The phrase “swan song” is used to refer to the final effort or performance given by a person just before death. It’s based off the Ancient Greek belief that swans remain silent for most of their lifetime, only vocalizing in the moment before death to sing a beautiful song.
This concept makes death seem beautiful. In dying, the swan sings a gorgeous song that it couldn’t sing while living.
What they don’t tell you is that the swan sings this beautiful song as the result of air escaping their body when their lungs deflate.
In reality, it’s not a beautiful concept at all. Death is agony.
As residents of the RED building, otherwise known as the Rogers Eating Disorder clinic, we were always looking forward in time to the moment when we would turn eighteen. Eighteen was the magical age, the age of consent. When we turned eighteen we couldn’t be held in the ward against our will. Treatment would no longer be mandatory; we would be free to make our own choices. We could go to the adult ward if we wished, or we could leave. Nicole had lived on the adolescent unit for nearly a year, but she was almost eighteen.
Her graduation was coming.
I didn’t know Nicole that well in the beginning of my treatment. I had seen her from afar; everyone had. She was the type of person that everyone noticed when she entered the room. She was tall, with long brown hair, and she walked with a confidence that we all only wished we could have. And god, was she skinny. It was like seeing a stick in the middle of a forest filled with chunky tree limbs. She could have been a model.
Nicole had what we referred to behind the nurse’s backs as “it.” She knew what to say and when to say it. Projecting an aura of “okay-ness” came easily to her, and she knew exactly how much to eat to keep the nurses off her back. Nicole had almost everyone sold on the idea that she would be okay upon leaving. Moving to the adult ward was not an option for Nicole. The only option was moving out. It wasn’t about getting well; it wasn’t about beating the disorder. It was all about being free, and it didn’t matter how she got there.
She wasn’t okay, and she didn’t want to be. None of us did.
Perhaps it was that way for everyone who lived with an eating disorder. I don’t know for sure. I have only ever known the girls I lived with during my treatment. We were silhouettes of girls, echoes of the people that we had once been. We were on the fringes of existence, and one step in either direction would either knock us off the precipice we had placed ourselves on or save us. Most of us were at a point where we didn’t care anymore, and we didn’t know how to come back from that.
Every time we looked at ourselves in the mirror, we saw ourselves as larger than life. We were huge; we were overpowering; we were fat.
I was a stick figure. Nicole was somewhere close to that. It was the opposite of fat, but it would take a miracle for us to understand that we were nothing more than a whisper.
Beneath the main unit of the RED building was a circle of hell formally known as the cafeteria. As residents, we had mandatory cafeteria time three times a day. It was “important to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Failure to cooperate with cafeteria time resulted in a loss of privileges. Because of my lack of desire to eat normal food, I had very few privileges. The single serve containers of peanut butter stored by the toasters were the only food I was interested in. This interest got marked as an obsession by Staff, and they banned peanut butter from my menu. I was bound and determined to not eat until the precious substance was again allowed, so I embarked on a hunger strike.
My goal during this hunger strike was to sneak peanut butter packets out of the cafeteria to enjoy in the privacy of my room, and while this had been easy in the past, I suddenly found myself having trouble. I was on crutches due to an unfortunate gym activity incident, which made sneaking incredibly difficult. But I needed that peanut butter so badly that I couldn’t breathe.
And I wasn’t going to get it.
It was the moment I realized this that I officially met Nicole.
Everyone was looking away. I made a swoop in for the peanut butter…and banged my crutch against the metal counter. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me again. Nicole grabbed my arm to steady me, and that was when the miracle happened. With her other hand, Nicole swiped at the peanut butter and knocked a few of the containers onto her tray, then stuffed them up her sleeve. She knew; she had been watching.
Our friendship was born.
We sat together at a table. She was my new hero. I watched her shovel piece after piece of nasty looking green lettuce into her mouth and wondered how she could make it look so easy. I received my answer when she invited me back to her room.
Only one part of Nicole’s life was normal, and it was there on the floor in front of the toilet. She didn’t shut the door; she was begging for me to watch, begging for me to see. It all struck me as quite mechanical, how she tied back her hair, knelt over the toilet, and jammed two fingers into the back of her throat until the salad reappeared. The mystery of Nicole was solved for me then—that was how she managed to eat and yet not. It was a wonder that Staff hadn’t figured her out after all that time, but maybe that was why she invited people back to her room after meals. It was all about the distraction.
