A part of me is always frozen in September. Time slows down and it hurts. My heart feels numb but it also aches; it beats strong and yet it is so fragile. It is both and neither, and so am I. For many years that is also often how I have felt about this life- and I stay and I sit with that sense of duality. And I think about the reasons and I make meaning in every way I know how because I stay.
Many renowned academics have spent their lives agonizing over the solution to a profound problem: Living hurts. A lot. It is hard to contest that. Almost without exception, if you are a living being on this earth then you will come to know physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and suffering. This suffering is often a part of what connects all of us in our time together on earth- along with our moments of reprieve from it, however short or long. The meaning we make throughout all of it, the joy we find, the community we share, the novelty we seek- all of it held together can make experiencing life so tremendous. It is a tremendous thing to be a part of existence as we know it.
I see the good and the bad; I hear the joy and the despair; I feel the sting and sorrow. It’s constant and I’m still here. The “and” is important. Yet so are the buts, the dissonance of it all. Can you hear it? Can you see it? Do you feel the warmth and the cold when they come together? It’s all and nothing at once. If there are miracles, surely this must be one.
The past may grow hazy, like the sunset turning to twilight. We can usually still remember all of its colors, though some might become harder to make over others as the sun sets into the night. Sometimes we never see the same colors strike the fading sky in the same way again. We miss them, even griever them. Some of us hold tighter to our memories so we might never lose them- but is this even truly possible? How do we know what we know? And how much does that matter?
I know I am here now. “Time” keeps me here. My memories hold me tight. Love endures here in spite of all the hurt or so I must allow myself to believe. And I will not apologize. I do not apologize I do not apologize I do not apologize; and I am here I am here I am here- and I am staying. And if I am to keep staying- to be so audacious in taking such space- I want to help make this world a safer, kinder place for everyone else to stay, too.
Because it has been so many years, now. And the pain still isn’t gone. So often it barely feels bearable- or even any better. I hate admitting that- I wish so badly I could say pain always gets better over time, but that is not my truth. I often wonder if perhaps a more accurate reality for others like me is that we might simply learn how to better carry the weight of it all- as our muscles and minds grow accustomed to it always being there. And we grow stronger the longer we carry it. Or rather, we simply grow. And that growing process is indeed ever-mysterious.
I believe that for many of us, if we are so lucky, sometimes special souls come along and help carry the weight- they lighten the load for a bit and they travel lonely, winding paths with us as we make our way through time and space. They listen; they receive. They are present; they understand the healing power of simply being and bearing witness. Because yes, emotional states may very well be temporary- but for some of us, certain perceptual states and bodily sensations- deep embodied memories and somatizations- are infinitely more complex than mere feelings that fade into the background over time. We need one another’s support as we travel lonely paths drained of color and shrouded in shadow. Support helps us find our guiding lights.
There are things that may make pain and suffering easier to hold, to examine up close. Sometimes those fractals of faded colors are illuminated by guideposts in an inky sky, and all the light obscured from view shines again even as shadows seem to creep in at every corner. Once, I looked deep into the shadows; inside them I I saw stars- I came back here for the light they promised. This is still a reality I know; I understand it’s not always an easy one to contemplate for long. But please don’t look away; please just stay- and help to make this world a little brighter and a little kinder instead.
There is joy and warmth that will demand to be felt if we allow ourselves to find it, that will demand for us put down our shields and be vulnerable in sparingly precious moments if we just listen. But truly listening requires a gentle strength- a true willingness to let go, authentically. Being soft after trauma is a tremendous and lonely undertaking- but with all my heart, if I am to stay too, I cannot believe that any of us are truly alone or incapable of taking steps towards trust and reparation. The sunlight and the shadows and the blinking stars- the nothings and the somethings and everything in between- they can all hold meaning if we let them.
You are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. I don’t always know who I’m writing to or for-often I just write for all the fragments inside of me and that’s enough. But to anyone who may take meaning from the words I write, please- if nothing else- know that you are not alone, and even still, it’s okay to feel lonely. I hope you stay and fight longer, too. It is okay to be here.
