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

 

During the Darkest Nights

Recently, I have found myself drawn back to the literary works of Victor Hugo. One passage from Les Miserables stood out to me particular, as 2018 came to an end:

“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces.”

I cling to this passage, for I must keep believing that even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

Do you hear what I hear? Do you hear the people sing? 

dream within a dream forest

In 2018, I was overwhelmed by chorusing cries of injustice, of pain and suffering. My voice  added to the choir. As another year begins, I find myself overwhelmed by it all, and I find myself trying to find a new resolve to carry on in a world that often feels lost to darkness. I often find myself in tears, losing hope.

But Hugo says: “Those who do not weep, do not see.” And I believe there is a great deal of truth in this sentiment. I have learned that it is okay to be sad- to hold grief and sorrow close as we act witness to human suffering and suffer our own trials and tribulations in turn.

Yet still, Hugo also reminds: “Laughter is sunshine, it chases winter from the human face.” During the dark nights, I believe we must find some laughter, some joy, to sustain ourselves, whenever possible! And I find my laughter and joy in love: “To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.” Oh, how love fills me up! In my friendships, and most of all in my marriage. I’m slowly learning that it’s okay to love imperfectly.

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This time of year is often a time during which I personally have to work my hardest to exercise holding space for dissonant and confusing thoughts- About life, about faith, about people, and about myself.

And so I’m trying. To make space, to remember “and”s over “but”s, to be patient with myself and with those I love, and to remember joy even as I’m sad. To be many things at once and accept what comes; to remember people can only learn when they are ready, myself included.

Happy New Year. May peace and goodwill find you, whoever may encounter these words.

Morgan

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On Ethical Loneliness and Moving Forwards in Times of Great Social Injustice

“Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity, compounded by the cruelty of wrongs not being acknowledged. It is the result of multiple lapses on the part of human beings and political institutions that, in failing to listen well to survivors, deny them redress by negating their testimony and thwarting their claims for justice.”

So defines Jill Stauffer, associate professor of philosophy and director of the concentration in peace, justice, and human rights at Haverford College. (Stauffer, 2015)

September and October of 2018 have marked a tremendously tumultuous time for the country in which I hold citizenship. We are a nation divided; a nation fraying at its seams.

Ethical Loneliness

Like far too many people who live in my country, I do not feel safe here. Every day, I am afraid— for myself, and for so many of those around me. Because right now the people in power have forgotten how to listen; they abuse their positions of authority and privilege and they perpetuate the suffering of those who are marginalized and neglected- of those who need their voices amplified the most.

This week, I have once again experienced what it is to feel abandoned. My old wounds have been torn open, and blood is running; my heart is exposed, beating wildly as my body and mind ready me to run. But freezing is no longer an option. I feel an obligation, a moral duty, to be near other survivors, other sisters at this time.

This past pivotal week in American politics, I do not believe it is unfair to say that American women- American survivors- have been all but forsaken by the mighty powers that be who govern our nation; we have been dehumanized, degraded, and treated as less than by our oppressors and their complicit sympathizers.

And yet we now find ourselves moving forwards. But how? Abandonment and its ensuing loneliness, the overwhelming sensations of isolation and sorrow that follow in its trail, are emotions that most every survivor will know all too well; and they are nothing short of traumatizing.

I believe it is at times such as these when we must consider what is truly right and what is unconditionally wrong. We must ask ourselves what it is we value most, and if our values are in alignment with our actions.

Do you trust yourself? Do you believe yourself? Survivors, advocates, friends and allies, please: believe in yourselves. Believe in your causes, your voices, and in what you are fighting for. Ensure that you are living in a way that honors what you stand for. In my experience, sometimes life becomes a little less lonely when our values are in alignment with our voices. 

Survivors: Now is the time to surround yourselves with allies, with people who love and know you. They don’t have to know your pain, they just have to be able to hear it.

And truly, that’s something we all need to learn to do. How I wish we could all learn to better hear one another’s pain, and truly listen and respond to it as compassionate human beings! This is something I am challenging myself to do each and every day- simply listen to the people around me and hear what they are communicating. 

And then finally, perhaps we can consider what it is we need the most right now, in a world where we don’t get everything we need and want. Do we need retribution? Do we need justice? Do we need accountability? How do these concepts differ? (And I believe they do) Can we start healing by simply listening to one another and being heard?

And most importantly: How can we start making the world around us a better, safer place even while violence actively ensues? What can we do today to help one another recover from trauma and the scars it leaves behind so that we may each continue the journey to tomorrow?

Let’s stand together- let us start healing, together.

Thank you for listening.

Reference:

Stauffer, J.Ethical loneliness: The injustice of not being heard. Retrieved from https://cup.columbia.edu/book/ethical-loneliness/9780231171502

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#/