In the Wake of Loss

candles

I have never understood loss. Not really, anyway. Not until a month ago.

Last month, I lost a dear friend of mine. She was smart, beautiful, funny, caring, and good. She was good. She was simply good.

I’m still unsure of what caused her death, but I know what killed her. My friend, who I have known for most of my life, wasn’t able to nourish her body the way most of us can. She suffered from an illness that I will never truly understand. And it’s this illness that took her life.

The thing is, I hadn’t spoken to my friend in quite some time. I hadn’t seen her in even longer. I found it difficult to be around her because I wanted to shield her from her demons, force her into some form of treatment. But I couldn’t. There was nothing that I could do to help her and that fact was hard to swallow. I eventually put distance between us; an act I will always regret. I just thought, eventually, she’d ask for help. Eventually she’d get better. And then we could all move on.

Now that she’s gone, now that I know I’ll never see her again and she’ll never have the chance to get better, I miss her so much. I have never before been filled with so much sadness. And now, a month later, I’m convinced I will always feel this way. I will always miss her and I will always be sad about what happened to her. There is no moving on, there’s simply learning to live without that small piece of myself that she took with her.

I still have days when I’ll wake up, think of her, and suddenly not know what to do with myself. I live alone and I work from home, which, I have realized, is toxic to someone who is in the grieving process. So, on these days, instead of taking care of my responsibilities, I immerse myself in worlds of fiction. I turn to lighthearted ChickLit and romantic comedies, where the girl always gets the guy, the good guy always wins, and everyone is always okay in the end. These worlds help me forget. Help me forget that my friend isn’t here anymore, help me forget about her family who lost a wonderful daughter, sister and aunt, and help me forget that I failed her.

All I wanted to do, for so long, was protect her. I wanted her to get better. I wanted her to want to get better. And I wanted her to know that I’d help her along the way. But I’m not so sure she knew that. Because I simply could not accept her illness and I couldn’t just pretend that nothing was wrong. Now, I wish I had just been there for her anyway. I wish I had followed through on making plans with her, called her, and just been a friend to her. I should have spent more time with her. I should have tried harder. I wish I could have just accepted that I couldn’t save her. She had to do that for herself.

I used to feel angry with her, that she wasn’t getting the help I knew she needed. Now, I accept it. I accept that she was suffering and overcoming her illness was just too hard. I just wish I had found this acceptance at a time when I could have told her, “It’s okay. I understand. I’m here for you anyway.”

My friend was smart, had a great career, was so funny, and was so very beautiful — on the inside and out. She was a genuine person, which is hard to find these days. She was quirky, and owned it. She was encouraging and somehow always made me feel good. Because she was good.

To my dear, sweet friend: I hope you are looking down at us from up in the clouds, eating and drinking to your heart’s content. I know you’ve finally found your peace. I’ll see you on the other side.

A Decade Under the Influence

sad girl sitting

The sky had barely broken on the New Year when I found myself crumpled into a ball crying in your lap. I didn’t want to seek solace in you about this, a topic I deem too personal to even discuss with you, the one I love, but the truth is I am struggling and I feel myself becoming one with the edge. I am no longer sure where to turn.

I don’t remember when it started. I imagine it happened normally and maybe even casually, the way it does sometimes when these things sneak up on you. I don’t know what compelled me to first stick my finger down my throat and force myself to throw up everything until I spit blood. But I did, and after that, I felt, relief. Relief is not the best word for the elimination of self-inflicted ghosts, but it is my word and it is the word that would frame my existence for many years to come.

I had never been thin and for me this was all entirely about becoming thin. At 16, all I wanted was to be thin like the other girls. I became obsessed. I went to the gym, for hours, every day after school. It became a joke around my friends and even my family that I would eat only a granola bar and that would be it for the day. I was busy. Being busy made missing meals passable and even easy. The truth was I didn’t even want the granola bar, but without it I struggled to get out of bed. It was hard to focus and the shaking was noticeable. And somewhere along the way, when I did eat it, I started throwing it up. I wasn’t bulimic. Bulimia is when you intentionally binge then purge in a retroactive form of damage control. I just didn’t want food inside me. Eventually, I decided not to eat the granola bars anymore. At the end of the school year, I found dozens smooshed at the bottom of my bag.

I accepted a job at a fast food burger chain. It was my first actual job that didn’t consist of babysitting neighbourhood kids. I actually like the job too. The people I worked with were fun and I went to school with most of them, which made work enjoyable and social for me. On breaks, as an employee, you would get discounted food while you worked. Many of my peers took advantage of this, a couple of them got jobs there solely because of this, but I ignored it. I worked in a sea of greasy french fries and endless ice cream for almost a year and I never ate there even once. In the meantime, I had started to develop some bad habits. If I was at a party and people ordered pizza, I would spend five minutes blotting the grease off with a napkin before deciding to abandon the pizza altogether. I was getting worse, but my bones weren’t sticking out so, for a long time, no one said a word.

