June 9th, 2017 was a humid day, threatening rain, and U-32’s graduation was moved indoors to the gym. The crowd chatted with their arms over the backs of chairs, fanning their programs, applauding as the graduates filed through the double doors in their blue gowns.
From her seat in the back row, Tillie Quattrone could not clearly see the graduates. She could not make out the speakers’ words, blurring in the cavernous room.
She hunched forward on her folding chair, feeling shrunken, exhausted. In the past few months she had lost forty pounds.
She thought back to her own graduation, a year earlier, when the sun broke through and lit the crowd on the grassy hillside, the culmination of a charmed four years. Her accomplishments had been celebrated once again, this time with the prestigious Gahagan Award, and as the school board chair was reading the criteria—“to the student who truly exemplifies the spirit and soul of U-32,” a classmate let out a fart. She stifled laughter as she made her way out of her row and to the podium, grinning, radiant.
But now, a year later, she felt lost. Some people didn’t recognize her as she moved through the crowd. Other people kept stopping her.
“Tillie!!! How are you? How was school? How was your year?”
“It was good!! Yeah!” she told some.
“It was tough, but I got through it,” she told others.
And a few heard something like the truth:
“You know, I don’t think I’m going back, but I made it.”
Tillie’s year was a success by most measures. Partying and boys weren’t issues. She had a 4.0 for the year. She made some close friends.
But her body told a different story. Like many first year college students, she had experienced a crippling depression.
And now, even with tuition mostly covered by scholarships and financial aid, she couldn’t go back to UVM. She had come home to her parents, to heal and rethink her path.
She traces the roots of the crisis back to her first home: a hospital room in Pennsylvania where she was born three months early, a “micro preemie,” one pound-fourteen ounces and a foot long, struggling in an incubator until around the time of her scheduled due date.
Her parents, Pitz and Amy, filled the room with music, toys, and smells of homemade food. Everything depended on Tillie eating, growing sturdy enough to bring home.
And it had to be the right home. Growing up Amy had attended nine schools and moved eleven times; she went to college a year early to avoid another move. Pitz cut college short to raise a daughter, Tillie’s half sister Chelsea. Both of them married and divorced young. Later, when they found each other, they moved to Vermont together, to build their home for Tillie.
Tillie brimmed with imagination—the ferns in the woods were a village; chicken wire and duct tape became a tornado for Halloween; her diorama of the Boston Massacre had a snowball that flew on a string.
But her imagination could slip into anxiety. In sixth grade her parents bought land, a hill on the edge of a swamp, and moved into a twenty-two foot camper while they built the new house. The camper had a kitchenette, a bathroom and four bunk beds. She would lie in her top bunk, mind racing, convinced she had leukemia.
Her mother drew on her training, working with battered women and as a children’s advocate, to make ‘Tillie’s Toolbox’, strategies to cope with what Tillie described as helpless feelings: singing, spelling out words on her hand, each finger a letter, finding equations in the clock — 3:26 can be 3×2=6. Tillie lost herself in Nancy Drew books, eighty two of them. The crisis passed.
At school she discovered theater, the stage, where it was not an option to give in to her anxiety. She loved the classroom, too, the high of mastering material. She studied hard for the big test about the rise of the Nazis, preparation for her class’ visit to the Holocaust Museum in D.C.. She could not eat the day of the test, scoring 100%.
She remembers effortless years in the new house: Amy cooking in the yellow light of the kitchen; Tillie studying cross-legged in the worn depression in the couch known as the “homework hole,” her binders within reach on the bench of the masonry fireplace; Pitz at the table, working or watching hockey on the computer.
There was comfortable silence. And then, when he got bored, Pitz would try to distract Tillie with weird noises, songs and dancing.
She’s amazed now looking back, how she juggled it all in her school planner, the pages filled with assignments, meetings, to-do lists.
She had no time for driver’s ed., couldn’t afford private lessons, and never got her license. Late at night after rehearsals or working on the school paper, her mother would be pulled up in front of the school, reading under the dome light.
Then, in her Senior year, a misstep. As part of an independent study, she arranged music and directed performances for the school’s chorus, loved it, auditioned at six schools for a vocal soprano music education major, was accepted to all six, and visited her top two.
She shadowed a student at each school. She followed them as they practiced six hours a day, studying theory—this is a phrase, this is a cadence— and sat beside them as their teachers handed back tests. She saw no love in this experience of music, no heart.
She asked both the girls: “Have you ever felt moments of doubt, like ‘this is not what I want to do’?”
Both girls said no, they had no doubts, they were sure. And Tillie thought, if I’m feeling this way, doubting before I start, then I can’t do this.
After so much traveling, so much of her parents’ time and money, the plan had evaporated.
The only other college she had applied to was the University of Vermont. She visited, took a tour, didn’t hate it. She met with the dean of the honors college. She felt no excitement, but she was also relieved. She had a plan. She would go to UVM in the fall.
