The last woman who taught me about love is also the one I’ve known for the least amount of time. But this doesn’t mean that the lessons she’s taught me aren’t as significant as the others I have learned from those I’ve known longer.
Last year, I went to visit one of my closest friends, Joe, at a school production that he was lighting. I found him in the hallway standing with a thin girl with red hair to her chin, her forearms wrapped with tattoos, a ring in her nose. I ran up and gave the big teddy bear (Joe) a hug.
“Abbey, this is my girlfriend, Reed. Reed, this is my friend Abbey.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I never had feelings for Joe as anything more than a friend, but I wouldn’t exactly want some girl I’d never met in my life running up and hugging my boyfriend while I was standing there either, so I understood why Reed looked like she wanted to shoot lasers out of her eyes to kill me with. And don’t get me wrong about her either, she seemed like she could be a really nice person. I just didn’t think I would end up being one of the people she would be nice to.
Months passed and I rarely saw Joe, and even less of Reed. But at another summer musical that Joe was lighting, I ran into Reed and this time it seemed as though the walls she had surrounded herself with when I first met her had melted and she welcomed me with warm arms.
Sitting in the sound booth during a rehearsal, we talked about the majors we planned on pursuing in college and how we both had similar ideas of studying music or music therapy. At the time, this was an amazing thing for me to find someone else who shared my passion. Music therapy often felt like such a small field that it was miraculous to find someone else who knew about it as well. She spoke with such passion, self-assurance, and confidence that I wish I had a fraction of. I was finally learning how to accept myself exactly the way I am, flaws and all, and to see Reed, who came across so comfortable in her own skin, gave me inspiration to continue working towards loving myself and working towards the woman I want to become.
When I went away to college in the fall, I was talking to Joe one day and he suggested I send Reed a text message and talk to her. And just as she had been friendly to me at the musical over the summer, she radiated joy through every text message. She was so happy and was supportive of all the new and tentative decisions I was making while starting my first year of college. I felt vulnerable and unsure of myself but she encouraged me to do the things I wanted and knew would make me happy.
But even considering our growing friendship, I really didn’t know much about her at all. I knew nothing of her past. All I knew was that we both loved music and that we were both really nice to each other. That’s definitely a good basis to found a friendship on but in order for our relationship to grow it was important to actually learn about the other person on a deeper level. And when I posted my piece, “My Family Confession” (https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/my-family-confession/) I got a text message that read, “Abbey, I really think we should hang out over spring break. I think we have a lot more in common than we realize.”
And so was the first step toward a deep, meaningful relationship.
During spring break, I took a trip to visit Reed, like we had decided. She was staying at Joe’s house and I met her there. We took a walk around the neighborhood and simply talked. She told me about her past love interests, her relationship with her parents, and the struggles that she faces every day. Because although Reed seems like the happiest person you could ever meet, with confidence radiating out of her pores, she battles against a distorted self-image that she sees of herself when she looks in the mirror. I learned that when her parents were getting divorced when she was younger, things felt like they were getting out of control. And so in order to feel some sense of control, she began to manage what she put into her body. And that meant very little.
As Reed has grown through the years she has become aware of her eating disorder and is now in a strong recovery from the disordered eating she once had, although it is still something she works on every day. Learning that her past was not as easy as she makes it seem with her bubbly personality gave me hope. Hope that even those of us who come from difficult upbringings, “untraditional” families that make us feel like there’s something wrong with us, who go through traumatic experiences, can overcome them and get to the other side as a better person than we were before.
I guess the reason I feel so connected to Reed and the story she shared with me is because I see so much of myself in her. Never having shared my darkest secret to anyone, I finally had the courage to share it with Reed as she so bravely opened up to me. I told her that I too, struggled with disordered eating when I felt I had no control in my life as well. I had bizarre eating habits and almost compulsive behaviors around meals. I counted calories for fear of gaining weight. I obsessively devoted myself to the gym. But no matter how trapped I felt in my own mind in regards to self-image, I was always able to hide bad behaviors as being “healthy”. Going to the gym every morning for hours was considered part of a “healthy” lifestyle. My diet appeared “healthy” to my family. All anyone noticed was that I was losing weight. And I was praised for it. “Abbey, did you lose weight? You look great!” I’d brush off peoples comments with a smile, just to hide how trapped I really felt in my own mind.
But after coming to a feminist consciousness, I realized that I am worth more than what my body looks like, contrary to what the popular media tells us. Loving my body became a political statement, and slowly I freed myself from the thoughts I could not silence that ran through my head on repeat every minute of every day. I gained weight. And I am happy. I am free.
Like Reed, I recognize these past behaviors every day and consciously make the decision not to repeat them. By sharing my experience with Reed, I finally felt relief. She didn’t trivialize my experience and she finally made me feel like I had someone who would understand if I just needed to talk about having a tough day of “recovery”. Eating disorders are associated with immense amounts of shame, and even thought it’s scary to finally share my story, I no longer feel like I need to hide this part of my life and hope that by having someone read my experience, they’ll realize they are not alone, just like Reed showed me.
Reed has confirmed for me that despite the challenges we may face in our lives, we must continue to work through them to create a better and healthier life for ourselves. We must learn to love ourselves first and foremost. And this…this love for oneself is the most important thing I’ve learned about love. Once we love who we are as complete and whole individuals independently, then can we truly experience love with another and all the beautiful experiences that go along with it to their absolute fullest. Until then, we are just gipping ourselves.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, do not hesitate to reach out for help. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline available Monday-Friday from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM 1-800-931-2237