Some of this content may be triggering to anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder.
It was the day of the Leeza talk show taping. The topic: eating disorders. I walked into the Hollywood studio prepared to talk about the one thing that tormented and tortured me every day, anorexia, and I had never felt so overwhelmed, frightened, and ALONE – even as I was surrounded by hundreds of studio audience members.
“No one understands. No one gets it. No one can relate. No one will care. I’ll sound crazy. I’m not sick enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not articulate enough. I’m not thin enough. I won’t make any sense. I am all alone.” The all too familiar harsh criticisms and relentless fears ran through my mind more quickly than I could slow them down or resist them.
As I began to feel like a deer in the spotlights – visibly shaking, paralyzed with fear, drained of all color, wondering what I’d gotten myself into and ready to turn and run away – the studio wrangler led me to my seat near the stage.
Immediately, I was drawn to the woman with the comforting smile, Bo Derek-like braids in her blonde hair, and big blue eyes sitting in front of me. I knew her, but I didn’t know her. I loved her, but I’d never met her. I related to her, but we’d never spoken. We were best friends, but I’d never seen her before.
Instant Friends and Comrades
I felt Heidi’s spirit, love, and kindness radiating around her. I could simply sense she had a big heart, was caring, empathetic, and compassionate. When her beautiful eyes met mine, I knew we were soul sisters – that our spirits were already connected in a powerful way. I could tell we fought the same enemy. We were comrades, connected by the same endless pain, torture, and criticism. We were both subjected to the hatred spewed by the dictator/drill sergeant that we carried around and battled within our own heads all day every day. I could also see in her eyes that we both were frantic to find a way to ESCAPE our tormentor.
We were also connected because we had similar souls; I could tell Heidi’s spirit was a lot like mine: colorful, bubbly, open, accepting, curious, adventurous, courageous, tenacious, ambitious, ALIVE. Just by being in her presence, I could tell that Heidi, like me, was yearning to break free from captivity, wanting to smile, to play, to be spontaneous, to be carefree, to giggle, to love, to be loved, to hold, to be held, to dream, to achieve, to create, to dance, to sing, to make art, to spread her wings and fly — all WITHOUT fear of the eating disorder predator in our minds, WITHOUT its relentless punishment, WITHOUT its hurtful, hateful words and harsh criticisms.
As we both extended our hands to shake formally, Heidi and I both laughed a little and instantly went in for a hug instead. That’s what we do. We hug. We briefly discussed what brought us both to the Leeza show, and how we both felt an instant connection to each other. “I feel like you are my soul sister,” Heidi said to me. I smiled and nodded in agreement. “Kindred spirits!” I exclaimed. Our friendship was solidified in that moment, and we were close pals from that moment forward.
Speaking the Same Language
What united us in friendship was not sharing sickness or eating disorder behaviors. We did not use each other to swap “tips” on how to lose weight or to share which maladaptive coping mechanisms made our eating disorders happy. We never used each other for thinspiration.
And yet, we talked all the time. Our true selves – our hearts and souls – communicated to each other. Our visits were filled with laughter and hope. Our phone conversations would last for hours. We were both self-proclaimed “talkers,” but felt we’d not been able to trust many others enough to open up to them completely the way we could each other. We focused not on how our disorders wanted us to self-destruct and die, but on things that made us feel ALIVE.
We’d talk about our shared love for the desert. How the warmth comforted us and the sunshine embraced us and improved our moods. How much we enjoyed reading, sharing our favorite books and authors. We’d excitedly talk of our love of poetry, especially writing our own poems. We would often read our poetry to each other over the phone, not feeling embarrassed or judged like we would if we shared our poems with others, because we already “understood” each other. Long explanations and meanings of certain stanzas were not necessary, and that was reassuring. We spoke the same language.
