Appetite for Destruction
Originally published in Please Hold Magazine.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about becoming a saint. I can picture myself on a prayer card, rolling my eyes (toward heaven) and wearing yards of black fabric. That’s a look I’ve been practicing since I was a teenager. Sainthood is a long shot for an agnostic, but I think I could do it. I just should’ve been born in 14th century Italy.
My agnosticism wouldn’t matter then. Middle Ages Elizabeth believes in God the way modern Elizabeth believes in psychology. That’s to say, she just trusts the experts. In 1300-whatever, the experts say the divine is real… at least as real as hysteria in 1890 or the DSM-V today. From this perspective, becoming a true believer is easy. People are the same; it’s only the diagnostic codes that change.
I realized this was true when I saw the 14th century version of myself at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. That’s where Saint Catherine of Siena’s body, or the majority of it, rests in a shrine under the altar. Pilgrims and gawkers wait in line just to see her white marble effigy up close.
Maybe there’s some truth in the dogma that says Catherine’s spirit is particularly strong at her shrine. Or maybe it’s a convenient device to help me explain how I befriended a woman who’d been dead since 1380. But from the time I saw her, I pictured us like girls at summer camp, sharing deviant secrets under the ultramarine fresco of the night sky.
From the start we were two bizarre little kids, though you could also say we had rich inner lives. Catherine once told her confessor that when she was young, she built a cell in her mind, an inner convent from which she could never escape. There, she lived in self-imposed monasticism, claiming she was guided directly by God’s voice. To everyone else who couldn’t see her invisible convent, she was just a little sanctimonious, and the voice in her head sounded a lot like her own.
As a toddler, I also experimented with direct communications from God. I would beg His forgiveness for all my little sins, then reply out the side of my mouth, “That’s okay, Elizabeth.” It was the world’s worst ventriloquist act but it didn’t last very long. I didn’t stop making the voice but as I matured it became like Catherine’s, made and heard only by me. That’s when my forgiving God reverted to His Old Testament ways.
In grade school, I started writing secret lists of rules to follow. I began building a cell in my mind, the lone novice in my invisible convent. The convent’s bylaws were the strictest I could imagine and amended constantly to entrap myself. I was certain there was something bad about me, but since adults wouldn’t acknowledge it, the only way to uncover it was by making a list of impossible expectations and diligently noting when and why I failed. There’s no winning at a game like Invisible Convent; it was like another childhood pastime, the quiet game. You start playing knowing you’ll have to talk again, but true athletes of the sport know it’s really about sustaining perfection. When Catherine, saint that she was, started playing the quiet game, she didn’t talk for three years, shattering my most impressive records.
Even for a good Catholic girl, Imaginary Convent is a deeply weird game, only made weirder by the fact that you can’t tell people you’re playing it. To invite others in would ruin the game. It would become Actual Convent, a game neither Catherine nor I wanted to play. Actual Convent requires at least one other person and means they could start making the rules. I imagine this is why Catherine never joined an actual convent. Instead, she joined a religious order for widows, despite being young and unmarried. Conveniently for Catherine, these women were uncloistered, leaving Catherine to the cell in her mind, answering directly to her own God.
By middle school, Invisible Convent became more complex and the rules, which could only be applied to and enforced by me, became more severe. Somehow, Catherine and I settled on many of the same obsessions with a few variations given our six-century age gap.
I will stop eating sugar. – Me
I will stop drinking wine. – Catherine
I will not eat anything but ice cubes today. – Me
I will not eat anything but bitter herbs today. – Catherine
I will vomit with this toothbrush. – Me
I will vomit with this fennel branch. – Catherine
I will only chew then spit this out. (Jinx!)
It was also around this time that we both became serious accountants, accidental masters of Italian double-entry bookkeeping, the kind invented by Catherine’s medieval contemporaries. I began what became a years-long record of my daily mistakes and faults in the back of my day planner. In one column, I wrote demerits, in another, punishments, and in the last, I marked the punishment paid in full.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s prayers began sounding more like calls from God’s debt collector. She outlined her “established terms,” the things she would offer up to God, and then went on to explain what she expected from Him in return.
Catherine’s “established terms” and my punishments were eerily similar. Catherine hid a pointed stick in her bed, so even while her family thought she was resting, she could smite herself by burrowing into her skin. By the time I was in college, the space between my mattress and box spring concealed a surgeons’ table of neatly arranged scissors, x-acto blades, straightened paperclips and box cutters.
When I learned that Catherine once felt compelled to drink rancid pus from a sick nun’s tumor, I wasn’t repulsed. I laughed because I once ate an entire container of spoiled yogurt for the same reason. In our minds, the putrid ooze was a gift, a divine test that became an ironic punishment for our inevitable failure. She tested and punished her revulsion; I tested and punished my craving for food in the first place. We strove to be emotionless, desireless, bodiless, perfect beings. In other words, what we really wanted to be were gods.
