I met my best friend in the hospital.
We bonded over black bean burgers and nutritional milkshakes that tasted like gasoline. We gossiped about cute boys, frustrating doctors and other patients we dubbed as “insane.” We shared secrets, like never-before-told stories of the times our bodies had physically collapsed in faints or seizures from our anorexia — and we shared fears about the future. We worried about what would happen to us if we never outgrew our diseases — and what would happen if we did and we could no longer recognize ourselves.
Ally and I were both admitted to a residential facility for eating disorder recovery in Fall 2015, what could have been the first semester of our freshman years of college. I was at Emory University, she was at Oberlin College — but neither name is relevant now. We stayed at the facility for approximately five weeks before discharging, relapsing and being admitted into higher intensive care facilities in February.
At the time, my therapists and nutritionists warned me not to make friends in the hospital. These types of relationships could be toxic, they said. People with eating disorders tend to be competitive and could compete to stay sick or lose weight. Regardless, we were so malnourished that our minds could not create lasting memories or make good decisions. To an extent, they were correct. I have blurry memories of my time in the center — even foggier from my days at Emory — but my friendship with Ally was always clear.
She was vibrant — everything from her rose-colored hair to high-pitched laugh — and she was slow to judge. When my nutritionist added an extra snack to my meal plan, Ally hugged me throughout my hour-long cry. When it happened again, we grabbed a bucket of ice and threw handfuls against the outside wall.
We saw beauty in each other that we couldn’t see in ourselves. And eventually, I’d like to think we helped each other look inward, too.
When we gave college a second try in Fall 2016 — I at Temple University and she at Cornell University — we relied on each other for support. A simple text message went a long way, especially coming from someone in the same position as me. When other girls dieted to counteract the freshman 15, we texted each other reminders that the refeeding process was more painful than any accidental weight gain. The refeeding process is prescribed to patients who need to regain a large amount of weight and involves increasing calorie intake in safe intervals. I still shudder when I think of the constant knots in my throat and bloat in my stomach that occurred during those winter months, when the best part of my day was receiving my nightly acid-reducing pill.
For spring break that year, I visited Ally. It felt strange to wear snug, hip-hugging party clothes instead of the loose pajamas and non-slip socks we adorned so frequently in the hospital. It felt liberating as well.
This was our first time spending more than a few hours together outside of a treatment center. Though we met barely more than a year before, we appeared as if we had known each other for life. In a way, we had — she was the only friend to see me at my lowest, and the first to see me apart from my disorder. I was the same for her.
That night, we drank too much alcohol, took too many sloppy photos and savored late-night fries at the Cornell diner.
“Look,” Ally whispered when I looked up, mid-munch.
She pointed to the fries, to the alcohol — “us.”