My best friend died of anorexia

by Kendall Baker

Trigger warning: Strong Emotional Content.  

My best friend died of anorexia
My best friend died of anorexia

I kissed the top of her head and walked toward the door.  I paused.  I knew this was it.  I turned around to look at her and try to memorize her image, an image I barely recognized due to her physical state.  

“I’ll see you later,” I said. “I will.”

Katie smiled a forced smile and nodded.  She knew what I meant.

I let the door close behind me.  I was twenty nine and she thirty, but I knew that was the last time I’d see my sweet friend on this side of Heaven.  Twenty nine and thirty.  We should’ve been out sharing cocktails or having a girls night in, bitching about men and jobs.  We shouldn’t be here.  Anywhere but here. 

The present “here” was the fourth floor of a large hospital in Greenville, South Carolina.  I stood outside her hospital room for a few moments, trying to decide whether to go back in.  She was alone in there, it was nearly midnight and although she’d had plenty of visitors earlier in the day, I was the last to leave that night.  I’d driven down from Richmond, VA to see her when I got the call from her sister telling me things were bad.  The “come now if you want to say goodbye” kind of call.

Hours earlier I’d spent time scurrying around her hospital room, trying to clean it for her.  I was trying to find some way to feel “useful” or “helpful” in an unimaginable situation.  I rubbed lotion on her legs and feet and I changed her socks, tasks she could no longer do herself.  I wanted so badly to find some way to at least make her more comfortable, but I felt completely helpless.  

Finally I climbed halfway in bed with her and we watched the first half of the first  episode of “Schitts Creek,” on her laptop.  She’d been trying out many shows during her three week hospital stay.  I couldn’t focus on the show; instead, I watched her watch, as I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that she was dying.  

As I left her that night, her laptop was propped up on the hospital bed table and she was finishing that first episode.  I didn’t want to leave her, but I knew I never would, and I had to drive back to Virginia in the morning.  So at a few minutes before midnight, I stood outside that heavy hospital room door.  So many thoughts went through my mind. 

How did we get here?  Is it really too late?  It is…we need to make her comfortable.  How will I go on when she finally stops?  How will any of us?  Are we even sure the world will keep spinning once she’s gone? 

Two days later, she died.  One of my closest friends in the world died as a direct result of Anorexia Nervosa.  And the world did keep spinning, which made me surprisingly angry.   

Her last Facebook posts, weeks before her death, had an angry tone to them.  If not angry, maybe desperate.  She emphasized how eating disorders are a mental illness and NOT a choice, and should not be treated any differently than any physical illness.  Usually her posts were sweet, often expressing gratitude.  I think as she felt her time running out, though, there was more she needed the world to know.  

She fought.  We fought for her.  Her dad fought for her, her sisters fought for her, I fought for her, other friends fought for her, my family fought for her.  And we still lost her.  

I love my friend with all my heart, but I hate her eating disorder with every fiber of my being.  I hate what it took from her, and that it ultimately took her from us.  In my personal grief, I’ve found it important to separate the two.  

There is Katie, and then there is Katie’s eating disorder.  It’s easily confusing, as one lives inside the other, so they might at times appear as one.  But they are not.  Not at all. 

Katie was kind.  So kind.  She was breathtakingly beautiful, both inside and out.  She was caring, loving, and the kind of friend most people only ever long for.  She was loyal.  She loved with her whole heart, and insisted that was the only way to love. 

Katie’s illness, her eating disorder, was cunning.  Manipulative.  Greedy.  Her exact opposite.  And it wanted her all to itself.  

This is the first time (and God help me, hopefully the last) I’ve lost someone close to me to a mental illness, and the predominant feeling, other than grief of course, surprised me.  Loneliness.  It feels lonely.  I am lonely without her, her calls and texts and our visits.  But the grief itself also feels especially lonely.  

If your best friend dies of cancer, that’s horrible, but everyone understands cancer (to a degree, at least).  If your best friend dies of Anorexia, people are…confused.  I had one well-meaning family member tell me, “Well, she killed herself.”  Well…yes, but also definitely no.  Katie did not want to die.  She wanted to live, desperately.  She verbalized this again and again.  She couldn’t get access to the proper level of care she needed at the very end, and after a long, 15 year battle with her eating disorder, her body finally succumbed.  She fought.  I won’t have anyone thinking she starved herself to death purposely just because that’s what she wanted to do.  It might sound simple, but it is so, so complex.  

Yes, she did essentially starve herself to death.  That is one way of looking at it that is not completely inaccurate.  But she hated it.  It tortured her, and she fought back as hard as she could.  She did not choose this.  She did not want to be gone. 

