Someone has to slop out the sick. Someone, being me.
It was the worst place, the third-floor bathroom, cherished by eating disorder patients because the toilet is pocketed away at the top of the house. It’s there that vomiting and explosive defecation, induced by smuggled-in laxatives, cannot be seen nor heard and only later, when it’s too late, smelt.
Welcome to Hope House. Some arrive with more hope than they take home, some leave with more than they sneak in.
My name is Leonard. I’m a janitor. Today, I’m feeling OK.
* * *
Local Newspaper Advertisement: 9th March
Recruiting: Treatment Centre Assistant
We’re looking for a competent, hard-working assistant at our treatment centre for addicts. Duties include cleaning and kitchen support. Experience an advantage. Five days per week. Cash in hand. Apply within.
* * *
It’s my guess that I was the only applicant.
I was supposed to mop out the upstairs toilet twice a day. In reality, six times was necessary and even then, even when the brown splatters were scrubbed and the chunks of undigested food were dislodged, the sharp odour of bile and mucus-ridden faeces pervaded. Sometimes it seeped out into the narrow, floor-boarded corridor, winding along past Room One, past Room Two, right to the end to Room Three, the bedroom shared by my girls.
I absorbed everything from my work stations. I’d hear agonised cries and confessions from the therapy room as I dusted the lounge, observe comings and goings from bedrooms as I bleached sinks, catch mutterings of covert chats as I swept the dining room. Even in the kitchen, where Chris-the-Chef performed constant, bitter monologues, indifferent to whose ears they fell upon, I ingested it all. Cleaning Hope House was like listening to the radio while you potter around at home: reams of information from inexhaustible voices.
Insanity is as terrifying as it is unfathomable. But there are lulls in the mania. Sometimes at Hope House everyone seemed more or less normal. Instead of hurling hysteria at the walls, patients would take naps, read, play chess, gossip in the garden. That’s when I’d cave to curiosity, steal into Room Three and snoop.
I’d pull out diaries and notebooks, open letters (unsent, unsealed) and unscrunch balls of paper thrown into corners. It’s astounding, the secrets people are capable of scribbling down, how much they leave lying around. I have copies of everything. You’ll find them below, printed in bold.
At this point I should introduce you to Josie, Celia and Liz, the three ladies of Room Three.
Let’s start with Josie, a crazed, wind-up bird whirring around the constraints of her skull. She’d vomited her way through three pregnancies and developed a hideous laxative addiction. She’d scratched right through the skin of her ankles and her arms wore an exhibition of cuts. Josie had been treated in two other centres for the besetting bulimia that had all but demolished her, from disintegrating teeth and brittle brown hair to an entirely crushed soul.
Celia was an upright, exceptionally beautiful doll; dark pin curls, finely-painted mouth, elegant nose, eyes of a leopard. She moved with machine-like rigidity and spoke in rapid, accurate (yet heavily-accented) English. A thirty-something, high-functioning Croatian media lawyer, Celia had somehow managed an impressive career while being a full-time anorexic. The whiteness of bone was visible at each joint of her filament body.
And alcoholic Liz. Scarred, cool yet raw, Liz glided on an ethereal plane like nobody else. Her long hair was blond at the ends, grey at the roots as she let age grow out. Blue eyes struggled beneath draping lids. Liz had the patience of an experienced, unjaundiced teacher. Actually, she was an experienced teacher, but not an unjaundiced one. She would never teach again.
* * *
Written by Liz on a used envelope:
To-Do List: Getting Back on Track
- Accept and rejoice in no more drinking
- Write to Harry (sound sane)
- Make new career plan
- Read a good novel every week
- Walk daily, enjoy tea, eat fruit
- Don’t snap at people
- Meditate, smile, be serene
- Redirect thoughts about Harry. Let him go.
- Comfort others
- Don’t dwell on/resent the past
* * *
We collided on my first day, soaking-wet Josie and I, as she dashed out of the cold shower, a towel flipped around her.
