Break

By: Joyce Cohen

It is getting hard to watch. Every time we sit at lunch, she takes four bites, an even amount of pieces per forkful, then drinks an entire bottle of water and proclaims herself full. This happens only on the days where she actually shows up to lunch. There are days where she begs off sitting with us, claiming she has to speak to another friend about something or that she has work to do. We all know she doesn’t do her schoolwork, but we take her excuses in stride. She thinks she is hiding it so well, and I think most of our friends don’t see through her façade, but I do. I see every meal she skips, every bite she leaves uneaten, every pound she loses.

She has a problem but no one wants to acknowledge it. Not her parents who are in the midst of a nasty divorce; they don’t notice the nights she spends by my house or the nights when not even I know where she is. Her sisters have their own lives, one planning a wedding, the other busy applying to Ivy League colleges, and the last two, too young to notice that something is wrong but, unfortunately, old enough to want to emulate their sister. Our friends are too wrapped up trying to win her approval to notice that she is human too. That is the most dangerous part: all of the people who look up to her, who want to be like her, who think she can do no wrong. These are the people who are most in danger because they do not see her hurt, they see only what she chooses to show.

Luckily for her, I am experienced at finding what she hides. I am the one who helped her out of her unhealthy relationship freshman year, who discusses her parents’ divorce with her until two am, who always tries to ease the pressure she feels. I am the mother of the friend group and I try to take some weight from her shoulders because I’m afraid that if she will not bend, she’ll break.

Today is one of those days where she just doesn’t show up. There isn’t even an excuse this time and no one even comments. They think she is off doing bigger and better things. I know her schedule as well as I know my own, she had class on the other side of the building but she should have made it here by now. Across the room I see her ex, I know she trusts him and still speaks to him. I hate him. She was a mess last year after the break-up we had all been anticipating finally came. He is your typical good-looking popular kid: nice at first with that parent-pleasing charm but wild when no one is looking and rotten on the inside. Supposedly he has a good side. I have yet to see it. He is heading toward the door while looking at his phone; concern is etched on his face. I know that look. I probably have that look.

I leave my friends at the table, my mind not focused on the conversation anyway, and I run after him. We exchange the requisite niceties; he shifts uncomfortably, wondering why I’m speaking to him while I wonder when I can get to the point. I ask if he knows where she is. He hesitates. His pause says everything he doesn’t. I ask again where she is. The tracks. Like train tracks? Like train tracks.

She claims she likes to go there to think, surrounded by nothing but the trees and the occasional passing of a train. This is what she tells our friends when they ask. But late at night in the darkness of my room she tells a different story. She tells me she likes to get as close to the train as she can, until she can feel the wind as it passes, that’s what makes her feel alive. She also tells me that it is in the moment right before the train passes, when it is just her alone, the train coming in from the distance, that she feels the most dead inside. This is why I worry.

We agree he should go alone, he knows how to talk her down. He really isn’t a bad person. I’m too hard on him. We both know my being there would be more harmful than helpful. My presence at these moments sometimes frustrates her. She feels she can push me further than she pushes others. The worst part is that I let her because we both know I’m not going anywhere.

Twenty minutes later she is next to me in class where she is supposed to be, make-up freshly applied, not one hair out of place. She smiles when she is supposed to and gives the appropriate answers, but it is empty. It’s all so empty. She is a shell of the person I used to know, a mediocre substitute for the girl who once convinced me to dance with her in the summer rain, girly pop music blasting from the speakers.

It’s three days later and I anxiously stare at the clock above the door waiting for class to end. I realize it has barely even begun. She has been late every day this week; each time she claims stomach pains. She smiles and the secretary lets her stroll right in. They know something is wrong, they give her special treatment but they don’t help, they just enable her. Everyone blames her behavior on her parents divorce.

She rushes past the door then, tears streaming from her eyes. I raise my hand to be excused and quickly follow her into the bathroom.

