Everyone has a story. Your story is unique, and it is capable of reaching others in some capacity that will be received as a gift. If you have an empowering story, I encourage you to share it. Not only can this be healing and freeing for you, but it is healing and freeing for others. It is your story that heals.
Most of my life, I was a private person. I was overly cautious in friendships and relationships, and hesitant to let anyone into my world. I flew under the radar, and preferred to be alone. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, with being an introvert who prefers books over social activities. But by hiding, well into adulthood, and keeping my story locked away, I was missing out on a great opportunity. The opportunity to build connections with people, especially those who have a similar story. I realized I was withholding a major gift that can lead to my great work being done in the world.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life. As far back as my memory will allow, and as soon as I became self-aware as a child, there was a strange sense of pervasive melancholy and isolation. I lived two blocks away from my elementary school, and would walk to and from school each day. I’ll never forget walking to school, backpack in tow, feeling this bizarre disconnection from my body. It was as if I was viewing myself from the sky while sleepwalking. Later in life, I was able to label this feeling with a legitimate psychological term, which is a phenomenon known as “dissociation”.
I’ve experienced dissociation many times in my life, and still do on occasion. For those who fortunately have not felt this, the best way I can describe it is an extreme and frightening version of déjà vu.
Anxiety has been with me just as long as depression, at least 20 years now. For those reading this who have chronic anxiety or have had panic attacks, or both, you know what kind of hell this can be. I get it. I’ve been there. Most importantly, you are not alone. You are not the story you tell yourself. You are not what others think of you. You are not the pithy and insensitive remarks that are directed toward you. You are not taboo as a byproduct of your depression or anxiety or eating disorder. You do not need to hide. Please keep reading. This story has a happy “ending” (I put this word in quotations because it’s really a lifelong journey). I will tell you what coping mechanisms have worked for me, and how I’ve found relief from states of mental distress.
Anxiety and depression are often close cousins with eating disorders. It’s often a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” scenario. Either anxiety and depression somehow contribute to an eating disorder, an eating disorder worsens anxiety and depression, or some combination of all three exists (which was the case for me). It’s like back in the day, when finger-painting, and I mixed all the colors together to create this sort of non-specific brown. My thoughts were all blurred together into that brown. I felt out of control when it came to the canvas of my life.
Enter eating disorder, or ED. At age 14, the battle began. Controlling my food and exercise gave me a false sense of control in my life. I could not yet accept that there were things that were outside of my control. I had to reign everything in and use my puppet strings to create idealized, unrealistic outcomes. Everything became black or white. I didn’t allow myself to consume ANY foods that contained fat. I HAD to exercise excessively every day. At the time, it felt like it wasn’t a choice. ED had me in shackles. It was a dire demand. It was the difference between failing and succeeding. It was an ABSOLUTE requirement that I kept my calorie intake below 500 a day, no exceptions. This was meticulously recorded and poured over every night. If something was out of balance, if I ate one too many apples or rice cakes, I panicked. I would then need to sneak out of the house at night to go for a run. I took ephedrine (which of course is now illegal because of its harmful effects on the body), wrapped food in napkins and threw them away or hid them underneath a sweatshirt until I could be excused from the table, made excuses for missing dinner because I had “homework”, told my parents I had a stomach ache, became vegetarian so I could cut out entire food groups, avoided like the plague social or family events where large amounts of food would be present, and the diversions go on and on.
My anorexia, from a clinical perspective, did not continue long, probably two years. But for me it was a lifetime of living in my own prison. And it was about to get worse. My body couldn’t sustain itself, especially since I was involved with physical activities such as dance team in high school. We’d have 3-hour practices after school in the cafeteria; following that, I walked 2 miles home. For all that exercise, I’d have the smallest possible bite of a Power Bar. You don’t have to be a dietician to understand that’s not enough food. After a summer of extreme restricting and over-the-top workouts, entering into my freshman year of high school, I stepped on the scale and felt an electric current of fear rush through me. I was 97 pounds. Oh and by the way, I’m 5’9”. I was emaciated, dangerously underweight.
That number on the scale, and the emotions associated with it, will stay with me for the rest of my life. (Only now, 14 years later, can I be weighed at the doctor’s office without losing my shit). I looked in the mirror and was unrecognizable, miserable, and desperate. I often had heart palpitations, hadn’t had a menstrual cycle in months, and couldn’t sleep at night because my bones jutted out to the point where I couldn’t find a comfortable position, even on a soft mattress. I suddenly understood the magnitude of the hole I was in. That was the first day I ever binged.