Josie proceeded to run up and down the stairs
to get something I’ve forgotten
which she kept re-forgetting, thus running up and down. Again and again and again. She seemed unaware of her near-nakedness. Unaware or didn’t care. Shaking with cold like a dandelion clock in April, Josie attempted ferociously to shiver fat from her bones.
I admit the meeting thrust me into utter bemusement.
Me: Fifty-year-old man, hair disappearing with failed illustration career, bucket in one hand, sponge in the other, neck bent from an unremarkable life and vacant future.
Josie: Mid-forties. Very warm and very, very manic. Flushed face bursting with clusters of broken vessels. Eyes pinkened, bulging, wet from the daily retching she’d come to escape.
We looked at my already-miserable Converse, now drenched with the detergent water from my bucket.
Oh, oh, I’m so sorry!
She clutched at me in apology with one hand, the other pinning the towel to her breast bone.
Silly me, so idiotic! I must learn to slow down! Your poor shoes!
Queen’s English spilled from lips scalded by gastric acid. Her face resembled one from death-row. Devastated, derelict yet still, incomprehensibly, alive.
* * *
The Unofficial Hope House Guide (slipped under the pillows of newbies)
Now that you’re safely with us at Hope House, we, the patients, want you to know some unauthorised but nonetheless essential terminology.
We’ve customised the official names for addicts. Don’t be offended by these titles—just a way of adding some fun to the whole endeavour.
- Alcoholic: Boozer
- Anorexic/bulimic/compulsive overeater: Foodie
- Narcotics addict: Narco
- SLA (Sex and Love Addiction): Lovie
- Prescription drug addict: Pill popper
- Gambler: Bookie
These terms are used frequently during addiction talk. Counsellors say this stuff all the time.
- Using: Any addictive behaviour.
- Manipulation: Efforts to engineer reactions in others. AKA trying to get what (you think) you want.
- Your disease: Addiction is an illness.
- Projecting: Fixating on what you think is going to happen when you don’t have the slightest idea.
- Sitting on the pity pot: Term used to describe self-indulgent, poor-me thoughts/dialogue.
* * *
Hope House wasn’t the posh addiction centre.
If you had the means, you went to Grampton Grove in Kent where you wore a fluffy dressing gown after a massage. There was a pool, library, and mini-cinema showing high-brow films. They followed an adapted twelve-step programme and, being purists, refused anti-depressants. Their success rate was astounding.
If you didn’t have the means, well, Hope House was your choice. It wasn’t the most rigorous of regimes—God knows what people managed to do and consume covertly (even the most beaten-down addict will surrender to temptation)—but intentions were noble. And the place wasn’t entirely cheapskate—it was a large Eighteenth Century Gothic Revival house with sizeable gardens. There was a lounge with old, comfy sofas and an open fire. Some food was organic, or at least home-grown, and there was an upright piano. They adapted bits and pieces from cognitive behavioural therapy, flecks of Alcoholics Anonymous wisdom, permitted light anti-depressants. And on Sundays, when family members visited, there’d be psychodrama for a treat. A specialist called William Wonder came in for that. He’d select a patient and re-enact a part of his or her painful life. It was a real showstopper. People often clapped at the end.
Patients did a fair few household jobs themselves (with lots of complaining) in order to reconnect with reality.
As if rationality might be reinstalled through the mundane—changing sheets and shaking out mats. As though the simplicity that life had supposedly granted at birth would somehow return and addicts would leave with restrung brains, rinsed spirits.
But I was in for the long haul. I’d watch patients come and go. I’d be Loyal Leonard, muddying my Converse walking across the field between my mildewed cottage and Hope House. Reliable, phlegmatic, alone.
With time, maybe I’d cease cursing Sheila, my wife and work partner who’d abandoned me after years of collaboration, traded me in for a guy who drew like a graffiti artist because, I guess, my drawings were too classic.
Old and outmoded.
Not funny anymore.
