For Pauline Gaines, the thought of her son having an eating disorder represents something bigger.
“I’m not too skinny. I like the way I look now. I was fat before.”
Luca and I were standing in front of a ramshackle roadside burger joint, waiting for our banana milkshakes. It was 11:00 a.m. and he hadn’t eaten breakfast. Normally I wouldn’t have agreed to a mid-morning sugar fest, but I was desperate to get him to ingest something.
“You were not fat! You need to eat! Your clothes are hanging on you.”
“Mom, this is the way my clothes are supposed to look. I feel good. I wanna lose another five pounds.”
He grinned, as in: I love that I’m totally freaking you out. I hoped he was kidding. I swallowed my impulse to nag him into sense. I remembered uttering those same stubborn replies during my college years, which I spent exercising myself into an amenorrheic coat-hangar. I loved the attention that came from alarming others by having no body fat. I loved the high I got from proudly restricting myself to cantaloupe slices and whole-wheat toast, then spiking my endorphins through two-hour runs.
When my lithe daughter, at age eight, returned from summer camp proclaiming that she needed to go on a diet like her sleepaway homies, my blood pressure soared as lurid visions of a purging teenage girl danced through my head. But I never imagined that my son would find fault with his body, or discover that starving himself is an easy way to alter his mood.
“The meds take away my appetite,” said Luca.
We were back in the car. My high anxiety settled as I watched him slurp his banana-snickers shake through a straw. Luca was on a stimulant for ADHD, a drug that appeared to be doing absolutely nothing for his attention, other than perhaps getting him fixated on his weight. But there was no use in conferring with my ex-husband about taking Luca off of it. Besides believing that I am a supreme dolt, Prince has sole decision-making power over Luca’s mental health and medical care; he could pump Luca full of psychotropic drugs and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
We drove down a rural highway, past an occasional farmhouse, tractor, or herd of munching cattle. Since a new skateboard was verboten, I told Luca I would supplement his birthday money so he could buy a remote control car.
I was conflicted about contributing further to his “thing” addiction. But he hadn’t been able to use the birthday money I’d given him since his dad shipped him off to wilderness camp a week before he turned 14.
I just wanted to make Luca happy, even if that meant pandering to instant gratification. So I followed him around the hobby store as he inspected rows of souped-up, badass remote control cars, interrogating the sales guy like the electronics connoisseur that he is.
The remote control car budget was $150, which, amazingly, doesn’t even buy you the top-of-the-line. Luca lobbied hard for cars that exceeded that amount. I held my breath while holding fast to the limit. My son had a history of colossal meltdowns in stores when he couldn’t get what he wanted. The kind of meltdowns that garnered sanctimonious glances from parents who assumed my kid was merely spoiled rotten, instead of somewhat spoiled, but more so troubled.
Luca finally settled on a snazzy silver car for just under $150. He thanked me profusely and asked if we could return to his boarding school so he could show his friends his new wheels. I told him he had to eat lunch first.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat.”
I managed to corral Luca into a booth at a nearby restaurant. He grudgingly nibbled on a buffalo wing to appease me. I stared at his face, at the angled lines where full cheeks used to be, the dark half-moons under his eyes. The conversation we were having—about his new buzz cut, how the cats were doing back at home, whether or not I was going to upgrade to the iPhone 5—seemed to float over my head, bumped aside by twin goblins named Guilt and Worry.
What if he keeps getting skinnier?
Is his food refusal a reaction to being sent away?
If I act like I don’t notice he’s not eating, will he eat? Or will he only eat if I make him?
I used to have an eating disorder—did I pass it on to him?
Luca asked about Caleb, my husband’s son from a brief relationship, who was now a freshman in college. Caleb’s response to being trapped in a six-year-long custody battle was to cut off contact with his father for four years, a strategy that ended abruptly when he turned 17 and, having had it with his mom, came to live with us full-time.
“Did Atticus and Caleb’s mom have a high-conflict divorce?” asked Luca.
I flinched hearing “high-conflict divorce” come out of my son’s mouth. No child should know that term even exists.
“Yes, they did,” I said.
“Worse than yours and Dad’s?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Why did Caleb go so long without seeing Atticus?”
“Well … his mom didn’t want him to have a relationship with Atticus. He was caught in the middle and felt he had to side with his mom. I don’t know that he really had a choice.”
