What sixteen-year-old Elizabeth has lost so far: forty pounds, four jean sizes, a boyfriend, and her peace of mind. As a result, she’s finally a size zero. She’s also the newest resident at Wallingfield, a treatment center for girls like hergirls with eating disorders. Elizabeth is determined to endure the program so she can go back home, where she plans to start restricting her food intake again.She’s pretty sure her mom, who has her own size-zero obsession, needs treatment as much as she does. Maybe even more. Then Elizabeth begins receiving mysterious packages. Are they from her ex-boyfriend, a secret admirer, or someone playing a cruel trick?
This eloquent debut novel rings with authenticity as it follows Elizabeth’s journey to taking an active role in her recovery, hoping to get back all that she lost.
About the Author
Alexandra Ballard has worked as a magazine editor, middle-school English teacher, freelance writer, and cake maker. She holds master's from both Columbia (journalism) and Fordham (education) and spent ten years in the classroom, beginning in the Bronx and ending up in the hills of Berkeley, California, with her husband and two daughters. What I Lost is Alexandra Ballard's debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
What I Lost
By Alexandra Ballard
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2017 Alexandra Ballard
All rights reserved.
No one told me that when I got skinny I'd grow fur. Tiny, translucent hairs, fine like white mink, appeared on my arms, my legs, and even, to my horror, my face, giving me downy blond sideburns no girl should have. When I looked it up, the fur had a name — lanugo. Babies are born with it. Anorexics grow it.
My first thought? What a pain in the butt.
My second thought? So far, so good.
After all, you had to suffer to be beautiful. Of all the things Mom ever said to me, I knew this one was true. If you wanted people to notice you, want you, admire you, envy you, want to be you, you had to sacrifice. Easy? No. But that's why people call it suffering.
And even when it seemed like it was getting me nowhere — well, nowhere except the Wallingfield Psychiatric Facility's Residential Treatment Center — I tried to remember this: There is always success hidden in failure. I might have been locked away, but I was still a size 0.
* * *
It was just past ten on a cloudy morning when my parents and I first pulled up to Wallingfield. The treatment center was only fifteen minutes from my house, but might as well have been in another country. It sat atop a rolling hill in the old-money part of Esterfall, where houses overlooked the Atlantic and the families who lived in them had ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. "Elite and Discreet Mental Health Care, tucked away in a scenic part of Massachusetts." That's what the tiny box ad in the back of my parents' New Yorker magazine promised.
Dad parked in front of a large brick building. A burnished brass sign read Wallingfield Psychiatric Facility Residential Treatment Center. Building Two. The other buildings, I'd learned online the night before, were for the patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric illnesses.
I opened my door and willed my legs to move, but they felt like cement.
"Brush your hair before you go in." Mom passed me her purple travel brush from the front seat and touched up her lipstick.
In the rearview mirror I caught Dad's eye by accident. The skin around his eyes was the color of a bruise, like he hadn't slept in weeks.
"You okay, Elizabeth?"
I glared at him. "I'm great." I knew I sounded like a jerk, but the moment I walked through those big wooden doors, I'd forever be known at Esterfall High as the girl who'd gone nuts. So no, I was definitely not okay.
Inside the waiting room, a man in a gray suit sat on a green couch, bent over a laptop. Next to him, a dark-haired girl with a messy ponytail and a hospital ID bracelet scrunched in her chair, scowling. Her purple hoodie and black leggings hung off her like clothes on a hanger, and her legs, folded beneath her, were so thin they made her feet look too big for her body.
My cheeks burned. I felt inferior. She was so much skinnier than me. I held out my hand and tried to look friendly. "Hi. I'm Elizabeth."
"Lexi." Her fingers were cold and her handshake weak, but her eyes were angry. I shivered and pulled away as fast as I could. She didn't seem to notice, though.
Dad cleared his throat as he approached the front desk. "We are here to admit ..." He couldn't finish.
Mom spoke up, her voice strong and all business. "Our daughter, Elizabeth, is here to be admitted to the eating disorder unit. Are we in the right place?"
