Mother paid off the taxi and she and I climbed steps up to the front door to the building in which Dr White’s office was located. The elegant terrace of Nash houses swept away in repetitive harmony as the buildings shone regal and impressive in the morning sun. I paused to look up at the Georgian fan-light over the door while Mother rang a bell and we waited to be buzzed in. The fan-light was a six segmented half circle with little circles in the empty spaces. I would have liked to draw it except this visit to Dr. White was too important to allow any delays. He was the London specialist we had travelled over 300 miles for an exclusive consultation.
The suite was on the second floor. When we entered we found it to be even more sumptuous and elegant than we had expected. It was the summer of 1964 and this was the first time I had been in the office of a private doctor, one who was not part of the National Health Service. The luxury was expected and yet surprised me. A large bowl of stocks stood on side table against one of the walls their rich aroma permeated the room, while soft classical music wafted from somewhere. We gave our names to the receptionist and had barely sat down before a prim nurse stepped into the room. She introduced herself as Robyn and ushered us into the inner portion of the suite. Its decor was friendly and residential with dark wood paneling, elegant pictures, high ceilings and a gleaming polished wood floor. Robyn took my height and weight. I weighed in at 77 pounds. We confirmed that we were here to get Dr. White’s diagnosis as I was twenty years old and had still not reached menses. Robyn took my history meticulously noting down the information that when I had been given the pill as an experiment by one of my doctors in the north everything had functioned. I undressed and put on a robe. It was voluminous and did little to disguise my bony frame.
Dr. White came in. He was professional and quiet spoken and listened patiently before giving me a thorough exam. When he had finished he nodded and patted me on my knobby knees and instructed me to get dressed and said that when I was ready he would see us both in his office. His office was equally sumptuous and he sat behind a large desk. On the side of the room opposite the door were a pair of glass French doors opening onto a small balcony with a wrought iron guard rail. I gave them a quick glance before focusing my full attention on the doctor. He looked at us motioning us to sit as he gently shook his head. We complied and I returned his gaze staring into his dark eyes thinking how very dark they were.
“I agree with your previous doctors,” he said “I find nothing wrong.” His voice was reassuringly quiet and professional.
Somehow this is what I had expected but not what I wanted to hear. “But, there must be something you can do.” I pleaded, ‘Something, anything, I can’t go on being a freak without sexuality for the rest of my life.” My eyes clouded and I had to fight to prevent myself from crying in self-pity.
He nodded and gave me a hint of a smile, “Yes there are many tests which we could run and measures which might need to be taken but I don’t recommend anything until your anorexia nervosa is cured. When it is cured you should wait a year and then consider coming back to see me. I doubt that it will be necessary.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I shifted forward in my chair to perch on its front edge and to look more closely into his darkest of dark eyes.
“You have anorexia nervosa,” He said, “Until that is under control and you have a normal body weight it is pointless to run any further tests.”
“Anorexia nervosa,” the strange words rolled on my tongue, “what is anorexia nervosa?” I asked. I glanced at my mother who was being abnormally quiet then gave my full attention to the doctor.
He smiled kindly and gave us a textbook definition.
Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disorder characterized by an unrealistic fear of weight gain, self-starvation, and conspicuous distortion of body image. The individual is obsessed with becoming increasingly thinner and limits food intake to the point where health is compromised. The disorder may be fatal. The name comes from two Latin words that mean nervous inability to eat.
The description fit. This was a moment of epiphany. Eureka, I had an illness with a name and already I knew that I could fight it. The words ‘The disorder may be fatal’ punched me in my flat chest – this was worse than lack of development. I smiled nervously. Dr. White got up and shook mother’s hand. Then he took mine and looked me in the eyes. “Take care of your anorexia and everything will function normally. It’s that simple.”
As we walked down the steps to the building I realized the profundity of his words. Now I had an excuse, I wasn’t a disobedient daughter who wouldn’t eat. I wasn’t a naughty child to be spanked. I had anorexia nervosa and I could and would fight it.
And fight it I did – alone. At first it wasn’t easy, but gradually over the next year I managed to bring my weight up to 120 pounds. Slowly my body filled out and became more female. Menses didn’t come that year but we didn’t go back to Dr. White. I knew that there was no need. Over the next two years I gained another 5 pounds, until New Year’s Day 1969 my menses happened. I was twenty-three and a half. Dr. White had been right.