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Authors: Sandy McKay

Losing It

BOOK: Losing It
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“I’ll go bonkers in here, Issy. It’s like prison except at least in prison you have some freedoms.”


ifteen-year-old Johanna Morrison is in hospital, writing letters to her best friend, Issy. As part of her therapy Jo is not allowed to leave her room, use the phone, have visitors or even wash her hair. Not unless she agrees to eat. But Jo doesn’t want to eat because to her that would mean giving in and losing what little control she has over her life.


Jo suffers from anorexia and her condition has reached crisis point. For now, contact with Issy is the only thing keeping her sane.


“You are not losing it, Jo. You are going to be fine.”


Jo’s letters and diary give us a wry and insightful look at a teenage girl in desperate trouble. Her friend Issy, on the other hand, writes cheerfully of family dramas and hassles at school: a life that Jo has left behind … at least for now.


What is it in Johanna’s past that has brought her to this point? Why does she fear losing control? And will she be brave enough to look at herself as honestly and forgivingly as her best friend does?


SANDY MCKAY writes a profound and heartfelt story: a landmark novel about the power of friendship and one girl’s journey towards independence.

There is a line in
that says, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”


This book is for all my writer friends – especially Robyn Yousef, Gillian Thomas, Alex Fusco, Susan Frame, Maclean Barker and ‘Uncle Mac’.


And for Karyn, whose courage I so admire.

was written with the assistance of a Creative New Zealand New Work grant.


Several years ago, while researching for an article, I advertised in the newspaper for people who were willing to share their experience of anorexia and/or bulimia. I am grateful to the women who replied and who agreed to talk to me. Without their openness and honesty this book would not have been written. Special thanks also, to Emma Neale for her encouragement and editing expertise. And to Keri for his ‘Fat Cat’ poem.

Dear Issy,


This place sucks. And that’s sucks with a capital S. Honestly, Issy! This place is the pits.

The people are nutters, including the staff.

Do you remember that relieving maths teacher we had last year? The one who used to pick at his teeth gunge with Miss Pratchett’s protractor? We called him
Plaque. Well, guess what? Professor Plaque has been reincarnated as a mental health specialist. Lucky me! I get to be interviewed (or should I say interrogated), by this guy on a regular basis. Talk about nosey. He practically wants to know when I had my last crap. Correction, he ACTUALLY wants to know when I had my last crap. Or bowel movement, as he calls it.

‘Has there been a bowel movement in the last
hours, Johanna?’ asks he.

‘Mind your own business, Plaquey boy,’ answer I. (Not really, but I’d like to.)

I’ll go bonkers in here, Issy. It’s like prison except worse because at least in prison you have some freedoms.

Like … even murderers can choose if they want dinner or not. Even rapists and child molesters and guys who don’t pay income tax are allowed to say ‘No thanks. I’ll pass on the lumpy spuds and soggy silver beet, if you don’t mind.’ Not me. In here they’re allowed to stuff
down your neck because that’s their job. Last night a nurse tried to con me into eating pasta. I mean, it’s okay for her because she’s fat already and she has a face like a reflection in a stainless steel teapot and she’s coming at me with 217 calories per spoonful, and, well… I’m
at the sight of it. So, I panic and, um, well, it gets a tad messy… pasta goes everywhere.

But then she has the cheek to go off at ME, like it’s all MY fault. Okay, so a teeny weeny bit might have landed on her jumper but I wasn’t taking any chances. I’d have to do a million press ups to work off those calories. Either that or throw it up again.

Of course, that’s not allowed either. Hell, no. All
prohibited, by order of the hospital Gestapo. In here the nurses actually come to the bog with you. Like, how bad is that?! They stand outside waiting, listening at the door. Perverts!

It’s hard to describe what this place is like.

It smells weird. Think Toilet Duck and boiled cabbage. Hmmmnnnnn…

It feels weird too. Like they don’t trust you. Like you’re a naughty little kid.

I feel like I’ve fallen down a hole. Like I’m in one of
those dreams where you’re calling for help but your voice won’t work and no one can hear you. HELP!

God, Issy, you’re my only connection with the outside world. Please write back asap. Please swear on all that is precious to you (those new burgundy Doc Martens will do) that you will faithfully and honestly answer my letters.

