Sunday, February 23, 2014

Friß mich auf mit Haut und Haar

Today I want to tell a story of friendships and eating disorders.

I was living in New York in June 2012, and I wasn't really doing that well. I would come back from work, stop on the way to my apartment to grab a six-pack from a deli, and then go back to my air-conditioned couch. Most nights, I couldn't really be bothered to take off my clothes and go to bed. My bedroom didn't have any windows, and the whole room just gave off a smell of claustrophobic suffocation; I could feel the teeth of anxiety sinking deeper into my chest every time I wanted to sleep in there, so in the end I just resorted to drinking myself lights-out on the couch in front of the window. On the evenings that I didn't drink, I would go running, and that pretty much sums up my entire June, day in and day out. I ran over 100 miles that month.

My own personal and social lives went through a series of increasingly destructive hiccups, and I felt as if my brain had muted the outside world in response: the visuals were just playing out in front of my eyes like on the screen of an old black-and-white living room TV, while the sound had been suppressed by the skull-resounding unarticulated noise of my breath. I didn't have it in me to strike up banter with anyone. But there was this one person I met that June in New York, with whom talking came easy. Her name was Emily, and she was from Australia.

Emily and I had a few things in common. She was a foreigner, just like me. She was a software engineer, just like me. And, most importantly, she had low self esteem. Just like me. Emily and I would sometimes walk up and down Battery Park, sipping on some iced tea, and having a drawn-out, hour-long conversation with perhaps no more than 30 lines exchanged throughout. Part of the reason why I didn't feel claustrophobic around her was because I didn't feel pressured to say anything. You almost never get the luxury of long and comfortable pauses in conversation with people you've only just met, but there was just something psychologically undemanding about our interactions.

There was a reason for it. It didn't take me long to recognize that Emily was struggling with depression. Yet, far more unsettling for me was the fact that I could tell that she also had an eating disorder. It was most apparent in the little furtive gestures when she reached for a bar of candy, only to stop and withdraw her hand mid-air. Or in the way she glanced at my burger with a mixture of conflicted craving and disgust that she was struggling to hide. Or in the way she claimed to not like sweets. Or in the way her voice emphasized the word "diet" when ordering a coke on tap, followed by the way her eyes would follow the hands of the bartender like an eagle follows its prey, to ensure that she really was getting diet, rather than regular coke.

We never brought up any of these things. I felt it was none of my business whatsoever to remark on my new friend's eating habits. Before you go ahead an criticize me for being indifferent, cowardly, or just polite and uptight, I want to say that it might have been too personal, or otherwise hurtful for her. I wasn't there to confront her, or to force her into an uncomfortable conversation that would have probably brought up nothing new. I barely even knew her. I was there to walk up and down Battery Park with her. That was my job. Emily was a very bright girl, and she picked up on the fact that I knew, but she likewise never mentioned it. It was just another one of those scenarios where something is shared and acknowledged between two people without a single word being exchanged. But what I didn't wholly realize back then was just how dark a place she was in.

Above all things, Emily struck me as consumed with a deeply-set belief that she was ugly. I felt horrible and guilty every time it transpired in our conversations, but I felt even more silently outraged when I caught other people smirking in unspoken confirmation. She tried being as witty, funky, and adventurous as she could in order to dominate her inferiority complexes, but all she was covering up with her hyperactivity was her depression, not its causes. New York is one of those cities with a reputation for crushing people. In a city of eight million egos, each of them sitting on an iceberg of personal fear and the need to prove ones self, insecurities you never knew you had are sure to flare up like fireworks over your already clouded judgement: "I'm lonely" quickly becomes "Nobody wants me", which quickly becomes "I'm not good enough".

I, for one, have always felt ugly, for as long as I can remember. And no matter whether, as a reader of this blog post, you'll admit it or not, one thing is certain: So have you! And so has that crush of yours that you've put on some pedestal somewhere. It's a universal post-puberty human experience. Some people with naturally great looks and weak personalities cope by actively seeking out confirmation and admiration, while the bulk of us simply accepts it as a fact of our minds' mechanics. But for a few of us, such as Emily, repeated rejection by a few outstandingly shallow and self-consumed people ultimately cost her her health and well being.

*  *  *

I was away from New York for a year, during my Master's, and I went back in the summer of 2013. I wanted to meet up with her and hit the downtown like we used to. She saw my text messages on Facebook, but she never replied, not even to decline or to say that she was busy. I felt rejected, confused, and disappointed. All of them are feelings I'm familiar with, but that doesn't make them trivial. I didn't necessarily feel like I deserved an explanation, but I did feel that I deserved a reply. Well, I suppose no answer is an answer. Despite that, I understood that I shouldn't hold it against her.

As fate would have it, I randomly bumped into her one day. She looked extremely thin. She hugged me with what struck us both as politely-faked enthusiasm, and we started talking, but we quickly dried up. In complete contrast with the year before, the silence between us was now unsettling. I could see that she was in pain, but that she was withholding from saying anything to that effect, so we ended up just exchanging pleasantries and talking about... nothing.

Being unable, or unwilling given the circumstances and blacked-out state of our friendship to open up about the one thing that was weighing down on her shoulders, whatever petty conversation we had was of no interest to her, and I immediately understood that she had just shut me out. Perhaps because of shame, perhaps because of fear that I would judge her. Most likely because she projected her internal cringes on me. I walked away from that encounter with a deep feeling of sadness, as if a friend had been unfairly taken away from me.

It was obvious to me that I had no choice but to let her go without having had the chance to explain to her that I value her for her company, not for the dysmorphic standards of thinness and beauty that she holds herself to. I stopped texting to ask her to meet me for coffee, and at the end of the summer, I moved back to Cambridge.

A few days ago, I learned that Emily had been admitted to hospital. Her eating disorders had swerved out of control, and she collapsed after having gone a very long time without eating. Someone else called the ambulance for her. I felt my heart sink as I was taking in the news.

It is frustrating to cope with the fact that all people are, to various extents, shallow. As Claudiu phrased it, "shallowness runs deep" in our nature. We give disproportionate amounts of our attention and brain power to people we find attractive (either physically, or by virtue of some other attributes), and undeservedly hurt so many others in the process. We can deny we're doing it, and keep hurting people, or we can accept our intrinsic immorality and overcome it. As I've probably said many times before, it's impossible to start solving a problem if you won't admit to it.

I can't even begin to explain how much I want her to pull through and get better. Not for me, because that would make her feel less worthy on her own. Not for her, because self-motivation is void in the grips of depression. And not because the world will have changed for the better and become less shallow in response to her angst - it hasn't, and it never will. I want her to get better because she is fine, and because she is enough as-is.

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