The New Beginnings Center
You probably didn't hear about it, not in the news or on some parasitic "insider" fashion blog. I'm not high-profile enough to make the rags when I enter treatment. Headlines like "Little-known model Elena Solano committed!" don't sell any papers. Not like some of the others, about whom everybody speculates endlessly. "Was it anorexia or the drugs that got her?"
For me, it was neither.
My parents first started talking about The New Beginnings Center months ago. New Beginnings was the kind of posh eating disorder and rehab clinic that starlets are forced into when they begin suffering from “exhaustion.” My parents would leave brochures lying around my house. They would insist that they knew better than I did what was best for me, what was healthy. They kept telling me that I was a role model, and didn’t I want to be a positive one? To be clear, I’ve never had a problem with food. I’m thin, and I have to maintain that thinness for my work, but I don’t starve myself. I know a few tricks of the trade that I use before shoots, but I do not have an eating disorder.
Of course I told this to my parents, and of course, they didn't believe me. I took comfort in the fact that, though they might harangue me about New Beginnings, they couldn’t make me go.
It turns out that that isn't precisely the case. What parents can do is have a doctor write a note, which then goes to another doctor, which then turns into a court order. It seems that they all felt I was mentally ill, and once enough people think you’re crazy, it doesn’t matter much what you say. The more you claim to be sane, the crazier they think you are. So, yeah, I was committed.
I wasn’t dragged to The New Beginnings Center in handcuffs, but I might as well have been. To say that I was an uncooperative patient was an understatement. When I entered the gleaming modern building, I blamed the sense of overwhelming dread on the shameful way my family had treated me. But the dread was there just the same.
The interior of New Beginnings was just as shiny and polished as the brochures had promised: immaculate white tile floors led down white hallways entirely devoid of art. The whole place seemed to radiate with a clean fluorescence. The sunlight coming in from the few small windows seemed garish and yellow by comparison. The staff shared the building’s spotless facade. Each one wore pure white scrubs, paired with immaculately buffed nails and shiny, helmet-like hair. I felt for a second that I must be on set at a futuristic photo shoot. I briefly had a twinge of guilt; there was no telling how much money my parents dropped on this place, but it was clearly substantial.
The receptionist greeted us and swiftly ushered my parents into another room to work out the billing. Before I had time to orient myself entirely to my surroundings, I heard someone call my name.
“Miss Solano!” A pretty woman with a clipboard and an all-white suit came quickly towards me, her white stilettos clicking efficiently on the tile floor. “My name is Louise, and I’ll be your private consultant for your stay with us. Consider me your personal health concierge!” Her smile widened with each word, but her eyes registered no change.
I managed to produce into a stoic nod, despite the churning in my stomach. Louise gently grabbed my elbow and led me down a series of maze-like hallways. Along the way I looked for other patients, others to share in my bewilderment, but I saw no one. Only white-clad staff bustling from one room to another, their crisp footfalls echoing down the empty hallways. When we finally arrived at my room, I was surprised to see that it was a single. I had imagined that I would get a roommate.
“Here we are!” Louise chirped. “I’ll let you get settled in. If you need anything at all, just press the call button, and I’ll come running. I’ve got you scheduled for your first group session at 4:00, and then after that is dinner!”
Louise gave me a thumbs-up and rushed out of the room. I put my suitcase on the bed and looked around. It was white and nearly barren. A single twin bed sat against a blank wall and a bookcase filled with self-help books lined another. A pedestal sink was set up in the corner, though no mirror stood above it. The door Louise had just left through locked with an electronic deadbolt. I sat on the bed and stared around the room before bursting into tears. I didn’t want to be in this place. I didn’t need help.
I pulled out a photo that I kept in my pocket. In it, a tall, elegant woman stood underneath a waterfall. She wore a red evening gown; it was wet and clung to the angles of her body. She was so beautiful that sometimes I had to remind myself that, underneath the makeup and the lighting and the touch-ups, she was me. The photo reminded me of what I could be. I touched it lightly, careful to avoid leaving fingerprints on its shiny surface. It was more than just a confidence booster; it was my talisman. It would get me through this.
Four o’clock came quickly, and Louise whisked me into a large white room filled with chairs arranged in a circle. Group. Several other patients sat around the room, all dressed in clean white smocks. I guessed that my outfit change would be coming soon. I looked at the faces of those in the group. Most were women; all looked like corpses. Grayish, thin skin was stretched over hollow eyes and cheeks. Though their limbs and torsos were covered in loose fabric, I could see that they all looked deathly frail. Couldn’t everyone see that I wasn’t like that? Among the ashen faces, I found several that I recognized from movies and television. It shouldn’t have surprised me--this was a swanky recovery center, and the pressure to be thin can be overwhelming. Still, they looked worse than I ever remembered seeing them on the screen.
