The summers of my childhood meant dirty feet from playing ball without shoes, calloused hands from one too many rounds of the monkey bars, and racing to eat popsicles before the humidity melted their contents away. I was a good kid, but also a curious one.
My mom had three golden, strongly enforced rules for the house: never play with matches, never answer the door while home alone, and most importantly, never, under any circumstance, climb Dad’s ladder by the gutter.
It was a foggy June morning, four days before my sixth birthday. My dad was surely already sitting at his work desk in the city, and my mother had yet to emerge from her slumber. I wasn’t supposed to go outside without permission, but I had already brushed my teeth for two minutes, eaten my toasted oatmeal squares with milk, watered my hopelessly dead plant hanging from the corner of my ceiling, and fed my pink and orange beta fish. Surely, I thought, nobody will be upset if I go outside for just a few minutes with my neighbor.
It only took about four minutes for the red rubber ball to become stuck on the rooftop. And then an additional thirty seconds for me to decide to save the day, climbing the forbidden gutter ladder all the way to the top to retrieve the ball. I pushed my fingertips as far forward as I possibly could, but the ball was still just out of my reach.
Please get it, my neighbor cried.
I knew I was breaking my mother’s golden rule, but the ball was his birthday gift. The sight of his puffy red eyes and his smile drawn upside down into a quivering frown caused a burning sensation to grow upwards in the pit of my stomach.
I stretched my arm as far as my muscles allowed me to, but my fingertips still came up a centimeter short from the red ball. His wailing, first subtle noise in the background as the sun shined straight into my eyes, then loud enough to wake up my stirring baby sister, rung through the dewy air. I reached a little too far. Backwards off the ladder, onto the hard concrete, I fell.
Emily and I do not share the same DNA, but we are dovetailed together. She knows me as well as I know myself, though she was born two years and three months after I was.
The two of us slammed violently into rock bottom at the same time. The last leaves on the maple trees were falling slowly to the ground, and we could watch our breath cloud as we groggily exhaled during the last mile of the long run. I was precariously filling out my last college application; she was praying the second half of her sophomore year would pass by more quickly than the first. We simultaneously turned our noses to the ice cream sundae bar at the cross country banquet, and tried to ignore the dwindling feeling of livelihood inside of our stomachs. Our internal storms raged on, as we continued to lug our malnourished bodies forward.
We woke up in a lethargic spell of dizziness every day, only to ignore the most practical advice — eat breakfast. We arrived at practice hungry, we ran hungry, and we went home hungry. After we finished our math homework, we both buried our face into our pillows and cried — because tomorrow, we would have to do today all over again. Only years later would I find out that Emily and I suffered through the most horrific year of our lives, thus far, standing side by side, together. Unity is a concept vastly misunderstood. Just because it can be good, does not mean it is. Our unity in suffering intertwined us. My soul is drawn to hers, just as hers is drawn to mine. But between the two of us, there is one major difference.
My story has a happy ending. And hers does not.
Aside from her immediate family, I was the first person to ever learn Emily had an eating disorder. I stared out the stained oak window of her house when she told me. Somehow, her pattern of never attending social events centered around food, and never being able to take a day off, went right over my head. My behaviors during that time period were precisely the same, but I still did not catch on to her silent cry for help. She was over nine months into treatment by the time I found out.
Recovery, in every way, is like walking through hell. Together we lamented about our restrictive exercise limits and meal requirement. But after three months of my own treatment and over a year of hers, consisting of staring at pasta with a bone dry fork, consuming more calories in a single meal than we ever did in a day, we began to separate in our walk through hell. I could see the light. But she could not.
Eating disorders are a masquerade, a draw. Only a third of people ever fully recover. I am lucky.
I cried the entire week succeeding my fall from the ladder.
My head was fine; my pediatrician confirmed that I did not have a concussion. All that was left physically was a hefty bump and a foul black eye. My bruise turned black, and then blue, and then purple, and then a dull green and raging yellow. Every day the color seemed to be different, though equally as disgusting as the previous. The silver lining was watching my mother apply her foundation to my face to cover the bruise, out of her own desperation to make me feel better.
