A few years ago I met a woman who lived at night. She was a forty-something suburban mother, like myself, with a kind husband, a dog, and four beautiful children, aged thirteen to nineteen.* As her seventeen year old daughter’s psychotherapist, I’d summoned her for a family session. I wanted to discuss something that had come to my attention: this mother routinely stayed up all night and slept the day away. She was not an insomniac; she was up working, mostly, on her computer. I don’t remember what kind of work she did, but I do know it could have easily been done during the day, when her children were in school. She could have met them at the school bus, spent the afternoon with them, joined the family for dinner and so on, engaging in normal family life and hours. Instead, she stayed up while they slept, then slept for most of the hours her children were awake. At a time when the daughter was developmentally programmed to separate from her mother, the girl was avoiding her peers, desperately seeking her mother’s company. The daughter would even sneak out of school early, hoping to join her mother for one precious hour or two before Mom turned in.
The father, though a self-described patient man, was getting tired of being the sole parent on duty; the teenage boys were fighting and cutting school. The teenage girls, my client in particular, were growing sullen and incommunicative. It’s my fault, the mother said, tearily. No one argued with her.
I took in the creases beneath her pretty blue eyes, the familiar, slightly lopsided jaw, the tell-tale jowliness on one side of her face, but not the other. Though my own eyes are brown, it was like looking into a mirror: this mother was either an active, or recently recovered, bulimic.
I too used to live in those hours, binging and purging the night away while the world slept. I had no children then, but a job—at first dancing with a ballet company, later teaching at a girls’ school. I’d live my daytime life, smiling, talking, functioning as called for, deferring my pain or stress to the wee hours when I could stuff them down with food and then expel them, flush them. In place of the pain there would be this high. This sense of being invincible, though at the same time, I believed I was living on borrowed time. I ignored the near-constant heart palpitations, the sweats and shakes; I was used to them. I’d been coping with life this way since high school. Bulimia was like breathing. The days were numb; the late nights were mine alone.
It took three years of cognitive behavioral therapy (which I began at the age of twenty-three) but at last I learned to live, eat and care for myself emotionally and physically. I’ve been lucky. Not only do I have a full relationship with my husband, I’ve had two easy pregnancies, where I relished the changes in my body. When I look at my two wonderful kids, I sometimes shudder to think what it would be like be to manage an eating disorder and parenting responsibilities—how much of each other we’d be missing.
At the next family session, I asked to meet with my clients’ parents alone. Again, the father complained about the mother’s hours, citing her absence for the daughter’s problems. The mother wept: I don’t mean to be this way. I leaned forward and smiled as gently as I could. I don’t know whether or not she recognized it as a conspiratorial smile—the secret sisterhood of recovered bulimic mothers. I knew the tears in my own eyes were glistening, though I knew better than to let them fall in session.
I said, “You’re still living on bulimia time, aren’t you?”
She was surprised but looked relieved, not offended. She smiled despite her tears. “Yes.” No one, least of all her patient husband, had understood what that meant. When we spoke privately, the mother explained that she had a wonderful individual therapist who specialized in eating disorders. She’d recovered from the bulimia itself, she said, but she could not let go of the nighttime. Since I was not her therapist I did not ask her why it was so hard to give up those hours. For me it was the quiet and the peace, but mostly this strange sense that sleeping meant giving up—on something. I can’t remember what.
Not long ago, I saw the mother out walking her dog in the sunshine, looking strong and content. I was glad to see that she’d joined the daytime world as I had.
Sometimes the wee hours still call me. Sometimes I still haunt when my family goes to bed. I’m more likely to be writing, maybe surfing the internet, reading other people’s blogs, than eating, but still—I’m up. I think of how easy it would be to go back there, not to the illness itself, but the schedule, the madness of the vigil, which I still don’t quite understand. So I shut down my computer. And force myself off to bed.
* I have changed a few details about the family structure for the sake of confidentiality.