The dining hall had big windows looking out to the mountains, a salad bar, a station for hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries; one for sandwiches; one for a dish that changed nightly–orange chicken, beef stew; and another for pasta, instant-cooked, that fell apart in your mouth, the flavors flat.
The room was chaotic. She couldn’t hear what her friends were saying and she felt like she had to rush to get food before it was all taken. Her stomach was often uneasy.
She roomed with another Vermont girl whose sisters had been to college and had an idea from the start of what the roommate relationship would be.
“We can write each other’s schedules on this calendar! And write each other notes on this whiteboard!”
And on the white board, the first week of classes, she wrote ‘I love you so much! Have a great day!’
Tillie was taken aback. She needed to become friends with someone first, before she was their friend. She didn’t even know this person.
The roommate was unsettled, restless, constantly talking, tapping, humming, playing videos. Tillie would leave a light on for her when she was out late. She would lie awake in the bright room, trying to tune out the racket of the boys above them.
She slowly became aware of herself changing. One night she went to dinner with old friends from home, ate the watery rice pilaf, and some chicken and salad, but quietly noticed it was her only meal that day, aside from a few crackers and cheese.
She made it to Christmas, but she could not find time to prepare for the Spring musical auditions, didn’t get a part, and felt both shame and relief.
Back at school she struggled to will herself through the same tasks she had always devoured. She would lie in her pajamas, feeling shriveled, like a raisin.
She never hid anything from her parents– she never had to–but now she was getting too skinny, had stopped laughing, and bristled under their constant concern and scrutiny. One morning Pitz took her out to breakfast and when she came back from the bathroom and he asked her:
“Did you just pee?”
The subtext was clear: Did you just make yourself throw up? Do you have an eating disorder?”
She was offended but also knew something was wrong, and they talked. By the end of breakfast they were calling that morning what they hoped it would be: “T.P.’s T.P.” , Tillie Pearl’s Turning Point.
But back in the dorm the breakfast burrito gave her a stomach ache and she berated herself: You shouldn’t have eaten that—there’s so much oil in that cheese.
By April, at UVM, she was only eating dried fruit, fresh fruit, peanut butter and sometimes hardboiled eggs. Some days she ate just a fruit leather; some days she ate nothing.
Her clothes no longer fit. She invited her mother to an awards banquet (her grades were perfect) and they planned a shopping excursion for the same day. She spent every free moment leading up to the special day browsing online for clothes, jewelry, nail polish. But in the car, before they went shopping, her mother broke down.
“I want you to see somebody. I want you to get help…. I don’t know what’s happening.”
But Tillie wasn’t ready. If she acknowledged what was happening she wasn’t going to last until the end of the year… and she was not a quitter. They cried together, at each other, without listening.
Tillie agreed to see a UVM nutritionist, but this only made her focus strangely on servings– this fruit cup is two servings, I should only eat half of it.
It was a rainy, cold April and May. She found joy in small things: flowers, the kindness of the woman who sold her shampoo one day at the campus store. But she was weak, out of breath walking across campus. It was hard to open doors.
Backstage, working “run crew” for the Senior one acts, she sat in her puffy black coat with her headset on for hours, browsing clothes, looking at Facebook pages for cake making, and rationalizing: well, that person is being much more unhealthy than me, I’m doing ok.
She worked Monday evenings on a ‘scenery flat’, a 3’x4’ painting of a hummingbird hovering at a red plastic feeder. She worked using a grid to enlarge the image from a photograph her aunt had taken. In the hours painting she felt no emotion, no thought except to finish, to be done.
One night when her dad was away she slept with her mom. She noticed for the first time how bony her shoulders were, and she recoiled from her mother’s hugs, when she would feel how skinny she had become, her spine protruding in her mother’s arms.
The last month of school and exams she was merely surviving. Her bag was packed a week before the day finally came to go home.
Back at the house, the fog slowly started to lift. One night she heard her mother sobbing and almost passed on to her room– not another conversation –but stopped, went in to find her in the tub, and sat down on the floor beside her.
Amy told her that she felt helpless, that she had called a number of therapists, called Tillie’s doctor. Tillie made the case that she knew what she needed, to give her time. It was the first moment in months they had really listened to each other.
With her father, too, things started to turn around. Just before bed one night, horsing around in the dark kitchen, he turned to her.
“You know how I know you’re coming back? You just made a joke.”
She chuckled and went upstairs to sleep.
The house is still unfinished. There is no trim around some doors; some of the floor is still plywood. Upstairs, Tillie’s room looks out over the swamp to the hills beyond.
She is seeing a therapist and nutritionist in Burlington, learning to let go and eat freely. She still fights the voice of rigidity, the part of her always trying to implement rules.
She has gained a few pounds– it isn’t uncomfortable to sit in the car anymore. But she knows she has a long way to go.
She has a new desk, a gift from a friend’s father, where she works on the courses she’s taking this year, at CCV. Taking down the old posters, looking back at the old pictures, the tickets from her old shows, she feels like she is moving again.
“If I was able to be that person then, I can do it again,” she says. “It just might take a little work.”