Second Star to the Right: Afterword
When I was asked to write an “afterword” for this novel, I was hesitant and more than a little afraid. I wrote the book eighteen
years ago as fiction, and though everyone who knew me knew it was based on a
part of my life, I didn't really want to announce it in print. But I made the
quick and painful decision to say yes, hoping that in doing so I might help
someone else get better. Because I did.
It took many more years than it should have. It took an
irrevocable and incalculable toll on my body and spirit. It didn’t have to
happen that way. I could have and should have gotten better sooner, if I’d had
the kind of help I needed. I’ve learned a great deal, and if I can shorten
someone else’s suffering by saying these things, then it’s worth everything to
Three weeks after I finished writing Second Star to
the Right, in September of 1980, at the age of 23, I collapsed on the street
and cracked my head open. I was unconscious for 45 minutes, and when I came to,
I was being brought into Bellevue’s emergency room, covered with blood. I am
5’6” tall and weighed 88lbs. I’d had a severe concussion and needed seven
stitches. The cause of my fainting was an electrolyte imbalance, the result
of excessive vomiting, laxative abuse and starvation. I was terrified. I was
contrite. I vowed never to abuse my body again.
Within 24 hours I was back to starving, throwing up,
and abusing laxatives. Thus began the worst decade of my life.
I had a job as a writer for
a major publishing house. I had my own apartment, a fifth floor walk-up
studio, in Manhattan. I had friends. I derived satisfaction from my work. My
first novel, Hey, Dollface, had been published in 1978 while I was still
a college student, and had been very well received. I was in traditional
psychoanalysis four times a week with a highly recommended psychiatrist, an
“expert” on eating disorders. It was expensive. My parents helped me
financially. Yet my life became increasingly consumed by anorexia and bulimia.
My days and nights revolved around not eating, or eating and vomiting secretly.
The details are ugly, embarrassing, deeply upsetting. I will not list them. I
don’t need to. It was hell. Anyone who has experienced it or watched a loved
one go through it knows that.
I hated having to set the clock back every autumn for
Daylight Savings Time, because it meant I had one more hour to live through
and contend with. I cried when I received a tablecloth as a gift from a
relative, because I couldn't imagine a life in which I would have use for one.
I had to stop taking the subway to work because I was too weak to walk up and
down all those stairs . I couldn’t go out for a simple meal or engage in any
kind of normal social life. I was a slave to this illness. I never visited my
beloved grandfather in Florida—he begged me every winter to come—because I
couldn’t stay in his house and conceal my symptoms, and I couldn’t stop, and I
felt horribly ashamed. My grandfather died in 1989.
I tried and tried and tried to get my life under
control. I had professional help. I had a loving and supportive family. I had
caring and attentive friends. It didn’t matter. This illness is an addiction.
It takes over. I was not in control. And as I had known when I wrote Second
Star to the Right, time is no healer. Things didn’t get better. They got
I began developing stress fractures in my feet, which
made walking very uncomfortable. I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. My teeth were an expensive, painful, endless
mess, due to such frequent exposure to stomach acid. I was always tired. I
always felt sick. I didn’t even remember what it was like to feel well.
In early 1989, at the age of 32, I’d reached the end of
the line. My physician was beside himself. He cared about me and didn’t know
what to do and he was afraid. He made me afraid. I had been lucky, but luck
runs out. My electrocardiogram was abnormal. My potassium level was 1.8 ( the
normal range is 3.5-5.5.) My heart could have stopped at any moment, without
warning. My physician told me in no uncertain terms that even if I were
hospitalized, nothing could be done to save me. I was in serious danger of
sudden death, and probably wouldn’t make it through another month without a
drastic change in my behavior.
I was desperate. With nothing left to lose (literally),
I informed my psychoanalyst that I was interviewing other people. This was very
difficult for me to do, and I felt vulnerable and unsure. But it was
agonizingly clear to me that the brand of “help” he had been offering with
great confidence for nearly ten years was not working, and my body had run out
of time. Insight is of no use to a corpse.
On the third try, I found the person who helped me
change my life.
Her first piece of advice was practical: she suggested
that I attend Twelve Step meetings (in my case, Alcoholics Anonymous, which may
sound odd at first but really isn’t. Anorexia is, after all, an addiction.) She
believed that the group support I would receive as an adjunct to therapy would
be of help to me. She was right. I went to a meeting every day . I became less
and less isolated. I met people who understood what addiction is, and how to
fight it. I found people whom I could call at 3:A.M. if I was frantically
fighting the urge to vomit and needed help immediately. And I was finally in
treatment with a psychiatrist who actually helped me change my behavior and
gave me the emotional support I needed.
Eight months later, my psychiatrist gave me a
prescription for an anti-depressant medication which she thought might help me
. Within four weeks, the remnants of bulimia, which I had not been able to
fully control on my own no matter how hard I tried, vanished. After ten years
with an analyst who told me I failed because I wasn’t trying hard enough, this
was absolutely astounding. A life-threatening symptom which I couldn’t imagine
being free of for even one day was gone.
I was fortunate; I had a psychiatrist willing to try
anything to help me help myself. Not everyone responds to medication. I was
lucky; I did. It isn’t an “answer”. It helped me in a very specific way with
one particular symptom, and it is only one of many options and tools toward
finding the help you need.
I always wanted to get well. But that was not
enough. During the years I spent in psychoanalysis I lost things which can
never be replaced. Bone mass, dental health, but above all, time—time
during which I could have been helped. It was not a lack of will or a character
flaw which made it so difficult for me to alter my behavior. Anorexia, with all
its various symptoms, is not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to
be proud of. It isn’t anybody’s “fault”. It’s an illness—a life-threatening
illness—and it’s treatable.
Finding help is possible. It requires enormous
effort, persistence, and hard, unpleasant work. A sense of humor helps
immensely. It is never easy. But it is worth it.
During the past nine years I have built a life beyond
anything I could ever have imagined. I have a wonderful, funny, supportive
husband. I live in an apartment I love. With multiple rooms! It even has a
beautiful view, though the dark alleyway I saw from our last apartment was just
as thrilling to me because I was alive to see it. I’ve continued to write and
publish dozens of books for children. I survived being pregnant—which I never
thought I could do, physically or emotionally—and in 1996 gave birth to a
healthy baby girl, the light of my life. She sings and dances. She is stubborn
and funny and smart. She has tantrums. She laughs. She makes us laugh. She’s
happy. Both of my parents are alive and well and able to enjoy their
granddaughter. I have friends whom I love who love me back. For all of these
things I am grateful every single day.
It doesn’t all go away. The problems. The struggle
against anorexia. It’s much, much better, but there is room for improvement.
That’s O.K. I have a full, interesting, and frequently wonderful life. Even if
I have to struggle forever, I’m in the black.
I have many people to whom I will be eternally
grateful. I thank my family and friends for putting up with me, for always
believing in me no matter how bad things looked. I thank my physician, whose
stubborn refusal to give up on me pulled me through a very dark time. I thank all
the people I met through A.A., who gave me hope and courage when I needed it
most. I thank my psychiatrist’s colleague who specializes in cognitive
behavior therapy for his humor, his help, and his caring. Most of all I thank
my psychiatrist, whose imagination, skill, wisdom, pragmatic guidance and
loving support helped make my life worth living. She has given me something
that can not be weighed, measured, or priced. She has given me my afterword.
Deborah M. Hautzig