Some things are innate in us: breathing, walking, blinking. Over time, we develop habits that feel instinctual, even though they are learned from mimicking the people around us. Despite my mother never explicitly telling me what bulimia was, I learned from watching her. She taught me how to force my fingers back and tickle punching bags until our stomachs call for a truce, how to let it out, how to etch in my brain that my daughters will learn to do the same too because it’s tradition at this point.
The average person takes 66 days to develop a habit, but how long does it take if the habit is already inside you – waiting for you to cave in?
When I was in fifth grade, my biology teacher taught a lesson about owls and their pellets. She told my class that pellets are just regurgitated balls of fur and bones and that owls usually swallow their prey whole. So, when they eat, everything that can dissolve does. Everything else stays in their gizzard where it will compress into a tiny brown ball. Then, they cough it up. I didn’t really understand how owls were okay with that: eating then throwing up habitually. It wasn’t until my mother showed me how she did it that I finally understood. The first time I heard her throw up, I ran downstairs and tried to help. I pulled her hair back until I realized that she wanted it to happen (and was forcing it). Her fingers kept going down her throat, in and out, and I backed away as she gagged with no release. I remember thinking how I’d never seen that much saliva before as she drooled over the toilet. She never looked up at me or talked to me about it after. My mom never told me how or when she learned to purge (I never asked), but once, I was at my grandparents’ house for dinner, and my grandmother ran to the bathroom after we ate. It was just the two of us at the table, so I followed her in case she needed me. The lock of the bathroom door clicked, silence, then the voiding came. I heard her gagging and the soft plops of chunks hitting the water. That noise sounds like home sometimes. The nerves in my stomach let me know this wasn’t her first time. I realized in that moment that women in my family do nothing more than empty themselves.
How long does it take to not digest a mouse?
How long would it take if the mouse were a whole box of pizza instead?
My mother has got it down to a science: 30 minutes after eating or immediately after an argument with my father. I have clear memories of her running downstairs with tears in her eyes after hearing them yell for an hour and her being locked in the bathroom for a few minutes. My first time was at Olive Garden. I was 11 years old, and my cousin was having a birthday dinner. I had a soup that was made with kale, potatoes, and spicy sausages, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. I don’t remember how, but I finished my food way before everyone else. Maybe I scarfed it down and swallowed it whole like an owl would. I chugged a glass of water and excused myself to the bathroom. Honestly, I didn’t know I was going to do it until I was on my knees and already rolling my sleeves up. I tried pushing my stomach at weird angles to make myself nauseous (that didn’t work; that’s not how stomachs work). So, like my mother, I shoved two fingers down my throat and gagged. My eyes watered, and I made an embarrassing noise, but nothing came out. I did it again. My throat burned, and in front of me sat bright reddish pink slime and little pasta worms, floating. I kept going until there was nothing left in me, and I was cramping over the toilet. As I flushed, I wondered if owls felt pain when they coughed pellets up (they don’t; they’re supposed to make themselves vomit, we aren’t). I ran to the sink to wash my hands and my mouth. Looking in the mirror, I convinced myself that I looked skinnier as I dried my hands off. Dinner went back to normal, and the scent of sour tomatoes hasn’t gone away since.
Why does dry heaving smell minty?
Ask my mother and me; it is a flavor too strong to ignore, but not strong enough to become a mask. At some point, your body stops fighting the heaving. Everything you touch starts smelling like it could burn you: acid, bile disintegrating all that it touches. You’re sour. Pieces of you and remnants of your quick bathroom trips leave a stink that cannot be washed out with detergent. Once, I was sitting in a field with my mom on a picnic. Is it still called a picnic if the only thing brought to consume is water? We picked some flowers to pass time, and I found feathers of a bird scattered across the field. I grabbed them and showed them to my mom, but she told me not to touch them because they were dirty and smacked them out of my hands. She told me once that our touch was permanent, and I didn’t understand what that meant until we rolled the picnic blanket up, and it smelled like fermented tomato sauce. I always wondered if owls notice when their feathers fall off, or if molting was as important to them as getting periods is to us. Out of every girl in my middle school friend group, I was the last to menstruate. My backpack always had 2 pads and some liners in it, even though I didn’t get my period until freshman year of high school. Each of my friends told me about their bloody stories: how and when they noticed that their pants had been stained by womanhood. I didn’t have the courage to tell them that I hadn’t experienced any of that yet (and I wouldn’t for 3 more years). We are what we hide.
Mantling is an instinctual habit that owls have where they use their wings to cover their food in order to survive. They hide smaller birds from hawks above, and mice from snakes below. I watched a documentary once about mantling. As their wings spread and their heads bowed down, I realized that we all mantle at some point in our lives. I used to stuff candy wrappers and empty bags of chips under my bed. Every night, as I laid down to sleep, the sharp scents of expired chocolate and stale Fritos welcomed me back. The crackling sounds of plastic sounded like accomplishment. My mother and I aren’t good at a lot of things but hiding has been a pride of ours for as long as I can remember. We push things away often: why I got my period so late, my appetite loss, my suicide attempts. My mother hides her insecurities with tummy teas that make you shit water and skipping meals with me (only to find bowls of old food in her room once she leaves). I hide my anger in shame and long sleeve shirts when it’s too hot outside and locked doors – even when no one else is home. My grandmother hides her feebleness by baking cakes daily and sharing them with her neighbors and never saving a slice for herself.
Is that mantling too? If you throw up and it goes down the drain, does the shame go with it? Much like in a pellet, there are things that will not go away. The bones and fur stay solid for a reason. The dissection of an owl pellet can tell a person a lot about an owl’s lifestyle: what it ate, how often, and where it came from. Unlike owls, the food we eat (or don’t eat) is not all there is to know about our lives. You cannot know of my generosity from the clear, syrup-like fluid floating atop the toilet water. You wouldn’t know what loving me is like from the recurring neon-green chunks dripping from my lips or my chin.
Why do we keep flushing pieces of ourselves away?
I think my mother knows the answer, but I am so afraid for her to find out that her habit isn’t a secret anymore, so I stay silent and keep my questions to myself.
Vanity is a queer human who was born in Massachusetts and now living in Virginia. She attends Hollins University with a double major in creative writing and psychology. She has worked on a child development research lab and one of her college’s literary magazines. As a child, Vanity read horrifying stories by Stephen King and found a passion for cultural horror stories while trying to find representation. She stays busy by finding novels to read on TikTok and procrastinating on her essays and exams.