50 Years of Music: 1999 – Fiona Apple - "Paper Bag"

Rachel Stevens

As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, we’re celebrating the year 1999 and Rachel Stevens shares a personal story that may be hard to hear for some people. Please be advised, this piece discusses eating disorders.

Read or listen to the piece below. 

Audio production by Roddy Nikpour

There are songs that take you back to an exact place in your life. And there are songs that find you exactly where you are. But rarely, is there a song that is both…

In 1999, I was a high schooler in central Texas. Fiona Apple released the exact song I needed then and need now—today, as a mom pushing 40. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve cried in a car, belting out “Paper Bag” throughout the last two decades… maybe I’d be able to afford all the out-of-network therapists in Seattle. But until then, it’s Fiona Apple on repeat and an irregular therapy schedule. 

“Paper Bag” is on Fiona Apple’s second studio album, “When the Pawn…” The actual title of the album is much longer. Fiona wrote this song after a car ride with her dad where she was looking out the window, daydreaming, thinking about all the wants she had, when she thought she saw a dove flying, but then it was just a bag floating. I mean, those are literally the first lyrics of the song, but I love how this super poetic song about hope actually happened to Fiona. 

“But then the dove of hope 
Began its downward slope
And I believed for a 
Moment that my chances
Were approaching to be grabbed
But as it came down near, 
So did a weary tear
I thought it was a bird, 
But it was just a paper bag”

When this song found me in 1999, I was just figuring out what it felt like to truly WANT something. As a child, for example, I felt in my bones that I wanted things like a pogo stick and Polly Pockets. In middle school, I wanted Doc Marten’s with the yellow stitching around the bottoms. I would lie awake at night, listening to 101x the alternative radio station and just… want things. I would play out in my head all the places my wants would take me. In the mirror, I would rehearse conversations with all the most interesting people before turning the mic on myself—then, I pretended to be a guest on a late night show for some TBD talent.

When I got to high school, my wants became more serious and  I wanted things that I truly could not get. I wanted my sister to stop hurting and self-medicating. I wanted to be loved by the outside world, but also known intimately and loved. I wanted straight teeth without a fiasco of dental work. I wanted to get good grades to get scholarships to schools that people had heard of. I wanted to be able to afford all the things we couldn’t as a middle-class family. I wanted my family to be okay. I wanted everything to be okay. I wanted everything to be perfect and I was far from it. 

“I was staring at the sky, 
Just looking for a star
To pray on, 
Or wish on, 
Or something like that”

1999 was about the time I stopped eating. It was not a deliberate choice to stop eating… it just started to happen. I would make a mental note that all I ate in a day was three sugar cookies from the cafeteria. I’d stop there in between classes and just straight-up lie to everyone else about eating other meals. For example, when I got home from school, m My mom would ask if I ate, and I would tell her I already ate with friends after tennis practice.

Of course in high school, I had no idea that Fiona Apple also struggled with anorexia. I just thought she was a genius lyricist.

“Hunger hurts, 
But starving works, 
When it costs too much to love”

I wanted to love things that didn’t want to love me back and so I starved myself to try and control one thing. At night, I would lay in bed and worry and want things so badly. But I would hold on to my hip-bone like a handle, because it jutted out much farther than it should have, and I would think, “I have this.”

The morning I was supposed to take the Pre-SAT, I woke up early, went to the shower, turned on the hot tap, and fainted. I remember hearing my mom screaming for my dad, but I couldn’t open my eyes. My dad came in and lifted my naked, wet body out of the shower and placed me on the couch. My mom called 911. At the hospital, after a slew of tests, the doctor came in and stood at the foot of my bed. I don’t remember why my parents weren’t in the room. Maybe he asked them to leave? The doctor then said, “You’re obviously anorexic. Either you can tell your parents or I will.” Obviously, I opted to tell them, but can’t remember if I ever actually did. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life said, “I’m anorexic.” This—this piece for KEXP— is literally the first time. 

