Riding the Bus in Denver (Sheila Black)

I rode the bus in Denver. I rode it early in the morning and late at night, and sometimes I waited a long time in the cold wind of December at the bus stop near the clinic where my daughter was an in-patient, which was in Lowry, a half-suburb that had once been an air force base and was now a somewhat of a surreal space full of condominiums and offices separated by broad fields of tall dry prairie grasses and small spindly trees — Japanese maple and juniper mostly.

The buses in Denver tended to be only half crowded; it’s a city where most people have cars, so the buses tend to be full of the very young and the very old, the poor.

On the bus I took nights from the clinic, there was a kid who seemed to be a regular — though where he was going at 9:00 each night, or why, I could not say, since it seemed unlikely he had a job. He was always talking on his cell phone — usually too loudly, about what drugs he was on at that particular moment. Fentanyl was kicking his ass; Oxy was giving him a clean clean high.  At first, because he spoke so openly and loudly about these things, I assumed he was exaggerating, but on several nights I saw him nodding out at the back of the bus, once his head dropping so precipitously that I was scared he would keel over right in front of me.

Most people on the bus were quieter — they shuffled off and on or pressed their faces to the windows as we swooped down broad empty streets that led to other broad empty streets, until we ended up back downtown where the streets were much more crowded. Yet it still felt to me as if Denver was somehow an unusually deserted city, filled with parks of pale grasses and darker loden-needled trees clumped together like awkward guests at a party. But that just might have been an illusion created by the particular bus route I always took. Really, my knowledge of Denver was limited: it was just a place I was passing through, the place where my daughter was in the clinic for her eating disorder, and I was there to visit her, be with her, even though most of the time she did not appear to want me there.

When the decision had been made to take my daughter to Denver, her weight had fallen from 116 to around 79 pounds over a period of six months. Her hair began to fall out in ragged clumps. While for a time she had seemed merely excessively critical and irritable, after diagnosis and intervention, she became pretty much catatonic. My husband had stayed with her for two weeks. Now it was my turn. My family leave was a little more flexible than his, so I was to be there three weeks, over Thanksgiving break and beyond. I was staying in the Saint Christopher Hostel beside the Saint Joseph’s Hospital downtown, which provided cheap rooms to people like me, in town to visit sick family members. 

In the weeks before we came to Denver, my daughter had failed fairly spectacularly to respond to any of the treatment options offered in the day program we had enrolled her in at San Antonio. Our family therapist Nancy had told us we were now in the ‘arms-length zone’ where anything might happen — her heart could stop on a whim. And each day she didn’t eat the damage worsened: the de-myelination of the brain, the slowing  of vital organs. Not only had my daughter stopped speaking to us, she had stopped looking at us. When we tried to hug her or hold her, she pulled away, her mouth a furious line in her pinched face. The fury was what unsettled me most.                                                               

Early in the mornings, I’d get up before light and walk to the bus stop, relieved when the bus appeared down the broad, half-empty street, then careened in a loose, almost tipsy-feeling fashion through downtown.  On the edge of the horizon, the sunrise would blaze orange and vermillion, lightening the sky around it to a pale unearthly blue. I’d press my face to the window to look at the park around the Natural History Museum — mansions with stone stairs and French nineteenth century windows. Then the bus veered north, and the houses grew rapidly smaller and shabbier. 

I had to change buses to catch my second bus, along Quebec Avenue, a four-lane road with a slender grassy traffic island along the middle. On one side was a huge glass hotel called The Renaissance; on the other, a mall-like cluster comprising a Walmart, a Goodwill, a Panda Express and a Church’s Chicken. In between were more grassy islands crowded with flocks of honking geese. 

