BED had led me to withdraw from relationships that were important to me, and so I determined--amid the tears and guilt that came with it--to nourish the friendships that I still had and to take off the mask of success and achievement. In particular, I wanted to tell Susan and Cindy, fellow friends of Maryclaire from high school, that I suffered from BED and was actively seeking to recover from it after a thirty-five year struggle.
Given my unfortunate absence from the funeral, there had been no opportunity to confess how my shame about BED--and my concomitant weight gain--had kept me from reaching out to Maryclaire, who, I worried, might have thought me "fat" or "crazy." But on Christmas Eve, I performed an emotional purge in an email and informed my two high school friends of my mental health disorder. As I hit send, I felt some trepidation.
Dear Susan and Cindy,
I spoke with Jay today and committed to running a 10 K. in order to raise money for a scholarship being established in Maryclaire's honor. I have not run more than two miles for nigh on a year or more, but I need to do something constructive that serves, in all honesty, a twofold purpose: 1) I can honor Maryclaire as a cherished friend whom I will miss for the rest of my life; 2) I can turn to this friend for one last bit of help in my own journey as I struggle with personal growth. I would like to explain this last...
I am experiencing deep regret that my troubles--both past and present--led me at times to shy away from keeping in contact with Maryclaire (and with you). For nearly two years, between 2011 and 2013, I did not reach out to you, because I did not know how to tell you that a troubling bout of alcohol abuse had led to a decision to get sober. I resisted having you associate me with anything but the "glamorous" aspects of my life in academia--intrepid traveler, published author, talking head on BBC World News. Now, I look back and see that I missed conversations with Maryclaire (and with you) that might have sustained me in these gloomy days.
Unfortunately, my trials are not over, and I will never have an opportunity to tell this to Maryclaire. I have always had--since age fourteen--an unhealthy relationship with food, but it has progressively worsened these last few years. The new DSM-5 names my condition Binge Eating Disorder. I was on medical leave for most of the fall semester trying to get control of this illness as well as the anxiety and depression that accompany it (in my case). As I struggled with these mental health issues, running, which I used to love has fallen to the wayside.
After six months of treatment, I am finding a new normal, and running has a place in it. Indeed, running has become my litmus test of good health, and I actively seek these days to recommit to running.
And that is why my honoring of Maryclaire has taken the form that it has. I want to DO something for Maryclaire, of course, but the form of this doing is not set in stone. I have decided to run a 10 K. because I want her---a dear friend, a longtime friend, a missed friend--to play an active part in my recovery.
Responses to this missive did not come back right away. As I found myself tempted to interpret the silence of my friends in the following two days, I reflected on my tendency to perform for others. I had always attempted to color within established lines. Even when I rebelled, as I had in my late-teens, I tried to act within an established set of social norms--punk rock, even when I liked show tunes better than the Misfits--so that no one thought that I "was weird" and so that I garnered acceptance. I had of late recognized that I was constantly evaluating what I termed "my performance." Did I perform the role of cocktail party guest appropriately? Or of history department colleague? Or even of interested friend? I evaluated my performance of these various roles with the keen eye of a New York Times theatre critic at the opening of a play.
I had taken stock and found that I was a woman worthy of asserting my authentic self. I previously focused on how and why others construed me as socially awkward or, at other times, as having a tendency toward logorrhea. Now, I found myself trusting in my compassionate inner core. I care about the well being of my friends, who find me a loyal companion. I want my students to learn and to succeed, in whatever form that takes--a graduate program in history, a stint in the Infantry or Special Forces, or, in one case, as a possible draft choice in the NFL. And I have channeled my compassion for the world into the rescue of alley cats, seven of whom now rule my home with an iron fist. (I do not deny my shortcomings: At times, I can be a short-tempered "know-it-all.") And so, this first Christmas after Maryclaire's passing, I found the strength to wait for Cindy and Susan to respond to my note in their own time, and to do so without yielding to the urge to binge.
Cindy texted first, a beep that woke me from a sound nap: Your email broke my heart. Don't ever think you can't bring us into your life. No matter what is going on in it! I am here for you. And I know Maryclaire would be so happy with you running again especially in her honor. Also, she loved you so much...You were part of the conversation all the time with me. Our texts went back and forth--discussions of the run, planning for a next meeting--and ended with expressions of genuine love. Love you, she texted, with an emoji heart. And I wrote back the same: Love you too. The lengthy exchange left me emotionally fulfilled, and I realized once again that I had gotten through my grief--to date--without once turning to Doritos or a tuna casserole.
Susan responded the next day, freshly back from a WiFi-free trip to Yosemite with her husband and two children. While hesitant about the creation of a tell-all blog, she was unquestionably a supportive friend when she wrote of the 10 K. that: I think this is a fantastic plan to help yourself and to honor your love for Claire. She loved you and would want you to enjoy great health. Like you said this is how she thought of you, healthy and glamorous...Thank you for revealing your challenges in health. That's exactly what we (I speak for Cindy here too) want you to do with us. I received the message at 10:30 pm and fell asleep with the support of my friends wrapped around me like a blanket.
I am blessed to have compassionate friends in my life. Cindy and Susan---as well as other absorbing men and women with whom I have found common ground--provide support and make me laugh. I took my friendships for granted in the past year, placing them on a back burner. I argued that my focus on work and recovery took precedence over what I dismissed as "socializing." I see now that this decision--a deliberate one--had been a mistake. "Ladies," I texted, "I suspect that after my long silence, I will be reaching out to you more and reengaging this friendship. I have missed you both. What a treasure to count as friends two strong and smart women whom I have known for 30+ years."