We talked about our love of art, especially creating our own art. Heidi would tell me about the amazing piece of art she was working on, and I would use my imagination as I listened over the phone to get a mental image of her newest creation. Artwork and poetry both served as healthy methods Heidi and I used to attempt to communicate what we were experiencing while enduring the eating disorder – and often were outlets we both often utilized to express our TRUE selves, the parts of us the eating disorder so often marginalized, silenced, ridiculed, and smothered out.
Heidi and I would talk about how we loved to dance – how music simply moved us, touched our true cores. Heidi would write song lyrics from time to time and would share them with me, or she would play her favorite song over the phone for my listening enjoyment. We’d share stories of our pets and their amusing shenanigans, because our love of animals bonded us – and the stories allowed us to laugh a little as well.
We would have deep conversations about our love and appreciation for our families. We’d express feeling “guilty” that our family members stuck by our sides no matter what, but knew that without their love and unfailing support, our struggles would be so much greater. Heidi spoke highly of her mother, Sharon, who was relentless in her search for affordable and accessible eating disorder treatment for Heidi, and who showered and surrounded Heidi with the comfort and care only a mother can provide. Heidi and I both experienced an unexplainable and excruciating isolation, a common symptom experienced by those struggling with eating disorders. Heidi would often mention how thankful she was to know she had a forever friend and companion in and the never-ending love of her mother, even in the midst of isolation.
We would share the self-help tactics that were working for us in making progress against our eating disorders. We inspired each other. We encouraged each other. We supported each other. We talked about the dreams and aspirations we dared not utter to anyone who did not have the eating disorder critic in their head: to have successful careers in the arts, to continue our education, our desire to have children some day, to have husbands, to know, believe, and trust in that kind of love.
Often, we would confide in each other about the overwhelming frustrations presented by our disease. We would discuss many elements of the eating disorder that were confusing, even to us — especially to us. The long list of negative, uncomfortable physical symptoms we both experienced. The alienation. The stigma. The loneliness. The isolation. The absolute hell of behaviors. The sheer fear of facing death in the face every single day. The heartbreak. The guilt and shame. The feeling of powerlessness. Hopelessness. Helplessness. The shared and already-understood experiences of the eating disorder we both knew all too well. How we were fighting our hardest but felt, at times, it was a war that could not be won. Some days Heidi would actually say to me: “Today, I’m winning the battle but I know I’m not winning the war.” Acknowledging we needed help and assistance to beat the eating disorder – but not being able to identify exactly or communicate with words what kind of help and assistance we needed, what would work, or what would help us beat ED once and for all.
Feeling we had few other options in the war, we would make a point to highlight and applaud each other’s STRENGTH and COURAGE as often as we could. We’d congratulate each other for getting out of bed that day, because that in and of itself was a challenge and success. We would celebrate the moments we felt compelled to act on an eating disorder behavior but were able to resist. We’d remind each other how worthy and deserving of recovery and peace we were.
As Heidi’s energy continued to fade, fully eclipsed at times by the strength of the eating disorder, we would cry together on the phone about the lack of answers, the lack of understanding, the lack of resources, the lack of affordable support, the lack of recovery treatment options, and as I would urge her to do whatever was in her power to keep fighting ED, she would sometimes whisper to me: “I’m not allowed. I’m not allowed.” I did not have to ask her “Who says?” because we both knew WHO said. The dictator. The punisher. The evil beast. The eating disorder.
There were rules — strict rules around food and strict rules beyond food. The rules make no sense unless you have the shared experience of the eating disorder prison within. “I’m not allowed. I’m not allowed. I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to be a bother. I don’t want to cause trouble. I don’t matter. I’m too much of a problem. I mess everything up. Everyone will hate me. Everyone will abandon me. I am not worthy. I do not deserve help. I should be strong enough to do this on my own. Sure, I had dreams, but they will have to happen another day. One day… some day…”
In a conversation that frightened me more than any other, Heidi said quietly, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. I don’t have the strength. When I’m gone, you’ll have to fight for me. Do it for the both of us. Show it we mean business. Kick ED’s ass. Make me proud.” Of course, I begged her not to talk that way, exclaiming that she could beat it herself. She then explained that the medicine she was on made it difficult for her to even wake up long enough to place phone calls, much less have the endurance and wherewithal to fight the eating disorder. And I understood. I understood all too well. And I was terrified. Our hatred, disgust, and fear of our shared enemy were not enough to BEAT it.