I know there are so many other people who are caught in their own frozen September. Or perhaps instead it might be a January or a July, or maybe there are years stuck together in time filled with painful memories that might become warped, hazy and confusing. We might feel trapped in these constructed timelines that seem stuck at a stand-still while everyone else is passing us by at a different speeds; sometimes maybe it’s more like time is always running out and there is no way to hold on. We fight and fight to keep track of it, because where does it all go? And we can’t lose more, but it’s so hard to stay- and what would happen if we just floated away? Staying hurts. Leaving is all but impossible. The past hurts; the present seems impossible. Staying hurts but we keep fighting and finding reason. We search and find, search and find- that life is not but an empty dream.
I am here, and I will no longer let apologies slip from my lips even in the times when I want to cry them out and curl into a ball on the floor and fade from this existence. I am a dissonance defined and I am here, and as I write this I promise to keep trying. It hurts all the time; I’m still staying. And I want everyone else to stay- and to grow and to heal. I want us all to heal because the pain in this world is too much- it’s an injustice and I believe there must be better. So I’m done being quiet; I will be loud and I will be fierce and I will learn to forgive and let go as I’m ready. I am searching and I am finding.
Sometimes it’s okay to hold on to whatever makes up the past. And sometimes we will let go of it. We can cherish the dissonance. I’m learning every day- and I can do so imperfectly, while holding space and leaving a footprint and a memory behind in time and for the world surrounding me.
To everyone who has been lost, I miss you every day. To everyone who finds me over and over again, you are my eternal reasons. Thank you.
Lots of Love,
Perhaps one of the most important components of cultivating caring communities is providing accessible, culturally competent, trauma-aware healthcare.
What might this look like? Do we have any existing models for such communities? What would be important structures to avoid in designing or organizing communities free of oppression and discriminatory practices? This is a topic enormous in scale that deserves to be addressed methodically, but for now I want to call attention to community-driven efforts to treat, prevent, and reduce social and socioeconomic crises.
We see many relief efforts organized independently, growing at the grassroots-level which sometimes transform into larger non-profits, carrying out formidable endeavors on a regular basis; it is so important to recognize the individuals within our own communities who are serving our most marginalized, at-risk members of our society. How can we all participate in helping communities founded in compassion- and how can we begin to break down the borders surrounding access to care?
I believe the heart of a compassionate healthcare system is mental healthcare. There are many different ideas of what mental healthcare should like, who can and should provide it, and who can and cannot. Yet is there only one form of mental health? One kind of wellness practice? Certainly not. So why are there so many barriers to accessible mental health care and coverage? I research these questions.
Speaking with folks, I find that a lot of them don’t know how to begin looking for mental healthcare- specifically psychotherapy. They don’t know where to begin, or what to ask for- how to advocate for their needs and wants. I feel I hear the same questions and concerns reiterated: “who am I to advocate for myself? To determine how I should be treated? I am no expert. ”
There is a fine line between understanding a need for outside help and feeling a lack of autonomy created through oppressive structures. Stigma itself surrounding these systems exists as an oppressive force. It’s as though a kind of collective learned helplessness develops; folks find themselves either afraid to seek help even when they know they need it, or they find themselves stuck in toxic healthcare environments that are hurting more than helping; they grow afraid to try and leave or to speak out against discriminatory practices.
Creating better wellness systems will consequently necessitate boundary work, advocacy work, deconstruction, reconstruction, and openness to new thought in these thoroughly westernized, colonized fields of science. If mental healthcare serves as a cornerstone to the healthcare field, can it also serve as a good access of entry in a collective effort to liberate healing work?
Medicine and healing don’t have to be delivered so exclusively by white men in white coats who enforce western philosophy and theory. Have you personally reflected upon what has provided healing to your mind, body, and spirit on your journey thus far? Do you know what best serves you and your boundaries?
This is about “the suffering that is too terrible to name…” and learning to live
with The Unimaginable.”
For all of the elaborate treatments which western medicines have tried to co-opt and create to treat mental illness and suffering, I question whether there are any that truly address bereavement in all its spiritual, social, and emotional complexities.
How do you mediate the effects of bereavement? If you ruminate, then you are wrong; if you avoid your grief, you are wrong; if you turn to coping mechanisms unproven by empirical evidence, you are again likely wrong. So how many things might be deemed “right”? What can possibly fill the hollow void left behind in the wake of a lost body and soul? The pain and emptiness that- for some- simply never seem to go away?
Who can possibly decide the right way to live with those emotions, those sensations, those perceptual states? What is most ethical, purposeful, or correct, truly? Could there ever be a right answer beyond the individual level?