As much as I try, I can’t remember much about that group session. We all sat in a circle. A blond man with teeth as bright white as his scrubs urged us to talk about ourselves, how food made us feel, how important our positions as role models were. The words out of every mouth sounded hollow, rehearsed. A woman that I recognized from the tabloids began talking about young girls being our future, and about how ashamed she was to be a bad influence. She cried. A bony hand reached out from both sides to comfort her. So it went, around and around. When they got to me, I told them only that I didn’t belong there. Blank faces avoided making eye contact, and fragile bodies shifted uncomfortably in their hard plastic chairs. The blond man cleared his throat and smiled. He moved on to the next patient and when my turn to speak came again, he skipped me entirely.
When group ended, a steady stream of New Beginnings staff appeared as if conjured. Each "health concierge" greeted their charge warmly and ushered them out of the room. Louise was the last to enter and seemed more distant than she had earlier in the day.
"Let's get you to dinner. Then, you'll have a chance to say goodbye to your parents."
When I looked confused, she continued. "For you to get the best possible treatment, you must be cut off from potential triggering elements. For this reason, we ask that family not visit after the first day at New Beginnings. You will see them again once your transformation is complete." There was no warmth in Louise's tone, only a business-like curtness. I nodded at her and allowed her to take my arm.
The dining room was large but relatively sparse. Seven round tables dotted the room, each with five chairs. Patients that I had seen at group and some new faces greeted my arrival with detached curiosity. Louise set me down at a table and left the room without comment.
"Hi! My name is Elena," I sputtered out after an interminably long silence from my table-mates. "It's my first day here, so I'm still getting settled in. Shall we all introduce ourselves?"
The women around me did not react, other than to cast their eyes downward every time I tried to make eye contact. I could tell that my presence was making them uncomfortable. No, it wasn't my presence alone. A look around the room confirmed that there was no conversation happening anywhere. All around me, patients sat silent and still.
The only movement came with the food. Servers brought out platters of fruits, vegetables, and meats, all piled high and served family-style at each table. I watched as the others at my table selected small amounts of fruits and vegetables--a celery stick here, a strawberry there--and avoided the meat tray entirely. They looked around surreptitiously before beginning to nibble on their dinner. I took no such pains in my food selection; I was famished from the day's stress. I loaded my plate up with turkey, mangoes, and carrots. The food tasted delicious, and I went back for seconds while my companions watched me incredulously.
After dinner, Louise escorted me to a private room where my parents waited. We said our goodbyes, my parents tearful and full of doubt. I assured them that I was different from the other patients and that it wouldn't take long for the staff to realize it and release me. My mother nodded, her face swollen and red.
That night I lay in my twin bed, looking around my dark, empty room. I tried to plan how I might get out of here, how I might show the people in charge that I didn't need treatment. My first thought was to be as compliant as possible. To be the best little patient ever to stroll into The New Beginnings Center. There would be no more vocal denials like in group today, no more assertions of normalcy. I stroked the photo still in my pocket and fell into a troubled sleep.
The next morning I woke to Louise striding purposefully into my room. Her mouth was pursed into a thin line, and she looked less polished than she had the night before. In her hands was a covered tray. Breakfast, I assumed. She sat the tray in front of me on the bed.
"Good morning, Louise," I said, trying out my new strategy. "Breakfast isn't in the dining room?"
"Not for you it isn't," Louise said.
My confusion must have been evident on my face. She huffed and continued.
"After that little outburst in group, and the spectacle you made of yourself during dinner, we thought it best for you to eat in private for a while. Until you learn cooperation."
"What? What spectacle?" I couldn't begin to understand what Louise was talking about.
"Does it make you feel good to show up the other patients? Does it make you feel superior? Power games have no place in a center of healing, and until you can figure that out, you're on your own. Socializing is a privilege, and you'd best remember that."
I heard the deadbolt click behind Louise as she left the room. I had more questions than answers. Was I rude to the other patients at dinner? Did I do something against the rules? With these questions racing through my brain, I reached for my breakfast.
