When I was little, Mom used to hold me and say stuff like, “Oh Katie, you fit so perfectly on my lap! You’re so teeny-tiny!” I loved it. She’d keep me warm and hug me and I felt so great. I’d always go to Mom if I felt sad or scared and she’d just scoop me up, saying “what’s wrong, my teeny-tiny girl?” and I’d tell her what was making me upset and she’d always always always make it all better.
The most vivid memory I have was the day I turned 10. It wasn’t of my party, which I vaguely remember being great, it wasn’t the presents, some of which I still have, but it was when Mom had me in her lap that night and had tears in her eyes and said to Dad, “Katie’s getting to be a big girl, huh?” I don’t remember what my dad said, but there was no denying it: I wasn’t her teeny-tiny girl anymore.
At 10 years old, I was about 4’10”, maybe 100 pounds. I was growing fast. Both my parents are tall. I remember being scared. The scale kept going up, and by the time I was 11 I was 5’2”, 120 pounds and I started getting boobs. At that point, when I was sad, mom would hug me tight and say the right things, but it all felt different. She never cradled me. She never had me in her lap. I felt cold and lonely even though I was never really cold or lonely. I just wanted to be closer to her like I was when I was little. So I decided to get little again.
Mom started to notice when I pushed around my food on the plate, trying to pile it up on one side to make it look like I ate more than I really did. “You’re a growing girl,” she said, kindly but firmly. “You need to eat.” I couldn’t leave the table until I was done.
That night after dinner, I remember lying on my back on the bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling the food in my stomach. Mom’s words “you’re a growing girl” echoed in my mind and I felt so sick that I ran into the bathroom and threw up. I was really glad I had my own bathroom so they couldn’t hear me puking. After I was done, I felt so much better. Lighter and smaller, even.
Mom was so happy to see me eating normally again. She worried aloud that I might be getting the flu, so seeing me chowing down like my old self pushed those worries right out of her head. What she didn’t see was how I went to bed afterward and while the bathwater ran I was throwing it all up. I did this every day for years.
One of the sad truths about throwing up your meals is you don’t lose all that much weight. I actually gained more. Sure, I’d get rid of what I’d eaten, but probably twice a week I’d be lying in bed, wide awake, fingering my collar bones, hip bones, and ribs, and obsessing over food. Something inside me would snap, and I’d run to the fridge or the cabinets and eat until I felt like I was bursting. Then, exhausted, I’d go back upstairs and pass out on my bed. Calorie-for-calorie, after those twice-weekly binges I was eating more than I would if I was healthy. Except I really, really wasn’t healthy. And nobody knew.
All this built up to the last few months after I graduated high school. I was 5’11, 175 pounds. 17 years old. There was absolutely nothing I hated more than my body. I was constantly lonely and wanted to try to take my mind off it all. I decided to get a job. When I told Mom I found a position at a place that recycles old medical gear, she was really proud of me for taking the initiative. It was bittersweet; I knew she was starting to see me as an adult. Not her teeny-tiny girl. I felt like a complete and utter failure.
The recycling place where I worked dismantled big machines that hospitals used and sold the parts. I was the receptionist. I took phone calls and helped set up deliveries. The people I worked with were really nice and after a few weeks they gave me a key so I could get there early and have coffee ready and work orders printed out. One night, after everyone left, I went back there and let myself in. I still feel bad about breaking their trust.
A couple days earlier my coworkers were bringing in an old machine. They all were wearing heavy gloves and had on breathing gear like scuba divers. When they were done, I asked what it was. Apparently it was something hospitals use to give radiation therapy to cancer patients. I didn’t know too much about that, so when I got home I went on Wikipedia and did a lot of research and then I got my idea.
When I let myself in that night, the place was empty. I made a beeline for where they had that radiation therapy machine and I investigated it. Most of it was completely dismantled. What I was looking for was conveniently labeled and brightly marked in a massive lead container. It took me a while to get the cover off. Lead’s so heavy! But after I did, I saw a round metal part that looked like a wheel. I picked it up, rotated the mechanism, and it opened a little window in the front. A faint blue light was inside. I held it up to my eye and looked in. Nothing but that light. I thought it was probably what I was looking for.
I brought the object home with me and locked the door of my bedroom. I worked to pry the thing open with a screwdriver but it seemed locked from the inside. Eventually I got frustrated and I turned the wheel again to open the window and pushed my screwdriver into the blue stuff and tried scooping it out. It turned out to be pretty soft. A lot of it broke as I poked it with the screwdriver, and when I turned the wheel upside down, the pieces tumbled out onto my desk. Now I could see how pretty it was. It was like chunks of glowing blue clay and sand. I gathered it up as best I could and put it away, save for the little bit I was going to use tonight.
One of the things I’d read about radiation therapy was that it made the poor people with cancer really skinny. They just totally lost their appetites. I couldn’t believe it was true. I’d always had such a big appetite. I kept telling myself I need to be really careful when I take this stuff because if I get too much of the radiation I could get cancer myself. I took a pinch of the blue clay, put it in my mouth, and swallowed it with a gulp of water. It felt warm going down even though the water was cold. Since I’d gotten home from the recycling place I’d been pretty warm, in fact. Cozy. Like a little puppy under a blanket.
