“To me fat was intangible- a feeling. And when I felt fat, I always managed to find it. But the doctors showed me that fat wasmore than a feeling, it could be numerically quantified. And the eating disorder doctors showed me that not only can you quantify a feeling, you can personify a disease. I was the problem. And weight was the only means by which the doctors could evaluate just how big of a problem I was. As for the rest of my identity… well, there was no rest of my identity.”
One of Hayley Gold’s earliest memories comes from when she was four years old, riding in the car with her father as they left the park. He turned to Gold and told her that her mother was a “fat, miserable person” who had made him “fat and miserable” as well. “She’s so fat and disgusting, no one could ever love her. She’s not even a real woman.” He said “ Don’t you want to be a real woman?…Then don’t be like your mother.”
And as Gold got older, her eating disorder grew alongside her.
Nervosa chronicles the difficulties of growing up with anorexia, as well as Hayley’s personal struggles to “become Somebody” despite the dehumanizing nature of a medical system that often “erases” those it seeks to help.
From measuring urine output in a plastic toilet cover known as a “hat” to the looming fear of Electroconvulsive therapy and “getting the tube,” Gold illustrates the day to day realities and indignities of life in an E.D. (eating disorder) ward.
But it isn’t the weigh-ins or the observed showers that bother Gold most. It’s not even the disgusting dinners of NuBasics (A now discontinued nutritional supplement Gold describes as having “such a high viscosity that I doubt it could even be classified as liquid”)—but the way the other patients around her seem to either define themselves by their disorder, or cease to define themselves entirely.
“It seemed that I could choose between losing my identity to the eating disorder…or getting my identity erased, so that I would be content to chug NuBasics and mystery pills without question. Either one was the same fear, my greatest fear—the fear of being Nobody.”
Gold chafes under the strict regulations of group therapy sessions:““No food talk, no weight talk, no numbers, no discussion of violence, trauma, or self-destructive behaviors. If you need to mention a food, refer to it as ‘item;'” meant to aid in patient recovery by avoiding topics or words that may be ‘triggering.”
It is her intense desire to become Somebody by creating something beautiful that “shows the world [her] Underneath” that sees her through years oscillating between restrictive hospitals and her verbally abusive home.
Gold isn’t the type to pull her punches. She resents institutional efforts sugar-coating her personal experience to make it more palatable for others. Nervosa is Gold’s story, full of all the sarcasm, cynicism and gallows humor that got her into trouble at group therapy. She doesn’t feel the need to file down her anger and there is something both refreshing and deeply cathartic in her venom.
Gold’s memories are interspersed with the poems of Emily Dickenson, and parodies of popular magazine games, like Highlights hidden pictures and opportunities for readers to “help Hayley make her way through the maze while steering clear of hazards” like the kitchen or the lab.
Throughout her memoir, Gold makes the deliberate choice not to depict changes in her weight. Her appearance was often treated by those around her to be a correlative indicator of her mental and emotional wellbeing in regards to her eating disorder—something Gold became increasingly frustrated with as it was often incorrect, deceptive and reductive. By obscuring visual markers of weight, Gold forcibly prevents her readers from falling into the same habit. “To tell if I’m ‘sick’ or ‘better’ you will have to listen to my words.” By controlling the image in this way, Gold’s voice is brought to the forefront.
In addition to being an impactful and darkly amusing read, Nervosa answers questions about life with an eating disorder that often go unasked for fear of impropriety. There is quite a bit of harsh language as well as some nudity, though not in a sexual context. Nervosa straddles the line between older teen and adult, and would be a valuable addition to either collection at a public library. That being said, it’s definitely aimed at a more mature crowd, and would not be an ideal fit for middle school or junior high libraries.
By Hayley Gold
Street Noise Books, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Eating Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Character Representation: OCD, Eating Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)