“That’s what it’s been like for me,” said Luca.
“I imagine it has. I wish you hadn’t had to go through that.”
Luca grimaced, pushing away his plate of barely nibbled-upon buffalo wings.
“I’m full,” he said. “Can we go back now?”
The little car zoomed around the basketball court, zipping left, then right, spinning in broad circles. A few boys clustered around Luca as he maneuvered the switches on the remote control. They had been waiting patiently for the turns that Luca had promised them, but drifted away one by one when they realized the turns wouldn’t materialize.
Perry told me Luca blew up friendships by either refusing to share his stuff or by micromanaging his peers’ turns on his stuff to such a degree that no one wanted to hang out with him.
“Can I try it, Luca?” I asked, when the last kid had given up.
“In a minute, Mom,” he said, zipping the car to and fro.
“Your mom’s waiting for a turn, Luca,” said Mr. Dan, the Staff who was watching from one side of the basketball court.
“OK, OK,” said Luca, placing the controller in my hands. “You move the switch this way to make the car go right, then the other way to make the car go left.”
I pushed my thumb up on the switch and the car tore across the court.
“Go easy on the switch, Mom! If you move it too fast you’ll lose control of the car and it could slam into a rock!”
I toggled the switch sideways and the car spun in sharp loops.
“That’s pretty good, Mom,” Luca took the controller out of my hands.
“I was just warming up …”
“It hasn’t had a full charge. I need to charge it now.”
Luca scooped up the car and headed towards the main building. I shrugged at Mr. Dan, then tagged after Luca.
The next day Luca and I went on an outing with Jake, a sweet-natured kid with raging ADHD who had coincidentally flamed out at the same private school from which Luca had been expelled, and Jake’s mom, Bettina.
Bettina and I sat on a bench at Jump Zone, watching the boys bounce on a collection of enormous indoor trampolines and jumpers. We exchanged the typical mother-of-challenging-children information: medication trials, ineffective therapists, multiple diagnoses, drug use, school problems. We talked about our divorces, and I had total divorce envy. Hers was amicable, with no fighting over custody or money. And still, she said, Jake had been devastated. You don’t know devastated, I thought.
I looked up at the trampoline. Jake was in view, but not Luca. I remembered the every-parent’s-worst-nightmare incidents I’d read about in Luca’s psych eval, the ones my ex-husband had chosen to keep secret until they came out in the evaluation.
I stood up and moved along the edge of the jumpers, past budding teenage girls and older boys—the two groups of kids who had previously triggered hair-raising, public displays of impulsivity on Luca’s part.
I scanned the kids, but no Luca. Freaky images flickered in my head. Luca huddled in one of the nets. Scoring dope. Scoring with a girl.
When I rounded the corner, I smiled in relief. He was standing in front of a row of teenage boys who towered over him, watching as he finessed his yoyo through the air.
After the boys tired of the trampolines, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for dinner. Jake’s meds had worn off and he was bouncing up and down in his seat. Bettina put her arms around him to calm him, and he snuggled into her. If I tried that stunt in public, I thought, Luca would flip out.
Bettina and I talked across the table. Luca was sitting next to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him not eat his taco.
Luca’s a bells-and-whistles kid, so he surprised me by asking to come to my hotel the next morning, just to hang out and watch a movie on TV. I was flying out that afternoon, so we didn’t have a lot of time. I picked him up from school at 9:00 a.m., then took him back to the hotel.
“Are you hungry?” I asked, just for the hell of it, as I expected him to say no.
We stood in the lobby. The smell of eggs and bacon meandered over from the adjacent dining room.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m pretty hungry.”
The breakfast was buffet style. I was sitting at the table drinking coffee when Luca sat down beside me, his plate jammed with scrambled eggs, sausage, and a bagel. He stuffed eggs in his mouth, slathered cream cheese on his bagel.
“Hey, Mom, could you get me some pancakes?”
I walked over to the buffet. I was glad my back was to him, because I had teared up. It hit me that it had been more than a year since I had performed this most basic act of motherhood: getting my son breakfast.
I set the plate of pancakes in front of Luca and sat down. I watched him drag slices of pancake through a pool of syrup, cramming bites in his mouth.
“The breakfast is really good here,” he said.
I was glad he was too busy with his food to look up at me. Because I couldn’t stop crying.
—Photo D’Arcy Norman/Flickr