Homeless people clustered around these structures, most pushing various shopping cards piled with bags of sweaters, blankets, foods; many of them shivering in the sharp bright air. The first time I waited there, all alone in the parking lot amid the scanty sprinkling of parked cars, a shopping cart burned. I wondered if someone had set a fire in it to warm themselves, but since no one was standing anywhere near it that seemed unlikely. As the wind rose, the burning cart lurched forward, then backward.  The people on the bus and at the bus stop all seemed to know each other. 

I was allowed to see my daughter only a few times a week, roughly an hour and a half each time. The morning visit from 10:30 a.m. – 2 p.m., the evening visit from 6:45 – 8:15 p.m. On days when visiting was not permitted, I was encouraged to attend the parent therapy group; there were also classes designed to help parents and family members be ‘better coaches and advocates in helping their loved ones deal with this disorder we all share.’ Staff repeated this phrase about ‘the disorder we all share’ many times, and, at first, I was puzzled, but then I came to understand: it wasn’t just that most of us struggled with what to eat, it was also that the disorder itself involved all of us — not only the child, but the family around the child — we parents whose most basic function was to feed our children.

It was also true that in the absence of authentic hunger driven by physical labour almost all of us modern Americans struggled to define a proper relationship to the food we put into our bodies. Our children were simply extremes, outliers, the ones for whom some toxic cocktail of genetics, gender, circumstance, trauma and accident had pushed the generally problematic relationship all of us had with food into a complete estrangement.

We were given strict instructions for visiting-hour protocol. We were not allowed to visit our children’s’ rooms, nor wander the halls. Food and drink were forbidden, as were scissors, knitting needles, pencils, jewellery, all perfumes, and any books not first reviewed by staff. Once we passed the security doors, we lined up behind the on-duty nurse to be led into the visitor’s room, a long narrow space with blue and green laminate wood tables in slightly fish-like shapes and moulded wooden seats with backs upholstered in different colours.                                                                

The first time I was led there, I panicked a little, because I couldn’t see her, and then there she was, wide-eyed and spindly, somehow fairy-like like, so many of the children in that place. She was wheeling an IV tube, and the tube ran through her nose and down her throat. This was what the clinic was known for — the Maudsley approach, named after the hospital in England where psychiatrists had revolutionized anorexia treatment by recognizing that without rapid refeeding, therapy was unlikely to have any effect, because the starved brain becomes locked in its own patterns of privation. The Denver clinic which did not consider itself strict Maudsley, but had adapted this portion of Maudsley treatment — children would be intubated. They would be refed, and only then they would work on their ‘underlying issues’.

‘Mom,’ my daughter said, and she hugged me. I could feel her bones, straw light, jutting out from her thin skin. I showed her the books I’d brought — at least the ones approved by staff. She stacked them all close beside her. She appeared most excited about the one I almost hadn’t brought — a hardcover copy of the Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, which was a book I had read her as a child.

‘This place is so horrible,”’ she said. ‘Plus, my therapist hates me, Mama.’

At first, I was so relieved she was speaking that I didn’t register her voice, which was not at all her voice as I remembered it, but the fey, lisping voice of a child years younger. Later, I would notice that this child-like speech was something many of the girls adopted. The voice was jarring because it felt like a performance of what being a happy good child would be like, a child eager to please. ‘Don’t hurt me,’ this voice seemed to say, ‘please, I’m a good girl. Don’t be angry.’ Like prisoners on visiting day, we clasped hands across the table. I stared at the tube through which flowed a custard yellow fluid. I watched the fluid snake down the clear tube of the IV where it vanished into her nose. I felt an overwhelming relief: as long as that fluid keeps feeding into her, I thought, at least she won’t die.

When visiting hours were over, I met with her therapist Courtney, the one my daughter said hated her. Courtney had long chestnut hair — hair so shiny and vibrant it looked like the hair from the old Herbal Essence ads. Courtney spoke with a smooth, polished fluidity. Like everyone I met in the clinic in Denver, which was supposed to be the best in the country, she seemed dauntingly cheery and well-balanced, self-assured. Yet, even as I started to resist (because who could be that perfect?) Courtney surprised me by looking me dead in the eye and saying that yes, there was reason to be very worried. ‘I find her very hard to get through to,’ Courtney said. “That’s pretty normal at this stage, but your daughter — one problem is that every story she tells herself, she is the victim. We have to work to change that if she is going to make any progress.’  

