In sixth grade I was in middle school, living in a suburb of Chicago, eleven-years-old, and from my self-centered point of view my world was falling apart.
My dad had moved out as part of my parent’s ongoing divorce. My mother had a brain aneurysm. Between the aneurysm and the treatments her memory was limited, and her temper mercurial. There was no way to predict what was going to happen next.
School was my refuge. I’d been moved to classes for advanced students in third grade, and for the past three years my classmates had been a second family to me. We had shared memories, inside jokes, and a surety that comes from knowing you’re spending the day with twenty of your best friends. My classmates were my saving grace. While things were falling apart at home they were the ones making sure I passed class.
When we exchanged homework for in-class grading, my friends made sure I only missed a few problems… even when the page was empty. When I couldn’t get a ride to the library, my friends photocopied notes for me so I could finish projects at lunch. When I needed a safe place, my friends were there.
But, despite their best efforts, I was on the fast track for failing all my classes. My grades were abysmal. I was getting help from my math teacher, a sweet blonde woman who made math interesting. Every day I’d hurry through lunch, then go to her class to work on assignments while she ate lunch. Every day she had ramen, usually just the broth.
I was a self-centered and unthinking child. I wasn’t aware of food prices, or why someone would choose to eat ramen every day. I just knew it was what she preferred. And I knew she looked sickly.
Since my mother had fallen ill I was hyper-aware of illness. It scared me. Illness didn’t destroy a body, it changed people. I watched my teacher for changes, but never saw anything. She was simply an enthusiastic teacher with pale skin, feathered blonde hair, and dark circles under her eyes that she hid with makeup.
We continued in that fashion for several months. I’d scarf down a sandwich, run to her class, and work on homework while she sipped ramen broth and helped me focus.
In March, we moved out of state to live with my grandmother while the divorce was finalized and our home sold.
In April, my teacher died of starvation. She’d been deathly ill, but no one had notice the warning signs. She died of anorexia, because of her fear of food and a fear of her own body.
A few years later, I’d caught the disease. I don’t believe I ever thought of myself as fat, but the word was thrown around. Women aren’t allowed to be fat. We’re not allowed to be thin, either. Western society has a very distinct image of what a woman should look like and if a lady doesn’t fit that image than she’s ugly. And “ugly” was a very familiar word.
My mom worked two to three jobs at a time, trying to make ends meet. I struggled to fit in at my new school. Fashion was something that happened to other people. I made do with clothes purchased before the divorce, and the occasional hand-me-down. At sixteen I still wasn’t five-foot tall and I might have weighed 100 pounds sopping wet.
Now, I would have been the perfect Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but this was the late 90s in an era of grunge, plaid, and no pixies (I feel a bit cheated, honestly). My hand-me-downs were loose jeans and faded t-shirts, no bubble vests from A&E, no brightly colored socks from Hot Topics (oh! but I wanted them!). Everything I owned was over-sized with the hope I would one day grow into them. So I was fat. Because my clothes were loose. And I was ugly. And I was an outcast.
And I didn’t mean to be anorexic. It was a bad habit I fell into. I wasn’t starving myself, just skipping meals, or eating less than a full meal. No big deal. I was busy. Sometimes I just… forgot.
Until the day I smelled ramen cooking. Not at home, but in the newspaper office of the high school where I hid during my down time. I liked to sleep under the big conference table on an abandoned bean bag chair. One of the teachers was cooking ramen for lunch. The smell twisted my stomach, and I realized just how close I’d been to following in my teacher’s footsteps. I’d let the voices get to me.
To this day I hate ramen. I never ate in college. It’s end-of-the-world food, and there will be a zombie apocalypse before I sit down to enjoy a bowl of ramen noodles. But it’s the only food I allow myself to hate.
The voices of negativity are persuasive. The slope down into depression and self-abuse is slippery, a slow slide down into the pit. There are still days I slip. There are still days the voices of negativity win.
There are two lessons I take away from ramen noodles. One, killing yourself doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts everyone around you. Two, hating something only gives it power over you, what we hate controls us.
Why’d I write this post today? I have no idea. Maybe just to get it off my chest. Maybe to explain to my friends why I’m scared of ramen (scary noodles!). Maybe because it can help someone else. Or maybe just because I never got to say goodbye to a wonderful woman who was there during on of the darkest periods of my life and I always wonder if I’d just noticed, if I hadn’t been quite so self-centered, if she would still be alive today.
Here’s to you, Miss B., and the lesson your never meant to teach.