She wanted to be here—with her sisters and neice and nephews, with her dad whom she called “Pops,” and with her friends—and she tried.  She tried as hard as she could for as long as she could.

It’s only been a month, so the fog has not yet cleared enough for me to decide how to best proceed in her honor.  I know we will fight to raise awareness and reduce stigma.  I know I will be at lobby day in the Spring to speak to legislators about the importance of comprehensive mental health coverage.  But that doesn’t feel like enough.  I suppose nothing will ever feel like enough.  

But we keep trying, and we carry on, for Katie and for ourselves.  I will miss her every day for the rest of my life, and I have to make some kind of positive change in her honor.  For me, it is part of healing. 

Donate to Kendall’s Walk Campaign for NEDA, National Eating Disorders Association, in Katie’s memory

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21 thoughts on “My best friend died of anorexia”

  1. I’m so sorry for your loss! I battled bulimia and some bouts of anorexia for 24 years! I’m 35 now and have been in recovery for 342 days! It’s very hard to not listen to the ED voices and lies that are told everyday! I believe most people at least want to mean the best in what they say but they don’t get it! Mental illness is such a hard thing to deal with not only for the one fighting the battle themselves, but for the loved ones who watch them live in self-destruct mode day after day due to their mental illness! However, it is no different than any other illness and should not be treated as such! It angers me so much that there is such a stigma in mental illness and such a lack of understanding where it is needed the most! People who are struggling with eating disorders and have for long periods of time want to stop and are not doing it to intentionally hurt themselves and the people around them as somemmight think! I wish more than anything that people would educate themselves and be more open-minded. We need more love and understanding! Again Kendall, I am so so sorry you lost Katie to such a horrific mental illness! I can tell by your story that she did in fact fight til the very end with all she had in her. Praying for you and all your loved ones.

    1. Samantha,

      Congratulations on 342 days in recovery! That’s amazing, and I’m so happy for you. I appreciate your condolences and prayers, and I echo everything you said about this horrific disease 💜

      1. Thank you it hasn’t been easy but so worth it! You are a good friend to Katie and what you are doing in her memory is phenomenal! I know you may not feel as though it is enough or will never be enough but even just sharing her story and conveying her message with such such eloquence and love is is great honor for her ! I cannot wait to see what else you do and so many support you 100% in all you do to honor her, she deserves it not only because she fought til the very end against this mental illness, but because she was a beautiful human being!

  2. I am so sad to read this. I had the honor of meeting Katie many years ago. Is admired her fiestiness and determination. Above all I admired her ability to be vulnerable and honest about her ED with others. She tried to encourage others to keep on fighting…all the while fighting her own battle. One of the hardest things about knowing people with ED, is not being able to get them to see the wonderfully amazing people that we see when we look at them. Blessings and Light

    1. Jo,

      I’m so glad you had the opportunity to meet Katie as well! Everything you said about her is so on point, especially how she always encouraged others even in the midst of her own battle. I’ll always wish she could see herself as I and the rest of her loved ones saw her…

  3. I have lost friendships due to eating disorders but never friends, in this way. Many of us (women and men) have experienced our own bouts of body dysmorohia. But I don’t understand the mental illness. I completely believe you and feel so much deep horrible sadness for Katie and everyone who loved her. But can someone please explain the illness in layman’s terms to understand how it can lead to death in the face of someone who wants to live? Thank you so much for sharing and educating.

    1. Michelle. Thank you for asking this question. I am going to ask a sufferer who has turned into an advocate and someone who runs a nonprofit on eating disorders to answer your question. And I think we need a post here that addresses this. It’s a mental illness that is a lot like an addiction.

    2. Hi Michelle!!
      My name is Carly and I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder for almost 6 years now. I struggled with anorexia as well and still have a difficult time explaining it. It’s almost as if there is another person in your head who is fighting to control your life if that makes sense… You want so desperately to be able to eat and not have negative thoughts, but the anxiety around eating is so overwhelming that it’s sometimes easier to just not eat. It’s a battle between wanting recovery but also wanting to soothe the overwhelming anxiety by not eating. You want so desperatly to be able to be “normal” and not have thoughts around food but at the same time fighting those thoughts is exhausting and brings up a lot of anxiety, along with the depression that most people suffering have. I hope that helped a little!! Again, it’s a very complicated mental illness that has a lot of different parts to it.

