The past few months have been incredibly trying for me. Those of you who know me, however, know that I always say that growth always happens outside of your comfort zone, so that means that the past few months have also brought an immense amount of personal growth. My pain and hurt only contributes to the empathy that I am able to feel for others. It will undoubtedly make me a better partner, friend, brother, and eventually, health care provider.
I will have to make a series of posts to address everything, as most importantly, each issue deserves to stand on its own. However, I’ll start with a post that I’ve been wanting to write for almost two weeks, but just have been unable to find the right words.
Over a year ago, I grew closer to a colleague when she shared with me that her sister was struggling with an eating disorder. After having seen the depths of a disorder I call “a cancer of the soul,” I feel an almost instant connection with anyone who has or is going through the same thing… a connection built out of a shared experience, of knowing what it’s like to be in the midst of such an all-consuming and destructive disorder. I came to know her through her sister, who also happens to be one of the most inspiring, touching, and beautiful individuals I have had the honor of crossing paths with.
Well, two weeks ago, I learned that my colleague’s sister passed away. She was a young, vibrant, and beautiful woman, dead in her early 20s. The second the words made their way to my brain, tears flowed from the corner of my eyes. In that moment, as I stood there and absorbed the news, my mind flashed back to the moment where I, at 19, was sitting in my doctor’s office, and she told me that she thought I’d be dead in a month–three tops. That deep ache returned to my heart, as if I had travelled back in time, and was feeling the hurt and pain of the young woman I was then. It hit me: that could have been me. Most importantly, it should have been me, and everyone thought it would be.
After hearing the news, everything has felt a little empty–like something is missing. That day, I stood near the lake in my town, closed my eyes, and just… was. I focused on the feeling of the breeze hitting my face, the warmth of the sun on my skin. I focused on the beauty that I am privileged to experience. I won’t even pretend that recovery wasn’t, and still isn’t, the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, but these past two weeks have reminded me of something I often forget–not everyone makes it out the other side.
The world has lost a beautiful young woman, and my heart has hurt for not just her family, but for her. She will never have the opportunity to experience the incredibly beautiful ups and downs of life that I can today. My life since recovery has blossomed. Everyone I meet asks me the same question: “How do you do it?” “It” usually refers to something like simultaneously working three jobs, being a full-time graduate student, being a campus activist, volunteering regularly, and still having enough heart left after all of that to devote to my family, friends, and of course, my rock–my handsome, inspiring fiancée. While I usually just shrug my shoulders, all I can think is “Why wouldn’t I do it?” Years of my life were lost to an eating disorder. If I have gained anything from recovery, it’s an enormous appreciation for everything in life, even things that are incredibly difficult. I want to learn, to love, and to live as much as possible. So most of all, my heart has hurt that she won’t get to experience the growth, love, and beauty that I have experienced on the other side of a very personal, very deep, and all-consuming hell.
A few years ago, I entered this abstract thing we call “recovery,” and never looked back. Who would want to? I destroyed my success and my dreams, and most importantly, I destroyed my body, a body that will never be the same. If you took a cross-section of my heart, you’d see a maze of scars where a surgeon did his best to stop the awkward beating of my heart. My immune system is on alert, attacking mundane food particles, and even my own body… I’d be on alert if I thought my body was self-destructing, too. As my mentor describes it, “I carry with me the sense that I’ve seen way more than a person my age should have.”
Recovering from an eating disorder is incredibly difficult. Some people compare it to recovery from alcoholism or a drug addiction, but honestly, I’d argue that it’s harder. Imagine telling an alcoholic that they have to drink at least three times a day, but not too much nor too little, but that not drinking too much or too little in and of itself can also be an issue, so they shouldn’t drink too much nor too little except for the times when it’s normal to drink too much or too little. Sound confusing? Sound nearly impossible? Welcome to my life, and to the lives of millions of other Americans. This seemingly impossible task is often a life-long process of healing, and its daunting nature may be why eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness. Not something people usually expect, like schizophrenia, but eating disorders. All over the world, people are dying because they’re starving themselves, bingeing, or purging.
Phew. Sound like a lot? It is. I am pretty sure I’ve felt almost every emotion possible in the past two weeks. I have been sad about the life that was lost, and that my friend has lost her sister and best friend. I have been thankful that I have had this opportunity to reflect on my journey and how interconnected we all are. But most of all, I have been angry. I am so angry that, despite research that suggests that factors such as fitness are much more important than weight in determining health, our society is so weight-focused. The diet industry is one of the biggest in our nation–grossing over 60 BILLION dollars a year, meanwhile rates of obesity and eating disorders (which are really one in the same) continue to increase. We are focusing on weight, and not health, and the proportion of people who are either starving themselves to death or bingeing themselves into oblivion is skyrocketing. It’s clear that our 60 billion dollar diet industry is incredibly ineffective, yet we continue to promote the same ol’ advice and hear the same ol’ story.
So, in the past few weeks, I’ve had to decrease my TV exposure. Every time I hear Jennifer Hudson sing about how much stronger she is because she’s lost weight, I feel the sudden urge to put my fist through the TV and punch her in the face. Yes, it’s something I feel that strongly about. However, I’m fairly certain my partner would be a little (okay, very) upset if I destroyed our gorgeous flat screen TV.
How about we focus on listening to our bodies? It may completely shock you, especially in a society where we are told we must always control and never trust our bodies, that we are–gasp–born with cues that tell us when we’re physically hungry. Yes, I know, shocking!
Take a minute to listen to your body. Check in with yourself. Are you hungry? Anything hurting? How are you feeling?
It may take a while to become a good listener, because most people have been “trained” to defy these signals from a very young age (you know, because we’re so strong and valuable and filled with so much fabulous willpower if we skip a meal or snack when our body is hungry). I promise, though, that if you keep listening, your body telling you something. It is telling you that it appreciates when you fuel it with foods that give it the nutrients and energy it needs to be strong and feel well. It is telling you that it appreciates when you exercise and strengthen its muscles and bones. It is telling you that it appreciates when you take time to relax and to get a full night’s sleep. It is telling you that it appreciates when you care for its soul by loving, laughing, and living life to the fullest. Most of all, it is telling you that it appreciates when you listen.
Listen more, judge less. It could save your life… or at least give you years back that you’re losing to all the time you spend judging yourself.
“Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.”