I wanted the receptionist to say no, to say, I'm sorry, but we don't have an Elizabeth on the list. You must have made a mistake.
But she didn't even have to look me up. "Yes, here you are," she said, glancing at her computer. "Please sit down. Someone will be with you shortly."
When Lexi spoke, it startled me. "Where are you from?"
"Here," I said. "Esterfall. You?"
"Long Island. Massapequa. But I go to Smith in Massachusetts now."
I'd never been to Long Island, but Smith was at the top of my list of colleges to apply to next year. It was supposed to have a great psychology department, and I wanted to be a psychologist someday. "Oh, that's cool," I said.
"Yeah, I guess." She turned away, picking at the chipped red polish on her fingernails. We sat in silence until, a few minutes later, an older, crunchy-looking woman about Mom's age entered the room through double doors. She wore a gray top draped over her shoulders, flowy black pants, and black clogs. Vaguely gold-colored bracelets clinked on her arm. Mom looked her up and down, a slight frown on her face. She wasn't impressed.
The woman walked over and stuck out her hand. "Elizabeth? Hi, I'm Mary, your therapist." I hoped she didn't notice my clammy skin. "I'm going to help you get settled. Follow me." I looked back at Lexi and waved, but she was gazing out the only window, staring at the parking lot, and didn't see me.
Walking through the wooden double doors, I expected to see 70-pound girls in hospital gowns hobbling through cold, linoleum-lined hallways. Instead, Mary led us into a cozy space that smelled like cinnamon, not medicine, and was full of sofas, slouchy chairs, and soft carpeting. Windows looked out onto a lawn, which stretched down to the woods, the trees in full October reds, oranges, and yellows. Across from them was a line of bedroom doors, each decorated with photos, drawings, dry-erase boards, and letters fashioned from construction paper. It looked like the Boston College dorm I saw with my parents last summer.
On the closest couch, a little girl who couldn't have been older than ten sat hunched over her journal, one ear pierced all the way to the top, her arms covered with soft pink scars I assumed were self-inflicted. A pair of taller girls sat across from her, quietly talking, their jaws sharp and distinct. They giggled. I couldn't imagine ever giggling in a place like this. They all looked thin, but not life-threateningly so.
"It'll be snack time soon," Mary said, sniffing the air. "Smells like Chef Frank's famous coffee cake muffins." We all inhaled. The room smelled like the Cinnabon stall at the mall. I looked at the girls on the couches. They were going to eat muffins?
"Well," said Mom, her voice full of relief, "isn't this cheery!" I wondered if she'd pictured a hospital, too. The girl with the scars looked up and watched us, her face blank.
Mary turned to me. "Elizabeth, if you'd like to eat the snack with your parents, they can join you in the guest dining room."
"Thanks, but I'm not hungry," I said.
Mary smiled like she'd heard this excuse a hundred times. She probably had. "I understand, but we eat all our meals here, hungry or not."
Of course "we" did.
Mary continued. "So, every day we gather in the dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There are three snacks scheduled throughout the day — morning, afternoon, and after dinner. Meals last forty-five minutes, snacks twenty. For the first few days, your nutritionist, Sally, will set your menu, but after that you'll work together to create your food plan. At each meal you'll find a menu check sheet on your tray. A nurse will make sure you've eaten everything. Any questions so far?"
I shook my head. She didn't say what would happen if I didn't eat, and I didn't ask. I'd read about places like this online, how they required you to eat every single thing they put in front of you, how they punished you with super-fattening nutrition shakes if you didn't.
Mary kept talking. "Weights and vitals is every morning from six to seven. Since it's your first day, we'll also do a medical intake, like a physical, later today. Oh, and at some point we'll take you to get a bone density test."
A bone density test? I didn't need one of those. My bones were fine. I ate yogurt. And why did they need to weigh me so soon? They knew my weight already. They wouldn't have admitted me otherwise. I shook my head. No. No weighing.
