This Problem to Acknowledge

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What is to be done about loneliness? It’s hard to say – there are ways to try to cure it, but in the end there’s no way to forcefully tell the universe, “You will give me the someone I need.” And I’m not just talking about that “perfect” significant other society is always telling us to be on the hunt for. I’m talking about the kind of person who you can connect with beyond all those surface-level friendships that are so much easier to come by.

My freshman year, sadness manifested itself in me rather unexpectedly. I left Southern California for Oregon well prepared to be homesick, but instead found myself longing for — not necessarily those I knew back home, though I did miss my family and best friend — but for someone I could know here. Deeply know, better than the group of friends I made from the start of school. There was a time when I would cry every weekend in private, often not sure why such emotions were so eager to flood. As a generally well-composed individual, I treasured those moments when I could feel emotion in its heavily saturated form. In a way, those moments felt more available to me than anyone nearby. And sadness like that can be addictive.

With the arrival of spring semester came a change in friends for me. This time, I sensed I played an important role in the dynamics of my friend group. But even so, I feared the fast-approaching future when all of us would graduate and go our own ways. I could have a wonderful career and place to live by then, but without someone to enjoy it with, I feared it’d feel meaningless.

In response to the stress of school and societal standards and what the future held for me, I turned to a coping mechanism not uncommon for college-age women like me. I took advantage of my busy schedule and used it to help develop what would end up taking months for me to acknowledge as an eating disorder. On my return home, my mom noticed my habits of extreme calorie restriction and spoke her concerns. Still, I pressed myself further. I couldn’t be expected to rely on my mother’s opinion the rest of my life, now could I? Or so my line of thinking went.

Summer break, things did not improve. Though I was back home in close proximity of my best friend and family, all were so busy with work and life that I found myself alone more often than ever. With my job unable to give me many shifts, and being confined to the house by the oppressive SoCal heat without a car, boredom and loneliness combined forces. In the need to put my mind to something, I began viewing myself as a project, depriving myself further, documenting the results. I knew it was foolish but I relished the effectiveness. So much time in the day I wasted recording my weight, my looks, what I ate, how I felt. I wanted those records, knowing I wouldn’t be that thin forever. They were capturing who I was at my prime, I thought. Pictures and journal entries I could look back on years later — in pride, pity, or scorn of myself, I wasn’t sure. But it felt precious, being empty and hungry. I could stroke my stomach and tell myself it was acceptable to lie there and not do anything, because so long as I wasn’t eating, my body was burning through calories and I was on my way to getting lighter. I was achieving something. Except there were plenty of times I felt otherwise. I often default to questioning my negative emotions and excusing my hardships as nothing compared to others’. So in seeing all the hollowed-out girls showcased in media, nearly praised by society for suffering from severe anorexia nervosa, my immediate thoughts were that my own experience was illegitimate. My efforts were laughable in comparison. Better try harder.

It’s amazing how fixated we humans can become. My mind was so content mulling over the same few things day in and day out. Food, calories, what it meant to be anorexic. How I qualified, how I didn’t. What was my end goal in all this? The answer is mixed. On one hand, I didn’t want to look like a walking skeleton, but at the same time I liked to see how far I could suck myself in, how prominent my ribs could be. I ranged from wanting to feel attractive and resilient, to small and delicate, to nonexistent. Putting myself through these trials made me feel like a character from a story, whose inner conflict served to make me interesting and worth reading into.

The most contact I had with anyone during those times was through text, with one of my college friends who I kept thinking of things to say to. Luckily for me, he was just about as bored and lonely as I was, so we were able to support each other despite the state boundary between us. I agree technology has in many ways impaired our willingness as human beings to connect on a personal level, but in this case it served a purpose dearly important to me.

As summer break finally drew to an end and I set my thoughts on a second year of college, I knew I had no intentions of stopping on my self-destructive path so soon. The setup of my sophomore living situation was prime for neglecting my needs, and I planned to exploit that. Throughout this process, my reflection on the actions I was taking varied from proud, to sheepish, to denial. In one of my softer moments, I told my good friend over text about my problem, just so I knew I wouldn’t be alone with this secret at school. I often consider where I’d be now if it weren’t for this good friend I’m so fortunate to have met. Ever supportive of me, he took the news well and did the most I could’ve expected him to. I think we both knew it was in my power alone to turn things around, so he never guilted me, or badgered me, but remained my faithful friend as I asked. Nearly any time of day, I could message him something and see the little icon drop down to indicate he saw it, followed soon after by the animated ellipsis telling me he was typing out a response. He was always happy to make conversation, be it light or heavy, and whenever he was preoccupied with work or something else, he made sure to check in on me as soon as he could. So even without him there in person, I didn’t feel like I was completely alone.

The first couple of months into my second fall semester, I treated myself as poorly as I’d expected I would. Again, I knew it was foolish but it’d become an obsession. When I finally determined I’d seek help by the end of the month, I got far worse up until the time I was to see the doctor. I wanted to make sure to give them something to work with. My entire experience building up to this point was a pendulum swing of “I’m going too far” to “I’m fine, just dramatic.” I wasn’t ready to ask for help until I could fix my beliefs on the fact I had a legitimate problem. It wasn’t enough for me that I’d missed my period five months in a row, or that my mental and physical energy levels were drained. The last time I checked my weight before I left for college, my BMI was still considered normal though I’d lost a considerable amount of weight, and the so-called “logical” part of me couldn’t be satisfied until that data said otherwise.

Finally the day came when I sought out the well-hidden scale in the girl’s locker room like a parched animal to water. Stepping onto the small square platform, I felt tremendous relief as I saw the bar balance at a number lower than I’d hoped. Here it was, something the critical voice inside my head couldn’t argue with, proof backed up by science that I was underweight. That I had gone too far – or, in my mind, just far enough. This was the green light for me to see the doctor, to eat more, to get better. And I was more than ready to start enjoying life to the fullest in that way.

For a month now I’ve been in recovery, though it feels like much longer than that. I have a lot to be thankful for, because getting better hasn’t been as difficult for me as I hear it is for some. The only reason for that I can think of is for the fact I have someone – my good college friend. To those of you wondering, we’re dating now, but that’s beside my point. He’s here as my anchor, as any close friend could be, encouraging me in every respect to do what it takes to be healthy again. We frequently cook meals together and experiment with food, amused at how repulsed our younger selves would have been at the thought of the things we share now. Thanks to him, I feel safe allowing myself the food I need and accepting the changes in my body that result. I didn’t expect a guy my age to be as happy for me as he was when I told him I gained weight. Still, I’m well aware I shouldn’t be reliant on anyone to value and take care of myself. I guess in that regard there’s a lot of growing for me to do, but having started counseling, I’m on a good track for that too.

So what is to be done about loneliness? I wish I could say. There’s still no way to demand the universe give you someone, though it does happen at times (and thank the heavens when it does). One thing I’ll advocate for is looking outside yourself, recognizing people for who they are and what they feel. Asking questions to understand, listening to hear, challenging yourself to delay any audible reply before you’ve truly thought about what the person before you has said. Who’s to say how many of us are hurting in some way, considering those who so carefully hide their pain, or refuse to acknowledge it in the first place. But hopefully in trying to be that close friend to others, we’ll find ourselves fulfilled as well.

And let me just say that solitude does have its merits at times. I like going on nice long walks alone and holing up in my room for a while. It gives me a chance to remove myself from the action and take in the whole picture, to reflect on how I feel about what’s happening and the roles I play. As for the inevitable chapters in my life when I am to be alone for whatever reasons, it’s my hope that I’ll have learned from this experience and won’t take it too hard again. I think we all deserve to be a better friend to ourselves.

It’s Who You’re With

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Image Credit: Lauren Anderson

 

Growing up, I was faced with a number of challenges that affected my mental, physical, and emotional health. Like for many young teenagers, middle school was an experience I wish I could erase from my memory. During this awkward, transitional phase of adolescence, I was constantly searching for where I belonged. By the end of my seventh grade year, I still had not found a group I felt that I fit in with, despite my heavy involvement in art, music, and dance. Little did I know, a fateful trip to find supplies for water bottle rockets in my science class would change my life forever.

I will always remember the moment I ran into my band director in the Astoria Middle School office, after being sent to find construction paper by one of my teachers that year. I had no idea that this casual encounter would end up pointing me down the path that has brought me to where I am today. At that time, music wasn’t a huge part of my life. I had switched into band from choir due to my distaste towards the teacher, and decided to play flute because that is what my friends played. During that encounter, knowing my history with dance, my band director asked me if I would be interested in being a part of the high school marching band’s color guard, which I excitingly said yes to. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but to this day, it was the greatest thing I ever agreed to.

You could feel the magic and energy in the air as we loaded the truck after our final rehearsal. From that point on, it was as if the next three hours flashed before my eyes. Before I could blink, I was on the field playing my final show with the group that shaped my entire life. During the closing of our show, I glanced over to my best friend as our eyes filled with tears, realizing it was actually all over. We exited the field and circled up for the traditional senior speeches. Parents came to hug me as tears streamed down my face. After each of the other seniors had spoken, it was finally my turn. I had been dreaming of and dreading this moment for years, and now it was time for my final words to the group.

“Long live all the magic we made on that field tonight,” I remember saying to the group, quoting a Taylor Swift song. I waited for a smirk from my best friend, acknowledging she had noticed the reference before continuing. “After a performance like that, I don’t care what the numbers say. None of it matters. What’s important is the love, and I love all of you so much. Thank you for an amazing final run.”

Shivering in the twenty-three degree temperature, we eagerly awaited the announcement of scores. We did win that night, in our hearts and in the eyes of the judges, who placed us first in Open Class (all bands with more than one hundred members – we had twenty-nine), in addition to five caption awards. As great as it felt taking home those trophies, what felt better was realizing that together, we did something that had not been done in previous years. The band that took the field that night wasn’t just a band; it was a family. Shiny silver trophies now sit in the band room of Astoria High School, but only the members who experienced that evening can speak for the true accomplishments of that season. Even with the challenges we faced and the number of adversities, we still managed to defy the odds of being crowned champions that night. This accomplishment created a platform for the future of this group to grow on, as well as serve as a driving force of my personal music career.

“You don’t have to be big to win,” the judge announced, calling out our score. We already knew that, because all you need to win is love.

Moving on into college, I was unable to forget this night. However much my visions for my future changed, I could always remember what it felt like to love music, and to love the people who I could make music with. Over time, those friendships faded and I found a new family to fall into. As time moves forward and graduation creeps closer, I find myself feeling similarly to the way I did at my last marching band show; happy, sad, excited, scared. Fearful and curious of the future in front of me, and thankful for the memories I’ve made along the way. While the future is intimidating and unknown, I know now that our dreams our inevitable, and while our successes and failures may change us, it is the people around us who move us forward.

 

By: Lauren Anderson

Zombies for Organ Donation

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It’s become a joke, but a happy one. My family and I attribute every milestone of my progress to the donated tissue holding my knee together. When I took my first step up a flight of stairs, my dad said it was thanks to my “zombie strength,” as if a ligament donated from a dead person gave me superpowers. It sounds strange, but this donation did give me power. By choosing to be an organ donor, this anonymous person gave me a better life in the midst of their death, and I will always be grateful to be a “zombie” because of them.

The first time I dislocated my knee, I was nine. It was father’s day and my brother chased me around our yard with water balloons. I tripped and fell. My kneecap displaced and stayed on the side of my leg, poking out of my jeans in a way I’d never seen before. The pain was sharp and constant. Moving made it acutely worse and I didn’t know what to do. I screamed, my brother found my parents, and my dad scooped me into his arms. They drove me to the hospital in our minivan. I was carted into the emergency room, I refused painkillers because needles scared me, they cut the leg of my jeans, and I saw my misshapen, grotesque bones out of place. The doctor came. He was distant, unphased by my injury. I looked away as he slid my kneecap back, in a sharp, unnatural contortion. The absence of pain was glorious; each part of my body was in its place again.

I went to physical therapy for a while after that. My therapist taught me how to walk, how to move in a way that wouldn’t upset my fragile leg. Still, I was unstable.

For nine years afterwards, my knee would occasionally dislocate. It would always right itself, almost immediately. I walked and ran with a limp and I never let anybody touch my knee. I grew up afraid of my own steps.

Then, when I was eighteen, I took a bad step on my way to class, and my knee fully dislocated again. It was the same crack in my ears as my bones shifted and my ligaments tore, the same pain. It was cold, and I shivered. Each involuntary movement stung me. I was angry that my body betrayed me, again. I was pissed because I couldn’t walk down the street, like everybody else. People stopped, they called my dad and an ambulance, and a boy put his sweatshirt under my head. A girl in my class distracted me while we waited by talking about how annoying the professor was. I was sent to the hospital and the doctor put my knee where it belonged.

Even thinking about it now, I tense up, curl my left leg in, protect myself. Some days, when I’m walking down the street, I remember how dislocation feels, how easily my knee slid to the side of my leg. My fists tense, and I feel the pain, but I know it’s over. I’m fixed. It’s just that unpredictable pain like dislocation has a way of haunting.

After the last accident, I had a knee operation and in that operation, I received donated tissue. Since surgery, I have re-learned how to bend my leg, how to walk and how to go up and down stairs, all through the same physical therapy program I graduated from when I was nine. Today, I can even go for runs. It’s not always easy. I stumble and limp a lot sometimes, but when I get a good run, it’s empowering. I’ve re-claimed my body. I like synchronizing my legs to move like I was taught, pushing myself hard enough that I can feel a breeze against my skin, and I love that all of it is powered by my body.

I didn’t do it alone. Somebody chose to give their body to me, after they died, so that mine could function. I don’t know anything about them, but because of their decision, we are deeply connected—we share a body. Not only am I grateful for what they have given me, but for what they have given every other person who received their heart, their kidney, their liver, anything. Organ donation is an act of love that lasts beyond death and through life, and it is one of the most beautiful things I have been a part of.

The little box on my driver’s license says “Organ Donor.” I’m proud it does, and I hope yours does as well. The next time you go to the DMV, take a second to think back on me and every other zombie out there. One day, far from now, you might create a zombie, too.

 

By: Julia Thompson