I’ve gotten into trouble for asking questions such as these since I was a twelve year-old child, following the death of my father. It was as though adults around me thought that by asking such things I would become a weapon, dangerous to myself and to others. I was told not to think too hard; that was surely the problem (Rumination). Focus on other things; get a hobby or two. The pain of losing loved ones- in whatever capacity- will go away with time. Emotions are temporary.
I froze my brain as best I could; I numbed myself quietly through the false persona of a shiny happy blonde teen who tried to please everyone. I picked up as many hobbies as I was able, while I grew increasingly ill. Finding purpose and meaning as an adolescent is hard for many young people, but still I was guided towards dreams and aspirations- which my reality crushed hard. Because doing anything while living with debilitating chronic pain and fatigue- no matter the origin- is not often all that dreamy.
Today, I feel that my questions remains valid. What is the danger inherent in asking who decides what is right for my mind and my body after they were shattered in childhood? Who decides my narrative- or for that matter anyone else’s? Why do so many societies seek to hide and control those of us who grieve profoundly, those of us who feel this world with our whole being?
Does we hurt to look at? Is grief painful to look at? Is it so incomprehensible for those who don’t feel such indignation in their bones every day that there are some people living in this world who just might?
Or perhaps- does bereavement bring up a painful reminder of the human condition itself? Of life’s fragility, and of how we as humans simply cannot control everything? We are mortal- we are stories with beginnings and endings, some much longer and more acclaimed than others. How do we hold that knowledge?
While this world cries out in suffering and I am alive to witness, as I watch my friends suffer- some more loudly, some silently- as I watch more lives vanish from this world, I will not apologize for my grieving. I will not apologize for getting angry. I will not apologize for not always immediately ascribing some sort of reason to all the chaos. For not ACT-DBT-CBT-ing my way through life. That is not the therapy which I believe to be my solution to pain and suffering. And I know it’s not the answer for many others, either.
I believe in listening, first. I believe in witnessing, first. I believe in radical compassion. I believe in contextualizing the entirety of an individual’s experience and asking someone what they make of their time here on this earth. I believe, I believe, I believe.
And as for joy and awe- sometimes even magic- and the possibility of the great beyond, yes, I believe in them, too. With all I have in me. But it’s my choice, and I believe in my way. And as others find their paths through ethical egoism and modified behavioral therapies, I respect their ways- so long as they don’t diminish the pain and lived experiences of others. Everyone deserves to find their way.
Perhaps the connectivity I imagine and yearn for won’t ever be truly captured in textbooks, journals, or research papers, even as I fervently search to better analyze it in my own research and studies surrounding the human psyche. I’ll use the DSM as I am required; I’ll work earnestly for my diplomas; but I won’t ever stop trying to plant seeds of change, of thought, wherever I go and grow.
I will continue to ask: What do we do when there are no words, when there is suffering too terrible to name?
“They are working through The Unimaginable.”
Photographs from 2015-2019
Last year, at the end of July, I made the choice to rejoin social media after spending nearly four years away from sharing myself with others online. I created a public Instagram profile and I created this blog- both with slightly altered titles. I had hidden from the commotion of online groupthink and validation for so long; I was anxious to rejoin it. Yet I reintegrated with more ease than I would like to admit.
Most of us know this cyberspace well; we often use it to seek out some sort of solace between the gaps in time during our waking hours. To sift through photographs of faraway places, delight in pictures of petals sprinkled across prosy poetry, or muse over a fleeting thought captured on a post-it note displayed for the masses. And that’s just a fragment of what floats atop these mainstream platforms’ shiny surfaces.
Down in their depths are the battle cries of warriors; a growing collective of whispers from voices told to hush, hush. The prayers of beautiful emboldened bodies who have found spaces to shine; the prayers of souls who just want to be found.
And then sometimes, there is just noise. Chaos and noise.
I never quite know how to hold that– and I wonder where my voice fits into such an overwhelming array of textured sound. I worry whether I will get lost in the fray.
I question: How do I gracefully carve out a space for myself to use my voice and make meaningful impact in a way that makes sense of my identity and of my own intersectionality? How do I consciously and carefully reclaim, create, and foster new ideas… and what about doing these things in the scarier world outside of this space in between?