That night I woke up sweating worse than I’d ever sweated in my life. The bed was totally soaked. Gross. Water weight wasn’t really what I wanted to lose, but it was better than nothing. I took a shower and changed the sheets and went back to bed. My stomach ached a little.
When I woke up the next morning, my stomach hurt and I threw up a couple times. But, I wasn’t even remotely hungry. That alone made the pain in my tummy pretty much go away. I didn’t need to eat! Mom asked if I was bringing leftovers to work from last night’s dinner and I lied and said we were going to get a pizza. I hate lying to Mom, but I didn’t want her to worry. There was no need to tell her I wasn’t hungry. At work, they’d finished disassembling the machine and started sending it out to wherever they send those things. I’d been really careful to put the canister back exactly as I left it. No one checked to see if the little wheel was still there.
The next few days were uneventful, aside from my stomach ache getting worse and having to puke once or twice. I’d barely eaten anything since I started taking the radiation medicine. Whenever I got woozy from lack of food I ate an apple or a fat-free yogurt and I was fine. I was still sweating a lot. When I got on the scale, it said 168.
After a week of eating nearly nothing and faithfully taking my radiation medicine nightly, my stomach ache got really, really bad. I’d stopped throwing up, but this time it felt like I needed to go to the bathroom. I went, and it was awful. There was so much – I was shocked. I’d apparently eaten and kept down more than I thought. I got on the scale after, though, and that helped me feel a lot better. 161.
Over the next couple days, one or two people told me how pretty I looked. They asked me if I lost weight and I said yeah, maybe a few pounds. I beamed. Over my whole adolescence I’d done nothing but get bigger. Now, finally, I was shrinking and on the way to teeny-tiny. I didn’t feel too great, though. My tummy was constantly having me run to the bathroom and it still hurt afterwards. I figured I was getting rid of all the extra fat. 158.
I was in the shower about 10 days after I started taking the medicine and I was horrified to see some of my hair coming out. That was bad. Really, really, really bad. I stopped washing it immediately and let just the water rinse away the remainder of the shampoo. I got out of the shower and took like an hour blow drying my hair because I was too scared to use a towel that might pull more out. When the mirror was unfogged and my hair was dry, I checked to see how noticeable it was. There was a good-sized patch of bare, red scalp about 2” wide above my left ear. I pushed the hair around it to cover the patch. Some more fell out. It had to be a nutritional deficiency from all the meals I’d been missing. I put on my Titans hat and got dressed. When I brushed my teeth I noticed a little blood in the sink. I made a note to get some multivitamins after work.
I didn’t shower the next day because when I woke up that morning, there was more hair on my pillow. My scalp was getting pretty visible. It looked prickly and raw but it didn’t hurt. Since I was off work I stayed at home and looked online for all the nutritional deficiencies that might cause my hair to fall out and my gums to bleed. Most of the ones were covered by my multivitamin, so I tripled the amount I took just to be on the safe side. I had to go to the bathroom five times during the 15 hours I was awake. By the last time I was incredibly light-headed and so thirsty. I weighed myself before I started downing water and my radiation medicine. 150. The medicine helped me lose 25 pounds in less than two weeks.
Mom hugged me the next morning before I went to work. She ran her hands up and down my back and she made a remark about how skinny I’d gotten. Then, she said it: “remember when I used to call you my teeny-tiny girl? I miss those days but I love you just as much as a grown up.” Then she let me go. Pain, nausea, and despair washed over me. Without warning, my lightheadedness came back with a vengeance and I stumbled and fell on the kitchen floor. My hat fell off. With my head spinning, I vaguely remember Mom gasping, “Katie what happened to your hair?!” before I violently threw up on the floor and myself. It was all blood. I passed out to the sound of Mom screaming.
I don’t know how much time went by at the hospital. I wasn’t completely unconscious, but all I remember up until recently when they used drugs to wake me up were images of doctors in the same scuba gear as the guys at work and saying meaningless words like “cesium” and “sloughed” and “gray” that didn’t mean the color.
Today, I can’t move or talk and I’m writing this using a cool keyboard that can pick out letters using the movements of my remaining eye. Like I said in the beginning, I’ll be dead soon. I’m not too fun to look at anymore. My hair’s gone. And my lower jaw. And my skin. The nice doctors are giving me medication that helps me manage the pain and keep me alert. They asked if they could do tests and experiments on me to help understand what ingestion of the radiation medicine does to the human body. Apparently there was a Japanese man a few years ago named Hiroshi Ouchi who got a similar level of exposure and the same stuff happened to him. They said it would help other people in the future if they could compare our two cases. Of course I let them.
I can’t eat food anymore. My esophagus got cooked away. Same with my stomach. The doctors are keeping me hydrated with a tube in my butt. I don’t really like to think about it. I guess all the excitement I get as I wait here is when they weigh me every six hours to see if I’m able to retain the fluids they give me or if it all seeps out into the sheets. They hoist me onto a pad and a little machine voice says a number. This morning it said 72. The next time it was 69.
Mom and Dad have to wear those scuba suits when they come visit. Mom’s always crying because she’s not allowed to touch me. Dad just stares. Right before I started writing this, Mom bent down and started whispering to me some of the stuff I remember her saying when I was small. I closed my eye and imagined being warm and safe on her lap. “I love you, my teeny-tiny girl,” she sobbed. I would have smiled if I had a mouth.