Mary watched me, her face soft and knowing. I recognized that look. It was the same look my friends Priya and Shay always gave me at lunch at school. They felt sorry for me. Sometimes, when I left the table, I saw them bend their heads together and whisper.
Mary put her hand on my shoulder. I flinched and she dropped it. "I know this is hard, Elizabeth, but we weigh everybody. Every day. It's an important part of recovery."
Mom piped in, "Does she get to know her weight each morning?"
"No," Mary said. "We don't reveal numbers."
Mom frowned. She probably wanted me to know so I wouldn't gain too much.
Once, at lunch, Priya asked me if I was anorexic. I didn't know what to say. I'd hoped that maybe I was, because of the lanugo and all, but to have someone else actually say it? I felt like dancing right then. But I couldn't admit that. No one was supposed to want to be anorexic. So I'd said, in as sarcastic a voice as I could muster, "Obviously, no. Have you seen my thighs?" Priya didn't push the issue after that, and I spent the rest of the day smiling.
"... alarm clock?"
"Sorry?" I'd completely spaced.
"Did you bring a cordless alarm clock?"
We'd bought one at CVS on the way; everybody I knew, including myself, used our phones' alarms, but Wallingfield didn't allow anything that got WiFi. Or had cords. I guess so we wouldn't strangle ourselves. I nodded.
"Great. So lunch is at noon," Mary continued. "I'll give you your daily schedule after lunch, but it goes pretty much like this: group therapy three or four times a week, individual therapy with me twice a week, family therapy — either in person, on the phone, or in a group setting — once a week, and various other types of activities, such as dance and art, scattered in as well. We do meal support therapy after lunch and dinner. Oh, and we got another admit today — did you meet Lexi in the foyer?"
"Great! She's going to be your roommate."
I shrank into myself a little. No one told me I was going to have a roommate. And Lexi? The angry girl? I shot a look at Mom. I bet she'd known. But her face looked as surprised as mine.
How could my parents leave me here?
Mary continued on. "Now, I haven't seen your schedule, but my guess is that you'll likely start with a group session today. Our first individual therapy session is set for the day after tomorrow. Tonight we have free time. On other nights it varies; there might be activities, or arts and crafts, or group sessions. It will all be on your schedule. Any questions?"
"Are there boys here?" I hoped not. I'd read that some programs were coed.
"No. This adolescent and early adult program is for girls only. We have a coed program in Building Three for ages twenty-five and over." She paused. "We've talked about including boys, though. Their rate of anorexia is rising. But for now it's just girls."
"Oh," I said, relieved. Being here was bad enough. Being here with boys? I couldn't even imagine it.
We followed Mary around the facility until we ended up back at the common room, with its line of bedroom doors. She stopped in front of the only bare door on the hall, number 16. Bits and corners of Scotch tape littered the dark brown wood, the only sign of the girls who'd come before me.
Inside were two normal beds stripped down to the plastic mattress pad. Morning sun filtered through the curtains on the single window; outside, I could see our maroon Honda in the parking lot. A nightstand with a beige lamp stood between the two beds, and across from it was another door, closed. Mary pointed at it, her bracelets clinking. "Bathroom," she said. "You share it with the room next door." The whole setup reminded me of a hotel, which, weirdly, made me feel better. I didn't need a "real" bedroom. Wallingfield's website said that the average stay was a month, but there was no way I'd be here that long. I wasn't that sick. I was just a little bit anorexic. All my body needed was a rest. I'd be out of here in a few days — a week, max.
The room had gone quiet. Everybody stared at me. "Okay, Elizabeth?" Mom asked. I nodded like I had a clue.
"I'll give you a minute to get settled," Mary said, closing the door on her way out.
When Mary left, Mom dove in. She rolled up her cashmere sleeves and opened my suitcase just like when they sent me to sleepaway camp in middle school. She pulled out my favorite sheets, my gray wool blanket, and my purple-and-blue-pinstriped duvet. She stretched the sheets tight and snapped the duvet up and over the bed. The room filled with the smell of our fabric softener, a scent I loved. After she fluffed the duvet, she reached into her purse, brought out a gray stuffed dolphin with only one plastic eye, and leaned him against a pillow. Flippy. My favorite from when I was little. I thought I might cry. I looked at her, questioning.