I raced downstairs and all but unloaded the kitchen’s contents. I gorged on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cereal, cookies, ice cream, whatever I could get my hands on. My parents were more than puzzled at the mysterious disappearance of vast amounts of food from the cabinets and fridge. They had to start labeling Tupperware containers with a note that said “Do Not Eat”. I was embarrassed, humiliated. I only binged while I was alone, and barely ate in the presence of others. For obvious reasons, I gained weight rapidly, and ED didn’t like that one bit. So it took on a different form. A seamless transition. Bulimia.
In many aspects, this was without question the worst period of my life. Everything I did was dictated by my eating disorder. I would skip school to walk home, binge, and purge. I made choices that would change the course of my life. I’m still working on mending those mistakes. I experimented with a number of harmful substances. I’ll never forget my rock bottom; most people don’t. They may block it out temporarily, but a traumatic experience is usually committed to long-term memory. There are often triggers (a sound, a smell, an image, a word) that bring the experience back to the surface, the forefront of the mind.
Like any other ordinary day, I skipped class. I walked to Dunkin Donuts, and bought myself a bag of donuts. Yes, they were all for me. Knowing what would come next, I had a new idea. I had heard of people using ipecac. For those who don’t know, Ipecac is an over-the-counter medicine intended to induce vomiting following ingestion of a poisonous substance. With my bag of donuts, I walked to the grocery store. Heart racing, mind reeling, I stole a bottle of ipecac. I was too paranoid about being questioned at the counter to purchase it. Back at home, I binged, gulped back a couple teaspoons of the disgusting liquid, and waited. I’ll spare you the details of the events that followed. I collapsed on the floor and blacked out. I came back to consciousness an undeterminable time later, on the cold tile of the bathroom floor, my head throbbing. I was overwrought with anxiety and despair. In that moment, I wanted to die. I wanted to be released from the grips of my eating disorder. I had hit the very bottom of my well. I would have more lows to come in my life, but I believe this was one of my all-time lows. As I write this, my hands are shaking and my chest is tight. This is a painful memory to share.
My parents soon caught on to my behaviors. I was pulled out of school to receive outpatient treatment for my eating disorder at the Institute of Living in Hartford, CT. It was there that I met some of the most authentically beautiful souls I’ll ever encounter. These women and men ranged in age from 12 to 60. Each was at a different stage in their recovery. Even in the depths of my own need for healing, I recognized how sad it was that we were there. How fundamentally fucked up it was to be caught in the crossfire of self-deprecation. That society’s messages had, in any way, a role in causing this dis-ease. It was there that the seed was planted. It was there that a flame was sparked inside me to challenge and to combat the way we, as a society, reward or deny people based on their appearance. It was there that I had my first brush with meditation and yoga. I experienced firsthand the transformative, healing power of meditation, coupled with the intuitive wisdom of yoga. I observed how my friends with eating disorders responded to guided meditation. They were calmer, they were breathing deeper, the light returned to their eyes. Those shifts alone were huge triumphs. In a nutshell, meditation and yoga became my healer, my relief from anxiety and damaging thoughts about myself.
Fast forward to today. Since my last treatment at IOL ended, I’ve healed and transformed in a big way. I’ve continued therapy on and off with different people. I’ve learned to listen to my body. I feed myself with what truly fuels me, from a literal perspective of nutrition, to a visceral level of intuitive life choices. I’ve continued to meditate often. I became a certified Kripalu Yoga Teacher. I went back to school. I landed a job I thought I was unqualified for. I got married, bought a house, and am starting my own business. I’ve been called “a leader”. Never would I have imagined myself emerging as a leader. That is truly astounding to me. I am slowly learning how to stand in that truth with confidence, and firmly, unapologetically, take my seat as a teacher and leader. That is the happy ending, or better, happy beginning. Each day, I begin again. I show up differently each day, but I show up. And that’s what matters. From my life cred even more than my formal training, I am qualified to lead and to teach. I now seek progress instead of perfection, and try to my best ability to delight in simple joys. I want to help others heal, grow, and bloom fully.
If your story has yet to be told, tell it. Talk about it, share about it, stand in your truth. Reach out to others. Reinforce to yourself that you and everyone else deserves to be happy, to be healthy, to be free from danger. Be in support of yourself first and foremost. Become your own best friend. Tell yourself a new story, and discard the old one that says “you can’t”. Because you can. And you will.
I hope that sharing my story will serve someone in some capacity. If you have questions, comments, or want to share your story with me, please do. I’ll do my best to respond and support you in any way that I can.