Eventually outsiders tried to visit our invisible convents. Therapists and doctors thought they could swoop in and play confessor or inquisitor, pulling rank on what looked to them like teenage girls. What nobody knew is that Catherine and I were both empty and full. We purged ourselves of food only to unhinge our jaws and swallow the system whole. We were girls on the outside. But inside we were mother superior, the pope and God all in one. Outsiders’ authority didn’t count in the world inside our guts. We said why and when and how much punishment, administrated and took it. I’ve never been a clergyman, but Catherine and I, we were the clergy, man.
When confession and cognitive behavioral therapy failed to stop our self-destructive tendencies, physical remedies were sought. Catherine’s mother took her to a hot spring for a therapeutic bath, but Catherine quickly figured out how to use the water to quietly scald herself until her skin peeled off. For me it was benzos and beta-blockers, Trazodone, Paxil, Prozac, Lexapro, Luvox, Effexor, Zoloft and Wellbutrin. That’s not even close to a complete list of drugs. Lest you think Saint Catherine would’ve flourished if she’d only had access to my treatment options, know this: none of them worked. Every new diagnosis and treatment plan began optimistically— a fresh bandage on an old sore. But while well-meaning doctors and I tended to each wound in milligrams and fifty-minute sessions, the plague festered inside of me.
Today we call Catherine’s diagnosis anorexia mirabilis but you won’t find it in the DSM. It’s a term used by historians and priests instead of doctors and therapists. But strip “miraculous anorexia” of its supernatural implications and you’re left with a diagnosis that names the silent voice that was the center of my world. Catherine called it God, but I instantly recognized Him as the voice I had always made out the side of my mouth.
Anorexia mirabilis has one more distinction, owing to the fact that the Latin is more ecclesiastical than medical—it’s honest about the context and result of the symptoms. Mirabilis doesn’t just translate to miraculous. It also means wonderful and extraordinary. While the Hippocratic oath stops doctors from harming patients, the Church is free to idealize and reward self-destruction.
Those rewards were very real, despite what doctors with furrowed brows and therapists with flat mouths and sad eyes told me. It turned out people, particularly men, love a girl who’s wildly ambitious and frequently uncaring. I didn’t flinch at pain. I felt invigorated by hunger. I exploited being “not like other girls” sensing it was safer to control my exploitation just like it was safer to be the one holding the blades I punished myself with. As a result I was deemed serious and hardworking, a perfectionist with high expectations. But Catherine, always better than me, was so “not like other girls” she was permitted to council the pope. She wrote him sarcastic letters and goaded him into moving the papacy from Avignon back to Rome. She addressed His Holiness as “dearest daddy.”
Saint Jerome, an early Catholic teacher, once called an ascetic woman he admired, “forgetful of her sex, unmindful of her frailty.” In other words, “not like other girls.” Through punishment, he believed women could transcend that bone-deep feminine weakness, the secret rot I was always testing for and trying to eliminate. But Saint Jerome didn’t know the whole truth about women like me. How could he? The truth is I never “forgot” any part of myself. If something wasn’t there, it was because I gouged it out. Men like Saint Jerome will love you for that and it’s always so obvious when you’re loved for what you’re not.
Back at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Catherine and I parted ways as I filed past her shrine. I left my ideas about 14th century sainthood at the altar and came back to the 21st century for good. There are two ways to venerate a saint--admiranda and imitanda. The saints you admire aren’t necessarily the saints you’re encouraged to imitate. I could’ve kept going after I learned Saint Catherine had walked this road before me. I could’ve taken up imitanda just to see how far I could go. Saint? CEO? Who knows. But I stopped, first with the food rules, then with the lists and ledgers and reluctantly with the punishments. I quietly slipped into admiranda.
This detached view from afar is easier to accept if you know how this hagiography ends. Catherine’s death, like everything else in her life, went according to her own design. At thirty-three, she quit drinking water. The Catholic Church was headed for a political schism far beyond her control and “beyond her control” was an unwelcome, foreign feeling. Defeat seemed imminent, and death began to make a certain sort of sense. If you think people love you for what you’ve destroyed in yourself, it’s easy to justify finishing the job. Besides, there are no living saints anyway.
Catherine died parched and bedridden, but she may as well have detonated herself. The impact of her life scattered her body as devotees rushed to claim holy relics, the venerated pieces of the body she so carefully destroyed. Her head and finger wound up behind glass in Siena, her trunk in the marble sarcophagus in Rome. The world around her was permanently altered. This female suicide victim not only became a saint, but patroness of Europe and Doctor of the Church.
Catherine once told God, “Here is my body... may it be an anvil for Thy beatings.” I think I was in on her subtext. “Thy” was her and she was God all along. Goethe wrote, “You must either conquer and rule or serve and lose, suffer or triumph, be the anvil or the hammer”. You’ll pardon me for saying so, but Goethe, having never been a teenaged girl, was way out of his depth. One way to rule is by being both. Who says women can’t have it all.