"The 'What to Bring' list said a stuffed animal," she said defensively.
Our eyes met, mirror images of each other. We'd always looked alike — the same straight brown hair, the same cheekbones — except she'd been the thin one. I got my dad's genes, my grandma liked to say, which meant I vacillated between average and chubby, depending on whether it was cross-country season or not. Now, though, I was skinnier than Mom. Even in this room, I was proud.
She reached out to touch my cheek, her hand soft on my always-cold skin.
Mary knocked and entered. Mom's hand fell to her side.
The room felt crowded now. "You look settled," Mary said, then smiled at Dad. "Will you be joining us for snack?"
Of course he'd stay. He'd stay until Mary told him to leave. I knew it.
"No, thanks," he said.
He didn't look at me. "Elizabeth's mother and I both need to get back to work, and I know we still have some paperwork to complete."
My heart flew into my throat. He was abandoning me? I'd had this whole scenario worked out in my head that when my parents saw the other girls here, they'd realize I was basically fine and take me home. They'd say, Elizabeth, we've made a terrible mistake. This place is for sick girls. Not you. Then we'd sweep through the front doors and jump back in the car and all go to Starbucks, and over coffee we'd laugh about how they almost had me committed.
Instead, Dad took me by the shoulders. "I love you so much, kiddo," he said, voice gruff. "I'll miss you." And then he held me so tight I could barely breathe. He grabbed his coat and tried to leave before the first sob but didn't make it, his shoulders heaving. "You are a wonderful daughter. I love you so much." And then he was gone.
Mom smoothed her skirt and adjusted her sweater, clearing her throat like she always did when she was nervous. "Well, do you need anything else?" Her voice was brisk and professional.
I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.
"Okay, then. Don't forget to call us, all right? You're going to be fine." She looked me up and down and nodded. "Yes, you are going to be fine." She said this more to herself than to me. We hugged. We never hugged. Mom wasn't the cuddly type, but all of a sudden I didn't want to let her go. I inhaled her perfume, realizing for the first time how much I liked it. And then she too slipped out the door, a cloud of Chanel No. 5 lingering behind her. Without thinking, I walked through it, hoping a bit of her would stay with me.
With everybody gone, the room felt lonely and too quiet. I tried to make myself as small as I could. I sat on the corner of the bed. It crackled.
"All set?" Mary asked. I'd forgotten she was there. I nodded.
"Let's go, then." She led me into the hall, where a row of girls waited in front of double doors that read Dining Room. The tiny girl from the couch was at the end of the line, picking at a scab on her arm.
"I'm going to leave you with Willa," Mary said. "She'll be in your cohort." The girl barely looked up at me.
I was confused. "Cohort?"
"Your cohort is the group of girls you'll be doing the majority of your therapy with. You have six in yours. Willa, here, is the youngest." I looked at her. A tiny gold Winnie-the-Pooh, a silver Ariel, and an orange-and-black enamel Tigger clung to her earlobe. "Willa, this is Elizabeth. Take care of her, will you?"
Willa smiled then, and as she did, her face changed. Became friendlier. "Welcome to the crazy house," she said in a smoker's growl. How old was she?
Mary frowned. "Willa," she warned.
"Sorry." She grinned. "Welcome to paradise."CHAPTER 2
I was still trying to understand the strange creature that was Willa when the dining room doors flew open. A woman dressed in baggy jeans and a plaid shirt straight out of the nineties stood just inside the door, greeting each girl as she entered. "That's Kay," Willa whispered. "The food police." I looked at her, not understanding. "She's the meal monitor, the one who makes sure you eat what you're supposed to and makes you drink Ensure if you don't."
"A high-calorie nutrition shake. The chocolate isn't so bad."