She had gone. It had all gone. The work dried up with the lovelessness, the ideas disbanded and I gave into failure, took that secluded, soggy cottage across the field from Hope House and folded myself into the routine of a trite job.
* * *
Hope House: The Official Pamphlet (extract)
We are not here to pamper you but to help retrace your path, clear it and redirect it into the future you deserve. We re-learn to live, together and alone. We share, become responsible again, let go of what brought us here. We leave, rejoin the world, renewed and liberated.
* * *
1st of May
They stood in knots. Bunches of bent figures clinging like wafts of frogspawn, dotted around the grounds. Some silent. Some sobbing. Some held hands, pairs of hands clasping pairs of hands, heads stooped like worshippers.
The first day of May, the warmest of the year so far. It let its hours pass slowly. Routine was obliterated by a blow that could not yet, perhaps ever, be comprehended. But for that one day, everyone felt the same way.
Another dose of sorrow.
* * *
At the end of my first week, mid-March, she arrived. They said she’d poured two bottles of vodka into her slim body—without vomiting—and could still walk. The therapists testified they had never, ever, seen anybody that drunk.
Moving like a sleepwalker, eyes open and unseeing, Liz asked me to guide her to the smoking area, squeezing my forearm with the grip of a newborn’s fist.
I stood and smoked with her by the wall, propped up her trembling body, she swaying through detoxification. It was our first cigarette rendez-vous of many. But even then, when Liz’s system contained more alcohol than blood, she made perfect sense, as though she’d reached that point of alcoholisation where the drinker is lucid.
She recounted her nightmarish story. The move abroad, meeting Harry, losing Harry, meeting the bottle. And then, what she called the death knell. The final disgrace. Liz, the inebriated teacher, swaying between the desks, tripping over bags, landing on the floor like a tragic cartoon character. The entire event was videoed by a student and shared. Within seconds it was everywhere. Splat went everything.
After only a week at Hope House, though, Liz was clean, smiling with buttercup radiance. Her story stayed the same. Because the truth isn’t always distorted by addicts. Once the pride, pretence and presumption—and whatever else some consider essential to survival—are destroyed, the core is liberated.
Admitting defeat to addiction does that. As though some central, unalterable truths really do exist.
Liz took to making tea, for herself and everyone else. Carried a dozen chinking mugs on a tray like she’d bought a round at the pub. I always got the yellow mug which said You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here But It Helps.
Only you can have this one because you’re sane, Leonard.
You must think we’re all raving loons.
I’m not in the habit of judging.
I don’t believe people who say they don’t judge. Everybody does it. It’s instinctive. Just call it assessment if you’re too shy to call it judgement.
Liz glided away with mug and book towards the sofa. Smile restful, unmoving.
* * *
“Official Complaint” – written by Celia on Gucci embossed paper
To Whom It May Concern:
I’d like to complain. I came out of the kitchen today with a huge gash across the side of my head, thankfully hidden by my hair. I thought maybe you’d consider removing me from these kitchen sessions, but apparently nearly dying isn’t sufficient a reason.
It’s bad enough that we’re sent to meal-making “lessons”. Me and the fat girls and guys all being told how and what to eat. I know better than anyone what a healthy diet is.
Your kitchen is a stinking mess, reminiscent of a grubby suburban cafe. Those bags of flour are breeding grounds for insects and full of holes, clearly nibbled by mice.
You call it “re-education of self-nourishment”. You talk about eating as a basic “act of self-love”. Nicely said, but does self-love include carb and fat loading?
May I enquire as to why Dean and James come too? Is it really necessary to bring heroin addicts along? These sessions are an excuse for them to stuff their faces and act like we’re at a pub quiz. All they contribute is dirty puns and artless conversation.
Today was a farce. The boys flicked rice and Josie flapped about with sprigs of parsley, breaking eggs. To add insult to injury, Chris handed me a 500g—FIVE HUNDRED!—pat of butter to dump into a vast quantity of boiled potatoes. I did my best, but please, that much solid fat?! Dropping it into the vat, I was overwhelmed by the shakes and passed out. I smashed my head on the corner of the workbench.
