Sunday, October 24, 2010

I still feel bad for how all of this ended, even though it really CAN'T be my fault.

At the end of sixth grade, my grandparents moved all of us from Austin to a small suburb on Lake Travis, population 2,500 people. The size of the middle school? Two hundred and fifty. The high school? Four hundred. I didn't want to leave my best friend, didn't want to leave my other friends, my teachers, my school. Especially the city that I loved so much. 

But I kept my best friend, and we visited almost every weekend with each other and talked on the phone almost every night, so the adjustment wasn't that hard. I hated trying to sleep at night, though, because it was so quiet out by the lake, and I was used to being able to hear the cars and the noises of the city all night. I had to sleep with a radio.

But living so far away from my best friend meant that I had to have a second best friend to talk to at school. It wasn't hard. I somehow made friends with a girl in one of my classes. I was jealous when I first saw her. She had long, thick black hair and beautifully tan skin with huge dark eyes framed with thick lashes. She looked healthy, unlike myself. I was thin and pale and blond with thin hair and light eyes that only seemed so big because I was too skinny. I found myself wishing I looked like her. (Of course, it wouldn't be possible. She got her hair and her skin and her eyes from a combination of her Asian mother and her Mexican father. No amount of tanning or dying my hair or contacts could give me the same effect. And my grandparents wouldn't let me anyway.) This was all before the trip to Disney World when I was fifteen, so I knew how thin I was and I was disgusted with it, and I knew that this girl was how I should look.

I don't remember how we started talking, or even what we talked about, but we were great friends by the time the final bell rang at the end of the day. And from that day on, when I wasn't talking to my best friend on the phone or visiting her or having her visit me, I was with Tams. 

Her parents adored me, as most parents did except for my own family, because I was bright and friendly and amusing and I didn't do anything to get in trouble. I guess they started to worry about me themselves because they always pressured me to eat more when I was over, always asked me what my doctor said, always tried to get me to eat one more helping of ice cream "to put some meat on your bones." Regardless of their extra help, I wasn't gaining weight at a pleasing rate, but some progress was better than none.

We finished middle school and moved into high school, which wasn't any different than middle school, just a bigger building at the top of the hill instead of at the bottom. But something changed in Tams that year, after she turned fourteen, and I was so used to my own finicky appetite and my own gaunt thinness that I failed to notice it in my friend.

I suppose it probably started back in the beginning of our friendship, when our other friends would always compare the two of us together as complete opposites. They never told her she was fat, of course, but after being told she was the exact opposite of me, pale and blond and skinny, she might have warped the meaning. They were poking fun at me, but she interpreted it, I suppose, as a slight to her own weight.

By the end of our freshman year, she was almost small enough to fit into my jeans, a triple zero, when she'd always worn a size one. She gave me some of her old jeans that summer, ones that she'd outgrown in her growth spurt, and she started crying when I tried them on and we both realized that they were entirely too large for me. She donated them to the Salvation Army and started talking about how fat she was, how she wished she could look like me.

"Are you kidding me? I've been trying to gain weight for ages so I could look like you!" I meant it as a compliment, but she thought I was saying she was fat and I was being mean. I left an hour later because she wouldn't stop crying and I didn't know what to do.

One month into our Sophomore year, Tams stopped coming to school. For a week she wasn't in, and when I tried calling her parents always said she was "out" and she wouldn't be able to call me for a while. Another week went by, and then another, and I still hadn't had a call back. And then one day I got to my locker before my first class and she was there at her locker just two over from mine.

I was so glad to see her that I ran and hugged her. She was my size now, and she looked sick. I gasped, "Tams, are you OK?"

But Tams didn't answer me. She turned back to her locker and talked to herself in an angry whisper. "I'm so fat, I'll never be as thin as her." 

Honestly, it creeped me the hell out. I didn't know what to make of it, so I just turned and went to my class, baffled. We met up again in PRE-AP English, and she sat across from me in the library, but when I asked her a question, she would only talk to herself in the same angry whisper.

Lunch time came around and she sat at the table next to me. I was feeling particularly hungry that day as I had gone to Flute sectionals for marching for an hour before school started, and I had an hour and a half of marching during regular band class, so I had worked up an appetite. I got chicken nuggets covered in white gravy with French fries in white gravy, and a slice of cheese pizza with mashed potatoes with brown gravy, and a Little Debbie Swiss cake for dessert.

Tams had a salad, no dressing, and picked at it. When I asked if she was feeling okay, she turned to me and said, "I don't know how you can eat any of that, Chanel. Do you know how many calories are in just one of those chicken nuggets?"

I stared at her. "No, but my doctor says I still need to gain weight, so I guess it's okay. But we're too young to worry about calories, Tams. And we're both too thin."

"Well, you are thin and beautiful, like a doll, but I'm so fat it's disgusting."

I was shocked. She'd just told me I was thin and beautiful after years of joining her parents in their effort to fatten me up, and she'd just compared me to a doll, which she knew I hated to hear because it was intended to be encouraging about my weight when I needed to be gaining more. After years of hearing me tell her how envious that she looked feminine and shapely in her jeans while even my triple zeros failed to hug my thighs in a way that made them look round instead of emaciated. 

"You're not fat! You were never fat!"

But I still didn't notice the problem.  And then one day Tams came to school with her parents and went to the front office. When I saw her in our first class together, she was carrying around a piece of paper I was familiar with: I called it the last day card. When you were leaving a school, on your last day, you had to take your card around to all of your classes and have your teaches sign off on it.