Excerpted from What I Lost by Alexandra Ballard. Copyright © 2017 Alexandra Ballard. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book from the cover to the last page (and the back cover, lmao). It was so crazy to learn that there are actually people out there that worry and think twice about what they're eating. In one of the parts in the book tht startled me the most, the main character of the story questions and harshly cringes at a small cup of ranch salad dressing meant to be drizzled on none other than her delicious umm... salad. I immediately thought, 'Why is she even thinking about it? I mean, when I have salad with ranch for the dressing, I don't really even think about or hesitate to drown the salad leaves in it!' This book really well plays and puts out the story of a 16 year-old girl and her new friends-in the struggle with her-trying their best to learn how to live a normal life without any purging, undereating, or thinking twice about fattening foods that personally, I would just toss on down to my pit of a stomach. T^T
What I Lost is so well done. It’s the story of Elizabeth and her anorexia, which has landed her in rehab. Alexandra Ballard does a great job of explaining anorexia as an illness. I had a friend who struggled with anorexia in high school, and so many of the behaviors included in this book brought that experience back for me. When Elizabeth enters treatment, she is determined to get out as quickly as she can, so she can get right back to her old eating habits. But over time she has experiences and meets friends that help her realize that she is not healthy. There is a small romantic plot in this book, and I was really happy that it’s not fully developed. This is really a book about Elizabeth and her disease, and that cannot be solved with a love interest. There is a lot of blame on her mother in this book, and I wasn’t entirely thrilled about that, but it worked well for the plot development. And of course anorexia can be hereditary, so I guess it illustrated that point. I really enjoyed being inside Elizabeth’s head: experiencing her thoughts and understanding her actions. I grew attached to some of the other girls in treatment, just like Elizabeth did. I feared for them, and I routed for them. And I was really happy that this book didn’t wrap up nicely at the end. Ballard made it clear that Elizabeth would keep struggling to control her illness and her eating habits. And I kind of hope there’s a sequel. http://opinionatedbooklover.com/review-what-i-lost-by-alexandra-ballard/
Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth had one goal, becoming a size zero. She achieved this in a rapid pace by restricting her food intake and because of this she developed an eating disorder. That's why she's being sent to Wallingfield, a psychiatric treatment center. There they force her to eat healthily again, so she'll gain weight and they're trying to teach her how to stay well when she goes back home again. Elizabeth doesn't want to put on weight and she can't wait to go home, so she can go back to her old ways. In Wallingfield they're trying to discover why she's trying to lose so much weight. Elizabeth's home situation is far from ideal and only adds to the disorder, will she manage to get better despite this? In Wallingfield Elizabeth makes new friends. She doesn't have to fight her battle on her own, there are other girls just like her. She isn't alone and that makes staying there easier to bear. The girls at Wallingfield are allowed to receive mail and Elizabeth gets several packages from an anonymous sender. Who's behind these packages, is it her ex-boyfriend? Is someone trying to cheer her up or do the packages have a different meaning and will they help Elizabeth with her recovery? What I Lost is a beautiful moving story. Elizabeth struggles with her weight and her home situation. She's lost forty pounds and has no energy left. Being forced to eat is hard for her, but she's trying and meanwhile she's also being there for her friends at Wallingfield. Elizabeth has a wonderful sweet personality. She's a lovely girl and reading about her motivations to start losing weight and their result made me tear up. Alexandra Ballard describes her feelings in such a clear way that it was like I was looking through Elizabeth's eyes, which was very impressive. Alexandra Ballard writes about what it's like to have an eating disorder in a raw and honest way. She writes about the loathing, the sickness, the fear to gain weight and the problems that arise because of poor self-image in a descriptive way that gave me a better understanding of the disease. Her writing has an easy flow and that made it possible for me to completely focus on the story itself. Elizabeth's situation is complex and thought-provoking. I liked that because of the packages there was also lightness between the difficulties and sadness. It gives the story a good balance. What I Lost is an amazing book, it's a story that deeply affected me.