Yesterday they told me I wasn’t allowed visitors. But how can they do that?! Even prisoners are allowed
– unless they’ve done something really annoying, like starting a riot or something. Which might not be a bad idea, except that, well, just starting a conversation is hard enough right now…

Actually, it’s a miracle I’m allowed to write this letter. It took some doing just getting the paper and God knows what they thought I was going to do with it. Make a paper chain to hang myself? Slash my wrists with a ballpoint pen? They even confiscated my razor on arrival. Did I tell you that? Imagine the state of my leg hair this time next week.

Professor Plaque Mark II has a ginger moustache and a little red tuft on his chin. Gross. He also talks real slow and makes these clicking noises in his throat when he’s trying to decide about something important, like should this new girl be given paper to write to her best friend on.

It’s all such a big deal, like they’re trying to find the reason for everything you do. Well, they’re not going to find my reason, because there isn’t one. I’m a grown
, free to make my own decisions.

Well, I used to be. (Didn’t I??)

Please write back soon, Issy,

Luv from,


Dear Jo,


Of course I’ll write back. I will write to you whenever I can … Okay?!

You are scaring me big time, Jo. It can’t be that bad. Can it? I didn’t get any sleep last night for thinking about you. In fact I tossed and turned so much that Pavlova finished up on Meredith’s bed and things have to be pretty bad for Pav to sleep with Meredith. (Let’s face it; things have to be pretty bad for anyone to sleep with Meredith!)

Anyway, during my tossing and turning I remembered this old movie Mum bought at the Video Ezy two-
-price-of-one sale.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
or something. She thought it was a film about bird life but it turned out to be about a guy who was put into a mental hospital by mistake. The point is, this guy escaped in the end. (Well, someone did.) Hang on to that thought, Jo. Think positive.

So … what is your room like?

I got such a shock when your Dad told me you’d gone
into hospital. I didn’t realise … I thought you were wagging. Well, I know how much you hate Science and we were doing all that boring electric current stuff and I know you were finding those circuit diagrams difficult and … Anyway, I thought you’d just bunked off. I couldn’t believe it when your dad said … well … you know …

If it’s any consolation, Mum says it’s a good hospital you’re in. Don’t ask me how she knows that but you know what a know-all she is and how schoolteachers know absolutely everything. (Do you realise that sentence has four ‘knows’ in it? Lucky Mum’s not reading this or she’d make me do a rewrite.)

She sends her love, by the way. Her advice is ‘do what the doctor says and eat all your vegies’. Sorry if that isn’t much help but I’m sure she means well. (Don’t you hate it when people say that? She
well – just an excuse for poking your nose in if you ask me.)

Speaking of poking your nose in … Mum’s been
me like a hawk lately and I get second helpings of absolutely everything. Pathetic really. As if someone who can scoff down five sausage rolls and two jelly donuts (yesterday’s lunch) will ever get anorexia. As you know I couldn’t stick to a diet if my life depended on it.

I feel so helpless up here, Jo, but if writing helps then I’ll write. We’ll be penfriends.

Remember those penfriends from Wellington we had in Year Six? Mine was a boy called Robert who only ever wrote about soccer. Once he told me he’d scored an ‘own
goal’ and I wrote back saying ‘congratulations’ and then he stopped writing. I could never figure that one out. I promise I won’t write to you about soccer. Yours was Vicki somebody who did tap dancing and collected stamps and you sent her your dad’s stamp collection. Remember? I think you got in trouble for that.

Well, I better go, Jo. Mum’s nagging at me to set the table. We’re having spaghetti bolognaise for dinner with spewey cheese, which is Dad’s pet name for parmesan.

Be good and eat your vegies.

Lots of luv,



P.S. You’ll be home again in no time. Trust me.

P.P.S. Wasn’t it a compass Professor Plaque picked his teeth with? A protractor is the plastic semi-circle thing – difficult to fit inside a mouth!

P.P.P.S. And does anyone collect stamps any more? (Well, let’s face it, apart from two obvious exceptions, does
send letters any more?)

Dear Issy,


Your letters are my life saver – please keep them coming. Just the sight of your handwriting cheers me up heaps. Yeah. I’d forgotten about Vicki. You’re right; I was in a power of trouble over that. Dad had been collecting those stamps forever but I could hardly ask for them back, could I? And you are probably right about the protractor too, which explains why I’m so hopeless at maths.