When I opened the cover, I gagged. There on my plate was a hunk of gray, rotting meat and fuzzy, mold-encased fruit. I pushed the whole thing off my bed in disgust. Why would Louise bring me spoiled food? Wasn’t this a place to help those with eating disorders? I got up and paced the room, carefully avoiding the mess on the floor. I needed to use the bathroom, but every time I knocked on my door I got silence in return. I resorted to perching one leg on the sink to relieve my aching bladder, hopeful that no one would see my humiliation. But no one did. No one came into my room until late in the evening.
It was Louise who finally opened the door. She scowled at me when she entered, muttering about the stench of an animal. Two orderlies followed, armed with cleaning supplies to deal with the mess of food on the floor. “Scrub that sink, too!” Louise barked, looking at me in disgust.
“So, you still think you’re better than everyone? Too good to eat your breakfast. I’ve seen plenty of your type in here: ‘Oh, I’m a model!’, ‘Oh, I’m an actress! I’m a superior human being.’ Well, you’re not! You should be a good role model, but instead, you stick your nose in the air and succumb to your vanity.”
Louise stared hard at me, her hands curled into fists. I tried to tell her that the food was rotten, that I wanted to get better, but she had already turned to leave. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” she said as she walked out the door.
The orderlies followed her, leaving me alone.
The next morning started in much the same way. Louise entered my room with a platter of food, scowled at me and left. Once again my food was rotten. It looked as if it could have been the same food from the day before. The gray meat was tinged with green, and there was a silvery sheen to it. The fruit was heavily furred and collapsing in on itself. Instead of flinging the tray across the room, I set it gingerly on top of the low bookshelf. I didn’t understand this game, but I still resolved to be as good a patient as I could.
After once again perching atop the sink to relieve myself, I returned to the bookcase. I hadn’t looked twice at the double row of self-help books there. I went through them now, cataloging their contents and deciding which might be the best to pass the time.
Most of the books were about being a good role model. They had titles like “Be Admired! Learning to Turn Your Experiences into Lessons” and “The Receptive Mind: Modeling for Others.” At least one was written by someone affiliated with The New Beginnings Center. I flipped through that one, but I saw nothing about unconventional treatment methods.
The orderlies came by themselves to pick up my tray. I looked away in embarrassment as one cleaned my sink. “No one will let me out to use the bathroom” I explained. The orderly didn’t react. I tried asking them about the treatment, about how long it would last. They didn’t make eye contact, didn’t speak. When they left the room, I felt more alone than ever.
That day served as the model for my week. Each day Louise would come in and leave me with the same rotten food. Each day I paced the floors of my room. Each day the orderlies would come in and take the uneaten food away. Each day I would pull out my photo and run my finger along its edges until they became smooth and worn. By the end of the week, I felt like the other patients looked. My stomach and my head hurt every moment of the day, and I could no longer think straight. Standing made me dizzy, so I spent my days lying in bed reading motivational garbage and wondering how much longer they could do this to me.
On the final day of my involuntary fast, Louise entered my room as she had the day before. She sat a tray before me and opened it. Inside was the same rotten food that I had become accustomed to in the previous days. On this day, however, Louise was smiling.
“Have you learned not to be an entitled little cunt?” She asked sweetly. “Are you ready to finally eat today?”
“I can’t eat this,” I muttered. “It’s spoiled.”
“Just like you,” Louise said, and before I could react she shoved the meat into my mouth, using all of her strength to hold it there. The taste and texture hit me like a punch to the face. The meat had begun to breed maggots, and I could feel them wriggling as I struggled against Louise’s hand. I retched into my mouth, covering her open palm with bile and rotten meat. Louise jerked her hand away and wiped it triumphantly on my bedspread. I clawed at my mouth, desperately trying to get every bit of taste out of it. I continued to dry heave, my empty stomach contracting over and over again.
Louise left the room and returned with a clipboard. She began to write, narrating as she did. “Patient still refuses to eat any and all solid foods. The patient demonstrates bulimic behavior in addition to anorexia nervosa. The patient is repeatedly non-cooperative. A feeding tube is recommended for patient safety.” With that, Louise smiled brightly and left the room.
I thought about Louise a lot that day, as I balled up the disgusting food in my bedsheets and positioned my mouth under the sink’s faucet. With every swallow of that foul taste, I thought about what she had written, what it could mean. Why would they starve me, only to put me on a feeding tube? What could the purpose of that madness be? I focused on Louise’s smile, that awful predatory smile. Was it me? Did she delight in torturing me specifically?
My questions went unanswered, as even the orderlies left me to myself that day. The next morning a stranger woke me from my sleep.
“Hello Elena. My name is Dr. Holman, and I’m here to help you.”