Her strength amazed me. I wasn’t strong, not in the slightest. I sat on her bed eating my peanut butter packets, and there she was, able to just do…that. I wanted to exhibit control like that so much that it took my breath away. I wanted to be her.
After a week of eating together and hanging out in the day room, Nicole and I started sharing stories. It was like we had never had anyone to trust before. She was the child of two university professors; they were never able to have another baby. They doted on Nicole as often as they could. Nicole’s mother stepped away from her job to stay at home with her only daughter. She enrolled Nicole in every type of lesson available, from music to drama to sports. The one that Nicole fell in love with was gymnastics.
There was pressure in gymnastics, she told me, and a lot of it. Pressure to learn new skills, to take her routine to the next great level. Pressure to be the best. Pressure to be thin. At first it was just fried foods that she couldn’t eat. Then carbs. Success equaled thin, and Nicole was definitely thin. She took pride in the fact that she was one of the thinnest in her gym; the other members of her team looked up to her.
Nicole was working out late one night with her coach, training a new dismount from the balance beam. It involved jumping up in the air, doing three and a half somersaults, and then landing backwards. She tried to explain this to me, but my non-gymnastics brain could never comprehend it. It took a lot of concentration, and she was trying to stick it but kept missing the landing. Her coach would grab her hips to steady her, again and again. And again.
Until suddenly, he wasn’t just steadying her. Suddenly he was touching her. His hand was on her hip; his hand was in her leotard; his lips were on hers and his tongue was in her mouth. She didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t strong enough to push him off.
Perhaps she wished she could disappear. Perhaps that’s where her disease really began—which I assumed because I saw myself in Nicole’s story. But even though Nicole had shared what happened to her, I couldn’t give her this detail. It was one thing I would never share with anyone; I had no idea how to talk about it.
When Nicole’s coach was done with her, she left the gym. She didn’t call her mother to pick her up, choosing instead to walk all the way home. That night, she informed her mother that she didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore. She got a lecture on how much time and money had been put into shaping her career, too much to just give up. Her mother forced her to go back, day after day, week after week.
Slowly, Nicole stopped eating anything at all. And her friends showed her how to get rid of her food so that when she did eat, it wouldn’t count. She had been thin, but she became skeletal; she was fading away. That was exactly what she wanted, that invisibility. She wanted it with all her heart, until the day she was doing a routine on the bars, lost consciousness, and plummeted to the ground. She didn’t get up. Her gymnastics career was over.
Nicole and I were both looking for something, looking for some validity, that would make our lives seem worthwhile. She seemed well on her way to finding it, and I wanted to get where she was going. We went to the cafeteria every day together. I drew strength from Nicole; I trusted her.
Then came her eighteenth birthday.
Everyone on the ward was searching for something, be it love, happiness, friends, control, one or all of these things, or something completely different. I suppose Nicole spent her whole life searching for validation for what had happened to her. I’m not sure she ever found it. I’m not sure it would have made a difference if she did.
She wrote me a note the day she left. I do not believe in people; I do not believe in humanity. I do not believe in joy. I don’t remember knowing these things. I can’t believe in what I don’t know. I don’t know anything, thus, I have nothing to believe in. People are always telling me that I need to grow up, that I need to learn to take care of myself. I find myself to be fairly independent … I can’t grow when I don’t even know where I am starting from. I will miss you. But this is a circle of hell that I am ready to leave. I will be okay.
At the time, I didn’t realize how sad this was. I just thought it was normal. Everyone in the ward held Nicole up to be this great hero, someone to be proud of. She was graduating, and she was moving on. Everyone wanted to be like her, to be leaving.
We were so stupid.
Nicole faded. It wasn’t sudden; it was a gradual process. And just like she wanted, no one seemed to notice.
Her bones were the first thing to go. Low estrogen levels and calcium left her with osteoporosis—an affliction normally found in old people. She wasn’t even nineteen, and her bones were collapsing.
Next was her heart. Her body was starving. Blood flow was reduced, her blood pressure was lowered, and her heart muscle started losing size. She became anemic.
Her organs began giving up. Her liver failed; her kidneys shut off. What was the point anymore when the person in charge of the body didn’t care?
Her brain was the last thing to go. She was alone in her apartment one day, and she had a seizure. She never got back up. No one knew for two days.
I didn’t know any of these details until after she was gone.