The first intervention came one night when I could no longer remember the last time I had eaten. My parents sat me down and told me I could have anything I wanted and that they would make it for me. Anything. I had lost a lot of weight by this point and my life had changed drastically. I was much more social. Boys were paying attention to me. I was even making out with them. I had discovered alcohol and parties. I decided to choose something random and obscure thinking it would deter their efforts. I remember what I requested: a chicken Caesar salad from Swiss Chalet. They went out and got it for me and I sat there waiting for them to return and I didn’t even move. When they came back they sat at the table to make sure I ate it. I cried the entire time, choking on every bite. I think they cried too.

But after that, it was as though in my mind I was magically recovered. I toned back the restriction, started eating dinner, and assumed things were better, all while failing to notice the signs were still there. When I moved away to university to live in residence, my first time living on my own, I was not concerned at the end of the year when it was discovered I had much more than 50 per cent of my meal plan remaining. Most students added more money to their plan part way through the year. I wasn’t throwing up much anymore so I thought I was fine, but I still also wasn’t really eating. My meal plan was nonrefundable. I started paying for people’s snacks and meals regularly. By the end of the year, I was buying people Fruitopia by the case.

The years after this are blurry and while I never thought of myself as sick, it is easy to see in retrospect that fractured existence of what clearly was—maybe still is—an eating disorder.  My weight continued to be a problem, going up and down like a rollercoaster, taking how I defined my worth and happiness along for the ride. In third year I decided to join an actual weight loss program. This was my first introduction into what would later become an obsession with calorie counting. Within months I was a mess. If I knew I’d be going out drinking that night, I would simply not eat all day long in an effort to never, ever go over my points. Points became the bane of my existence. If you worked out, you got more points, which for me actually meant more alcohol. I started working with a personal trainer at 7 am every morning. It was an impossible time for me, but I did it. One day he was guiding me through an exercise at a machine and the next thing I knew I was sitting in his office being forced to eat an applesauce. What happened? I asked him. To this day I do not remember passing out, I do not remember being taken to his office, I do not remember my first bite of that applesauce.

The program fucked with my head and instilled in me a new weapon in my war on food: guilt. Suddenly there were good foods and there were bad foods. There were foods that would make me fat and foods that would make me thin. There were foods that were approved of and foods that caused shame. When I quit counting points it was because I couldn’t live like that anymore, defining my success and basing my happiness on which silo my foods fell into that day. I had also, in the process, fallen in love and moved to the city. I was a new woman and I was determined to get in control.

Control. Where did that word come from? Control is a word people like to use when describing those with disordered eating habits because it is argued that we use food as a form of control to find order or balance in our lives and maybe even also to provide a scale of which to monitor and maintain power. Restriction and throwing up were never about control to me on the inside, but I can now see they were always about control on the outside. When I ate too much, or more accurately felt like I ate too much, throwing up was an easy way to undo perceived damage.

Things have, in recent months, become entirely about control. On my latest foray into weight loss I decided to try things differently. I didn’t want the blemished skin, the shaking hands, the guilt and the downward spiral I had had so many times before. I wanted results. So 10 months ago I joined the same program that caused me such disarray the first time, quit again shortly after for the same reasons I quit the first (and second) time, struggled with issues of throwing up for several months, then finally found the right balance between eating right and exercising. It was a magical feeling to see that number going down without making myself sick, without depriving myself. I felt truly accomplished and radiant and people noticed. They even said I looked skinny. Me, skinny! It was the best feeling I could have ever imagined.

Unfortunately this is where the problems have started again and in fact I am only writing this to prevent myself from relapsing. The number stopped going down. I stopped losing weight. When I stopped losing weight, I got scared and I have been scared for more than a month now. Suddenly I feel out of control and when I feel out of control I make bad food decisions. For months I wasn’t actually eating enough, and now I am scared I am eating too much. It is haunting me, a dark shadow that follows me around. I am getting feelings I’ve never had before. I am thinking to myself, this is pointless, this isn’t working, I’m not trying hard enough. I make plans and go to the gym for hours, then don’t go for days. My routine is so fucked and my head is so fucked I feel the storm coming.

It’s definitely coming back. But not in the ways I told you about, it’s coming back like it was like it did a couple summers ago—the most brutal summer in the history of my disordered eating. That summer was so bad that by the end of it I actually started looking into getting help. I saw doctors. I saw therapists. I was scared to be awake. I was scared to go out. I hated food and I hated life and I hated myself. My depression was rampant and I was throwing up all the time and my throwing up knew no boundaries: public washrooms, restaurants, bars, clubs, concerts, family functions, anywhere it could happen and everywhere it did. My face was puffy and broken out. I was losing control and the eating disorder was instead taking control of me. I’m not even sure anymore if I was losing weight, but these things can be mean like that. I was able to turn things around then with a lot of determination, therapy, reading self-help books and memoirs, and especially with the help of my boyfriend, who has helped me get through this countless times now. I have learned it is nearly, maybe entirely, impossible to get through these things on your own.

But I’m scared this time. I am terrified of what is happening to me after months of being healthier than I have ever been. I am worried it’s too late to undue the damage of all the calories I’ve tracked religiously in the little app I am always updating. I am worried about what happens next because I’ve already read this story. This is the part when things start to spiral out of control at a time when you really need that control. So you start eating less and start being more restrictive, purging whatever food you deem “bad,” prancing down the road you’ve travelled down so many times before, a deer in the headlights, never learning its lesson. Turning the pages anyway.