Thank God Leonard was there to blot the blood (which stained my white shirt). A doctor would have advised stitches. But evidently, pointing out a medical need is being “manipulative”, creating drama to avoid therapy.
I came here to recover but I won’t be passive. I demand to be removed from such activities.
* * *
1st of May
It was May Day, that ancient English pagan celebration. A national holiday. Joyful dancing, circling ribbons.
But Mayday, Mayday… a cry of despair.
Who’d have guessed she’d do it? Had nobody foreseen?
A special group meeting was called. I guess there’s only a certain amount of time you can let people wade around in swampy woe.
Patients were led into the therapy room, late afternoon, having had a few hours to swallow, to absorb. To count slow breaths and rapid sobs. All three therapists attended, eyes crimson but strong.
Nobody asked why I’d been in Room Three in the first place. After what I’d found, what I’d seen, I was told I could go home, take time to recuperate. But I stayed. I got on with my duties and I listened at the therapy room door to softly trembling voices.
* * *
The Three Therapists
Alexandra, Lydia, and Lionel strode in daily, challenge in their eyes. Built of the most solid cement (recovered addicts) they were ruthless radars to the most cloaked strategies of addiction.
Your disease is talking to me now, not you.
Yet they were as vulnerable as love. They watched with affection, pathos, as patients frantically fought compulsion, struggling amid its sticky threads. The suffocating trap.
They exuded the kind of relief and pride that you get in real recovery. Proof that you can live contentedly alongside the harrowing threat of relapse. Relapse being a farewell wave.
That said, they weren’t infallible angels. I knew, for example, that Alexandra and Lionel (both married) were having a closet affair acted out in the office during what they called “debriefing sessions”.
Like I said, people are generally crap at keeping secrets. And anyway, we’re all human.
* * *
From Liz’s unsent letters stacked in the bedside drawer.
Finally I’m writing to you, eleven months since you left. You left me. I like to remind myself that it was you who left. Maybe that way I’ll accept the out-of-my-hands-ness of it. Yes, you left, because you needed to live without me. You had your reasons, a good, solid list. All justifiable, viable, complete.
Feeling deserted, though, is immeasurable.
I carried on as best I could. Everyone has to be left, don’t they?
After you’d gone, I painted our flat, moved the furniture around and made cushion covers from liberty fabrics. I bought new clothes, girly ones, the kind you’ve never seen me wear and dyed my hair the closest I could to the blonde it used to be. I started socialising. I drank.
Work was my asylum. That school was my staple, Harry, before I messed up.
Everyone saw it, my accident in class. Filmed drunk. It was sent to everyone—students, teachers, parents, they all saw it. I, the object of ridicule.
Obviously, I’ll never go into a classroom again.
You must have learned that I broke down totally. These things are always known even when contact is severed. Maybe you think it was because of you but really it wasn’t. Once my work haven fell apart though, I crumbled.
I know it’s stupid but I felt like the bottle was the only thing that didn’t scorn me. It got me in the end. I’m trying really hard to forget everything, let time do its job.
My tenderness for you remains incalculable. Incurable.
* * *
Fuck those fucking cunts. Utter, utter cunts!
That was Josie, crouched in a corner of the bathroom, chin on knees, sweaty hair stuck in clods across her forehead, eyes scarlet. Livid Josie spitting expletives, her body crawling around with rage, ankles bleeding with scratches.
All because Lionel told Josie and Celia to swap clothes for three days.
The girls’ reactions detonated from the therapy room. First came Celia’s wails followed by Josie’s fury. Lionel’s deep, unwavering voice boomed, piercing the membrane of the addict mind.
Foodies were banned from discussing physical appearance and some were forbidden walks which they used as a way of over-exercising, calorie-burning. Their meals were prepared for them.
