I’ve stopped eating three times in my life… well, there might have been many other times — food intake is the easiest thing to control when life feels in turmoil — but those three times had very well defined triggers and so are easy to examine, evaluate, judge even. The first, let’s just call it the first for ease of telling, was when I was about ten. There were several schools in Leningrad that served its talented children and required admission process to get in. I’ve gone to a few of those:
- The Conservatory of Music — I’ve attended that one as a four or five year old, studying piano mostly;
- The Hermitage School of the Arts — I’ve started that at the same time as the Conservatory of Music;
- Leningrad School of Music — did time there as well until I rebelled by the end of third grade, if I remember correctly (piano, musical composition, chorus);
- A small art school not too far from the Hermitage on Fantanka street — for four years, I’ve spent three nights a week there studying drawing, art history, ceramics, watercolors; and it was my favorite even if very far away from home;
- And a fully-integrated art school that accepted students starting at 5th grade, again if I remember right. This is the school I didn’t attend, just visited…
Regular elementary and middle schools had always been problematic for me. Just weeks into first grade, I was found out as a Jew (at the time, the only Jewish kid at that school, I believe) and was pushed down the stairs, ending up with a concussion and a broken nose. The result was months of reprieve from formal education and a newly-found knowledge that I was one of the Chosen People.
The admission test for the integrated art school was during the summer holidays. It was a full week of studio art exams. If I passed the art admission test, I could have left the racist hell hole that was my elementary school and studied with other kids who only cared about how well I could draw. That was the plan anyway…
Most summers, I’d spent with my mother, grandparents, and sister at one camp or another outside of the city. My grandparents and mother worked as educators at the camp and I got the freedom to run around (unlike the other kids doing hard time as campers; my sister was too young to come along). I was allowed to roam by myself the surrounding forest and explore on my own. I could read. I could daydream… it was pretty ideal (and something I never allowed my own kids to experience — there were wild animals, snakes, bogs, ticks, strange men living in the forest). That summer, I had a pet baby woodpecker for about three days or so — had to give him back to his parents, they insisted (still have a small scar on my left hand from where the little bird tried to peck for food); discovered a nest of birds in the woods and watched the eggs hatch and feathers grow out from tube-like structures (found out that baby birds crapped on those who wanted to handle them as a defense mechanism — it works); collected wild purple irises from a bog (still my favorite flower).
On the weekend before the test, my dad came down to the camp and the three of us — mom, dad, and I — took the train back into the city. I felt a bit off on the train, I still remember that ride, my head out of the top window, watching the countryside go by. That night, I woke up with insane pain in my left ear. I got worse and worse. It was probably the worst physical pain I’d experienced as a kid (certainly that’s how I remember it). Eventually, I got up and went to my parents. I remember lying on their bed, ear down into the pillow, crying, and my dad telling me of the time he had a bad earache as a little boy and how he put his head through the metal bars of his parents’ bed to try and stop the pain and had to be extracted with tools. At some point, my head exploded and I felt better. I was running a very high fever, my ear had blood coming out of it, but it was the day of the test… We got dressed, my mother wrapped a scarf around my head with an alcohol compress for my ear, I vomited on the sidewalk, and we took the subway to the test site.
I was late for the test… It was a regular classroom with easels instead of school desks. At the head of the class, there was a still life composition set up for us to draw. We had several hours to finish. I remember a boy a few years my senior was proctoring the exam (he was an upperclassman at the school) and he took pity on me — I could hardly remain vertical by my easel — he was trying to tell me something about my perspective mistakes, but I couldn’t focus on what he was saying. We took a taxi from the test site to the hospital. They took me away from my parents. I passed through a pressurized hallway into the contagious disease ward. No visitors allowed.
I was placed into a room with about seven other very sick kids, some a lot younger than me. My bed was closest to the door, the nurse table was just outside. There was a long hallway with doors to a few other patient rooms. Across the hallways, there were bathrooms and showers. I walked into the shower room once, I refused to wash the entire time I was confined (there were roaches crawling on the walls; I don’t think I have seen the foul insects before then). At the end of the hall, there was the torture room, we could all hear the screams of the kids who were taken there. Around the corner, there was a cafeteria-like room. Again, I only went into it once.
The children’s ward was on the first floor — European first floor. There was a big window in our room that we could open. There was a wide ledge. After I’ve made the decision not eat anything cooked in that hospital, I survived on candy. My dad would come and stand below the window. I crawled out onto the ledge and lowered a string that I ripped from my sheet; he tied a bag of candy to it and I pulled it up. I hid the candy under my mattress. One of the nurses was evil and always stole my candy. During the night I would steal it back from the nurses’ station.
I was at that hospital for two and a half weeks. There were many horrors. I was taken to the torture room once… I still remember the walls… I had so many injections into my butt that I couldn’t sit or lie on my back. We had a state inspection once, where we had to make our beds and stand next to them as the officials walked around. Some kids were too ill to stand. Even back then, I thought it was crazy. I begged and was allowed to play with the mercury from a broken (by me) thermometer…
At some point, someone finally noticed that I’ve stopped eating (and showering). I had several “talking to”‘s. I’ve lost a lot of weight (I could step out of my hospital-assigned dress through the collar without needing to unbutton anything; keeping it on was more challenging). My butt was black with bruising. I was deaf. But my fever was broken. They finally let my dad come and take me home. For the rest of the summer, I was blissfully alone, running around the countryside… in total silence. By the time school was to start up again, September 1st, I regained some hearing. I went back to my regular school — I was not accepted to the school of the arts. I was fine with that.
What I’ve learned from my little experiment with a hunger strike:
- After about three to four days, you don’t feel hungry.
- You don’t really need to go to the bathroom — a big plus since I didn’t want to go there…
- People freak out eventually — there’s power in food intake control, sometimes the only power you have in a situation.
- Most don’t really understand why you’ve stopped eating…
I might write about some of the other times when food was something I used as a self-defense weapon… or as a self-destructive impulse. In the meantime, I have finished two more novels: “Gardners” and “The God of Small Affairs.” I will try to get the first published before the December holidays. The other needs multiple rounds of editing (but if anyone wants to Beta-read, please send me a note).
For those who need a bit of fiction to get through the upcoming holidays, please consider reading some of these books from Indie authors.
And this promotion, Action Girls, Adventures and Friendships, is about to start. Please check out all of the cool books. I have added “Suddenly, Paris” to this promotion.
I’m off to Florida to get our medal for “Becoming Animals.”