A Maine Summer

I took a long drive today. I had some errands to run, so I started there. I got in the car—game plan. Radio on. Switch radio. Switch it again. Just right? Still no. Sigh. Tired of the same summer tunes. The AC needed to be turned down. I started the car a few minutes before I left to get the AC going, but now it was too cold. Or too strong. I couldn’t decide.

It was about 76º in the Portland-area all day today. Tomorrow is expected to be the same.

My mind roamed as I drove, as per usual. And beyond radio and temperature. Stomach twang. Shit. I gotta watch myself, I’m gonna get myself into a bad situation. A familiar situation. Get your shit together, Libby. I wrestled out of that thought pattern and got myself to check in with my sight. Floating above me were these mighty, angelic clouds. John Constable clouds. An orange hue. Jesus—life is beautiful. So it is worth it. But how can I live it?

Driving on the highway during a Maine summer is an experience. Today, as mentioned, it caused my mind to race—but not forward. The duo’s voices giggling and bantering on the radio were the same voices that permeated my car rides to high school every morning. 7:30 was their morning monologue and, conveniently, right when I hopped in the car every weekday morning. Sometimes the two were funny, sometimes not so much. The woman’s voice is fairly husky, which I always found off-putting but also relieving—relatable almost. At least she isn’t too pretty sounding. That would annoy me. 

Today, Blake and Eva talked about sexual harassment training in their office and promoted a “Concert in the Park in Maine!” event taking place this coming weekend. “Nothing is better than a summer in Maine!” 

I thought of the ferry rides and rocky beaches; lobster bakes and grass stains; buggy nights and dirt roads; pitched tents and sun hats. Rustic and rugged—and real. A beautiful summer experience; they were right. And the last time I experienced a Maine summer was about 6 years ago.

Yet Maine is where I’ve spent the past 5 summers (minus the majority of last summer). 

What do I mean, then? 

My childhood summers are vivid. Trips to the waterpark thanks to our patient best friend’s stay at-home mom. I always got fried dough before the wave pool.

Bike rides to Subway. We sat at the picnic tables in the courtyard and carved our names and “inside jokes” into the green paint with coins the cashier handed us back in change after paying for our 3-inch subs and Bug Juices.

Backyard “family dinners” attended by neighbors and loved ones who counted as family, despite whether the genetic label was true or not. Us kids played (intense) games of capture the flag while waiting for dinner—parents munched on hors-d’oevres and sucked down cool cocktails. 

Our feet grew accustomed to the hot pavement and rough roads as the summer days went on. And we prided ourselves in those calloused soles. Sleepovers were coveted, as were trips to the country club pool—especially if we were allowed to fuel up on grilled cheeses and root beers during Adult Swim. 

Something crept into me the summer before I went into eighth grade. It started on the last day of seventh grade, when a cute boy hosted a pool party. I had never been to a pool party. The last day of sixth grade, my mean but popular boy neighbor hosted one and surprisingly invited me. Maybe he wasn’t as mean as I thought and realized that, given how close I lived, it would be inconsiderate not to include me…I told him I couldn’t go because I had family plans. The truth was that I wouldn’t dare be seen in a bathing suit in front of the boys, let alone the girls in my grade. Instead, I kneeled in my window with binoculars and snooped on the “fun” from afar. Come the last day of seventh grade, however, I somehow built up the courage to say yes to this pool party invite. All of my friends were going and “getting ready” at a girl’s house that I hadn’t yet been to, which intrigued me. All I knew was that she lived on the island and had a pool. And she was really pretty. And she invited me to take the bus to her house, put my bathing suit and makeup on with the other girls, eat watermelon, then get driven over to hot boy’s house in her mom’s SUV.

I wore a navy blue bikini top with white anchors on it. The bottoms didn’t match—they were a solid coral color. I wore them because I thought they accentuated my tan (that didn’t yet exist, as this was the first day of summer…but that’s besides the point). 

The party was stressful for me. It started around lunch-time—maybe slightly after noon. There was pizza and bowls of pretzels and Cheetos. Cans of ginger ale, coke, and seltzer. Slices of watermelon, carrot sticks with ranch dip, and celebratory cupcakes. Some kids were cannon-balling into the pool while others were sitting in a circle on the lawn playing truth or dare. Strangely, I found myself hovering by the snack table. I had yet to take off my tank top and expose my belly, so swimming in the pool wasn't an option. And by no means was I going to get involved in the game of truth or dare. So I found myself hanging out near familiarity—food.

Later that summer I went to a sleep-away soccer camp. I slept in a dorm and ate at dining halls. I was with my middle school friends. The boy I had a crush on was there too. A lot happened at that camp, yet all I seem to remember are the chocolate chip cookies I ate in bed that my mom sent in a care package; going to the pool and looking at the other girls’ flat bellies and clear skin with envy while I sat to the side, clothed and “feeling too sick to swim;” the sodas that I got from the vending machine after practice, etc. 

Things changed more drastically in eighth grade. There was a trip at the end of the year—a field trip—that was a graduation festivity of sorts. Teachers and a select number of parents hopped on busses with the entire class and set off to a pond about 45 minutes away, where we all had a beach day, ate cookout food, played badminton, and celebrated our new status as incoming high-schoolers.

When I got back from hot boy’s pool party on the last day of seventh grade, I logged into Facebook and browsed pictures that were posted by girls in the grade above me of their pond field trip. They posed in bikinis, arm and arm, between scrawny preteen boys. They wore pushup swimsuit tops from Victoria’s Secret Pink. I went online to VS’s site and looked at the selection of tops. Most were $39, the push-up line ranging even higher in price. I wondered which one I would want to buy when my time came in about a year. 

