I am lonely, tell me a story

Like most people, I always had a plan.

Yet it wasn’t long before minor blips started upsetting what I considered to be a blueprint for a happy, fulfilled life. At 15, I sank into anorexia nervosa.

A narrow escape from death due to this mental condition inspired me to precipitously switch my college major from abstract math to law (I needed the discipline of a “rulebook”), cognitive psychology and psychoanalysis. Becoming a lawyer, though, was not for me; and in those times in Greece, a woman becoming a shrink was the stuff of lewd jokes.

That is probably why, still at college, I accidentally floated into journalism. A week-long furlough from my “regular life” to pursue life as a writer in my country’s equivalent of the NYTimes somehow turned into my life. Fifteen years later, everything had changed and everything remained the same. Yet I was profoundly unhappy, teetering on the brink of anorexia yet again, ashamed of my strange hollowness and yearning for an incohate “meaning” to ignite my life.

In 2010, my country went bust. My friends started leaving for other European countries. I could not conceive of leaving my homeland and my mother — the two interchangeable in my mind — for a new life. A single mother, she worked 18 hours a day to raise me, her only child. Every Saturday we picked cyclamines and anemones in the forest north of Athens. She tried to draw me out of my insular, solipsistic existence by reciting Emily Dickinson: “I am nobody. Who are you? Are you — nobody — too? Then there’s a pair of us!”

Then some ancient pagan gods must have decided to intervene. During a short sojourn in New York (researching a book I was writing while covering a conference on the future of digital journalism) one of the very important people I was interviewing expressed interest in me and my book, offering me a job that seemed perfect.

The elation of that night evoked the unadulterated sunniness of my infancy. My mom who was in Greece, and I, pulled an all-nighter on videochat. “Spread your wings,” she said, pushing me to pursue my dreams like she had not, sacrificing herself for others.

So I stayed, in America. Greece went — is still going — through meltdown. Alone, I watched the derailment, from New York. I no longer had a past to return to if I needed to. There was only one way for me: forward. In America.

That did not make things easier, though. Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf was an appropriate metaphor for the job and book deal I had been offered. Even more importantly, neither covered the requirements of immigration law.

Soon my situation became Kafkaesque. Although working full-time, I was not getting paid. My meager savings were running out, and practical problems like Hurricane Sandy, Arctic Vortexes, bad plumbing and heating, and even the roof collapsing over my head twice, were child’s play compared to my immigration woes. I floundered in a murky wasteland of immigration lawyers. One tried to blackmail me; another vanished; a third lost my papers; a fourth refused to hand me my passport unless I met him at an underground storage facility in Clinton, at 3 a.m. Initially I could not stay on in the U.S., then I could not leave, even to visit my mother back in Greece. The few people I had hoped would help commiserated, dissembled, vanished. Quite spectacularly, I managed to contract pneumonia twice. One morning, a deranged biker threw me to the ground, pummeled me, but did not mug me.

In the spirit of Murphy’s Law, one day I slipped on black ice and injured my knee, badly. With no health insurance or money, hobbling and constant pain became my new constant. The grief of my isolation and severance from my homeland and mother did nothing to diminish my nightmares of suddenly finding myself outside the U.S. and not being allowed to re-enter. When I started obsessing each night, about ways to end my life, I realized I was losing my mind.

To find it, I hit the streets.

I walked myself through days of bitter cold and snow; through angry summer nights where you could not breathe for the humidity, the city’s forsaken and mad(dened) crawling out of the woodwork, while the more fortunate passed them by without ostensibly registering their presence. My tenuous existence, oscillating between the two conditions, made feel like a ghost.

Then I cooked. On my half-broken microwave (no stove or oven) I learned to transmogrify my purchases of discounted produce into tasty stews and curries that nursed my body and spirit to health.

One afternoon, on the West Harlem bus, I sat between a gorgeous Viola Davis doppelgänger, and two guys so deeply in love they evoked everyone’s first golden love. Another night, I watched a horde of cheery Lithuanian Haredim, storming out of Magnolia Bakery, help a bedazzling transgender multiracial woman carry a velvet couch someone had thrown out on the street. The sickness inside me abated.

People from all walks of life started telling me their stories. In these encounters — always random and fleeting — whole lives were contained and shared: pieces of the daily fabric of so many people existing in different orbits, around the same sun. This inspired me to write, and embark on my new career, as a counsellor and life coach, here in New York.

One post-snowstorm afternoon that had rendered the city into white screaming silence, I was walking along the Hudson. Its frozen waves, reminiscent of the vulnerability that binds us all together: everyone, everything in this world. In front of some auspicious luxury condos, a doorman yelled out to another: “I am lonely. Tell me a story.”

I came to learn that in New York, “arrival” can mean different things. For some, it means achieving success and status. For others, tapping into a communion of stories to create our own.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Follow Amalia Negreponti on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@aliama

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