Patienthood
By Brynn Gauthier

Content Warning: Eating disorders, hospitals, self-harm, death.
Author’s Note: Names have been changed for the privacy of other patients.

On October 1, 2020, I was sent home from Vassar College at the recommendation of  Health Services. I was a senior for the month of September, and then I was a patient. 

I would learn that my home, Denver, Colorado, is the eating disorder capital of the  world, and that Oreos cannot be dipped in milk. I would learn to earn my butterfly clips from  my Sharps Bucket with good behavior and I would learn how ungentle I had really been: making  a paperclip, economy, police-precinct-sketch of myself.

For the next two months, I live in a bedroom on the second floor. My roommate is named  Tonya. She is 58-years-old, from Oregon, and her fingernails were flaky, like mine. She gives me  a sand dollar when she leaves. I am very afraid of it crumbling.

Each day, I disclaim to the nurse that my veins are rolly, unreliable. The needle loses me,  and so I am relegated to the butterfly needles, the ones used for infants. 

I watch my friends cry over maple syrup rivers and rip out endless National Geographic pages. Yolky and blue, we wish upon saloon doors and construction paper. We drink milk and put our feet above our heads: it helps with the swelling. Some days, we are spoon-shaped and some days we are lighthouses. Other days, we are endless apologies. At 7pm, we wait for mail. Staff watches us open and read long letters from far away people, and then they keep the envelopes. In the bathroom, we share Q-tips and wonder if the morning will come again.

I give my eating disorder a name, Gloria, and explain that she is the friend I am friends  with at college because my mom probably wouldn’t like her. I liked that she was interested in  me, and when her love hurt, it seemed like you were just learning what everyone else already  knew. We laugh, and I stink of half-truths.

On Christmas, we make a tree out of pipe cleaners. On New Year’s Day, we miss house  parties we never went to, upstairs neighbors we never had. While rioters storm the Capitol  Building in January, we are waiting in front of a thermometer, hoping that the temperature goes above 32 degrees so we can get 10 minutes of Fresh Air Time instead of five. 

On our second floor, our world is narrowed to murky voicemails. Our gravity lies in lukewarm Ensure bottles while the Earth’s gravity lies in vaccines and impeachment processes. My extinction was charming until it wasn’t. My decay was organized until it wasn’t. 

Eating disorders are the entanglement of someone constrained to pay attention. I was  so sick of being itched by the world, and so I began investing in a new geometry.

But this is the math as I remember: I remember tiny, spider Brynn who was cold on her  21st birthday and her dad had to hold her. I remember clumps of hair. I remember the evil joy of  eating on my own and the pain of snack time. I remember being sunken and alone.

I don’t know if I should be ashamed or angry. I am ashamed that people I love saw me  like this, I am ashamed I scared those people, I am ashamed that I still mourn the control my  eating disorder gave me every day. I am ashamed that I am exhausted by and infatuated with  the very thing that almost killed me. I am ashamed that I could so easily forget what my life was  without it, and struggle each day to choose not to live the way I had become so comfortable  living. I am angry that I have this shame, I am angry I couldn’t handle the world as I was starting  to know it to be, and I am angry that I still struggle to deserve anger.

When I dutifully write down my shame and my anger, therapized and still, I realize it is  about others. It has very little actually to do with me. My eating disorder preyed upon my  pursuit of Goodness, tempered my actuality in pursuit of the Brynn that wanted to be whatever  other people wanted her to be. In her false compassion, I felt like I was doing the best thing I  could for myself and for others: I was making my bigness smaller. I was making my cheeks less  red. I was making my heart more palatable. 

Treatment has been a pilgrimage to the lives I thought I was supposed to be living while avoiding the life that I feared was too confrontational, too much. My college experience, in a way, simulated its own Second Floor Narrowness. Believing in Gloria felt, at first, like believing  in the hierarchy of the sides of the Deece. Your world gets comfortable, small, then suffocating. I came to Vassar a romantic and am leaving symptomatic.

I don’t want my senior year back. I don’t even want the fantasy of my freshman year.  I’m done with Vassar, I think: grateful, but done. I just want a second chance and to never see a  Mandala coloring book ever again.

I can’t help but still hold my patienthood. There is still a part of me standing on cold tiles  in a paper gown in front of eggshell walls with a Dixie cup of my own urine. In my new  saturation, I know I am also flimsier. I have neither the steady hollowness of Anorexia, nor the  bouncy tumble of someone who has never known addiction. I still keep my hands above the  table when I eat, and have to be reminded to put my napkin in my lap. I sometimes wait for  someone to tell me to sit down when I am standing, and anticipate being yelled at for not  eating a mushy grape.

Why am I writing this? Who am I writing this to? I guess the hope is that by saying that  at one point I was a senior, that I can still be a senior, that I can then also be a graduate. I left Vassar on October 1st a popsicle-stick of a human being, horseradish on bread you wish was buttered. I am trying to believe that I have been more than a patient before and that I will be  again. I don’t have to be what I have been, but I can, and maybe I already am.


Perhaps you knew me as headstrong shopping cart wheels, or Silly String matted on wet  grass. Perhaps I am a stranger writing nonsense about mainlining hard boiled eggs in a hospital. Perhaps you know Gloria, perhaps you have liked her, too. Maybe I write this because popsicle sticks can make great castles, when all put together. Maybe I write this because I want to be  told that I have been Silly String, so I can say back that I want to be Silly String again, maybe even the biodegradable kind. I was so lonely. I simply don’t want to be anymore.

By putting words on paper, I am calling out the Brynn I had shown you and the Brynn I  have chalked myself up to being, calling on both to make room for a not-yet-defined  seasonality. I do not know what is next, but silence and isolation is not it, and so here is my last  five months. Here is the room with the frosted windows I lived in on that second-floor. Here is my microwaved heart. Here lies the person you thought I was and the person I thought I was and the person I am thinking about being next.

So once again, here I am, investing my narrative in other people: needing a recipient to  validate my smallness, my bigness, the fact that I am trying, the fact that I was once something  more than I am now. I am struggling with the need to justify myself, the need to let you know  what I was thinking and how I was thinking. If I don’t, I am destined to be irrational and Gloria  would have been right. I was waxy and susceptible and taken by something. But it wasn’t me.  Do you believe me? I want you to, so I can believe myself.

This is a story of custodianship. I don’t intend to romanticize what it is to not want to  feed yourself, to be afraid of hunger. It was the least romantic thing in the world. This is a story  of how, at 21-years-old, I learned to want to take care of myself again. In the past, that meant  talking to others, sharing campfires, holding hands. It meant telling the truth. That is what I am  trying to do again. My tongue is finding new caverns in brownie batter barns. Some days I  blossom and some days I bellow. Some days I write frantic letters that I can hang my marbles on. 

Learning to take up space again is the hardest thing I have ever done. I am done trying  to fit into hands, asking how I can be different from exactly what I am. When you see me next, I  hope to be vulgar. I hope to have cold, soft-serve ice cream teeth and sweaty palms. I hope to  have infinite Fresh Air time and triumphantly dip Oreos in milk. I hope to be full and foul and  sagging with joy. 

But most of all, when you see me next, I hope to be alive.