I spent eighth grade worrying. I’ve always been a worrier—or, better put, incredibly anxious. After the summer before eighth grade, I realized I wanted to have a clearer idea of myself internally as well as a more solid, put-together identity externally. I wanted to become a better athlete. A better student. A better-looking girl. A more admirable person to my family and friends. I wanted not to be seen as a sensitive child, but rather as a hard-working person who could be seen as a grown-up and taken more seriously when making her own decisions. 

Food and exercise became my outlet—and shortly my vice. Throughout my childhood, I’d always been self-conscious in school when I pulled out my white bread sandwich and Juicy Juice from my lunchbox, whilst the other girls at my table pulled out foul smelling concoctions on seeded, multigrain loafs and sides of kefir. I was self-conscious in the sense that I was the odd one out, but I didn’t envy their lunches—nor did I consider the underlying implications of my white bread versus their seeded loaves. 

Until I did. The kids around me that were looked up to all had a few things in common it seemed—they were athletes; they came from “earthy/crunchy/healthy” families; and they all looked the part (aka thin, muscular, and therefore attractive). Upon entering eighth grade, it became clear to me what was valued most amongst the community that I found myself within. That is, “health” seemed to be at the forefront. And there seemed to be a very clear definition of health based on what I saw. At age thirteen, I came to believe “health” was achieved by the following: multigrain bread, not a lot of food, lots of running/as many fitness classes as possible, early to bed, little straying from rigidity, and—again—not a lot of food. 

I don’t particularly feel the need to fill in the gaps from then to now. I will say, though, that my journey has been windy and far from clear-cut since. My lifestyle underwent a major overhaul the year I was thirteen. I counted calories, the number of miles I was running, grams of sugar, my rice cakes, etc. I avoided counting the the number of friends I was losing and the number of hours I was putting into punishing myself—into wasting time arbitrarily striving for…what? And the fog took over.

And ever since, life’s tint has changed. Food was my now vice, the umbrella over life.

I got sick in eighth grade, and everyone—including me—noticed. That was round one. So queue the Pop Tarts and meal plan and exercise ban. “She has bad anxiety,” professionals said. My family nodded, as did I. “We know.” 

Round two kicked in sophomore year. The sickness shape-shifted—as did (and have) my ideals and appearance I strived for. Restricting went to binging went to restricting, and back again. My body ballooned, and my heart broke. I felt lost and searched for meaning. The cycle continued. Skip forward two years, and round three kicked in. Off to a facility with beds and a big table. Back with a plan and a sparkle in my eye.

You know those sparklers people play with on the Fourth of July? Just like those sticks, my own sparkle of hope died with time. And it has come back in bursts, but like I said—life’s tint has forever changed since age thirteen. Since, I’ve moved out. Been on my own. Been in a partnership. Maneuvered through food and life with friends and without them; as a student; with and without a job; and both with myself and without her. 

I write this to you—or rather to me—not to recount the history of my eating disorder. This is not my story. My (and most others') sickness is not a product of simply wanting to change the way I look(ed), feeling insecure, or an obsession with food. Rather, as I drove in the car today, I realized something minimal yet monumental: I haven’t had a Maine summer in a long time. I haven’t had a summer since before age thirteen, before I got “sick,” where I could order a lemonade from the carnival without thinking about the caloric content—nor have I had a fried dough at baseball games or done “normal summer activities” without thinking about the exercise involved (be it a waterpark, a bike ride, a mere walk, etc.)

And even those times when I did eat the cupcake, attend the party, and strive so desperately for balance—it has felt like the umbrella hasn’t lifted; the umbrella of the disorder. And in thinking about recovery, most recovering individuals do believe that the umbrella will never disappear (contrary to the beliefs of most “natural lifers” / “natural eaters”). But rather, ED fighters (including myself) believe that shadow can become far less gloomy and overbearing—perhaps even scarce—with time and strength. And that is what I continue to work toward. 

Food is a part of life, and still heavily impacts and guides my decision-making in life. Some days, the umbrella helps me feel secure—sheltered from the rain. Other days, I just want to feel the sun on my face. But my life is my life. There are parts I can choose and parts that I cannot. 

So, I choose to continue choosing when possible. 

As I drove back from the grocery store today, I felt my stomach against my seatbelt. I thought of the bags in the backseat—the bananas, grapes, eggs, etc. I thought of the battle I just had in the cereal aisle reading labels—my eyes like a metal detector and my head responding in clamorous beeps at the following string of words: “high fructose corn syrup.” I switched lanes and adjusted the AC and the radio’s volume. I thought back to hot boy’s pool party and the grilled cheeses by the country club pool way back when. And I began to think ahead—ahead to the rest of the Maine summer that lies ahead. Maybe this one can be different. Maybe it can be.

Blake and Eva’s chuckling voices surprised me as I turned my blinker on and boarded my exit’s ramp. I looked at the clock and noticed that it was 3:30—it must be time for their afternoon gossip session. Their voices dissolved into space as I looked ahead and continued driving. 

Maybe this one can be different. 

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P.S. I’m writing this while drinking chardonnay and eating a precisely counted number of Triscuits. I’m a restricter and a binger and food is meaningful to me. It scares me, it impacts me, it excites me, etc. I’ve got a lot to work on, and I’ve also got a lot to be proud of. So, cheers to that. 

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