How Terribly UnBritish……or “Nina’s” Story

I was at Waterloo station the other day, waiting for a train home after a day working in London. I had some time to waste so decided to pop into coffee shop for a drink and bite to eat.

It was the middle of rush hour, very busy and I was looking for somewhere to sit. Most solitary customers had draped coats, laptops, bags, etc. etc. over the vacant seats daring anyone to ask if they could sit there!

It always amuses me when someone points to an empty seat and asks “is anyone sitting there”? I have, on occasions, made what I considered to be quick and witty responses… only to be regarded as if I may have just escaped from an asylum

Anyway- back to said coffee shop and my quest to find somewhere to sit. I spied a vacant seat at a table where a young girl was sitting. I asked “ Is anyone sitting there”?!! ……and settled down to enjoy my coffee and a quiet read of the newspaper. A real one too, not an online version!

I was just in the middle of a very interesting article on the “dilemmas of Modern Ethical Parenting”, when the young lady opposite me broke into my reverie

“Excuse me” she said, quite nervously and playing with her hair……”but I’ve always wanted to start a conversation with a complete stranger, and seeing as I’ll probably never see you again…was wondering if you it was okay with you”?

“I know it’s terribly Un British” she added

I don’t know what made her choose this particular time or why me. Perhaps I looked “safe” A mum and fellow solo traveller. But it made me think

When did we all get so anti-social?

Hiding behind newspapers, keeping eyes averted, headphone on, blocking out the world… defying anyone to even dare to make eye contact, let alone start a conversation

What are we so afraid of?

That instigating a conversation could be misconstrued?  Accused of flirting?

If we do accidentally make eye contact with a fellow passenger we quickly look away… afraid of being accused of staring. Afraid, perhaps, of being attacked?

Has the advent of texting and social media robbed us of the ability to indulge in face to face communication?

Perhaps we should just exchange mobile phone number and sit opposite each other texting!!

I can remember the days (yes I know you’re amazed) when it was quite acceptable to strike up conversations with fellow travellers, and met some incredibly interesting people, young and old,  with fascinating stories to tell.

Anyhow, I digress. Back to my forward table sharer! I replied that I was more than happy to chat with her, and after exchanging names we struck up a conversation. Those who know me know how I love to chat!!

Nina, for the purpose of this tale…..not her real name, was in her first year of university studying Physics. She was intelligent, articulate, vivacious, and confident. Well…outwardly she was anyway.

After a few pleasantries, Nina began to open her heart and soul to me. I’m really not sure why. People keep doing this to me|!

She told me she was on her way to a self-help support group for people with eating orders. I thought she was going to tell me that she worked there as a volunteer, but no, it transpired that she had an eating disorder herself and had found this group through university, though on the exterior you would never guessed.

Tonight was going to be her 2nd visit, and she was feeling very apprehensive as it had been quite a large group on her last visit. On the other hand, she welcomed being with people in the same situation as she was. She had never been before. It was a comfort to her to know other people felt and did the same things to avoid eating as she did.

Nina could not pinpoint where the problem began. She had never been bullied, never been overweight as a child nor had any cruel remarks made about her figure of appearance.

She came from a loving and supportive family, and was wracked with guilt for what she “was putting her parents through” And although she said they were “amazingly supportive and understanding” she couldn’t talk to them or her sister about it, so felt very isolated

As she spoke of her situation my heart bled for her and I wanted to wrap her in my arms and take her home with me

She told me she had eaten normally until her A levels. Nina had been Head Girl at her prestigious school, and had felt under great pressure to succeed in her exams as she said “the whole community knew if you were head girl and so would know your results as well, and expected you to do well”

She then spent a year in another prestigious school in Israel for her gap year, this is when she felt she started “restricting”

Perhaps being away from home and living independently was the trigger, though she couldn’t put her finger on anything specific

Nina lives at home and commutes to uni daily,. She is not 100% sure it’s the right thing, but doesn’t feel ready to live independently again

Her fellow students are, as far as she knows, unaware of her predicament.

She recognises she is under pressure at the moment, studying and revising for upcoming exams, but sadly has started restricting again. She is extremely intelligent, and realises that, unless she stops, she will not have the physical or emotional energy to cope with them

Her greatest fears are that she will be unable to have children or will die young. She doesn’t have a boyfriend as she says she’s “too busy studying, and anyway, is not in the right place to deal with relationships”.

Such insight from such a tortured soul

But her greatest wish is to recover, fall in love, marry, and have 3 children.

Her parents tell her she will be very ill….and die….if she doesn’t eat. She has been admitted to hospital once, but it frightened her so much she discharged herself and managed to eat “normally” for 6 months. She is supposed to eat 3 meals a day but tells me that she rarely manages that.

She doesn’t know what she weighs as her parents banned all scales in the house. However, she has 3 mirrors in her bedroom. 2 of them full length. She spends a long time looking at herself in them, and “strongly dislikes” what she sees. After talking she thought she may “try to remove one of them later”

After talking almost nonstop for 40 minutes (yes, I had met my match) Nina looked at her watch and said she needed to leave or she’d be late.

She jumped up, came across to my side of the table and gave me a big hug….immediately withdrawing and apologising for being “so forward, and invading my personal space” She thanked me and said I had no idea how good it had made her feel to talk to someone.

Then she made her way out of the coffee shop, and I watched her skip across the concourse…..a happy, carefree young lady to anyone who may have watched her go.

We’ll never meet again. I’ll never know if she manages to recover fully. A small part of me fears she never will. But I wish her much happiness and success in her life

Who knows what the person opposite you in the coffee shop, or next to you on the train is going through? But maybe a smile to and conversation with may be a life saver.

So maybe we should stop hiding behind our newspapers, iPads, phones, and iPods.

And start being a little more “terribly UnBritish”