By Sarah Doyel
When you don’t eat, you bruise more easily. Low levels of certain nutrients make the tissue slow to heal. Alarming is the ease with which we can avoid the body. We diligently ignore the physical organism hauling our brains and souls around every day.
Then: broken capillaries, a distressing reminder of corporeal reality. I don’t like to look at my bruises once I’ve first noticed them. Observing them means I have to tend to them. It means I have to acknowledge the physical needs of my body that I am not meeting. It means I have to admit that I have needs in the first place. To see the bleeding underneath my skin is to become uncomfortably familiar with my own fragility, to confront the fact that I am a human in a body who needs other humans in other bodies to survive.
This is hard for me to do. My fear of depending on anything outside myself, from food to people, is intractable. Its grip on me has relaxed and tightened over the years. I don’t always feel the squeeze. The fingerprints are there, though, and I have become intimately acquainted with them as a result of the pandemic. The rich physicality of our lives has become obvious through its absence.
We are made of so much hunger.
Robbed as we all were of each other, fleeing the ugliness of our mortality, I had little else to do but see myself.
My word for 2020 was community.
Every year I choose a word. Like many people, I turn to ritual to mark the passage of time. I have felt for most of my life that I don’t quite belong in the world. I never outgrew this tiresome cliché, and I really thought I would.
I have many precious friends. They are my lifelines always and especially throughout the isolative chaos of the pandemic. That said, I’ve rarely felt like an integral member of a social circle. I tell myself the story that I am an expendable part of the whole. The periods when I have fit in have been fleeting and tend to culminate in a civil but clean departure.
Sometimes, my exit is a deliberate decision. Other times, I self-sabotage without realizing what I’m doing, until it’s too late and I’ve already burned bridges. I have found my rationalizations more and more feeble as I’ve grown up. We all leave groups behind; that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Humans evolve. We stretch in new and different directions. I repeat the reasons to soothe my anxiety, but those justifications for abandonment pale in the face of the naked truth: I am afraid. I am afraid of other people and I am afraid of myself, but mostly, I am afraid of the deep void of testing an unmet need.
I feel safest hovering on the periphery. If I never attempt to reach the center, then I will never try and fail. If I am not important enough to other people, then they will not be important enough to me to be able to hurt me.
I never liked the show Friends, but oh, I wanted to be one so badly. A Friend. I wanted to crawl inside those characters’ skins. I yearned for the fiascos of close-knit friendships. I coveted the silly fights, the reconciliation over a burnt cup of coffee, and the promise of companionship through life’s small indignities. Most of us probably did; most of us probably still do. Who hasn’t felt the fingers of loneliness tugging at their sleeve on occasion throughout childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond?
It is not a coincidence that the times when I am loneliest are the times when I do not eat. In these times it does not feel safe to need anything. So I pretend I don’t. I reject nourishment. I eschew the sweetest banalities we have, knowing and being known and needing and being needed. I do this until I cannot do it anymore, and that is what happened in 2020.
Social fabric is woven. We make it; it comes from somewhere. This place is usually a glittering pinpoint of need within us. Friends may be garbage, but there’s something to be said for television that depicts people showing up for each other. And so last year, I resolved to reach down to that place and bring its insistence up to the light for examination. My confession, the one I would whisper in your ear if it was safe to exchange oxygen in a crowded bar, is that I have made this resolution every year. 2020 was the third. It is not the one I tell other people. My own needs haunt me. I want to float above them, away from them, but of course I can’t. I’ve tried: with work, poetry, astrology, drugs of the prescription and recreational varieties, an eating disorder that demanded I live mostly on Diet Coke. My escape strategy never succeeds. The fleshiness of my heart always drags me back to the soil.
I sometimes—often—find it easier to bury my want for community instead of honouring it. My desire for people was shameful and secret. A forbidden fruit. I didn’t look at it. I refused to acknowledge the bruises. I haven’t owned a full-length mirror in a decade.
A friend said something last summer that crushed me. We were trying to schedule a Zoom call across five time zones and I felt very busy. The familiar swelling rose in my stomach, hope followed by plummeting terror. Then she said, “I don’t want to be homework.” The ache of recognition still settles across the back of my neck when I remember our conversation. A month later, I would write an article on how to address burnout while I was completely and totally spent. I was proud of the final product, but I also felt disgusted with myself. My fear of needing and being needed by other people had transformed from a rational survival tactic to a maladaptive coping mechanism for work practises that were still compulsive but no longer pleasurable.
Through six years of therapy, I’d danced around my avoidance of need through compulsive work. I intellectualized the fear so I didn’t have to look it straight in the eye. Last year, finally, fostered an unwilling intimacy with the tenderest parts of myself that I’d previously managed to evade. The ones that I initially typed out as “the worst parts of myself” before pausing and rewriting the phrase.
I learned to hold the fear in my body. I had to; being aware of but not yet able to control a compulsion is exhausting. The quiet of these months led me to the limen, which signifies the psychological threshold of the senses. When we traverse the limen, we begin to perceive a stimulus that was there but had previously remained undetected. The softness of the brink is disarming. I do not want to be your homework. The words melt in my hand and spill onto my skin. This year made me understand that I have mostly given myself false choices. The realisation is a startling one. There is no feast or famine to be had. I do not need to hurt myself to survive. Bruises are not necessary; people are. My own company is neither nothing nor everything.
I am a human in a body. I feel the contours of my phobia now and press the purpled muscle with my thumbs. I call a friend. Take a bite.
Sarah Doyel is an LSE master's student in international migration and public policy. She writes about the politics of human mobility with a focus on money and health. A southern California transplant, Sarah has lived and worked on three continents and in six cities. Her favorite fruit is a peach.