‘But what if she is the victim?’ I asked.  Courtney shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘Everyone has a sad story. She has to have hope in order to be able to keep living.’                                          

That night the bus took a long time to arrive.  I paced up and down and around the small glassed in bus shelter — I had stupidly not worn a coat. The roads were dark, and I couldn’t see any people. Then, just as I began to wonder if the bus would ever come, it sailed down the street — all lit up like a moon. I frantically waved my arms, which was absurd, because after all, I was at the stop, the only person around. I got on shivering, and that was the first time I saw Oxy Kid, as I came to call him, the most regular of all the regular riders along that route. He was talking in his phone. He was high, he said, he was so high he felt like there was a bird in his chest fighting to get out. He was happy, he said. He was so happy.

The word commute is one of those words that becomes more mysterious the more you ponder its several meanings. I called myself a commuter those weeks in Denver. Yet every time I said it, I felt a little fraudulent. Being a commuter implied something routine, ‘person who travels some distance to work on a regular basis,’ which is in fact its most common contemporary meaning, though a fairly recent one, dating (according to Webster’s) only from the mid-1960s. The older meaning was perhaps more appropriate to my situation — ‘to change or transfigure,’ from the Latin commutare, or ‘to change often, to change altogether.’ This meaning felt more like what I longed to do, or what I felt I should do; also ‘commute’ in the sense of ‘make less severe,’ or ‘to exchange one burden in place of another.’ Riding the bus, I often mused over the evolution of this word — how did to change, to change over, to ameliorate or trade burdens, come to mean taking a daily ride on a bus or a train, following the same route every day?                                                                           

At our second visiting hour, my daughter asked me to read her what she said was her favourite story in the Blue Fairy Book, ‘The Wild Swans,’ in which a king loses his wife but soon remarries, as in so many fairy tales. This second wife is beautiful, but cold-hearted, and a sorcerer to boot. She turns the girl’s seven brothers — the seven sons of the king — into wild swans. Only the little girl sees this happen. Yet she is unable to tell her father for fear of the wicked queen. Indeed, she herself is suspected of being the cause of the boys’ disappearance. She flees into the forest where she meets a witch who tells the girl her only hope is not to speak for seven years and to weave seven shirts out of nettles. If she is able to do this her brothers will be able to take human form again. The girl climbs into a tree and begins to weave.

Most nights the bus was crowded. Most people were clearly coming from work — waitresses, janitors, fast food workers; others clearly were riding because they had nowhere else to go. These were the passengers with knotted grocery bags stacked around them, blankets in their arms. Not infrequently, riding the bus, you would see people get on who were clearly trouble — drunks, or groups of young men hopped up on each other, or something stronger; people who talked to themselves or shouted at you if you caught their glance. With a near-instantaneous, almost choreographed understanding, the crowd on the bus would give these people their space, drawing imperceptibly inward, looking at their feet or out the window. 

One icy night, the woman next to me held her four-year-old daughter, who had wide inky eyes, tight on her lap. Two rows back, I recognized the voice of Oxy Guy; he seemed exceptionally loud and graphic, slurring his words with dramatic flair. I could see by the look in the mother’s eyes that she was listening to every word and wondering if she should worry about her daughter hearing. 

