The Burdens We Carry- NEDA 2019

“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.

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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)

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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.

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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”.

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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,

Morgan Michelle

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NEDA Resources

 

The Importance of Recognizing Intergenerational Trauma and Oppressed Voices Outside Our Intersections

For many of us striving to educate ourselves in social justice theories and branches of traumatology- especially those addressing and healing intergenerational trauma- Black History Month can exist as nothing other than the utmost call to action.

Something that grows increasingly apparent to me as a learner is this: we cannot continue to look at great injustices through our own narrow lenses; we must work widen the scopes of our lenses through doing our best to examine others’. I believe we may do this through practicing empathy and compassion, through active listening, and creating real conversation- discourse is often a core component of that.

When we acknowledge that something isn’t working, we can’t be complacent; and for those of us who wish to be agents of change in this world, we can’t allow ourselves to be complicit, either. I believe those of us who hold white privilege have a moral and social duty to insist better- of one another and of today’s society as a whole.

EDIT 1

Here’s one big way I believe those of us with white privilege must start doing better RIGHT NOW: we must not call Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) problematic when they raise their voices and call out injustices they experience. We must not assume we understand. We simply cannot diminish lived experiences which we do not know and cannot ever. This is not to subscribe to a theory of moral isolationism, but rather something more akin to radical empathy.

I wish as a society we can work collectively to move towards a more trauma-aware language, one in which we never refer to the most marginalized people themselves as “problematic”, and we may be careful when we call any human being “toxic”. It is my most sincere hope that we will strive instead to honor and uphold the dignity of every human individual, especially those who experience more oppression than us so often simply because of the color of their skin; that we may instead work to address people’s behaviors, actions, and language while not hiding behind our own white fragility and discomfort. 

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I believe it’s important to recognize that many of us with white privilege won’t always be perfect allies, and we may falter greatly in our social responsibilities; that doesn’t mean we get to throw in the towel, give up, and walk away when we make mistakes (I know I have made plenty!). We were reared and continue to live among colonized communities that uphold and reinforce a white ideal, both explicitly and implicitly; we have all been deeply conditioned to reinforce this status quo. Let’s work on changing that.

If there’s one thing I can advocate most strongly for this Black History Month, it’s education. Truly, no matter where you are and where you come from, the color of your skin, your identity, or your ability, educate and re-educate yourself about how systemic oppression and trauma impact your life. 

Learn about intergenerational trauma. Learn about social conditioning. Learn from people different from you in whatever capacity you can (the internet counts!). Check your privilege. Use your voice while still listening to those of others.

And learn to apologize, and to apologize meaningfully. 

This is post is my small effort to try and do my part as an ally, advocate, and a student who is always trying to do better- but for some far wiser and more illuminating individuals to learn from, here are some great smaller instagram accounts to start with. The majority are run by people of color; some are also simply my absolute favorite trauma-informed accounts on instagram that always strive to include culturally informed, intergenerational trauma theory in their posts. 

.@traumaawarecare
.@traumanadco

Some of these accounts I have followed for months, while others I have only uncovered within this past week; I so look forward to engaging with their content.
There are so very many more incredible individuals to learn from in this internet space, and there will inevitably be people to learn from in your life off social media. May we find them and may they fill us up with their teachings.

Blessings,

Morgan

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Come What May: Finding Purpose

 

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“Who will scent the fragrance of a flower?

Who will laugh at snowflakes on the tongue?

Who will dance barefoot in the grass? Spinning and twirling and spinning and twirling

to welcome to warmth of May…”

I would like to say that I am a light-hearted and joyful spirit who laughs at snowflakes when they fall on my tongue; that I frolic barefooted through grassy fields of flowers;  that I remember to welcome the warmth of each May.

But the real truth is that there are days when I forget to open the blinds on my windows, when I cringe at the bright sunshine; there are days when I fail to comprehend the immense beauty inside snowflakes’ crystalline swirls, and I only feel the bitter cold that accompanies their frosts. There are days when I just can’t see the vast forest through the dense trees, and I just want to collapse in my own eternal winter-land, devoid of beauty, hope, and any sparkling snowflurries- a place where I believe I am all alone in my suffering and no one will find me- or even reach out to try. I find myself wanting to give up, to leave it all. 

I talk a lot of talk about being “here”, about how we all have the right, and the worth, and the purpose. I cheer out sentiments: “You’re brave, you’re a warrior!” and perhaps most of all, “Keep going- don’t give up.” But what does it even mean to “give up?” and to “be here”? To be on this earth, to be alive and to be so audacious in search of fulfillment, of these evasive and fleeting treasures such as love and joy- or even of reprieve from pain? 

The connotations of “giving up” and “being here” are vastly complex- but I would like to humbly assert that in the context of this conversation, they all come back to life and what it means to take part in it. And what that means will be different for every person who tries to define it- we all experience this world uniquely from one another. But the shared pieces of our human experience make for such an immensely less lonely existence- because we are never alone, not really. Our minds deceive us with that feeling of isolation; our egos can’t conceive of how big our world and the human capacity for empathy really is.

As such, I’d like to share with you how I have grown to personally define meaning and purpose in my own life, and why doing so sustains me and brings me peace  with my existence (or some semblance of it!). It is my hope that doing so may bring someone else some peace, or hope, or a feeling connection. You are not alone. If you are reading this, you are here. And I’m glad. Stay awhile longer.

 

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For me, being here- being alive- has become a thoughtful and ongoing journey about being in the present as we all strive to forge ahead into what may hopefully become a brighter tomorrow. It’s about treasuring the good memories and making peace with the painful ones; it’s about learning from both our past and our present as we create our future. It’s about telling our stories, singing our songs, and counting the colors of the sunrise so that we may later say goodnight to the fading sun, knowing what it looked like in all its splendor. It’s about engaging our senses in the whirlwind of the world around us while we’re here… because it’s all a miracle. Life is a miracle, and we are life. 

My journey will always include reflection, compassion, and prayer. I will pray that all of us can continue to find compassion for one another and compassion for ourselves when we at times will inevitably neglect to see the beauty all around us- even within our own hearts. I am making a vow here and now to do my best to welcome the warmth of each May, and the dawn of every new day- in all their sunny rays.

Peace and Prosperity to You All,

Morgan Michelle

Photography Credit goes to my Loving Husband

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This reflection was inspired by Joan Varner’s choral piece, “When I am Silent”. I performed it with my school choir when I was twelve years old, and its poetry has stayed with me to this day. I have included the lyrics below a link to purchase sheet music:

“Who will sing my song when I am silent?

Who will count the colors of the dawn?

Who will follow the lark’s flight?

Who will hear its song?

When I am silent

Who will sing for me?

Who will scent the fragrance of a flower?

Who will laugh at snowflakes on the tongue?

Who will dance barefoot in the grass?

Spinning and twirling and spinning and twirling

to welcome the warmth of may?

Who will dance when I dance no more?

When I sing no more?

When I am silent

Who will cry for me?

Who will cry?”

https://www.jwpepper.com/When-I-Am-Silent/3052495.item#/