The photo is undated, and yet it is clearly a precious memento of a bygone era when we--well, if truth be told--would hang out at bars all too much of the time. Claire is wearing my favorite green batik dress from those days--perhaps the late-1980s or early-1990s--and she has accessorized it with the necklace known as her "fairy bell." What is she staring at so intently? Cindy steals the show in her short blue dress. With arms extended, she invites the viewer to a seat at our table. Susan, who today does cross fit and advocates a sugar-free diet, is--ack!--smoking with the refined air of Audrey Hepburn circa 1961. And then, there is me: I insert myself into the group and so into the lives of these amusing and fascinating women. As I look at the photo, I wish Steve Jobs had invented the camera-ready iPhone twenty years before he actually did so that we could have captured more of these moments together. (I suspect Susan, Cindy and Claire--mothers of eight among them--are awfully glad he did not.)
I began to hang out intensively with Maryclaire, Susan and Cindy in the summer I graduated from high school. By then, I can see in retrospect that my unhealthy relationship with food was already deeply entrenched in my life. In fact, my first memory of binge eating is located somewhere around the age of fourteen years old. I remember sitting at the kitchen table--alone--and reading a book with a large family size bag of Doritos in front of me. All the members of my family were in the living room watching TV. And so, no one would see me as I indulged in this junk food. Being alone--for me and for most who suffer BED--is a key to the binging experience, as I want to shut myself away and become numb. As I ate, I remember saying to myself that “I’ll just do this once, and never again.” How many times did I say that sentence over the next thirty-five years? Thousands would be a conservative response. But I did not think that I had an eating disorder; instead, I thought I was an unusually weak-willed individual who could not exercise the self-control necessary to maintain what I then considered a healthy weight.
My next clear memory of issues with eating comes a year or two later, when I was a junior in high school. At that time, I had decided that I would lose weight. I don't remember my exact weight at this time. I suspect I was in good physical shape or very near to it, but I felt, as I used to repeat over and over, "like a cow," and so wanted to lose weight. So, I stopped eating for three days at a time. I would instead exercise frenetically on an stationary bicycle in my bedroom. At the end of three days, I remember I would often indulge in two boxes of diet chocolate pudding, which--a bit of TMI here--actually causes gases to emit from strange places in your body. If I did eat a meal, I would throw it up. Thus, I could lose a lot of weight in a very little time, which made me feel quite powerful.
I channeled that sense of empowerment--artificially constructed--into my social life. I went out with my first real boyfriend. The boy in question was a high school senior from neighboring Ridgeway. He was--gasp!--the captain of the baseball team, and he did--aha!--invite me to his prom. However, I felt that I was performing the role of girlfriend, never actually being one, for what really did I know then of the nature of human interaction?
By the next year, my first bout of depression--undiagnosed, but clear to me in hindsight--took over my life. I stopped exercising and began to eat more. At age seventeen, I withdrew from life. I collected pills and fantasized about suicide. My weight went up. I was no longer close to what I considered my "healthy weight." (I based this "healthy weight," by the way, on that of Sylvia Plath's doppelganger in the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. At 5' 8" tall, Esther Greenwood weighed 125 pounds. In this way, I set up a despondent poet as my go-to ideal.) I interacted little with those around me and had little desire to do much of anything, except soothe myself with food.
And so, when these women--Cindy, Susan and Maryclaire--invited me into their tight circle that summer of 1985, the year of our high school graduation, they offered me friendship, and that friendship was a salvation of sorts. I never told them--until now, when they, like you, read this--of my unhappiness during my senior year or admitted to an unhealthy relationship with food, but the good humored boisterousness that I shared with them undoubtedly contributed to my recovery from depression and to my ability to move forward in my life. That summer, we chased boys, went to the beach in Cindy's old green Pinto, dressed like Madonna, drank illicit beers at Mr. P's in Stratford, chased more boys, and choreographed a nasty dance to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," the moves of which we all still remember. It turns out that these dubious activities were enough to base a friendship of 30+ years that has been a mainstay in my life.
And yet, I realized somewhere in my haze of grief after the passing of Maryclaire on 12 December--and as I looked back at that photo of four women-in-the-making enjoying each other's company at a non-descript bar--that I had never actually been entirely honest or entirely authentic with them. In particular, I couldn't believe that I had never revealed my struggles with BED to my dearest friend. Maryclaire had died without knowing one of the most important aspects of my own life: I not only suffered from an eating disorder but was making every effort to recover from this thirty-five year long unhealthy relationship with food. And so, I began to recognize once again the toll that BED has taken on my life. Five months into my recovery for BED and twelve days after the passing of my friend, I began to realize that I had lost precious time with Maryclaire. I had avoided reaching out by phone or email because I was embarrassed to tell her of my mental health disorder. I would tell her and other dear friends, like Susan and Cindy, "at the right time."
Sixteen hours by car separates Lafayette, IN from Newton, NH, so I could not drop by Maryclaire's house for a casual cup of tea and an unscripted coze. And so, I could not make it the right time to communicate without deliberate action and planning on my part. Communication with my busy friend and the nourishing of my relationship with her would only have come by dint of my own efforts. And, in retrospect, I assumed there was all the time in the world, when, in fact, there was finite amounts of days left to us. This has been one of the hardest lessons--and yet most earth-shatteringly significant--I have ever had to learn.