We turned into the bus depot on Quebec to pick up a cluster of passengers. One was a drunk man with a white beard who looked like a Santa Claus down on his luck. He careened up and down the aisle pretending to wave a light sabre in front of him. The bus driver told him to stop. The drunk man ignored this; instead he lurched at people flourishing his imaginary sabre. ‘Satan get thee behind me!’ he shouted. The bus driver stopped and opened the doors. Two policemen came on board, both blonde; one young, one older, both with military-style razored hair. While the older cop watched, the young one subdued the drunk Santa Claus with a wrestler style grip, then dragged him off the bus by his jacket collar. The black woman in front of me turned and said, ‘One thing you got to know, these cops in Denver are mean. Would have been worse if he’d been black. They would have kicked his ass.’ Several people nodded. The mother shifted her daughter from one leg to the other. Oxy Kid was quiet now. I craned my neck to watch him. He was pressing his face to the glass, just as I often did. He appeared to be watching the geese, which were, as they so often are in Denver, right outside us, a flock noising and bustling together along a traffic island, a whole colony of them between two lanes of hurrying late-night traffic.

It was when riding the bus I began to really notice the geese. Maybe because I had in mind the swans from the story I had read — other large birds that cluster in city lakes and ponds. I began to crane my neck to peer at the geese as they arrowed across the sky. In my strange raw numb state, they looked impossibly beautiful — like visitors from another world; the fairy tale world of long voyages and magical transformations. 

I looked up Canada geese on my phone. I read that in many urban areas — such as Denver (the Wikipedia article actually mentioned Denver) — they had become half-tamed and therefore a nuisance: ‘Well fed or able to forage successfully in urban settings, these geese no longer migrate as their ancestors did.’ Wikipedia said this species of large bird generally mate for life and choose their partners based on size — small geese with small geese, large geese with large ones. The reason for this is not entirely understood. They are faithful, taking turns caring for their goslings; staying close to their flock, their group. Cooperation is the secret of their arrow-like flight. On lengthy flights, the geese continually switch out their leader, and this enables them to travel together over tremendous distances, because it keeps any one of the geese from getting too tired.

During visiting hour, my daughter and I made lists of reasons to stay alive, things we would do to be happier, things we could do to be happier together. We did not discuss reasons why we might need to do this, or why we were ‘not happy.’

We will read books.

We will learn to knit.

We will get a dog.

We will ride a hot air balloon.

I often found it difficult to add to these lists, because so many of the things I thought of saying involved food. We will make fudge. We will bake chocolate chip cookies. We will go out for ice cream.              

In parent group, I learned anxiety was behind much of anorexia and similar disorders. Those afflicted tend to be people from high anxiety families; strivers, people who tend to ‘catastrophize ordinary reality’; people who tend to be worriers, unable to live in the moment. We learned to take the measure of our inner anxiety at any given moment; we were encouraged practice rating our anxiety level from 1-10. 

Gerald, the therapist in charge of parent group, handed out Xeroxes with anxiety graphs on them so we could draw where we were on the scale. Like every other therapist I saw at the Lowry Clinic, Gerald was dauntingly handsome — slightly hipster looking with thick, floppy light-brown hair and a soul-patch goatee, though he skirted with nerdiness, wearing t-shirts with dumb slogans (‘Surf Colarado’; ‘Stop Reading My Shirt’) and white socks with his Birkenstocks. Gerald said even a rating of three or four on the ‘anxiety scale’ was significant. Above a five you could consider yourself out of your body. Gerald said to deal with five and above you had to do something physical to calm yourself: put ice on your pulse points, smell something strong like nutmeg, lime or cinnamon, flap your arms, walk ten steps. ‘These are all techniques,’ Gerald said, ‘that will help you come back into your body.’ He said it could also be helpful to practice visualizing your anxiety: a cloud, a barbed wire fence, a spiked branch of thorns. Every time I took the test I was a five or above, and if that was true for me, what about for my daughter?  

Twice a week I met with Courtney; often with my husband phoning in to these meetings from his office in San Antonio. Courtney said Eliza had about a week and a half before she was due —according to treatment protocol — to be taken off the feeding tube and set to begin practicing eating again; this was usually done in the presence of one or other parent. The goal of the treatment was to prepare us so we were able to fulfil this task. However, Eliza did not appear ready. ‘I have to tell you many of her reactions seem characteristic of a child who has suffered some form of sexual abuse,’ Courtney said.  he went on to add that anorexia and sexual abuse in childhood were often co-morbid. ‘Maybe we should talk about that.’  

