In my mid-twenties I made a mistake. A big mistake.
My friend and I were driving up to the mountains for a weekend getaway. I used his phone to play detective and call back a missed number on my own cellphone. The line rang and I heard my old co-worker’s voicemail. The missed number had been her direct line at a new job.
I had reached out to her earlier in the week because It had been close to seven months of being unemployed and I was half-halfheartedly applying for a job at her new company. My morale was low and I was desperate for an interview. I wanted a warm introduction to the HR department. I didn’t want to leave a message and tell her I was spying on a missed phone number. That would be creepy. I was creepy. Upon hearing her corporate greeting I hung up the phone with the quickness of a kid making a prank call.
I turned to my friend and told him the number had been, “this crazy, hot mess of a co-worker who I was trying to use as a reference for a new job”. I began to talk about her in a way that makes my skin start to feel prickly and weird. She had been a friend, not a close friend, but a friend just the same.
I turned her divorce details into a dramatic and laughable saga. She had confided in me with the secrets that had led to their parting and I made fun of them. I scoffed at her work ethic. I even had an opinion about her astrological sign. I made a mockery of terrible moments she had experienced. I exaggerated my storytelling to make parts of my roast more comical. I ripped her apart.
My friend asked for his phone back to make a call. I handed over the unfamiliar iPhone in my lap. He looked over at me with his mouth wide open. He showed me that the call was still going and it was close to 10 minutes long.
I never actually hung up the phone.
I snatched the phone back and hung it up for real this time. My ears grew hot, my arms tingled and my cheeks flushed with shame. I started crying. We both knew it was bad. He tried talking me out of my concern, “We’re in a car. Your voice was probably muffled. She might just hear empty space and delete the message. You know no one has patience for long voice mails at work.” I couldn’t respond. I was in hell.
His phone rang. It was her work number.
I didn’t put much thought into answering the call. I just knew I had to do it. I answered the line and calmly said, “Hi”. My friend’s eyes widened.
The voice that responded sounded distant and empty. Her pain pulsated through my veins. My heartbeat pounded. The world stopped. That’s when I heard her say, “Whitney, I can’t believe I’ve known you all this time and this is how you really thought of me all along. I had no idea.”
There isn’t a word that is strong enough to describe my humiliation.
My words were arrived slowly. I emphasized the word “so” in a way that almost diminished its value.
“I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how you are feeling right now. That was so awful. It was disgusting. I’m so, very sorry.”
I can’t remember what she said next because my world had crashed down. Hollow. Desperate. Sinking.
The magnitude of my self-eruption had just reached an epic high. I was unemployed, depressed and heavily entangled with my eating disorder. My mindset was mean and nasty. I had no idea how to stand up to it.
I told her I was going to withdraw my application and that she would never need to vouch for me. She calmly agreed, “That would be best.” I’m still amazed by her composure during our conversation. I assume she was in shock. I was.
I hung up the call, for real this time, and proceeded to break in half.
I couldn’t help but feel the cruelty of my words being forever absorbed into her world. She had been at her job, minding her own business and out of the blue she picked up the phone and heard someone puke all over her life story. I had told a mean tale and she had been the protagonist.
Then came the worry and the whatifs… What if she forever questions how people view her behind closed doors? What if she listens to that voice mail over and over again? What if I confirmed some of her deepest insecurities? What if my words prompt an addiction in her life? What if I destroyed her ability to see goodness in people? What if the shoe was on the other foot? I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame. My words could diminish her light.
I processed the situation all weekend long. I wrote and rewrote a letter to her. I talked to my closet friends about my faux pas. I shared my angst and they all told me to learn from it. I did and I still do.
I can’t take back that moment but I can share it. If the topic of gossip comes up among friends, I’ll tell them about my experience with gossiping. I can still feel a rush of shame when I say the words out loud. I know it’s easy to turn the other cheek when we’re the ones gossiping, but it’s never been the same for me. I had a human moment that’s stuck with me all these years.
