Story #2: Friends Forever

Welcome to the Invisible Stories Project. I’m Liz Allen and this is Story #2: Friends Forever. If you are the type of person who needs a more complete overview of my life, check out Story #1 and then come back to this snapshot. Here we go….

My freshmen year of college, I made my best friend for life. Another straggly girl on the swim team - fast, fun, smart. We woke up at 5:30am for practice and spent 2.5 hours in the pool in the evening.

In between, Amy and I rock climbed together and loved to hike on the weekends. We both took immense pride in our status as Division 1 college athletes, but considered our mentoring at the local elementary school most important thing we did. We pushed each other to grow.

During early morning workouts in the weight room, Amy set us a goal of benching 130lbs. Over a month, we spotted each other, yelled encouragement and one time brought eye paint to psych ourselves up. On the day we both hit our goal, she smothered me with the biggest hug and we walked the campus with our heads held high.

Our friendship quickly became intimate - the kind where secrets are pressed into each other’s skins. We traded details of our lives late night at our favorite college cafe, he hardships of our lives spilling on the table and being rearranged into meaning while we sipped smoothies and ate rice crispy treats. Our souls felt like old friends, as though we had traveled many lives together. Our blood vessels intertwined, our heartbeats in sync.

She became my other half. We were inseparable and planned to live together for our sophomore year. It was exactly how college was supposed to be: successful athletic career, good grades, great friendships. I hoped and believed it would stay that way forever.

When I returned to campus for sophomore year, Amy and I decorated our room and decided not to bunk our beds, so we could put our heads together to talk late into the night if we wanted to. Our first week back, we went out drinking with the men’s swim team, collapsing back into our room in a heap of giggles at 2am, talking about the cute junior boys who gave us attention.

While things started out normal, I quickly started to feel tired - the transition back to school tuckered me out, but I figured it was pre-season practices or drinking too much. But things started to feel a little off-kilter - things felt gooy, tacky, stuck, like I was wading through muck.

As the weeks stretched on, I fell further and farther behind. Back in the weight room, Amy was benching 130lbs again, but I could barely move the bar. Hell, I could barely get out of bed.

I started waking up crying, exhausted by the mere act of opening my eyes.

My frustration, confusion, and embarrassment started to come out of the cracks and corners of my personality - I was desperate for someone to support and comfort me. For anyone to acknowledge how different I felt in my body from the month before.

Mostly, I directed my pain at Amy. I cried to her on our dorm couch, heaving sighs obscuring my voice. She did the best she could - even calling her psychologist mom to ask for advice. And with prodding from the school’s infirmary, my coach, and Amy’s mom, I ended up in therapy, on Wellbutrin, and with a diagnosis for depression and mono.

I desperately wanted an answer for what I was feeling, so I accepted the first one. With the label, everyone, including me, thought things would calm down. But they didn’t, the medication didn’t do anything, my mono never resolved, and my health continued to decline.

I developed terrible night sweats, I drenched the sheets and woke up unable to catch my breath. My heart was churning at unpredictable rhythms, racing at inappropriate times. My swimmer’s lungs could hold breath for 5 minutes underwater, yet I was finding myself gasping for air shuffling across my dorm room. I slept 12 hours a night and woke up exhausted.

In late fall, my coach had me stop going to morning practice and wouldn’t let me compete, with the hope this would relieve the “psychic toll” and ease my depression. I was horrified and embarrassed, I had been demoted to second string.

I started to get scared. My identity and stress outlet, swimming, had become mere punishment on an already frail body. My friends were pulling away. Amy started to avoid me - sensing my neediness and desperation. At 19, she didn’t have the capacity to support the pain I felt.

And worse, despite therapy and drugs, less practice, and more sleep, I was getting worse - my heartrate got more erratic and louder. My fatigue more complete.

Then, one night in November, Amy sat me down on our grey couch. She had watched my steady decline over the past 2 months. Her eyes were big, but her body language small. She let out a sigh, and slumped her shoulders, resigned.

She started speaking with practiced words. They were precise, surgical, designed to be final but inflict the least amount of pain.

“I know this year has been hard for you.” She started,  “Depression is really tough. But you have to accept where you are and start building a new life. Maybe swimming isn’t for you anymore, maybe take a term off so your parents can take care of you.”

I nodded, unsure of what else to do. She had said most of this to me before. But this time, there was a hard edge to it. A stake in the ground, a line in the sand.

She paused.

“And...I can’t be the one you come to anymore, Liz.” She said, “I have my own life and classes to take. We have only been friends for a year, and that isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of life. You have friends at home and I’m sure you’ll make other friends here at school. You can get through this. But it won’t be with me. You need to move out of here. I can’t live with you. You need to find a new place to live.”

The air went out of the room and I shattered like glass. My body shook, as my body processed the news. I didn’t have words. In the worst case scenarios in my mind, I ended up in the hospital, but with Amy by my side. I never imagined she wouldn’t be there. I felt like I had died.

She didn’t want to be my friend I was too difficult to be friends with because I was sick. Because I couldn’t swim anymore. Because I wasn’t going out in the same way. Because she was friends with one piece of me and she didn’t want to be friends with the girl underneath the athletic body.

I didn’t know I had the expectation that my friendship was going to be there forever until it wasn’t. In depending on something - treasuring it -  I didnt realize it was so fragile. And like all things that are precious yet fleeting - the loss still haunts me.

Amy and I never recovered any sort of friendship. In fact, we’ve spoken only a few times since that conversation on the couch. I went onto move in with new roommates over the winter and worked on creating a new life for myself at college.

In two short months, everything I had known disappeared. Everything I trusted - my body, my identity as an athlete, my friendships - were gone.

It’s a brutal process, this shedding of a former self. And as a culture, we have such weak processes for grief generally - let alone when the person you are grieving is yourself. And what about when you are grieving a person who is still there, but they just aren’t in your life in the same manner?

This lesson has stayed with me: Chronic illness is more akin to grief than sickness. It’s loss and then acceptance of that loss. And grief, in whatever form, is mercurial and desperately clings to your body - a smell that you can never rid yourself. And repeated grief? Well, it becomes a lesson burned into your bones. One that makes you guarded, sharp, jaded.

This incident with Amy ended up foreshadowing what I couldn’t comprehend at the time - she wouldn’t be the only one who didn’t want a sick friend or sick girlfriend.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had to kill a million versions of myself. Each feels like death. And I’ve grieved the loss of a million other friends and lovers. Each burns. Sometimes I feel like the only things I can taste is ash and flame. That taste, and the grief, lingers - I don’t think it will ever stop.