We reviewed the history with her: as a very small child, Eliza and her sister and brother had been cared for in a home day-care; the husband of the caregiver, a preacher had abruptly been arrested during our second year there, charged with multiple multiple counts of abusing girls at his church — some as young as eleven. At the time, the police, after interviewing our children, had told us that nothing had happened — but now our older daughter came forward and said this was not true. Eliza was too young, it appeared, to even have a memory of whatever may have happened, but her anxiety, her flight response, her persistent dissociative states, suggested otherwise. ‘What if she is a victim?’ I had asked Courtney in our first meeting; this was what I had meant. We spoke of what had happened in calm civilized voices, my husband and I, but inside we were like people walking on thin ice across a deep cold lake. I practiced visualizing as Gerald had said: sky, ice, winter, trees. Anything but the New Mexico landscape, the real setting; the story as it had unfolded.

At the next visiting hour, Eliza showed me the first page of the diary she was keeping. It read: ‘Everyone wants to know when Eliza is coming back, but that’s because they won’t admit Eliza is dead.’ I slammed the book shut.

‘Why did you show this to me?’ I cried.  

She pushed her chair away from the table. ‘This is why I never tell you anything,’ she said, “because you never listen.’ 

This was a bad day; that was how it often was — a terrible fight followed by silence, followed by a better visit, followed by a fight. In the parent group they said we must come to a place where we could understand the choices our children were making and validate them. To validate did not mean to approve or agree. It meant just to allow a space to acknowledge to accept that our interests and those of our children were not the same, and they had a right to their position.

‘The eating disorder is an adaption that works for your children,’ Gerald said. “It does not work over the long term, but they adopted it in the first place because it accomplished something for them. By validating you are recognizing that.’  

That week in parent group they did a thing called ‘staging’. They led us to a big room, with no furniture in it, at the other end of the clinic from the visitor’s room. They asked us to help the kids by doing what they asked. What this mean was that the kids were to ‘stage’ their families and we were to play the parts of their parents, sisters, brothers. Each child was to stage his or her family before and after the onset of the eating disorder. A boy called Gus pointed at me and asked if I would play his mother. He was in a wheelchair because he was just too weak to stand. Gus tapped me on the arm and directed me to stand in the farthest corner of the room. Daniel, another parent, whose daughter Elizabeth had once been a potential Olympic gymnast, was tapped to play Gus’s father. Gus directed Daniel to the opposite corner. Gus told me to face the wall; Daniel to look out of the window. Then the staff asked Gus to ‘stage’ us. Gus wheeled himself into the centre of the room. I was to stand on one side of him; his ‘father’ on the other. I was to look down at Gus; his father was to look at me. ‘Like with approval,’ Gus said, ‘like he’s proud of you.’

When Gerald asked my daughter if she would like to participate, she said no. I was relieved, but also disappointed. I wanted to see where she would have placed our family unit — her father, me, her sister, her brother — but I had little doubt it would be a similar picture: each of us spun off in our own faraway separate space. And whose fault was that?

In parent group, Gerald told us that no matter how we felt, we should not waste time blaming ourselves for the fact that our children had ended up here. Even if we had contributed to the problem, even if we had been pretty terrible parents, too invested in work, too self-involved, too sharp-tongued, critical, guilt-inducing or absent, the past did not matter; our feelings did not matter either: what mattered was what we did now, how effective we were at learning to manage and regulate our own emotions, and model for our children the processes, the boundaries, the routines that would enable a sense of order around food to be re-established. We had to set expectations and also build trust. And this meant being able to validate our children’s headlong commitment to the rule of hunger, which also meant (though Gerald did not say so) grappling with the ways in which the machine of the family had not worked properly for the child in question.

