I was just chugging away, deep in my work the other morning, feeling happy and fulfilled, when I was tagged in an old photo on Facebook.
There I was, in a slightly blurry wedding group shot, not quite looking directly into the camera. Great hair (I’d had an elegant updo done at the salon), porcelain skin, thin arms, one chin. A brownish pink lipstick. Bright eyes. I am wearing an extremely pretty sleeveless dress in a wonderful pale yellow with blue flowers. I’m not quite smiling, and I’m looking elsewhere. I admit I’m curious as to what I might have been thinking – that half smile definitely looks a bit pasted on. It could be that this was the end of a long wedding photo session. I remember I had flown in early that morning. I know I was happy to be at the marriage of two amazing friends. I was happy to see Jeff, who I hadn’t seen for over a week.
The surge of jealousy that ran through me the other day was alarming. I wanted to look like that again. I pictured the lean, clean diet of salad, poached chicken and water I would have to live on.
But then I remembered who she was, what she was going through, what she hadn’t even been through yet.
She was extremely unhappy. The adjustment to working full time after university was rough. That was the second August that she wouldn’t be returning to school in September and she longed to be back in academia. Maybe not for the studies, but definitely for the lifestyle, flexible schedule and intelligent late-night conversations. Trying to find work without office experience in a new city that favoured Francophones had been difficult, so she ended up relying on her retail background to get a full-time job in a shoe store. A job she hated so much that she cried the whole way back to Ottawa the day after that wedding. It would be another year before she would be able to quit. She was embarrassed to work there, but it paid the bills. She was glad that she was nowhere near her hometown and Toronto, thankful that she wouldn’t have to run into more successful former classmates, or – horrors – have to sell them shoes.
She had already started to have anxiety issues, attacks that seized her throat in a vice-like grip, especially when she thought about money.
She ate like shit – fast food, candy, popcorn for dinner, and was deeply ashamed but couldn’t stop. Her high metabolism made it feel like a victimless crime, but she knew she should eat better anyway. Thankfully, she wasn’t much of a drinker – she didn’t like the way it made her feel.
She didn’t know how to cook. Or, at very least, not very well. And Jeff, studying for his degree in music, wasn’t home for dinner most nights anyway.
She dreamed of writing, but didn’t write. There is no written record of those years.
The only thing (she thought) she had going for her was what the mirror showed her. And let it be said, she did revel in it, just a little, in private. But she was also afraid to shine too brightly, for fear of being the centre of attention, for fear that other women wouldn’t like her, for fear of the unwanted male gaze. She wanted to be taken seriously and rarely was. Bold glasses helped a little. She even dyed her hair brown once, and thrilled in the temporary chestnut tones.
She started to shop a lot. Working next to a mall where she whiled away each lunch hour meant she knew all the clothes in her favourite stores, and could capitalize on sales. Still, she slipped into buying more than she could afford, rationalizing that she needed to dress properly for her job. Buying something would lift her spirits briefly. It became a spiral.
Her doctor’s diagnosis of depression was still months and months in the future. She thought it was just that she hated Ottawa, her job and lack of good friends. She was tired all the time. Moving closer to home in Toronto ended up being the watershed moment – she should be happy now, right? Why wasn’t she?
Cut to the present.
I wish so badly that I could go back in time and hug her. Tell her it’s all going to be ok. It’s going to take a while (maybe I won’t tell her how long, or that it’s going to get worse before it gets better) but things are going to get awesome, and be even more awesome because of hard work, patience and learning how to believe in myself. That while I do make an effort to look nice and take care of myself, my body is ultimately what carries my brain around, to paraphrase the late, great Carrie Fisher. I’m revelling in the creeping invisibility with an edgier look.
But god she was so pretty that day.