I tell them for a long time after that situation, I made sure my phone was turned off if I wanted to talk about a friend who wasn’t in the room. Even the slightest slip of the tongue about my opinions made me feel shameful. After a period of time, I finally learned to stop gossiping.
I put my heart into that story when I share it because it meant something to me. When I tell people about it, I explain that at the time I had been unemployed, afraid and depressed. I’ve wanted them to understand that my heart and my mind had not been in a good place, that I created misery because I was miserable.
But I never told my friends the whole truth.
During that time in my life, I was binging and purging two times a day. I hated the living sh!t out of myself for once again getting depressed and fat. I had my first episode with darkness right after college graduation when I injured my back. I had to move back home and attend physical therapy appointments 5 days a week for 11 months. I never told anyone how sad and angry I had been back then either.
I didn’t know how to talk to my friends about my eating disorder. That changed shortly after the phone call with my old co-worker. I hit rock bottom with that phone call and I knew it was time to straighten up. I was trying to get “back on track” with my eating and exercise.
I sat in a wood chair on my balcony and called my close friend, Marci. She had recently moved out to California. We met while working in corporate America. We had been friends for close to 5 years and we talked at least five times a day to check-in with one another.
We were kindred spirts during that time in our lives because we were simultaneously sharing big life transitions: leaving cubical farms by landing dream jobs, going through tough live-in boyfriend breakups and experiencing the bitter slump of extended unemployment.
During this call, we talked on the phone for a good hour while we both shared our depressing days. In addition to asking my parents for money for the first time since I was in college, I was actually down in the dumps from making myself sick earlier in the evening. She didn’t know this second part.
I coded my truth by not giving her the nitty-gritty details. I masked it by saying things like, “I just don’t know when I’m going to stop feeling like this”, “I’m so disappointed in myself today”, “and “My body feels exhausted from all of this pressure to find a job”.
She gave me a pep talk, empathized with my feelings and related her own tales of defeat for the week. After nursing each other’s sorrows, we hung up the phone. I stared off into the blackness of the summer night, my half-burnt cigarette resting in my fingertips. Why am I smoking? I don’t even smoke. This is so bad for me.
I told myself I was tired of being a liar. I called Marci’s number.
Upon answering she giggled, thinking I had forgotten to tell her something. Instead, my voice was serious. My eyes were devoid of tears because I felt so empty with the delivery of my confession.
“Marci, I know why my day has been bad. It’s not about asking my parents for the money. I chickened out on telling you the truth because I always chicken out. The truth is that I’m bulimic. I’ve been this way for a really long time.”
I didn’t slow down long enough for her to respond.
“I binged and purged before I called you and I feel like total sh!t. My stomach hurts, I feel bloated, and I’m hungry again but I know I shouldn’t eat anything.”
It was the first time I had ever been so honest with someone who knew me. I had opened up about my rituals in support groups, but I had always been too afraid to tell someone who actually loved me.
She was receptive. Her responses were loving and sweet. She had no idea. She thought she should have known. I knew she wouldn’t know. I made sure no one knew.
As she spoke, I cut her off and said, “And the truth is that I did it two times. Twice in one day doesn’t always happen but today was rough. And, I’m smoking at home. I actually bought a pack of cigarettes.”
We ended up talking for another hour. After the call, I felt a million times better for being honest. It felt so different to share my whole story with a loved one. I knew I was onto something by telling the truth about being bulimic. Saying it out loud took away its power.
When I look back at that terrible moment I created, I don’t justify my actions by saying my eating disorder made me say those monstrous words. What I did was wrong and it still makes me sad today.
What I take away from that experience is the knowledge of how important it is to love myself. When I’m taking care of my body, my mind inevitably feels happy. When I’m being hateful towards my body, my thoughts are poisonous and my words are cruel.
I had to hit rock-bottom with that old co-worker in order to wake up. I needed to start telling myself the truth, that my hate and shame were running my life and making me dishonest in my relationships. Thoughts become things and I was creating toxicity in my life because of my secret behaviors. I had been listening to my ED voices for far too long.
It was time to try believing in myself again.