Somewhere along the way, I chose to follow a path that stretches deep into the darkness of unknowns in my search for deeper introspection, and a complex understanding of the world which we inhabit. I want to look at my imperfect pieces and face them unabashedly. I strive to reduce the cognitive dissonance within me that at times makes me doubt whether it truly is okay for me to be here- because I do believe it is.
But then- what is here? I hold “here” as my present. I don’t have to have all the answers; yet I have to keep searching for answers. I take up too much space; I’m still allowed to inhabit my own space on this earth. It feels too hard to show up; it’s important for myself and for others that I keep showing up each day, in whatever capacity I can.I do my best to accept each of my conflicting, contradicting thoughts as they come, and I like to believe that I’m still blooming into tomorrow.
And I’m not alone.
Sometimes when bearing witness to great suffering, whether up close or from a great distance, I feel an intense desire to atomize myself. If only I could send pieces of myself to people who are all alone or experiencing great pain. I could support others with whatever capacity lives inside me.
But to address the great amount of suffering in this world equally, I would need to disintegrate into mere atomic particles that could float across the atmosphere- there are simply so many people hurting. Even then, I don’t know how my energy, pieces of me, could ever be enough. I would eventually just have to split apart those tiniest of pieces. I would have to split, and split, and split.
And what happens when you split tiny atoms?
I keep myself whole, all my matter together, so long as I am able to believe that I too matter. That my pain, my joy, my experience matters. And I hold a place on this planet and can flicker a light, however small, for others who come across my path.
I’m so grateful for all the guideposts who keep me from becoming a nuclear fission of fragmentations. I am whole.
So often, I hear the sentiment passed around to “grow in the place you are planted”. But what happens when the soil of your home land has been poisoned? Do you leave? How do you continue to grow? And if you do somehow manage to survive, to blossom into a beautiful and precious flower, what if someone comes along and plucks you away from the home you have created- the roots you have planted?
I was born a flower thief in a society-a culture- of people who steal flowers; we tend not to think much of it. Flowers are simply pretty things, object decorations. I bought these flowers at Trader Joe’s, Rainforest Alliance-certified- and these flowers were likely grown in Latin America. They were taken from their home, a place I don’t know- and like all flowers harvested and put into vases, these flowers will soon wilt away here, in the foreign, alien land of my tiny kitchen. I don’t know what sort of flower family they left behind; I wasn’t taught to care, growing up. I was simply taught to treasure beautiful things, even to take from them- to try and be as beautiful and strong as the flowers, who continue to survive even as they are harvested and passed on from land to land.
Sitting with this bouquet, taking photographs of these beautiful little plant lives the day before the 4th of July outside my apartment home in the South of the United States, I wasn’t really thinking of flowers at all.
So many of us have been taught to celebrate July the 4th in the United States as a Day of Independence, as a holiday of freedom. But who is truly free and independent on this holiday? Are we all equally free?
Right now, flagrant human rights violations are being carried out by the U.S. Immigrants and Customs Enforcement funded by American government. Children and their families are being torn apart and brought to live in abhorrent conditions simply because they have sought refuge in “the land of the free”- more often than not because their own land was so unsafe.
“This land is your land, this land is my land”- has that American value ever held true? After all, where did our beautiful American land come from? It was conquered; stolen- from the ancestors of so many of the indigenous peoples who are presently being locked into cages and enclosures unfit for human habitation. Our country wishes to bar people at our borders who seek what is rightfully theirs to reclaim. Who are we to keep anyone from seeking shelter and making a life for themselves here? Where is the great, ever-elusive “American Dream” for those most in need of it?
The physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse that has and continues to be inflicted upon our migrant, immigrant, and refugee families cannot be ignored; it is nothing other than American-led terrorism. Now is a time to practice great compassion and bear witness to the human pain and suffering; we cannot look away.
There has never been a time in this country when everyone has had true independence- July the 4th serves as a reminder. Let us strive to come together as a community during these dark times and shut down these concentration camps in our own backyards, work to reunite families, and cease this cycle of trauma.
When I look at myself in my blue shirt sitting with these stolen flowers on stolen land, I see the colors associated with my country- and I see blue for Sudan’s uprising, red for the protests in Hong Kong, orange for refugee awareness, and white as a color of mourning. I’m so sorry for all this pain. Here sits my promise to work towards a global community of compassion and care.
“This is my body and you cannot have it. It is not yours to touch, to hold, to take from; it is not yours to do with as you please. I am no object.”