I stared at the kind-faced man as he continued to speak to me in soft and soothing tones.
“Today I will be placing the feeding tube. It may cause some temporary discomfort, but it will help you to get stronger. Getting stronger means that you can continue your transformation. Your treatment is very important to all of us.”
“I don’t want to continue my treatment, or my transformation, or whatever the hell this is! I want out of here!” My voice sounded raw and weak as I shouted at Dr. Holman.
The doctor patted my hand paternally and turned to look at Louise, who only shook her head sadly.
They placed the tube that morning, fastening my hands to the bed to prevent me from removing it. The round plastic entered through my nose, scraping and jutting against the sensitive tissue there. It continued down my throat, making me gag and heave. Slowly at first, and then faster, a thick brown liquid began to creep down the tube. I couldn’t taste it, but it felt warm and somehow bitter. I wanted to fight it, but the bonds held me still. They left me then, tied to the bed with a tube down my nose. I didn’t have the energy to cry.
The doctor returned the next morning with more brown goo for the tube. Before he left, he turned to look at me curiously. “Are you here?”
I stared. “I’ve been here for over a week!”
The doctor shook his head solemnly and left.
That night I heard the first whispers. They were nearly too faint to make out, but I knew they were there, could feel them somehow inside my head. They cooed and laughed, a dark and ugly sound that filled my head like white noise. As the whispers invaded my thoughts, my muscles twitched and flexed of their own volition. I tried to relax, tried to sleep, but I could not stop the movement or the whispers. By the time dawn broke in the white room, every muscle in my exhausted body ached.
The next few days were a blur. Each day the doctor would arrive and send the thick brown liquid down my tube. Each day he would ask whether I was here. Each night my brain would play tricks on me and my body would twist and turn against its bonds. I began to make out the whispers more clearly on the third night. A voice inside my head was telling me to be a good role model, that I had so much influence on young minds.
On the fourth day, something had changed. When I awoke my body felt strangely heavy, as if weighted down. I began to feel afraid that I’d become paralyzed; when I tried to move my limbs they didn’t respond. Sometimes, though, they would. Despite the leaden weight of my body, unpredictable and intense movements would rock through me. A leg kick here and a shoulder jerk there. When the doctor arrived, he looked at me hopefully.
“Now then, are you here?”
From my own mouth, with my own voice, came a response. “Yes. I am here now.” It was me saying that, but it wasn’t me. In my mind I saw the image of a marionette, its hinged jaw moving up and down mechanically with the pull of a string. There was a pause while the doctor looked at me. Finally, he replied.
“Good! It seems to be moving along quickly, yes?”
My head began to spin. What was happening to me? What was this stuff running down my throat? The doctor moved around to the front of me and shined a penlight into my eyes.
“Can you tell how long it will be now?”
The voice that wasn’t mine responded, “Another week, maybe two. She gets stronger by the moment, and her mind is quite fertile.”
My mind was what? As I began to panic, the voice inside my head started making soothing noises, encouraging me to give in, to let it take over. “It’ll be so easy,” it said to me. "Don't you want to be a good role model?"
Each day I slipped further and further away. My thoughts felt like my own, came from within me, but they were not mine. All day I was with them, without even a self-help book for distraction. The orderlies no longer came in, only the doctor, once a day to fill my tube. No one even emptied my bedpan, though it neared to overflowing.
I watched as my stomach swelled, becoming full and round and stretching my skin. Once I could have sworn I saw movement, something pressing upwards against the skin. I couldn’t understand; whatever was in the brown goo could not be doing that. Power hummed through my arms and legs even though they remained bound to the bed.
The doctor unshackled me yesterday, and I made no move to escape, though the part of me that was still me wanted desperately to run. Louise even came in yesterday and brought me a computer. “You need to shore up your social media presence,” she said. “You are a role model after all.” She smiled at me, just as she did the first day that I came to The New Beginnings Center.
I have moments of being myself, but I can feel them shrinking, little by little. I will pull out my photo and remember who I was, but then I will forget. I'll hate the woman in the picture with a passion. Or I will be typing away, struggling to write this all down, to make it known, and find myself suddenly posting on Facebook about how wonderful New Beginnings has been. Inside I scream, but it doesn’t matter. The voice just chuckles and assures me that it will all be over soon. "Just let go," my own voice says to me. "You have so many good things yet to do."
I want to get this out there, though. I want the world to know that I was a person once who controlled herself. I was once someone who made her own decisions, who chose to live. I don't know how many there are like me. People who were once people.
I don’t know what I am becoming, but please know that it is not me.