    3. Hi Michelle,
      Your question is very thoughtful, and thank you so much for putting it that way. As someone who struggles with an ED myself, I definitely heard friends and family ask my, their impatience only thinly veiled, “if you want to recover, why don’t you just eat?” And although every case is different, I’d like to mention a couple of points… my explanation is not exhaustive by any stretch, but I want to mention some things that I feel often get left out when this discussion arises…

      One of the things that makes EDS unique are that they are both physical and mental illnesses. Anxiety and thought distortions, esp. around food often exist before the disorder gets into high gear, but once a person’s physiology starts to be effected by starvation, malnutrition or other unhealthy eating patterns, certain biological and survival mechanisms come into play.

      I’d recommend anyone interested in how starvation can effect even a healthy brain reference the Minnesota Starvation Experiment led by Ancel Keyes; done almost 80 years ago, it shows how disruption ones food and intake can make even healthy men crazy, food-obsessioned, delusional, irrational, and worse. Furthermore, once these subjects were refed, later interviews hinted the profound impact of the experiment on some of them, even decades later.

      I bring this up because starvation literally changes the way one thinks, and it isn’t as simple as “oh, I’m eating again” to reverse these changes. In general, the longer one can normalize ones habits, the better the chances are of healing the neurocircuitry, but, as Kendall states in her account, modern day conventions of insurance and healthcare don’t always practically or financially allow for the support needed for long enough to heal some of the neuro/biological changes that can affect a person when an ED is at play.

      Two… and this comes from a more personal note… you can want recovery from an ED very badly. However, food is something that permeates almost every aspect of the world we live in. Substance disorders often preach abstinence, but how does one implement that with food? What is too little, too much, too often, not enough? And to deal with that cycle, that dance, three times a day, every day? There is no respite. One literally most have constant vigilance not only against ones own anxious and distorted thoughts, but anxiety caused by biological reasons, not to mention society’s prejudices and assumptions about food and dieting, availability and affordability of food, cultural and religious implications of feast and famine and celebrations…. Those of us who are lucky are able to keep most of these in check and between internal and external resources, can push through.

      For myself, I want recovery, but also know that I need support at almost all meals in order to do so, which isn’t feasible. So I do my best, but get exhausted. Give up once or twice. And once or twice is all it takes for the ED to clench on, full force. Should I have been more vigilant? Perhaps. But I am human, and fallible, and I cannot fault myself for that, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to shake myself free of thoughts and behaviors once they start to reappear.

      Imagine that internal battle day after day. Year after year. The strongest of us keep fighting. Some of us get weary and ask what the point in fighting is. Katie, to her end, never gave up trying to seek help trying to fight a cruel and dangerous illness, to which is a credit to her courage and her spirit.

      Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, but in this wordy response I hope I provided something of use. Thank you again, Michelle, for you kind curiosity in this

  4. I’m terribly sorry that Anorexia took your best friend Katie. Anorexia is a terrible disease that took everything from me. I was so close to it taking my life that I finally surrendered to the treatment after a lifetime of hospitals and treatment centers. While Neda provides education they do not provide any financial assistance for people to get proper treatment. My wish is that people begin to donate to those organizations a bit more. Education is important for prevention but you can’t prevent a mental illness. Neda walks are great for community to come together and support one another but proper health care for mental illness is most important. My prayers to you and Katie’s loved ones.

    1. CS- I am so sorry to hear that Anorexia took so much from you, too, but so glad to hear that you’ve surrendered to treatment. I do know that about NEDA; we went to them asking to help with financing Katie’s treatment and we were told that they don’t assist with paying for treatment. I wish they did, and maybe one day this will change. On the bright side, NEDA is a powerful tool to educate and raise awareness as you said. My hope is that with that education, awareness will increase and with it bring more and more practical treatment options. I also hope stigma will decrease, as that is so essential—people cannot get better in isolation and when shame is running the show nobody wins. Thank you for reading and commenting, I wish you all the best in your recovery.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story ..and that of your best pal.Heartfelt condolences.It needs more funding.People need to have compassion.

  6. Mental illnesses are so misunderstood and leave so many devastated survivors in their wake. And now you will fight for understanding and research to slow, then stop, them.Peace to you Kendall.

    1. Thank you so much, Gray. You’re right—they’re so misunderstood, even by well-meaning loved ones, and that misunderstanding contributes to stigma which costs lives.

  7. Yet another tragically powerful story! Thanks Kendall for the well written and raw presentation and also thank you Anne amiss for providing the platform. These are stories that need to be heard and topics that we need to be talking about.

  8. Beautifully written tragically sad story. Thank you for sharing and educating us. We do need changes in our mental health system- desperately! Speaking out and talking to legislators is a wonderful tribute to your friend.

    I’m sorry for your loss. Grieve well and take care of yourself.

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