These words are a sentiment seared into my heart; it screams them as it pumps blood to my body, and often I wonder if the men around me can hear it beating out each word, a battle cry and a howl of sorrow. I am not theirs to take- never again.
I am more than a photograph of a girl’s body; I alone hold her female, feminine story. We have been to hell and back and we are here to share that truth, if only in fragmented pieces over much time.
My body and I, we are often at odds with one another in ways I cannot fully communicate to people who don’t live with embodied pain of past traumas unspoken, who don’t know what it’s like to hide away unspeakable secrets for years too many. I continue to carry that in my bones- it wasn’t mine to contain but I carry it. That pain flows through me and out of me like the blood I shed from the lining of my uterus. But then, we’re not supposed to talk about such things, right?
Pain and periods. Blood and birth, death and decaying inside out. What it is to be a woman who has seen and experienced things we don’t quite know how to make sense of… to be a human being who suffers and thinks about it. Period blood; scary, dirty, forbidden. I raise you Toxic Masculinity; the most hideous thing that has ever touched me.
I refuse to be scared away by fragile male egos who cringe at the word “period” while they wail about blue balls and the dangers of getting a girl pregnant- the violent men who shame women without birth control, the misogynists who expect transactional sex. These men who would never consider a vasectomy, or hormones that invalidate their masculinity; meanwhile, so many women are far too often trapped on hormones and painful contraceptive devices-whether to prevent pregnancy, or to control our painful bleeding, or to help us conform to societal “norms” of how women should appear, with large breasts (and nipples we must never show) and no body hair- and uteruses to be considered valid in a heteronormative, transphobic, and patriarchal society that oppresses anything that can be “othered”.
The implication that women have true choice in the matter over our reproductive healthcare is insulting; show me where the choice truly exists other than inside the shackles of abstinence. And for every vote of abstinence, I ask you how many men are also willing to hold themselves to the same standard practice of “abstinence”- and to define their criteria for the construct. If it’s a pull-out method and a heteronormative ideology of sex that puts more power to the penis, I’m not here for it. And for all the men who say that this is radical, that this is “not all men”, who claim to know and practice better- go out and be the difference. Prove it.
And there will always be a fear in me of the men who do simply just take- without consent- from female bodies when it pleases them, especially from women who are most vulnerable- because society continuously teaches men that they are allowed to do so. Our present laws and language fail to provide them with much other example. Rape culture is rampant, often in the most insidious forms. I do not feel safe; so many of us do not feel safe.
Being a virgin did not and has not kept many of us safe from rape, from assault, from abuse. Yet does the responsibility of contraception and abstinence continue to fall upon the shoulders of women, too? Must we tie our legs shut, cover ourselves in more layers of shame, hide away in our homes until it is time for us to be made whole by men?Or perhaps we initiate a radical sex strike instead, in a twisted effort to manipulate our oppressors, continuing to deny ourselves pleasure and freedom, all in the pursuit of basic safety and human rights that should have been safely granted to us long ago, without the threat of revocation? I ask, every day- will we EVER hold all men accountable and make it the STANDARD for men of the highest privilege to take responsibility for their actions, past and present? Will we insist upon a better, more equitable future where those with most power work to create and protect a reproductive healthcare system accessible to everyone?
This starts with the fight to ensure and protect basic human rights to bodily and spiritual autonomy, for all people with reproductive healthcare needs. In these times we must remember that our identities are made up of so much more than our hormones and genitals or whether or not we can reproduce- certainly there is more to womanhood, to personhood, than that. During Pride Month, more than EVER, let us not forget that key to our complex human identities.
When our female reproductive rights are weaponized and taken from us, and our bodies treated like objects to control and diminish, it’s hard to remember our worth unless we are fighting for every facet of our identities. With pride, and true allyship towards those in our community who need our support most, may we can continue to ground ourselves in our value- knowing that we deserve the right to choice and freedom.
I am more than a photograph of a woman’s body. This is my body; it will never be yours to take.
Every April, Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month incites an all-too-necessary conversation about many topics surrounding sex, notably including the nature of sexual assault, abuse, and rape- and what obtaining and communicating consent might look like in a modern and more ethical society. This movement is not even yet two decades old.
Many of us who have survived sexual trauma are still pushing to create a more inclusive, expansive definition of consent that is enforced in both law and society- one which upholds the value and dignity of all human individuals and recognizes complex systems of oppression still at work today. I believe we have a long way to go before that definition is recognized in general society.