Heidi was not able to return my phone calls very often after that, but occasionally I would still get a voice mail from her. With as much enthusiasm and energy as she could muster, she would say: “Do not worry! I’m still here. I’ve just been very sick. I didn’t wake up for two or three days, but I’m still here.” The medicine and absolute physical and mental exhaustion of starvation made it difficult for her to speak or even have the strength to pick up the phone, she’d explain.
Eventually came a time that I left several voice mails, inexplicably filled with dread, desperation, and panic when Heidi did not pick up or call back. I knew before I knew without knowing.
I cannot write much about when Heidi passed. Or what was said. Or what was going on. Because there was nothing but a thick fog in my brain. I experienced an utter darkness, an unshakeable suffocation. Grief. I felt it more than words could ever describe. It felt like a total eclipse of our sunshine. The loss of hope. The loss of my confidant. The loss of my best friend. The loss of my soul sister.
As weeks and months passed, I called her, irrationally hoping she would answer so we could talk. I’d throw my phone across the room when there was no answer, irate with the reality that a shared understanding of our eating disorder was not enough to save my best friend’s life.
I began to grasp more clearly over time that I would have to fight for Heidi. I’d have to continue fighting with Heidi. I would have to keep her spirit and sunshine alive in any way and all ways I was able. That is, after all, what she wanted.
I talk to Heidi to this day. She is always with me, always in my heart. I can feel her warmth. There is a certain star in the sky that we gazed upon together on her birthday when I stayed the weekend with her in Palm Springs that, for me, will forever represent Heidi. She still guides me, she still supports me, she still offers to listen when I feel no one else wants to or that no one else can really hear what I’m really trying to say. She knows. Heidi knows. She always did.
You see, eating disorders and death cannot take away a soul sister, because a soul shines on forever. A soul lives on. Heidi, my brave friend, taught me this.
Heidi Lynne Haugen was a fighter for sure. She didn’t give up without trying everything available to her. She, like other warriors facing an eating disorder, was left to deal with the limited options available within the system. Sometimes what the system offers just isn’t enough to help, to ease, to save, or to truly heal. Heidi never stopped fighting. She never gave up.
And although Heidi passed away from complications resulting from her long battle with an eating disorder several years ago, she still shines on – not only in my life as an inspiration, but in the many lives she touched with her kindness and compassion. I feel that the biggest tribute I can pay to Heidi is to remember some of the bits of wisdom she held onto – and to share them with others.
– be true to YOU
– LOVE without boundaries, without limits
– count your BLESSINGS, be GRATEFUL for what you have
– never lose HOPE and NEVER GIVE UP when facing formidable challenges
– create art, listen to or play music, dance, and/or write — these are easily accessible, therapeutic methods to express what you may have trouble COMMUNICATING
– and, perhaps most importantly, ASK FOR HELP from others when you need it — no matter what you’re facing or dealing with
I will never forget you, Heidi. You are the brightest star in the sky. Thank you for inspiring me to continue fighting. You are forever my soul sister.
National Eating Disorders Association – NEDA: (800) 931-2237, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Jessica Lucas is a Recovery Warrior, survivor, art teacher, yoga enthusiast, mentor, proud auntie, loving sister and daughter, and a flawed human being who practices lovingkindness and compassion. She’s a passionate reader and avid learner, typically found with her nose in books about yoga, human rights, eating disorder recovery, Buddhism, international relations, and peace and conflict resolution. (firstname.lastname@example.org.)