Sorry if I went off a bit last time. After the pasta episode they gave me some medication, which was supposed to calm me down but seemed to do the opposite. In fact, I hardly slept for two days with my brain buzzing like one of Mr T.’s parallel circuits.

You asked about my room. Prepare to be bored. The walls are the colour of porridge. There are some windows along one side but not the kind that open. Only the very high up ones open. I guess that’s to discourage inmates from escaping, which must be tempting at times. The curtains are multi-coloured squiggles and probably designed by a preschooler high on Coca Cola. On the wall by my bed there’s a painting of a lighthouse with waves crashing around it. (The painting looks familiar; I’ve seen it before somewhere.) Actually, the painting is the least crappy thing in the room. Well, it’s not snow-capped mountains or tulips or fake apples in a bowl like they have at the doctor’s.

Moving right along … the bed is metal grey – no
duvet, just sheets and a white cotton bedspread – same as everyone else. Most of the time I am freezing cold. Oh, and there’s a set of drawers too, for clothes and stuff. Not that I’ve brought much to wear…

I’m on the third floor and there’s a garden down below. Some of the patients go there to smoke cigarettes. I don’t think I’m allowed outside yet because even leaving the ward for a stroll is a privilege you get when you’ve put on weight.

See what I mean about being treated like a kid?

Must go now.




P.S. Oh, yeah, I forgot. There’s a locker in my room too, and a pot plant with leaf disease – my inheritance from the last inmate.

Dear Jo,


A quick run down on school news. In Science we’ve moved on to ‘helpful and harmful bacteria’. Tomorrow we’re going to grow some bacteria ourselves.

Today we learned how sneezes can travel at 300 kms per hour. (I kid you not!) So you’re not missing much!

Are you allowed to drink coffee in there? (Just a random enquiry.)

Best wishes,


Dear Issy,


Hey! Fancy a sneeze moving that fast! The question is, how do they measure it and why would anyone want to?

Yes, we are allowed to drink coffee. Don’t get too excited though, it’s only instant. We have a ‘common room’ here, which is just a weird word for lounge (it’s complete with a TV and bookshelves and stuff). We are allowed coffee, tea or Milo. There is also a filtered water unit and a jar full of stale gingernuts.

The furniture consists of three corduroy beanbags, two tatty armchairs and a long leather couch covered with a pukey green crocheted blanket. For added entertainment
we have state of the art games like Snakes and Ladders, Chinese Checkers and Trivial Pursuit. ‘Ho hum, by gum’ as Mr Tafea would say. There’s a room off the side of the lounge that they use for group therapy sessions. I haven’t been to one yet and can’t say I’m looking forward to it. In fact, I’m dreading it. But the doc says I should be starting next week.

Oh, and there’s a noticeboard in the common room. People put up all sorts of weird stuff – like poems and cards and that. Mostly I just make coffee and go back to my room.

Bacteria … hmmnnnn … fancy growing your own germs. Like, as if there aren’t enough in this world already?!

Science sucks. I reckon English is the only subject worth doing at school – especially Shakespeare. (I know you can’t stand the guy but I think he’s awesome.) Remember when we did
in Year Ten and we saw it performed at the Playhouse? Remember the whole class trekking into town and cramming into that little theatre with those boys from St Paul’s (all ponging of smelly feet and BO)? That play was so cool. Gemma Scott nearly wet her pants at the end when they brought Macbeth’s head in on that pole. God, it looked real. I loved the witches best. ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble –’ and all that other stuff about newts and frogs, tongues and stuff. I wonder if we’re doing Shakespeare this year. Maybe you’ll study him while I’m in here.

Speaking of which, has anyone noticed my
? Silly question – course they have. Mr Tafea won’t have anyone to pick on. I hope you made up some great story like I’ve gone off with Mum on a world trip or something. You could say she turned up unexpectedly, demanding I accompany her on a Pacific island cruise to celebrate. I could send a postcard to make it look real. Or maybe you could say I won the ANZAC essay competition and got flown direct to Gallipoli.

Doesn’t matter what you tell them, Issy, so long as it’s not the truth. Promise you won’t tell the truth about where I am.



BOOK: Losing It
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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