The conversation SAAPM naturally instigates quickly becomes broader than that surrounding sexual assault alone; it’s a social justice issue through and through. Conversations about consent are about fair treatment and human rights: at its core, oppression and failure to obtain consent are forms of abuse by nature. Failing to obtain freely given, informed, enthusiastic, and sober consent before engaging in sexual intercourse is not only sexual assault, it is also sexual abuse- it is impossible to untangle the two. Intent does not affect impact.
I believe only when we begin to consider how “sexual assault” and consent exist in relation to oppression and, most specifically, abuse dynamics, can we start to facilitate truly meaningful conversations surrounding sexual assault and rape- among other forms of sexual abuse that are inexcusable in an ethical, just society. In such a society, everyone is treated with dignity, compassion, and fairness.
When we talk about equality or equity (terms not to be used interchangeably!) this is, I believe, what lies at the heart of the matter. The oppressor and the oppressed; the underlying abuse dynamics beneath action and inaction; the humanity or lack thereof. And so we must keep asking how such great abuse and oppression continue to pervade our “woke” modern society- because they do, if we are to believe survivors. We do not live in a world where everyone is given equal opportunity, equal say, equal safety. And not only is that unfair, it’s an inhuman injustice.
Our society today is very scared of the words “oppression” and “abuse”. When we talk about them conceptually, each of us must almost inevitably hold a mirror up to our own individual behaviors- and we are likely to find some of them unappealing. No one is perfect, no one is an exemplary human all of the time. We are likely to wonder, at some point: “What I am the monster the “other” is screaming about?” That can’t be, can it? How could we live with ourselves? But I believe it’s so much more complicated than that. What if we just began these scary conversations starting with the most simple ways in which we hurt one another- and considered looking at “hurt” on a spectrum, first and foremost? What if we contextualized it all and put it into a sort of palatable human systems theory?
Every year, I find myself ever more frustrated with the state of the world and wanting more from it. But in a world where we continue to grapple with basic concepts of boundaries, of consent before sex, of the humanity within every individual even as we all wrestle with “good” and “bad”, it’s awfully hard to have more productive conversations. I always find April and SAAM painful; I’m glad they are over. Incremental change is so important, but it’s hard to sit through. Here’s hoping that there are many sitting with me, hoping for a more compassionate process as time passes.
“You must be a dancer.”
“Are you a ballerina?”
“You’re so tiny I could just pick you up!”
Those words stayed with me for years, and I remember them every time I look in the mirror. These were things frequently told to me while I was at my “smallest” size and weight- when I felt I took up the least physical space, and numbers on a scale and a clothing tag reflected that.
The pictures in this post were taken this past weekend as my own artistic way of reflecting upon National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and what recovery has meant to me. This is my body- it is a body not fully recovered, but no longer in pieces. It is the body I inhabit today, after years spent negotiating my relationship with my female figure and with this life. At 24 years old, I have mostly maintained my “weight-restored” set point. I still struggle, I still survive, and often I even thrive. But I carry the weight of years gone by and pain witnessed deep in my bones. It doesn’t leave.
So often, I want to turn my back and retreat somewhere still deeper inside myself where I can pretend that burdens don’t exist- that we don’t all carry painful stories that weigh upon our souls. I find myself desperately wanting to empty myself of that encumbering weight, to abandon it through any means necessary. I strive to be minimalist, to leave no trace; I wish to do no harm, be no one’s burden. And to never, ever be full- that old, poisonous rule still haunts me. Because to be full once meant to become a human container- to feel, and quite simply “to be” too much. Eating just felt like too much. I challenge these feelings and cognitions every day. It’s okay to take up space; it’s okay to be here. Everyone has a right to show up.