But Lionel says an eating disorder isn’t that simple. It consumes its prey from the inside out and back again. Every movement, every thought, becomes a premediated action to honour the illness.
Josie veiled her body in baggy joggers, scraggy T-shirts, enormous hoodies. But this mask was being removed. They were shaving her naked.
Celia, conversely, wore tailored, designer clothing. She looked, constantly, as if she worked for a premium financial firm in the City or as a buyer for Harrods. Pristinely manicured, hair folded flawlessly into a French pleat, chic pin-curls escaping, sophisticated jewellery.
Everyone stuttered beneath his confrontations. I, myself, admit to being intimidated by the preying eyes, eagle-beak nose, caustically accurate analysis delivered bullet-like. He’d caught onto Celia’s game.
My name’s Celia. I’m an anorexic. Today, I’m feeling good.
Looking very together Celia, no problems in your life, right? All smart and sorted.
Yes, Lionel, I’m doing well.
Really? Is that so? Who’d have thought you’d had a breakdown?
Well…I… don’t…I’m just feeling OK today. Pretty….together.
Beautifully dressed and made up. You certainly look the part. So prove it.
Yes. Swap clothes with Josie.
The two women dissolved.
I’m not wearing her fucking snobby clothes! I refuse—categorically—to put on all that tight stuff, those fucking fitted shirts and clingy skirts. It’s not me.
Your illness is speaking. Listen to it.
It’s not about the illness, it’s just about me feeling comfortable with who I am.
This is me.
Recognise your disease.
Why are you trying to strip my identity? I’ve always been this way. Big clothes are me.
So why do you insist on hiding yourself? Think you’ll disappear inside all that loose fabric?
The battle boiled on, the group confounded and speechless. All that insanity—so familiar, so abhorrent, so petrifying.
Lionel won because Lionel exposed lunacy like nobody else. He exposed it, beat it out and then he closed the therapy session.
Josie scampered like a rabid rat to the third-floor bathroom. A purge.
I found her there, pulling, pinching, scratching her flesh as though it may come off, relieve her. Humiliation has a heinous bite and, so often, humiliation is a public outing of the truth.
Celia took to dragging herself around the garden weeping, very delicately, solitarily.
Please no hoodies, no joggers. Total anathema. Faded jersey, drab sacks. I can’t. I shan’t.
You could hear her whimpers, diaphanous as her body, all over Hope House.
She’s already a ghost, I thought, her attempt at disappearing really is working. I watched her from her own bedroom window as she walked around the rose border, that April day letting in the year’s first warmth.
Josie and Celia underwent Lionel’s order like corporeal punishment because, well, it was corporeal punishment. Still, the reaction seemed pretty extreme to me. Pretty mad.
I mentioned that to Liz in the tea room. She handed me my yellow mug and I told her what I thought.
I shouldn’t say it, Liz, but they’re a bit loony.
Of course! That’s why they’re here.
Right. But there are degrees.
Probably. But I’m in no position to…
You know what I mean. I’m sure I’m no more sane.
You think you’re a bit crazy?
I don’t think you’re mad. You seem pretty… measured.
I’m completely nuts. If you knew what went on in my head.
I sniggered. I wanted to say, If you knew what went on in mine. But I dared not.
After all is said and done, said Liz, it’s not always a bad thing to be a bit unhinged.
She took her unarmed smile and mug of tea to the sofa, curled her knees under a book and just sat.
April was beautiful behind her. A spring sun was pushing through hawthorn branches by the window; a hushed light creeping over her shoulders, all warm and encasing.
I dusted the mantlepiece and shelves, glancing at her from time to time. The treatment was working so fast. She’d been enveloped by the serenity you saw in those who had accepted recovery, let it in. I’m no expert but you don’t need to be.
That’s how I remember Liz; a painted portrait, there on the sofa, everything about her unaffected by time and movement and pain.
* * *
Postcard from Josie—Written in minuscule, barely legible writing.