Nicole died alone. And maybe that was how she wanted it. That’s the battle of the disease, the battle of anorexia. You fight it alone.
You lose. Alone.
Honestly, if her mother hadn’t called me, I may not have even known what happened. Nicole had left a note for me, with my name and phone number on the front. She must have known that the end was coming. Perhaps she welcomed it. We have no way to know, really, but I can make assumptions from the note that she left me.
It was only two words: Don’t. Fade.
I had never been to a funeral for someone I knew before. In fact, the only funeral I had been to was my grandfathers when I was five. Nicole’s parents had asked me to speak. Sadly, I was one of the people who knew her best.
The lid to the casket was open for the viewing. It shouldn’t have been.
Nicole’s skin was so paper thin that it was almost translucent. Her cheek bones were clearly visible, as was her collarbone above the neckline of the dress she wore. There was nothing left to her; she was completely devoid of fat, empty. She spoke a strong message, even though she would never use words again. My hand drifted into the casket and stroked her face, then came back to touch my own. Bones sticking out. Matching. Fading.
I sat down on the ground right next to the coffin, crying. She was gone. She had faded away, and no one had even known. I realized that I, too, was dying. I was fading, and suddenly I didn’t want to fade anymore. Suddenly I wanted to be alive.
Someone moved me to a pew. The words I had wanted to say were scribbled on an index card and shoved into my bra. I pulled the cards out, rubbing the creases in the paper. The words didn’t seem fitting now; I couldn’t read about what a lovely person she had been, what a lovely life she had led. It was a lie. Anorexia had taken her life. It was neither beautiful, nor lovely. It was agony.
I took a pencil from next to the hymnal under my pew and scribbled out a poem on the back of one of my index cards. These were the words I would go on to read:
whisper once or twice / a song / upon an ear that has no being / words that fall, apart from humanity / a war internally / taken to the stars / a pain felt only in the heart / the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //
breathe in once or twice / a drop / of life left to sustain / air that causes the tornado within / bones that stick out / in agony / betraying the falsity of the mask / pain lying underneath / in the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //
trust once or twice / a soul / holding on without reason / at least one that we see / “the less that’s left to me,” i say, / “the less there is to hurt.” / pain caused by two human hands / during the final note of the beautiful swan / pray to fade away //
search once or twice / for a speck / a reason to hold on / a reason for reason / a new life at eighteen; the past is in the past / though beautiful swans never forget, / we move steadily forward / and the beautiful swan sings her beautiful song / pray not to fade away— / pray to stay ///
Looking back now, I don’t think I wrote the poem for her so much as I wrote it for myself.
I know that there’s a great debate even now over whether or not anorexia is a conscious choice. Does the anorexic wake up one morning and just decide they’re not going to eat? There’s no real answer to that; it isn’t simple enough to sum it up in that way. I believe that anorexia starts as one thing and then gradually evolves into something else. We start out trying to control the one thing that we know we can; we end simply trying to sing our swan song and take a final bow. There is no cure; there is only living with it.
I think often about all of the things that Nicole missed. Perhaps if she had lived, she would be married right now to a wonderful Christian husband. They would live in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a lawn the brightest green possible. I suppose they would have a dog. Or maybe two. Their three children, two girls and a boy each two years apart, would be perfect. They would be dancers, or athletes, or writers, or whatever they wanted to be—they would be free to make their own choices. Nicole wouldn’t let them be boxed in by society. She would encourage them to find their own way, but she would be there for them if and when they needed her to be.
She could have had the ideal life. But she didn’t. She faded.
And when I think about that, when I think about her, I wonder if that was necessarily a bad thing. Because me? I chose recovery, and I had the ideal life. I married a wonderful Christian man who turned out to be not so wonderful. He hurt me, badly. We lived in a condo-style apartment that neither one of us wanted after the divorce. We had a son together, but he died. The ideal life isn’t bright at all. It’s dark, it’s cold, and it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be when you’re looking at it from the outside.
In moments like that where I remember all of these things, I question my choice to stay. Perhaps Nicole may have had the right idea after all; maybe it was easier to fade than to stick around and get hurt again and again. So why stay?
I stay because to give up is to let them win. I stay because I don’t have any other choice. I stay because I want to be better, and because I want to believe that something better will come for me.
I stay because I touched death. Really touched it. And I realized that death isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Nothing is as good as we make it out to be. So maybe, just maybe, we need to find our own way.
I wish Nicole had seen that.