Causes of anorexia are poorly understood, but it is generally accepted that about 50% of the risk factor arises from genetic causes: having a close relative who has suffered from the disease, or families in which mental illness, addiction, and anxiety are more than ordinarily present. Recent research suggests that many anorexics — with their characteristic high-energy, striving, perfectionist personalities — may actually be suffering from an excess of serotonin in the brain, which leaves them jittery, on-edge, something like what an average person might feel on a consistent low-end dose of methamphetamine. Hunger draws them, the theory goes, because it reduces this serotonin and makes them feel calmer, more at ease, cantered. Sexual abuse, specifically childhood sexual abuse, is frequently comorbid with anorexia and eating disorders. 

When I sat with my daughter in the visiting room, these narrative threads all pulsed through me. My sister had suffered an undiagnosed eating disorder as a teen; I had always been myself an anxious person, given to panic attacks, unregulated emotions, addictive behaviours. How could I trust my ability to save my daughter when I could not help reflecting my own anxiety every time I looked at her? What was the genuine love we had for each other against this darkly sinuous history? 

I was anxious my daughter might never recover. I was ashamed that perhaps I was the one who had done her irreparable harm and that the clean Christian daycare where she and her siblings spent two and a half years housed a child predator and I had no idea. Not true: I had often felt uneasy, but I had belied this unease, attributing it to my general unease around organized religion. I had actually believed I was keeping them there in part to overcome my own prejudice — it was so safe, it was so well-managed, they were so well-fed! But why hadn’t I seen that something was wrong much more clearly? And what about my husband, why hadn’t he figured it out? What was wrong with us?

Gerald called this ‘useless circular thinking. He said I was finding a way to tell the same story over and over again, and why did I think I was doing that?  I asked him if it was true that one way to understand therapy was that it was about helping a person change the story of themselves. He said he preferred to think about it in terms of tools: ‘Therapy can give you tools to manage these feelings which often tend to go in negative directions?’

‘But what about the story,’ I asked him. ‘I mean, the fact of the story; reality unfolding this way and no other?’

My daughter kept asking me to read her ‘The Wild Swans’. Sometimes, I thought she did this just so we wouldn’t have to talk, but I liked reading to her, and it was a story I liked, too. I asked her why she thought she liked it so much. She said because she had a memory of being very small and seeing white birds rising into the sky. I said that was in Yachats. I told her how we had visited the Oregon Coast when she was about three. We’d stayed in a pine-paneled motel — a place probably built in the 1930s. She and her brother and sister and I had walked up the estuary where the Yachats River flows into the ocean. There were so many birds at one point they obscured the sky, but they weren’t swans, they were egrets. I said we’d spent a lot of time paddling in the water and picking blackberries in the hills, and the blackberries grew so close to the ocean, they tasted of salt. And she said, ‘It’s funny, when I was asked to list all my fear foods here, the only food that wasn’t on my list was blackberries.’ Then she said she thought she could remember. She thought maybe, perhaps, though she didn’t want to say for sure, she had been happy.

The day, in my meeting with Courtney, she said that most of the kids were now ready to graduate the next level. They had no choice but to try with Eliza. They did not feel very confident about removing her feeding tube, but they could not in good conscience keep her on it much longer. Eliza would have to try to begin to eat. If this did not work, they would have to discuss more stringent treatment measures somewhere else — a more hospital-type situation. She mouthed the word ‘hospice,’ and I said ‘No’. I said, ‘That is impossible.’

Courtney said. ‘I’m sorry, but that’s where we are at. I wish I could tell you how this story will end.’  

On the bus that evening, I sat down one seat ahead of Oxy Kid, who was — unusually for him — not on the phone, but silent, scared-looking. He got off early; I watched him set off into a neighbourhood that didn’t seem to be much of a neighbourhood at all — but instead a poorly curated region of warehouses and wide streets. I wondered what he was doing or where he was going. I started to try to imagine possible outcomes for Oxy Kid: someone gets him into rehab, or he ODs. The more I thought, the more unbearable picturing anything seemed to be. Instead, I stared at the geese.