I call out for her as soon as I enter, not realizing she has already crumpled to the floor right in front of me. I clear everyone else out and lock the door behind them. After grabbing tissues from a stall I sit beside her and let her lean on me as she cries. This is the most psychical contact we’ve had in the last month and I can feel how bony she has become. Her shoulder jabs into my chest and with the arm I have around her back I could count the vertebrae of her spine.

When her tears slow I ask what happened. She tells me about the stomach pains she’s been having, where they come from. She started drinking a laxative tea; it’s supposed to “cleanse” her. It gives her pains but she says she needs it; she is beginning to get scared. I refrain from telling her that I’ve spent the last few months being afraid. She tells me she does not know what to do, that she realizes her eating and behavior is irrational but she does not know how to stop. I tell her to go to the guidance counselor that I will come with her if she wants. She refuses. There is a standoff. If she will not help herself, I need to do it for her. I leave her in the bathroom and head out to find the guidance counselor and her sister. It is time for an intervention.

I come across her sister first. I catch her attention as she listens closely to the teacher explaining what it takes to be an effective leader, how to listen and encourage people. Her sister sees me, I signal what it’s about but she rolls her eyes and turns her head. She won’t see what is staring in her face. She’s learning how to listen but she doesn’t hear her own sister screaming.

I get to the guidance office. Out to lunch. I knock anyway. No one answers. I knock again. Someone comes out from the adjacent office. They ask if they can help, if it is a guidance emergency. I see them smirk. Everyone considers the guidance office good for nothing. I say no thanks and I leave.

I realize I have left her alone for fifteen minutes as I tried to seek more equipped help. I rush back to find that she is not alone. There is a girl on the floor with her who is a year older than us. The girl has set out paper towels to sit on. She is wearing a short skirt and doesn’t want her legs touching the dirty bathroom floor. I think of the twenty minutes we spent on the floor before and wish that the germs were the biggest problems down there.

They beckon for me to sit down. She shows us a picture on her phone. She explains that the picture was taken last year. Do we see how thin she is? How her ribs stick out there? That was at the height of her anorexia. Then she went to a doctor, she realized that being thin was not worth the price of losing her hair or the possibility of never being able to have children. She wanted a life more than she wanted to be thin. So she built herself back up to eating. She looks nervous at having shared all of this information with two girls in the bathroom but graciously says to call anytime. Then she gets up to leave us. I hear her exhale as the door shuts behind her. She is glad this is not really her problem. Glad someone else has to deal with it.

I assume this will help, that this will make her see that going to a guidance counselor or some responsible adult can help, but instead she laughs. As soon as the door is closed she wipes her eyes and bursts into giggles. She tells me that girl has no clue what she’s talking about, that girl is fat now, and anyway she doesn’t want to be thin, she just wants to feel light. She wants her body to feel perfect and pure. This is why she is careful about what she puts in her body, why she needs to flush it out. She says her body is too weighted down; it’s holding her back when she wants to fly. She says the cases are completely different. She still won’t go talk to anyone. She trusts that I won’t either.

She always trusts me. She trusted me to be her tag partner in kindergarten and she trusted me to spot her in our fourth grade gymnastics class. Now she trusts me with this but it is not so simple. I don’t know if I am supposed to do what is right and get her the help she needs but lose her trust, or keep her trust and allow her someone who listens but watch her waste away. She’s so bitter now. She used to be so full of light, she would sparkle as she told us of her reckless midnight adventures but now her eyes hang dark and she seems to look right through me, right through everyone, right through everything.

I start to argue but the bell rings, we both have places we need to be. We leave it there, argument unfinished, my friend barely hanging on.

I skip my next class and spend it waiting outside the guidance office. When the counselor walks up I breathe a sigh of relief. He wears sensible shoes and glasses; I can put my faith in him. As soon as I sit down I start to tell him about her. My friend has an eating disorder, I think she is depressed, I think she is falling, I think I am falling.

He pushes his glasses further up his nose, nods and inquires after my own mental health. Do I eat regular meals? Have a healthy stress outlet? Anything going on at home? I try to tell him this isn’t about me, it’s about her. He tells me he can not discuss her with me unless it is in relation to my own wellbeing. I beg him to help. He says he will see what he can do.