Today, I find thinking about that time to be deeply disturbing: Simply because I was “small” and appeared to fit a specific societal standard of beauty, people mistook me for being one of the strongest, most athletic kinds of performers; in reality my body was essentially falling to pieces as I slowly starved to death. My bones had grown brittle from lack of calcium, and I needed iron infusions to replenish my low blood counts. I was nowhere near capable of performing pirouettes or grand jetes. I developed a heart murmur from the stress on my heart that came with losing large amounts of weight and the purging that followed most meals, when I bothered to eat at all. And after enough time caught in a cycle of purging and restricting food, eating had grown to hurt so much that I often rationalized away my need to eat: “Why do something that causes you real, physical pain?” I would ask myself. (I later learned that painful sensation was the process of my stomach shrinking)
But so long as I was still visually thin, young, female, white, and able-bodied- in other words, in possession of qualities the patriarchy has conditioned us to believe to be some sort of gold standard- I was both implicitly and explicitly praised by society and encouraged to maintain that very specific body type. Because any deviation from that standard is, through those patriarchal standards, implicated to be “less than”- and those toxic constructs continue to be reinforced through so many things we consume in our culture today. After all, our society usually teaches us that athletes and performers are the opposite of “less than”. They are the idols we aspire towards, they exist as our cultural symbols. So when society told me I looked like a ballerina, they were- perhaps unknowingly- praising my dying body.
I was objectified and praised for fitting into a box that created so much pressure for me to stay caught in my sick cycle, to keep hurting myself. Because if I tried to stop out of my own volition, what would the societal implication have been? My disorder always felt like a double-edged sword I had no choice but to fall down upon; my shame ran deep into my core. Eventually, it became a serious fight to survive.
By the time loved ones and medical professionals actually began to ask questions, I had become a master of deception. I was indeed performing; just not as a ballerina. I had learned to manipulate, to hide my eating, hide my purging, make up an excuse for every behavior. My disordered eating had taken over my life, my sense of morality and identity. And my disordered behaviors did affect my real performing art of choice: singing. As I continued to shed more pounds I also lost critical muscle mass, and I developed vocal dysphonia; my voice changed, and it constantly hurt to speak. As my eating disorder ate away at my voice, I felt my sense of agency slipping away with it.
The more harm I inflicted upon my body, the more “scars” there were to heal. At my worst, I found myself scared to eat in public and, more often than not, scared to be around food at all. In my mind, almost no food was “allowed”; it was all “bad”. I felt so uncomfortable and trapped in my own skin, in my own body. I had entered a life-threatening starvation mode that depleted me of all energy, warmth, and joy. But the pain ran so much deeper than that. At the end of the day, my “disorder” was never just about how many calories I ate in a day, or if I was on the right diet and if I was being a good vegan, or even if my body conformed to social standard into which I never felt I could fit- unlike a seemingly benign dress size. It was about so much more than that.
My eating disorder had grown out of all the pain and emotions I had cast aside- the feelings I had been carrying with me for years and years and been too afraid to touch. My “disorder” was my dad dying- it was my lost friends, it was growing up as a sick kid with a disease no one could label. It was grieving over and over again and the universal emotions of loss and loneliness; it was feeling misunderstood and out of control; it was struggling to cope with all of it. Because those feelings can become so unbearably heavy if we neglect to carry them with the dignity they deserve. And sometimes we throw them into a metaphoric basket and label it “weight”.
Emotions, the pain of the past and present- they can feel like such burdens. But we can’t allow ourselves to confuse their complex nature with physical weight and space, those things which we agree to quantify with more measurable numbers and statistics. We must accept that so often, we can’t see the burdens carried by those around us at first glance, if at all. Some things just run too deep. But we will all inevitably have our own baskets with their own unique labels, our own burdens to carry. And we are never, ever able to be encompassed through metric means and diagnostic criteria alone that can merely skim the surface of the human lifespan- of our unique human essence. I believe we would do well to remember this when considering every individual’s body and outer presentation.
I wish to make it abundantly clear at this point that eating disorders are not a choice- they are real and serious illnesses. But to an extent, we do have the option to choose recovery through our own self-determination and strength. And finding the road to recovery is different for everyone.
Recovery means doing your best to show up for yourself, if no one else, every single day- it means challenging even the smallest of things as you work to hold the good with the bad. It is frequently painful and raw, and it requires honesty. To choose recovery is to choose one of the most complicated, confusing, and scary paths one can take- that may also lead to great freedom. Recovery is healing, and it’s an ongoing process. I believe with all my heart that healing is possible. And I’m so glad, because our world has a lot of healing to do.
I’m starting with working on healing myself. How about you?
Lots of Love,
- National Eating Disorders Association
- NEDA screening tool
- Toll-free National Eating Disorders Helpline: 800-931-2237, available Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.- 9 p.m., Fri., 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. EST
- 24/7 Crisis Support via text: send NEDA to 741741