Tams was leaving, and when I asked her why, she gave me the most hateful glare I've ever received from anyone in my entire life and said, "I'm Anorexic, Chanel, and my family is taking me to California. I'm not allowed to talk to you anymore because it's your fault I got like this."

My stomach dropped to my feet and I felt my heart jump up into my throat. I was no more prepared to hear that than I would have been if she'd told me she had cancer and was dying.

"How is this my fault?" I demanded. I was angry, far angrier than I'd ever been at a friend in my entire life. I constantly talked about how unhealthy I was, how I wanted to look like her, how she was so healthy and beautiful. How could I ever be held responsible for her own self destruction?

"Because you never eat enough and you're so thin, and when you try on my clothes they're too big, and you always rub it in how fat I am. My parents told me that I'm not allowed to talk to you anymore, that you're a bad influence and you should seek help, too." And then she turned around and wouldn't talk to me again.

But that didn't stop me from hissing, "It's not my fault you're an insecure baby and can't stand being around someone thinner and prettier than you. And it's not my fault you're crazy, either." I was trying to hurt her feelings, and I'm sure it worked, but I felt awful after I said it .

I sat there in my desk, completely bewildered. Her mother was a doctor, how on earth could she rationally blame me for her daughter's eating disorder? Especially considering that I made a point to eat three meals a day and two snacks and I was constantly trying to gain more weight. Her parents had never seen me say no to anything they offered me, how could they think I had an eating disorder, too? Was it denial? Could it really be my fault?

I started crying and asked to go to the guidance councilor. I cried and told her the whole story and asked if it was my fault, if I had really given my friend Anorexia because I was too thin, and would I give it to other people?

"Chanel, when something happens to your child, it's natural to want to place the blame on something or someone concrete. Everybody needs a scapegoat. It's not your fault that you are naturally thin, and it's not your fault that her mind was naturally susceptible to self-doubt. You didn't give her Anorexia any more than you made Ashly diabetic (another friend) or Alisha bi-polar. It's something that just happens to some people. If you hadn't been her friend, they would have blamed the stress of school or maybe themselves. It's just convenient for them to blame you."

I felt much better after that, but sometimes I catch myself even now wondering if maybe I had done or said something that made her start to doubt herself, if maybe I really was somehow responsible, if only just because I was there. Maybe if I had never made friends with her and she hadn't constantly been around me in all of my un-glorious gauntness, she never would have walked that path. 

But it's all useless, now, I guess. According to her Facebook (yes, I looked her up, just to check on her) she's still in California, and while she's on the thin side, she doesn't look unbearably thin as she did the last time I saw her seven years ago. She's still enviably beautiful, damn her, and if we hadn't parted on such awful terms I'd send her a message to ask how she's doing. But things ended badly, and I'm not at all inclined to forgive her for letting her parents blame me. Mentally ill or not, you don't ever blame your friends for something they aren't responsible for, ever. 


  1. Wow. That is not a happy story, Chanel.

    However, unhappy or not, what happened to your friend was definitely not your fault. Tams was clearly susceptible to insecurity, and allowed her own self-doubt to destroy her.

    It's like the counselor told you, Tams and her parents needed a scapegoat so they put you in that role. It's a lot easier to blame someone outside of the situation than it is to face one's own demons. Sad, but true.

  2. I still wonder how it took me so long to notice she wasn't eating right or that she was losing weight really fast. I feel responsible for that much, and sometimes I feel like if I'd been a normal weight and had a good appetite every day instead of sporadically, I might have noticed her problems from the beginning and I could have said something. But then there were eight of us in our group, and none of us noticed. Or nobody said anything.

    This was the only friendship I ever had that ended badly because of harsh words. Other friends just drifted away, and there's not a moment that I think of this that I wish I hadn't snapped back with such a rude remark. That probably didn't help her mental problems.

    But I learned something from this, and every time I think, "I'm fat, I need to stop eating" I remember Tams and what happened and I think, "I don't want that, I just want to be healthy." And sometimes it helps. And sometimes I still find myself wishing I had the will power and determination to cut back my calorie intake. But it never amounts to anything. I enjoy the taste of food too much to stay non fat, low calorie.

    I'm happy that things ended better for her, though. She's still alive, and obviously healthier than she was, and that's good considering that the recovery rate for Anorexia is something like less than thirty percent live to make a full recovery, and a third of its victims commit suicide.

  3. We all say and do things in the heat of the moment that we regret. Sometimes I wonder why anyone still talks to me at all. I put my foot in my mouth FAR too often...

    I'm glad that you can look back on this experience and know what you really want for yourself. Keep your body healthy, allow yourself a few indulgences every now and then. ;)

    I too am glad to hear that Tams seems to have come through everything okay. As you said, anorexia is not an easy thing to overcome, so good for her.

  4. I do the same thing. I get angry and I say things before I sit there and think, "What are the consequences going to be if I say this..." And then I say it and after I cool down I know it was stupid but I have a hard time taking things back because they're generally true. I'm sorry for HOW I said it, but not usually for what I said. Which is a bad thing, I'm told.

  5. Ooh, this is tough. I've lost enough friends in enough ways to realize that my heart's always been in the right place even if they couldn't appreciate it at the time. You can't control the behavior of others - only your own. And on that front, your heart was always clearly in the right place. It's not your fault that she couldn't see it.

    I hope someday she reads what you wrote and realizes what a good friend you were, and still are.

  6. I don't think she'll ever forgive me for calling her crazy, no matter how many years go by. And if she ever reads this, which I doubt, I'm not sure if she'd think I was a good friend or if she would decide I was exactly as cruel as she thought.


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