieved what I thought impossible for our well-endowed family lineage. She was unarguably thin.

And I wanted to be her.

I wanted to be rail thin, heroin chic, a cover-girl stunner like my big sister. To me, she was beautiful—sleek, tight. She was what I too aspired to be, what every magazine, TV show and movie showed attractive, desired women should be.

And she’d just told me how to get there.

What I heard her say that afternoon was vomiting worked. I failed to acknowledge her detailed account of the toll the eating disorder took on her body and mind. I stopped listening right after she told me how she’d gotten skinny. Everything that followed was white noise.

From that day forward, and for the next five years I threw up frequently after eating to purge my body of the calories. I tried to ignore that I was tired all the time, and chronically cranky, and falling into a black kind of depression. The desire to be thin superseded all reason. If my sister could do it, I could, and would, and did, regardless of the health risks.

Several years in therapy with a nutritionist gave my sister the fortitude to combat social pressures and become more accepting of her body. I still battle with my weight. Racquetball and running eventually replaced retching, but my sister’s words still echo in my head and taunt me every time I over-indulge—not all of what she said, only what I heard.

I pulled the Prius into the garage this afternoon and I looked at my beautiful son in the rear view mirror awaiting my lecture. My stomach hurt from the burger and fries I’d eaten for lunch earlier. My heart hurt—lost for words of wisdom for my kid. I wanted to purge my body of the heaviness, then shook my head in disgust at the notion, hoping my son didn't catch it. Thirty years later I'm still fighting the voices inside that rationalized my sister's disorder as a workable solution.

I led my son into the house for a snack and a chat. And I lied. I made up a tale of ‘a friend’s’ reckless behavior that lead to disaster. I told story after story of kids I went to high school with who were users and grew up to be losers (though I know none). I assured him popularity did not come with using. I left no space for him to surmise drugs were simple fun, or required to be ‘in.’ I chose my words carefully, considered them from many angles for possible distortion before speaking, even asked him to summarize what I’d said often to make sure we were on the same page. And though he parroted my sentiments in detail, in recalling my experience with my sister, there is now lingering concern he didn't really hear me.

Sometimes, between what is said and what is heard is the Grand f***ing Canyon.

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