That hospital visit scared me enough to start eating again, though. Not because I was afraid I was hurting my body, but because I didn’t want to be flawed in such a serious way. I want to be perfect more than I want to be anorexic—ah the irony. 

My mom would text my friends to make sure I ate lunch. When I went out with friends at night, my mom would text them to ask what I ordered at Whataburger. Evidently, my mom’s plan was to mortify me into never skipping a meal again… and it sure did work. And it worked for a long while.

In my 20s, all I wanted to be was something to so many people. To publishers, to editors, to lovers, to CEOs, to the world—is that too much to ask? As I started to find my voice and the hunger of my goals, I started really leaning into knowing that I was a mess—for better or worse. I started getting a lot of things I wanted, because I let go of things I knew I could never get. I am absolutely the crazy ex-girlfriend to a handful of mountain men. To that, I raise a glass to Fiona Apple as I sing along and turn it up.

“He said 
‘It's all in your head,’
And I said, 
‘So's everything’ 
But he didn't get it
I thought he was a man but 
He was just a little boy”

At 27, I got a dream job that then paid for my graduate degree as long as I worked 36 hours a week and went to school 15 hours. It all worked for about 20 minutes before I stopped eating. Luckily I had a partner (now my husband) who packed me lunches and cooked me dinners. He laughed and I joined as he would remind me that, “Coffee isn’t food.” 

Skip ahead to earlier this year—now at age 37. I flew home to Texas to be with my mom. She needed surgery during her breast cancer treatment. I have never felt so out of control and depressed than I did around my mom’s cancer. Within hours of being home with my parents, I stopped eating. In a full-circle moment, I’m now texting my mother’s friends, telling them that her pain is manageable. Telling them that the surgery went well, but the doctor did have to go deeper than she thought she would. They are making sure my mom has enough food to eat and I tell them she is eating. She is eating, but I’m not.

I was out on a run around a local lake when the Texas heat got to me. I had to stop and sit down on the trail because my vision was going blurry. I tried to think back to what I had eaten in the past three days… all I could remember was coffee and cookies from a place called “Tiff’s Treats.” I gathered myself and walked back to the car. I drove to Sonic and ordered and ate a cheeseburger in record time.

The next day, in the same shower I fainted in as a teenager, I now helped my mom wash her hair. She couldn’t raise her arm above her shoulder, so she needed help. Her left breast looks like it was in a bar fight. Her wounds were so gnarly, they might as well have been from a broken bottle. The bruising was just so unexpectedly harsh and dark. I asked if it hurts, and Mom sweetly shook her head and said, “Not that bad.” Mom would start chemotherapy in about a month, so we talked about her hair with more adoration than usual. I scrubbed my fingers through her wet hair and try to remember how they do it at the hairdressers. In this moment, I want to have hope so badly. I want to have a little hope, but it’s scary. What if it’s just a fucking paper bag?

It’s terrifying to hope, because you have to admit how badly you want something. And—maybe more than anyone—Fiona gets that.

She has struggled with anorexia, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The more I look at that list and then at myself, the more I realize it’s all part of being a human. That’s us. Going through it. That’s me. That’s my friends. But you’re not alone. I mean, you’re literally not alone if you’ve ever had to deal with disordered eating. Harvard University (ever heard of it?)  did a study that estimated that almost 29 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. That’s 9%. So if you’re in a group of 11 people, it’s easy to bet one of them has struggled with an eating disorder.  You are not alone.

I still want so deeply. I still want so many things in a way that hurts. For my career. For my family. For my mother. For my sister. For my husband. For my daughter. I want that dove of hope to guide me through all this wanting. And I don’t know if that will ever go away, but I know now that starving does not work. It never did, no matter how hard I held on to my bony hips. What’s working for me is eating and antidepressants and writing and time with loved ones and music. 

23 years ago, Fiona Apple’s song “Paper Bag” found me at the same time as my eating disorder. But I’m only taking one of them with me into the next 23 years. 

If you are struggling with disordered eating and want help, you can call or text the National Eating Disorder Helpline at (800) 931-2237.

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