Four days go by. She doesn’t return my texts or calls. I don’t see her in class; I don’t know what has happened. I run into her ex and ask him if he has heard anything but he seems unconcerned, preoccupied with other things, and like maybe he has been pushed too far. He says he has seen her around school so she must just be skipping more than usual and he thinks she lost her phone. He is pretty sure he saw her hanging out with some kids by the fountain the other day. He informs me that those kids are bad news. As if I don’t know. As if I don’t smell it every time I walk past. He has to go, coach will kill him if he’s late for practice. I can feel that he has given up. My only partner in this is gone.

She shows up to lunch. I try not to act shocked at her sudden emergence or angry at her disregard for my feelings. I spent the last four days worried she was dead in a ditch or her own bathtub yet she seems perfectly fine, if a little red in the eyes.

She tells me I would never guess what happened. The guidance counselor kept trying to get her to come in, but she kept skipping out and avoiding him. Originally she thought I had said something but, when he finally sat her down it was to discuss her grades. She knew I wouldn’t betray her like that. Anyway, she ended up asking him about getting a GED and he gave her tons of pamphlets and information. Isn’t that great? Maybe she won’t be stuck in this hellhole forever with the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, she can get out.

A GED. I ask him to speak to her about figuring out her state of mind, about healing her and he offers to help her remove herself from the only structure that exists in her life? I leave the lunchroom to go find him. I am fuming.

I find him teaching a psychology class. They shouldn’t let this guy educate. I politely knock and ask if I can speak to him outside. It’s an emergency. Some students look interested; most are too bored to care. When the door shuts behind him I start my rant. How could he? I wanted to help her not give her an easy way out, allow her to avoid her problems. He knows she is not the most stable, there have been other incidents, does he really think this is the best solution? He tells me I am out of line; that his job is to give students whatever information they are looking for; that, again, he can not discuss other students with me; that he will not stand for this disrespect. He walks back into his classroom, shutting the door gently, he shows no sign of the argument we just had.

An hour later I am called to the principal’s office. I am never called to the principal’s office. He and I have a great relationship; I don’t get called, I just show up. This time is different.

He sits me down in the conference room. No comfy chair for me; this is not a social visit. He tells me I can not accost teachers, I can not get into screaming matches with them in the hallway, I need to watch my tone. I do not offer an argument; I don’t want to disappoint him anymore than I already have and I can see that I was wrong. He continues to tell me that he is proud of me. Proud of me? That I care so much about my friends, that I stick my neck out for them, that I treat their problems as my own. He wonders if she would do the same for me? He tells me sometimes a relationship turns so toxic that one person does all of the caring, all of the carrying, all of the work and the other person gets worse because of it, because they know the other will support them. He says sometimes in order for someone to get better, we need to allow them to realize, on their own, that something is wrong instead of taking it on ourselves. He tells me maybe I need to focus on my own life.

I thank him and leave. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. She needs me. Without me she would drown and no one would realize to save her. I can’t sit by and watch her let her life fall apart. I can’t do that to the person I knew.  The person who baked me a cake and then sat and ate the whole thing with me when I was sick and contagious on my 14th birthday. She ended up sick too but she didn’t mind, we spent the week together trading books and watching movies. That is who she is but where is she?

A week later my parents corner me at dinner. They start out talking about her parents’ divorce. Isn’t it a shame? All of those girls now from a “broken home.” In these modern times my mother actually still refers to a child of divorce as being from a “broken home.” My father nods, eyes downcast. I know where this conversation is leading. We’re twenty minutes into dinner and I’m surprised it has taken them this long to bring up the subject. As she and I have become more distant over the past few months my parents have let it slide but she hasn’t been to dinner in three weeks. There have been times where she has missed that many but they know something is wrong this time.

