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.