I am in no way an advocate for picking up a cigarette habit. It is yucky and expensive and thankfully I was able to ditch mine about five years ago. But with that said, the following is just plain truth and I’m pretty sure I can say with some certainty, that anyone who has ever spent any time as a patient in a treatment center will agree. When in treatment, the key to having a somewhat normal existence is to be a smoker. Because being a smoker gives you the ability to have a non-therapy related activity, where you can talk to people freely, and be outside when everyone else is cooped up knitting.
At Warner the smoking area, which we referred to as the “smoke porch”, was one of the most coveted areas on the grounds, and it belonged to my fellow future lung cancer candidates and me. It was a screened in porch that lizards would crawl on at night, filled with white plastic chairs and a boom box. In a distant field we could see Komodo Dragons fight each other while we puffed on our cigs and pretended we were someplace else. On that porch we bonded over Marlboro's while learning the words to whatever top forty song came on the radio, had eighties dance parties, and broke all of the rules of speech that the hospital had put into place in order to keep people from triggering one another. We gave each other awesome nicknames (mine was R-Dubs) and started referring to Warner as Pmac Renraw (Camp Warner backwards). Obviously, we were the coolest.
Unfortunately, no matter how much fun we had during those fifteen to twenty minute smoke breaks I was always reminded of where I was when the conversation inevitably turned to food, weight, or drugs. I became a first hand witness to the torment and odd behaviors people developed because of their disorders. Before this experience I was just as ignorant as the rest of the world. The only thing I knew about anorexia and bulimia was what I saw in Lifetime movies. I had no idea that at the core, every disorder was pretty much the same. I, at almost three hundred pounds, was just like them at eighty. We were all trying to fill some void, block out some memory, or numb out emotion. The food or lack thereof was just an antidote.
The conversations we had out on that porch taught me how to understand myself and my own illness more fully. Through the relationships I made and the new friendships I had developed I could see more clearly why we all ended up there. Why I ended up there. The smoke porch, much to the dismay of all the smokers who were fighting against being in the program, became it’s own form of group therapy. I learned just as much out there fulfilling my nicotine needs as I did sitting in a room with my therapist.
Of all of the friends I made on that porch the most important was Rachel. You know how sometimes when you meet someone you swear that you’ve met them before? Everything about them just seems so familiar from their personality, to the way they speak, to the freckles on their face. That’s what it was like with Rachel. She was the first person to introduce herself to me at Warner and as soon as we met I felt like I had known her forever. She was hilarious and outspoken and had a slight New York accent despite having spent her entire life in Florida (Which, lets be real, is the Long Island of the South). She, the one woman welcome committee, also happened to be the same person who had reassured my mom on the lunch line.
Our friendship came so naturally and from the moment we met we became inseparable. We gossiped, talked about past and current crushes, and played dress up with her anorexic roommate's clothes (I wore the hats). Our ability to crack each other up and recognize the ridiculousness in every situation made everything we were going through seem almost normal. When Rachel got into extended care, a program that helped you transition back into the real world by giving you more freedom, her parents brought her her car. As soon as I was allowed, we went out on pass. Our hot spot was the local Borders bookstore where we’d secretly look at fashion mags (strictly against the rules, unless being used to make a collage about loving your body) and stayed out until the nutty hour of nine pm. We spent hours laughing or crying about pretty much everything and we told each other things we had never been able to tell anyone else before. It had only been weeks since we first met, but it felt as though we had been friends since the day we were born. For two people fighting some serious demons, it felt like the healthiest friendship either of us had ever had.
There is something completely liberating about making a friend in a hospital. A boundary that in the real world could take years to crack is instantly removed. You learn the ins and outs of what makes a person tick within the first two days of meeting them and a certain type of trust is built without having to put in much work to build it. I don’t know if we would have gotten so close so quickly, if we had met in the real world, but in this setting Rachel and I gravitated towards each other. Our problems and reasons for being admitted in many ways were completely different, but at the core we found a common ground. We felt that for the first time in maybe ever someone was genuinely listening. Not just listening, but caring. Not just caring, but understanding. It was a rare quality that I believe both of us had been searching for for a long time and we had finally found it in each other.
The first time I fell in friend love in a hospital was during my time at Five North. My dad was visiting me, and I had spent the better part of the visit going on and on about my new best friend. In the middle of my rambling he stopped me, gave me his serious, ‘Dad’s about to drop some life knowledge’ look and told me to be cautious about getting my heart too invested. He explained to me that when two people are going through a traumatic, intense, unique experience such as going to war, being in jail, or in my case being a patient in a mental hospital, a strong yet temporary bond is formed. An intense love that comes from sharing this amplified experience now exists between you and this new person. At the time it feels like there is nothing that could ever break that bond. But once you get back home, back to your life, back to the people you had left behind, things change. There is no longer room for that bond to exist and often people who once felt as though they would be in each others lives until the day they died, never speak to each other again. I scoffed at my dad when he told me this, he just couldn’t understand, me and my new friend were forever. Less than three days after being discharged from Five North my conversations with my new friend had ended. The bond was gone, and I couldn’t even remember how it existed in the first place.
The closer Rachel and I got the more I remembered this theory and my own experience with it. The idea that after finally finding a friendship that felt healthy and equal, it could disappear scared the shit out of me. I held on to Rachel for dear life and I made a promise to myself and to her that I would never let that happen. Despite what history had proven time and time again I was sure this was different. We would beat the odds. And in many ways, we would.