Geese appear in any number of fairy tales, as do swans. Often the geese are no more than a meal; something to be stolen or ticked under a coat and roused for supper, though it was the goose that laid the golden eggs. Swans tend to have a more prominent role, geese’s more glamorous cousins. I wondered if there were swans in Denver and decided to keep my eyes peeled. I wanted very badly to see a swan. I was thinking about what it felt like to read ‘The Wild Swans’ to my daughter. I was thinking about how in the story the girl remains silent for seven years, and what real person could ever do such a thing? The girl spends most of this time in a tree trying to sew shirts for her brothers out of stinging nettles because she has been told this is the only way she can save them, and it is because she wants to save them that she is so able to regulate herself.

On the bus, I often rode alongside drunks or people who appeared otherwise sad and lost. Women who had lost their minds and now tore at their hair with their fingers. Red-cheeked homeless men with thick fingers. Young black men with a tired and wary look. The buses not infrequently were stopped because of all manner of disturbances, and several times police came on board and walked up and down as if looking for some escaped suspect. It was often edgy, riding the bus from Lowry down Colfax into downtown, and mostly I passed the time by pressing my face to the window glass, feeling its cold against my skin, and watching for geese and more geese.

Of course, the girl who must absent herself for so many years to save her brothers is a common fairy tale motif — there are so many stories in which a child or a loved one is gone, and a person must go through trials and tribulations to bring them home. In ‘The Wild Swans,’ the girl grows from a child into a young woman. A prince finds her in the tree and falls in love with her, even though she will not say a word; he marries her but people around him insist she is a witch. Because she is unable to defend herself with her words, he begins to believe them, and reluctantly agrees she must be burned. But at the last minute, her brothers fly up to the flames. She throws the nettle shirts on them and they turn back into themselves — expect for the youngest one who, because she was not able to finish his shirt in time, still has one wing instead of an arm.

This had nothing to do with the geese in Denver, but watching them always gave me a similar feeling because they seemed to practice their routines so diligently and with such an air of studious patience. That night in the Saint Christopher, I could not sleep. I was thinking about what Courtney had said. I was trying to believe that our story would end like ‘The Wild Swans,’ but I was in the middle of it and the outcome was by no means clear. On the website of the Lowry Clinic, they promised a 98% success rate, but that figure did not include the many later relapses and reversals. If your child’s eating disorder is severe enough to require in-patient treatment, there is only a 1 in 2 change that they will ever be considered ‘cured,’ and 10-15% will eventually die from causes related to the illness; one in five of these will be suicides. The numbers could be dissected, but it made no difference. We were where we were, in a story with a child where only the slenderest spell of shirt nettles, the terrible burden of a truth borne, might come to the rescue.

The room was chilly, maybe because of the wide windows which framed the oddly-light sky full of swirling snow, and the slippery sheets which would not seem to hold enough heat. The sky directly outside was tinted an unearthly orange due to all the halogen streetlamps of the hospital. And I pictured my daughter, feeling the power of her hunger course through her. I pictured her like the child in the fairy tale — something happens to her heart and she can’t see her way home. I was not sure she would ever get better, but I knew I had no choice but to keep riding the bus. I watched as the sun came up and then the sky echoed with the honking of geese; they formed distant arrow shapes in the sky, their strong wings beating against the wind, and I stood up and pressed my face to the window and watched them until they disappeared.


Sheila Black is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Iron, Ardent (Educe Press, 2017). A fifth collection, Vivisection, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. She is a co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011) and a co-founder of Zoeglossia, a community for poets with disabilities. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Sugar House Review, The Southampton Review, Kenyon Review OnlineThe New York Times and other places. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas.