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.

The Difference a Smile Can Make

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Credit: Gillian Reimann

When we think about different cultural perspectives, the regions of California versus Oregon, the Bay Area versus Portland and its greater area, rarely come to mind, but to me, they’re vastly different. Four years ago, I made a twelve hour drive up to Forest Grove, Oregon from Concord, California, to start my college experience and Pacific University, and I didn’t really expect anything to be that different. Well, I did expect more rain. But, a funny thing happened as I started to go to my classes and talk to local Oregonians, and I realized, there is a difference.

Back home in the Bay Area, everything is fast-paced. We don’t sit outside, reading books or listening to music as we take in the sunshine; because it’s always out in California, and there’s so much more to do. We don’t walk to restaurants in town, even if they are ten minutes away. And we certainly don’t stop and smile at people we vaguely recognize. Instead, we bustle along on our busy paths, we keep our heads down, we drive to get dinner, and we do our best to avoid the sun (since it’s always out and it’s always hot).

Honestly, life back home is abrupt, which has made the past four years in the Portland area a bit of an eye-opener for me. To be honest, not all of it is grand, starting with the rain—the endless downpour is annoying, and for a self-proclaimed sun-hater, even I’m happy on days when it’s out and there’s no precipitation in sight. The constant rain was a bit of a shock to try to adapt to, especially since I was going back home every few months for break. But even with the rain, when I’m in Forest Grove, I’m more likely to see people out walking around town and campus, stopping to talk and smile with one another, even in the rain. Back at home, I’d be hard pressed to see that kind of simple friendliness, and while I’m not saying that we’re all rude, there’s just not that level of comfort involved. Making the transition between the two states is difficult, especially because as soon as I get into the swing of smiling at people and asking how they are, I have to switch, going back to the head-ducking, antisocial attitude. And when I finally get used to sitting in traffic for hours and blaring music to entertain myself, I get thrown back into the fast lane where I’m constantly avoiding being cut off and going at least fifteen over the speed limit.

As a junior editor at Silk Road for the past three semesters, I’ve had the privilege of reading unique cultural perspectives and see various diverse tales across several genres, and so it’s difficult to see how my experience translates in comparison. But then, I remember that ‘unique’ and ‘diverse’ are subjective words, and they vary from case to case. My experiences from city life in the Bay Area and Portland, to the town life of Concord and Forest Grove illustrate a distinct gap in human contact and comfort. Back at home, people rush about, avoid eye contact, and set out for themselves. Contrastingly, when I’m here in Forest Grove, or the larger Portland area, people stop and start up conversations.

At a bookstore in Beaverton a couple weeks ago, I was stopped by an old man in the Science Fiction section who asked my opinion about some books. I stopped my perusal of the shelves, smiled at him, and offered up a few titles that I had read that were similar to the books in his hand. He grinned back at me and thanked me for my time, and I watched him go on to grab one of the books that I recommended, adding it to the pile. It was a

For me, the difference in culture between the Bay Area and Portland is just enough of a shock so that alternating and adapting between the two is difficult. Twelve hours of driving and a few mountain ranges separate the two states, making their differences subtle but certainly there, at least for this college student.

By: Gillian Reimann

The Twin Thing

Credit: Emma McMain

Credit: Emma McMain

 

In the middle of my Intro to Biology lab session, my phone lit up with a text from my mom. “Hi Hon. Sam is in the hospital with food poisoning. Will let you know more when we do…love you.” My own abdomen clenched like a fist. Time after time, people ask me if Sam and I have a “twin thing.” I always wonder what, exactly, they are implying. Do they suspect that we can empathically tune into one another across land and sea, as if we were still fused together with a thought-conducting umbilical cord? I always laugh and answer, “No, not really.” Nonetheless, with me in a sterilized lab room in Oregon and him in a sterilized Emergency Room in Thailand, I excused myself to the restroom. Still wearing my blue latex lab gloves, I placed one hand on my aching stomach and leaned against the cold sink.

The food poisoning didn’t really surprise me. Sam had been mountain biking in Thailand for weeks, eating cheap smorgasbords of oily meats and tropical fruits for nearly every meal. Traveling overseas and eating 5,000 calories’ worth of hand-prepared food each day entails a certain level of risk. What did surprise me was the intensity of Sam’s illness, which was relayed to me in a literal game of telephone between Sam’s good friend (who was also in Thailand), my parents, and finally me. As I discovered from the texts that caused my pocket, pillow, and backpack to vibrate at all hours of the day, my 6-foot-5, 200-pound athlete of a brother had somehow been debilitated by a nasty strain of Salmonella. He was too “out of it” to talk or walk for the first several hours, and he remained on an IV drip for the next 72. While Sam’s hands were poked with needles 7,000 miles away, I wrung my own and waited for more news.

 

When Sam and I were tiny babies, my father says he watched us lie in our crib side-by-side, hands touching as they often did. As Sam’s skin brushed my own, my dad claims that Sam jerked and did a double take, peering with wide eyes at the creature lying next to him. I can just picture the thought bubble in our heads as we recognized that we were two, not one: “Who is that?”

I was nine when Sam fell off the roof of our minivan, his daring game cut short by the impact of bare knees and elbows onto rough gravel driveway. “Emma!” was the shrill cry that tumbled from his lungs during the brief free-fall, even though my parents were closer. I felt the embarrassment of falling, the betrayal of gravity, and the sear of sharp pebble on skin. Not knowing how to comfort or what to say, I felt myself shake with laughter. It wasn’t humor. It was overwhelm. It was feeling my brother’s pain, and wanting to help, and not knowing how.

One awful day in middle school, my dad drove me to school while Sam biked. I spotted Sam streaking down the sidewalk, standing up straight on his muddy pedals. I watched as he approached a hidden uphill driveway, where a younger boy mounted his own bike at the top. Both boys gained speed, two trains on the same track, each hidden from the other’s view. I knew it was going to happen before I had time to roll down the window and yell. I saw it all: legs flailing, wheels spinning, bodies crashing. Sam and the boy were lucky to walk away without any serious injuries, but the scene played over and over in my head. I watched it unroll like a film, unable to press stop.

 

I called Sam from my apartment on his last day in the Thai hospital. He sounded like himself, making jokes about the hospital food and giving two-word replies to my inquiries about his plans for the rest of the trip. He is a listener, and I don’t like silence, so I talk. I talked on the phone about my classes, my plans for grad school, my boring Biology class, and what I had made for dinner. I asked him if most of the doctors spoke English (“enough,” he said) and when he might be able to leave (“probably in the morning,” if he stayed hydrated). Sam was fifteen hours ahead of me, and our calendars read different dates. I finally said goodbye, not knowing if he wanted me to keep talking or let him go. I tried not to imagine the hole where the needle had rubbed into his skin, the feeling of gut-twisting nausea for hours on end, cold sweats in a foreign country where sharing language was a struggle. I thought of my infant self, looking over to acknowledge that the twin beside me was separate, even though our hands were joined.

By: Emma McMain