But it wasn’t the physical pain, the horrendous black eye, or the fact that I was not allowed to watch Clifford that hurt. Knees to my chest, I sat on my green carpet, slumped against my door. My parents did not seem to understand that my intentions in climbing the ladder were not to cause harm. I had climbed the ladder to try to help someone, not even thinking I could hurt myself in the process. In some ways, that was far more dangerous than climbing the ladder solely to break the rules.
I climbed the ladder for Emily, though I knew I was not supposed to.
In the years following our separation in recovery, I evolved into something like her mentor, more so than a friend who could pat her on the back while saying, I feel the same thing. She insisted she was not hungry as I watched her stare longingly at the protein bar she would not eat. Our feet hit the ground with a patter as we jogged around the park. Her voice became quieter and more sheepish as she proceeded to tell me that she had finally been able to cut back on her running mileage, and she had been eating out with her friends. I knew she was lying. I lied too.
I believed I could reach her. And so I continued to stretch farther.
Our bodies are only made to stretch so far, though. And before I knew it, I was lying in bed at night, tears rolling down my nose and onto my bedsheets. I seethed with anger about her lying and sneaking around, though my clenched fists helped neither her nor myself. It was only losing my balance on the ladder.
I had moments of relief and joy. When I looked her in the eyes during a leisure walk, and saw her enthralled in conversation about her cousins — not worrying about the amount of exercise she was getting walking, rather than running. The day I spent three hours convincing her that normal people can eat ice cream without worrying, she stared at me like I was speaking Russian. But then she texted me the next day, telling me that she had told her therapist she was ready to start eating desserts she was afraid of. These moments were fulfilling and satisfying. Like my time teetering on the top of the ladder had been useful—as if I was about to finally reach her. But then a week later, she would refuse to eat cake on her dad’s fifty-fifth birthday after running two more events at the track meet than she had told her mother she would. The cycle would then repeat over, and over, and over again. I would once again become hopeful, only to be thrown back into the icy waters of reality, reminding me that my body, still, could not stretch far enough.
Sometimes I resent Emily for confiding in me about her battles with anorexia. My life would be easier if I did not know, if we had not found unity in our suffering. I could sleep at night, not worrying about the phone conversation we had earlier in the day. I would have been able to celebrate with the rest of her oblivious friends when she got her first Ivy League recruitment letter, rather than feeling sick to my stomach. Upon returning home after a long semester, I could tell her about my friend who fell off the bed from excessive jumping after club cross country nationals, and about the professor I had who writes for The New York Times. But instead, we sit at an uncomfortable Starbucks table in my dead hometown, as she sips her ice water and I drink my latte. While hopelessly trying to show her a life beyond running, I scan her body for signs of weight loss — frail fingers, a thinning face, sunken green eyes, leggings gaping in places where they should be snug. I want to slam my hands against the hollow table and tell her that nobody gives a damn about how well she is running. That she is destroying herself so slowly, she will not realize until it is too late. But I know, perhaps even more than she does, that my words of advice and encouragement are hitting the brick wall she has built around herself, and falling lifelessly to the ground. She seems only to become further from my fingertips.
She does not understand why I do not wish her well in the sport she loves so much. If only she could see that instead, I am wishing her well in life. But I have the view from the top of the ladder, and she does not.
I often lose myself in restless thought, wondering, if my arms were just a little bit longer, the ladder just a little bit closer, would I be able to save her?
But it isn’t my job to save her. Eventually, I am going to have to step down from the ladder, back onto the ground, and focus on keeping myself steady. I tell myself that there must be a way to support her from the ground, passively, without getting tangled in the complex emotional mess of her mental illness. But when I stand at the top, watching Emily lace up her shoes to run the extra miles that aren’t on her training schedule, or when I see the wave of anxiety that visibly pours over her face when the plate of sugar cookies comes out at a holiday party, I physically cannot move my feet down the ladder. I remember my own struggles with mental illness so vividly. And against my greatest conscience, I keep reaching for her.