My Darling Babies,
I know they’ve not allowed you to visit for three weeks and I’m so very sorry. Mummy has been very busy and doing some tremendously good work!
Remember how proud I am of all three of you. Clarissa, your drawings are just divine and Albert, your play-dough fire engine is on my bedside table. Little baby Claud, you’re growing so beautifully well—round and shiny as a ruby—but a zillion times more precious!
Mummy will be home soon and properly better. I’m full of energy and the whole house is amazed by the progress I’ve made. Everything is great.
The only thing missing is my three sublime children—the lights of my life. I hope they will allow a visit this weekend. I’m dreadfully sorry it’s been so long, but we’ll see each other very soon. Daddy will let you know.
Much love and countless kisses,
* * *
The time patients spent at Hope House was short, when you measure it against a lifetime. Yet it was a period that would besiege patients’ memories with the weight and brutality of war, memory preferring intensity over duration.
The average stay was twelve weeks, yet after only seven Liz was ready to go. Everyone could see it.
What’s more, the money had run out. She’d been declared bankrupt and the family emergency fund had been exhausted.
May Day was goodbye day.
As per tradition at departures, patients crowded into the lounge after breakfast. Liz took her tea to the large armchair and listened to the tributes. I was there, which was uncustomary for employees.
The eulogies flowed. I added mine, a little unoriginal, but mine nonetheless. Liz watched us one by one, saying little, smile placid, body peaceful.
Celia sat upright as an android, lump in her fine throat. Her quiet words wavered. Josie, maniacal eyes a-flutter, intermittently laughed and wept at Liz’s feet. She was the last to deliver her testimonial, a long ramble of sentiment, as she itched the raw skin on her ankle.
My roomie, my favourite boozer, my cherished friend. How can you go?
My little foodie, because everyone has to leave, and be left. Liz said this and looked at me, just for a second, then back at Josie.
Yes but how can you leave me alone with Celia and her posh, skin-tight clothes?
And so we ended on a giggle; even Celia saw the funny side. I watched Liz laugh and a flicker later, I saw the sorrow that all addicts carry and constantly swallow back. Sorrow that mourns destroyed, irretrievable time.
Still, Liz laughed, as she had learnt to do, and then she went upstairs to pack.
* * *
Addiction is an almighty parasite.
It forgives no doubt, no faithlessness, no crack in hope. It fights its victim to rock bottom, the place you reach when you can take no more, when you thrust out your arms and squeeze your eyes shut in despair. When you fall asleep whispering to the world please don’t let me wake up.
Rock bottom, for some, is below the mortality line.
Everyone knew that, and those who didn’t really know it, were told in no uncertain terms. Some say that suicide is the most common killer of addicts.
Many survive, some don’t. There always, always, has to be a casualty.
She did it the sure way. A way that would not leave her body swollen, brain marred but nonetheless alive from a failed overdose. A way that would not leave her permanently scarred from slashed veins, nor wheelchair-bound from a high fall.
Her only ambition was her own extinction. Yet she was no Cleopatra; post-mortal beauty was no consideration.
Everyone knows the soundlessness of death. Even if you’ve never seen it, you hear its absence.
I felt its silence as I entered Room Three. I saw the shadow on the wall, the shadow of the limp legs.
It moved against the stillness; hypnotic in its soft lilting, a pendulum telling that time had stopped somewhere, for someone.
I saw Celia’s pressed shirts, Josie’s jersey garments, piled like dishcloths, and Liz’s book, unfinished and open, so many words unread.
The three women of Room Three. It could have been any of them.
And as I looked down at my stained Converse, I thought: God only knows, it could have been me.
olivia gunning’s fiction has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, and Storyscape, among others. Her work will also be included in the next anthology by Crack the Spine.
As a journalist, Olivia has written for Breathe, Fodor’s Travel Guide, The National, and Elle Decoration as well as several travel supplements. She left her native London years and years ago to write, teach, and live in Casablanca Morocco.