My father is the one who asks about her specifically. He says they’ve noticed she hasn’t come over in a while; did we have a falling out? My parents love her. They, like everyone else, don’t see what I see. They only see perfect and perky where they should find damaged and distressed. They are fooled by her charms just like everyone else; tricked into thinking she is the quintessential good girl. I don’t tell them that they haven’t seen her because I haven’t either. That she is too high to answer my texts and avoiding me so I won’t chastise her for it. I lie and tell them we’re fine.

If we are fine, then where has she been? They’re pushing; they know there is something I’m not telling them. How do I begin to explain to them what she has become? I tell them she’s been busy. Student council, which they don’t know she dropped months ago, has her working on a new project that has been taking up most of her time but we still text all the time. I lie over and over again to my parents because I don’t want to admit that I don’t know where she’s been and I don’t want them to know what she has been doing.

They tell me I should be more like her. She is so involved, I should think about joining some clubs or committees. They tell me that before I know it I will be applying to colleges and I’m going to need to have extracurriculars. All I can think is will she make it to college?

It’s two weeks later. She’s been getting more and more distant. If we had been on separate continents, we are now on separate planets. I don’t see her in the lunchroom and she skips most classes we have together. This doesn’t stop me from worrying about her, from checking up on her. I sleep with my phone clenched in my hand in case she calls in the middle of the night with an emergency. I’ve been walking different routes to class in hopes of bumping into her in obscure hallways. She doesn’t reach out to me, she doesn’t seek me out. When I do catch a glimpse of her, I get a half smile and a hastily uttered nonsensical excuse. I’m pulled back to happier times when there was a daily meeting by my locker between sixth and seventh period.

Today we happen to walk out after school at the same time. Her car is in the shop. I offer to drive her home. We haven’t spent this much time alone together in what feels like years. Lately every hour stretches into days. I’m so tired. My mind has been spinning in circles. It feels fatigued.

I ask her how everything is going. She tells me fine, everything is just fine. She seems distracted. Her eyes are bright red. She tugs at the sleeves of her black sweater. It is May and she is shivering. I focus on the road. I pretend she isn’t with me so I won’t miss her as she sits beside me, staring off, lost in her own thoughts.

Would she feel this way were it me? Does she care this much about me? Of course. I test my theory. I start to tell her about what’s been going on in my life. She gives noncommittal grunts as I ramble on. Doesn’t she see me floundering? Doesn’t she see how all of this is affecting me as her friend? Doesn’t she see how difficult it is? How hard I’m trying?

She gives a few vague general answers. She says yes she does. Did I say that out loud? I continue. I ask her why she does this to herself, why she doesn’t try to get help. I tell her I can’t watch her suffer like this, I can’t stand to see what she does to herself, how she let’s herself waste away, becoming nothing more than a shadow. I tell her that I can’t take her secrets and lies. They all build up and weigh too heavily on me and on everyone around her. I tell her I can’t support our friendship anymore, it’s hanging by a thread, its pulling me down. I can’t care more for her than she cares for herself. Why can’t she see something is wrong? Why won’t she tell me what is going on? Why has she shut me out along with everyone else? She tells me nothing, just that I worry too much.

I realize she hasn’t absorbed a word I have said. She has heard it but only on the surface. She is so far gone she’s can’t distinguish between what is going on around her and what her mind, body, and soul are screaming at her. I pull up to her house. She thanks me and gets out.

I am worried. Worried enough that I call her mother. Then I call her father. I tell them everything. He escalating battle against her body, the drugs, the GED, everything. They each tell me separately that they look into it. They don’t seem to think that this is as serious as it is, they call it a phase. They don’t want to hear this. Not now. Not about her. I have done all I can and now, I can’t do this anymore.

I look in my rear view mirror and see the bags under my eyes that mirror hers, the rat’s nest that my hair has become, the chipped polish on my nails, and I break. The tears fall from my eyes and my shoulders shake. It is the first time I have given over to this much emotion in months. It feels good to feel. I am finally broken. The weight was too much, I could no longer bend. But as I break down, alone in my car, I find a small amount of strength; enough strength to think of myself, my own sanity, my own life. I drive away from her house without looking back.

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