You know how you can tell you’ve really grown up? When you’re able to look back at your life and remember a time when you used to be a whole different person.
You look back at the embarrassing phases, like when you were sure your style should be strictly polos and pearls, or when you had terrible, terrible bangs. Is that just me? Alright then.
For me, high school feels like an entirely different lifetime ago. Sometimes, when I run into former classmates and pass by with a little wave, I’m struck by how much can change in just a couple years. I think back to the days when we were all packed into a classroom with wobbly desks and chalkboards that were never quite clean; all vastly different people with one shared experience. Some of us will fade into the background of each other’s memories, as we recall mischievous days to our friends and families. But there’s always some people that leave an impression which can never truly be forgotten.
This story is about one of those people.
When I started ninth grade, I tried my hand at meeting as many new people as possible, to push away from the established cliques of middle school. I still stuck pretty close to my best friend, Nicky from my elementary school, even though we both had drastically different interests. We ended up becoming close with another pair of best friends from a smaller feeder school, and we all relished our gossipy lunches together at our table in the cafeteria.
As time went on and hormones got stronger, one of the girls from the other school broke away from our little group, to be with the kids more interested in boyfriends and booze. Our trio quickly reorganized as myself and the other girl (let’s call her Kara), became closer. Nicky was often busy with athletics and had a lot of other friends that would join us from time to time. Mostly though, it was me and Kara.
Where I was strong and confidently opinionated, Kara was shy and submissive. She hated conflict, and would do anything to please people, which often put her in precarious positions. We would talk for hours, bonding over nail polish tutorials and shopping. We’d watch movies and go on long walks, dreaming of the lives we hoped to have after high school was over
When we started eleventh grade, things began to shift again. One of our friends introduced Kara to her friend from another school. They got along really well and he and Kara were dating by the end of the month. At first, things were going pretty great. Kara was truly giddy, as any schoolgirl would be when talking about her first boyfriend. She was generally pretty happy, if a little sleep-deprived from texting her boyfriend into the late hours of the night.
Sometimes I still blame myself for missing the first signs of trouble.
It was a gradual change, with Kara no longer pulling out sandwiches with granola for lunch, but small containers of salad. A few days later, she stopped adding dressings and sides. A few more days passed and her lunch consisted of a small bag of baby carrots. She denied feeling hungry, and would quickly explain it away as having eaten a big breakfast. In another couple days, she stopped bringing lunches altogether, and would slowly sip her water at the table.
Our gossipy and laughter filled meals became quieter, as Kara would spend most of the break texting her boyfriend. It certainly didn’t help that the other part of our little trio was busy on her phone, flirting with a basketball player from a different district. (For the record Nicky’s still with him!) When they decided to look up from the small lit screens, they’d drone on about their boyfriends. Feeling frustrated, I’d zone out of these conversations, hardly noticing how increasingly withdrawn Kara had become.
I like to think I reacted as any sixteen-year-old might’ve if her best friends decided they’d rather text their boyfriends than speak to her – I made new friends. I’d invite them to sit with us to fill the silence, and I started to enjoy my breaks from class again. Between them and the boy I’d been talking to from class, I didn’t care much about what Kara and Nicky were up to. For a while, it kept me distracted from Kara’s disordered habits and I was happy to be an average teenage girl with normal friends and a normal life. Though we all still sat together and saw each other outside of class, things had perceptibly changed.
I don’t remember exactly when I clicked into the reality that something was wrong. Maybe it was when Kara’s boyfriend had taken her phone and sent me a rude response to a simple message I’d sent, telling her some silly story about my day. Maybe it was when he tried to forcibly set me up with one of his friends, though fully aware that I was interested in someone else. Maybe it was when he picked a fight with Kara about a picture of her online standing “too close” to a guy from school on Halloween.
I started connecting the instances of his controlling personality with Kara’s obvious weight loss and her boyfriend’s keen interest in working out. So I broached the subject with Kara. She brushed it off, saying that she was perfectly fine and was simply eating healthier and working out. Her voice was cheery and bright, a stark contrast to the haunted look of her eyes.
Once the warm weather of spring arrived, I was faced with the undeniable changes in Kara’s body. She had gone from a size 10, to a size 0. Her bones stuck out from her shoulders and her hip bone protruded through her shirts. The notches of her sternum were clearly visible, and her head seemed too heavy for her fragile neck. Her legs were covered in blue and yellow bruises, as if the slightest touch could damage her malnourished skin.
I felt sick. How could I have let this happen? How could I have ignored all of the warning signs, and not done anything? People at school had noticed as well. Girls started pulling me aside, half in awe wanting to know Kara’s weight loss secrets, and others telling me that as her best friend, I needed to do something about it.
I went to bed every night, worried that I’d wake up to a phone call from her mother saying that Kara was in the hospital. At school I heard the whispers and saw the double takes that followed us wherever we went. I lashed out at people who dared to ask me what was going on with Kara, feeling the weight of the blame people had placed upon me.
Eventually, her parents noticed. She was referred to a psychiatrist, dietician and nutritionist. Kara was formally diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and depression and was about to begin the long journey to reclaim her health.
I kept our friendship as open as possible, encouraging her to call me, any time of day or night when she felt her obsessive thoughts were taking over. She went through a series of yo-yo dieting, gaining weight and losing it, looking different every time I saw her.
That summer, she called me in tears to tell me her boyfriend had broken up with her. I spent three hours with her on the phone, letting her vent all of her repressed feelings. We talked and we talked, going over everything from the past year and I assured her that her apologies weren’t needed. I was still proud to be her friend, and would always be there whenever she wanted to talk.
Funny enough, by the following winter, Kara and I had totally drifted apart. It was rather stupid really; she had forgotten my birthday and I told her that it hurt my feelings and made me feel like she didn’t care. From then on, she began avoiding me and joined a new group of friends that didn’t like me or my friends very much. Just typical high school drama.
Our friendship had been able to survive an eating disorder, an emotionally abusive boyfriend, multiple breakups, but not me expressing my hurt feelings for the first time.
I haven’t spoken to her since that day or seen her since graduation, though we go to the same university. She never reached out to me, and I was done trying to protect a friendship that demanded so much of me and provided so little in return.
Sometimes, I think of Kara and hope she’s been able to maintain her recovery. Mostly, I just hope that she’s happy and is able to find the support she needs from her friends and family. While she may forget me, I know I’ll always remember how difficult it was to watch her transformation and help her get through it.
When someone you care about is ill, it feels wrong to prioritize any feelings that aren’t theirs. I neglected myself so that I could help Kara but honestly, all it did was create different personal problems for me down the road.
It’s like they say on airplanes – secure your own oxygen mask before you attempt to help others.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association‘s hotline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also visit their website to chat with a volunteer online.