Since 2011, my mom and I have played one hundred and one online Scrabble games.
I’ve won 82 percent of our games—which is fortunate, because I don’t handle losing well. In eighth grade, Mom suggested I talk about that with my therapist, tacking it on at the end of an email to them: P.S. here’s another problem with my child that you should address.
I come from a long line of nerds, which has always been reflected in our modes of entertainment. Some families fall asleep over the tedium of Monopoly; others connect over reality TV shows. In our family, we always played word games: Boggle, Quiddler, Bananagrams, Scrabble. There are only a few things I brag about—my ability to buy great Secret Santa gifts for people I don’t know; my talent for packing lots of things in the trunk of a small car; and my word game acumen.
My mom plays with other partners, too: a few relatives, some friends she met on vacation and hasn’t seen since. I only ever play against her. I’ve started games with other people, but they’ve gone neglected—I suppose I’m never sure if my other opponents are in it for the long haul. Who knows if they’ll still be there when I check Words with Friends again?
My parents didn’t know what to do when I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder in seventh grade, so they researched. The bookshelves in their study upstairs are still stacked with memoirs by recovering anorexics, guides to raising a teenager with mental health issues, dense texts filled with medical jargon. Long ago, the line between reference books for their jobs as psychiatrists—yes, they are both psychiatrists—and reference books for their role as parents-of-a-fucked-up-child was lost.
With every diagnosis comes an associated treatment. Flip open the DSM-V and you’ll see: Anorexia Nervosa. Treatable. My parents tried every pre-approved method to help me: They prioritized eating as a family. They tried leaving me alone. They became even more protective, hovering over me and telling me to eat foods with protein, a dollop of peanut butter with my apple instead of just fruit. For a few days, my mom even forced me to drink 1% milk instead of skim, as if that would make a difference.
Through their fear, confusion, ignorance about eating disorders, and love for me, they became—in a sense—my adversaries. I fought for control, and they fought for my health. It turned my body into a battlefield, me into the poster child for all our family’s problems. They were trying so hard to fix me, and I resented them for it. We managed to repair our relationship when I was in college, but in the fall of 2015, my eating disorder spiraled out of control again and they forced me into residential treatment. For seven weeks, I was an unwilling participant in all the required treatments, including family therapy and a surprise sneak-attack phone session with my parents, my therapist, and a psychiatrist that none of us appreciated.
While I was in residential treatment, my Scrabble games with my mom slowed down. We both lingered over our turns, taking longer than usual to make the next move. Normally I rush to play my turn, keeping the tab open on my screen and the notification email in my inbox to rile up my OCD and force me into action. But when I was undergoing treatment, I didn’t want to engage with my mother; I wanted her to know how furious I was with her. For years, she had blamed my disorder for our problems, the fact that we couldn’t go out and do “normal” mother/daughter things like dinners on the town, or day trips featuring leisurely lunches al fresco. She even used it as an excuse for why we didn’t go shopping together—an activity she doesn’t enjoy. So, I thought, if she was going to force me into treatment, then I’d stop doing the one thing that kept us connected. I’d make her wait.
The trouble was, I couldn’t stay away for long. Scrabble has always been a simple source of pleasure for me. But when I finally gave in and took my turn, I told myself I was just doing it for the sake of the game, and not for my mother.
Over the years my parents have never given up on me, never lost hope. They have eased up in recent months, not out of a lack of concern, but for the sake of preserving our relationship. They have stopped bringing food when they come to visit, stopped sending emails to my doctors. Now, they worry from a distance.
I don’t tell them that I love them. It’s just not what we do. But I write tomes for thank-you notes, buy jewelry or books or pineapple corers to wish them a happy birthday, and call them every week. At least once. And, in lieu of the constant phone calls she wants to make, the emails and texts she wants to send, my mom drags one tile after another onto our Scrabble game board. I often picture her at home, pondering what word to spell, her finger swiping across her massive Android phone. When I get a new Scrabble notification, I know she’s saying hi. Waiting for me to say it back. Waiting for me to show her that I’m still okay, and still here.
Sometimes it’ll take her days to take her turn, and I’ll watch and wait for a notification email that doesn’t come. Even though I know better—she’s probably just trying to think of a good word, planning her next play—I often interpret her silence as a conscious decision to ignore me. Because I know I make her sad sometimes. After twelve years of having an eating disorder, two rounds of in-patient treatment, thousands of dollars spent on therapy and medication, I’m still not the fully healthy or happy daughter she wants me to be.
But no matter what else happens, I play my turn, and she plays hers. For a brief moment, when I see her new word, I know we’re thinking about one another. We’re in the middle of a game now—twenty-one tiles left. I’ll wait patiently for her to move her tiles, spell her next word. Tacitly tell me that she loves me. And in return, I’ll do the same.