I think that for most of my life, the eating disorder and exercise in the form of striving to be a dancer has taken the place of staying with my feelings and with my reality – good and bad. In fact, I think this is a huge function of many people’s eating disorders and also could be true for people with addictions like alcohol, drugs, people who self harm.
I think eating disorders are a smoke screen. I’ve said this before, I know. I look back, and when I was hurting the most in my life, instead I turned to food and weight and ballet.
When the abuse at home and the bullying at school was out of control, I spent every waking hour practising my ballet. I even spent most of the night awake doing quiet exercises in bed or on the floor next to it. My mind was lost in the ballet music I imagined to keep time of each foot exercise or relevé or plié or pirouette. If I was too upset or too anxious or too angry I just counted in time. Counted to a thousand and started again, over and over.
I can see now that I was upset, angry, anxious, lost, scared. I can see that now. Back then, I remember thinking “How strong I am. You have hurt me every way you can, and still I do not show anything. You will not make me cry, you have made me stronger.” I didn’t realise that in fact, I was losing myself bit by bit, becoming stuck inside an armour that I built up bit by bit, then made thicker and stronger. An armour that protected me – but also trapped me. I now have to take it off – bit by bit so that I can replace it with real ways to cope.
Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve noticed for the last couple of years that even though a lot of my feelings have been coming back (and this is scary as I don’t know what a lot of it even is!) I do not feel things anywhere near as intensely as I used to in my teens. I am wondering if any of you have found this, too? Maybe it has something to do with the cocktail of hormones that our bodies are producing at that age as we become adults. Things that used to be the ‘end of the world’ for me, don’t bother me anywhere near as much now.
Maturity is a factor, sure, but it’s not so much about my mind, how I am thinking – it’s FEELING. It’s stuff that doesn’t need words, stuff that can’t even be described with words sometimes. Feelings that could physically hurt. Grief that could leave me keening. Happiness that made me heady and ecstatic over simple little things like a teacher telling me I was doing well. Betrayal felt like being stabbed through the heart – physically. I feel all these things still, just not anywhere near that intensely. They don’t make me feel like my heart will explode as they used to.
I wonder if things would have been different if back years ago, I’d had the insight I have now to recognise what I was doing? I did not know anything about eating disorders, so when I didn’t eat because of how I felt, or ate to make myself feel better, I didn’t think I was doing anything dangerous. I just couldn’t bear to do anything else right now. I’d eat later and make up for it, or deal with whatever was wrong later. Problem was that later I was too busy or felt as bad or the food was off. Also my mother was extremely controlling with food, and when I did not eat a battle would erupt, but when I wanted to eat, that wasn’t easy either.
I often feared having it found out that I did not eat my breakfast in the mornings or my lunch at school – throwing food in the bin seemed to get me caught out every time. The teachers would notice, or my older sister would tattle tale on me. Same for giving it away or swapping with others. So breakfasts were squished down the kitchen sink and uneaten lunches were crammed in on the way home, or left in my bag as I panicked about what to do with them. Too many times I was forced to eat something that was discovered because I had tried to throw it out, or it was just a few days old – really bad, rancid food. “Waste not, want not” was my mother’s mantra, and these experiences really turned me off against eating in general. Food was pushed on me or taken from me. Food was punishment. Food was comfort. Food was reward.
Food was not fuel.
On the other side of the coin, I was always hungry. I went full time as a ballet dancer at fourteen, suddenly going from every other night classes and my own practising to every single day – four or five hours of classes, a few hours of my own work in the studios between, before and after classes, and most of each night doing exercises. Hunger really stepped up with all the extra movement, so when I wasn’t not eating, I wanted to eat everything in sight.
A particular treat became saving up $1.20 from finding the odd coin on the ground, and then going and buying a packet of jelly beans that I slowly dissolved in my mouth on the two hour journey home. It was my little secret, knowing that my mother would be furious about my ‘transgression’ but it was a mood lifter, somehow I always found enough money when I was feeling particularly low and so jelly beans have become forever linked with self-soothing.
After things imploded, I’d run away from home, found somewhere to live, fallen into the next nightmare and was struggling to cope, the link between food and soothing myself became even stronger.
Every single time that someone hurt me, instead of thinking about it or processing it, or asking for help – my mind did a big switcheroo to numbers. I constantly counted and recited lists of calories, carbohydrates and protein grams per 100g of foods in my head. I constantly planned days of intake in my mind, and how much of each fruit and vegie I would be allowed to two decimal points. I walked and walked and counted as I walked.
Surprisingly my ballet started to falter. I couldn’t leave my problems at the door any more. I was distracted, and that combined with feeling completely self conscious and hating myself and my body, meant that I was never ‘really there’. Looking back I see that a lot of the time I was actually dissociated. When you are nutritionally in trouble and dissociated you aren’t going to dance well. I was also missing classes because I was too distressed about my skin – my face had broken out like a pizza – my weight – I saw a michelin woman wobbling as I tried to dance among a roomful of sticks – and the depression was so debilitating that many days I just could not get out of bed any more. It ended in tears – me being kicked out of the performance strand.
This was the last straw, and from there I fell headfirst into the anorexia, and not long after that, into hospital for the first time of many, a cycle I was not to break out of for nearly fifteen years. Dancing had been the last reason to stay alive, and it was gone.
Throughout my childhood there were offers of help and support. Teachers always seemed to pick up that home was not a good place – constantly they asked me why I was always late, always crying, always filthy dirty? Why didn’t I have tissues or a hanky when I had a cold leading to snotty sniffing and teasing? Why was I sent to school when so unwell? Why didn’t I have this or that necessary item for school? And more direct questions – what was going on at home? What did my mother do all day? How did she treat me? Where did we live, and who lived with us?And Was everything okay at home, you can talk to me any time? All questions I had been coached to answer, and I couldn’t even begin to think of saying Yes, please, I need help, things are unbearable. That they constantly hurt me or neglected me or made me feel awful about myself. They were my family, and I couldn’t turn them in, it would be the ultimate betrayal. And it must have been my fault any way for being so ‘bad’. Or I’d really cop it if I said something and it got back to them. If I was taken away by the child services I would be beaten up in the foster home.. all sorts of things I was scared of. So I declined help and support, insisted that everything was fine til I was blue in the face. And denied to myself that I wasn’t coping at all.
We can spend our lives ‘running’ from what we can’t deal with for a long time, but not forever. Life has a way of forcing you to stop and face your own shit head on. In my case it was by breaking me down completely, bringing me to my knees in every possible way. I was completely captive to something that was killing me just because I could not face up to my troubles, and it came down to the choice to live or die – I couldn’t avoid this choice any more by living in the limbo of denial that I’d been in for years. My body simply couldn’t survive any more. Either I started fighting to save myself, or I WOULD die.
And it’s hard. I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way to deal with the past. I think there’s only YOUR way. There’s so much to learn, so much to admit to yourself. There’s accepting what happened. Accepting that you are a mess. Accepting that you need help. Getting off your high horse and realising it won’t kill you to stop pretending you are fine, but it’s sure going to kill you to keep on doing it. Dignity can be so overrated.
So here I am, I came to the crossroads and I chose the uphill path. Chose the path I should have taken every time I came to this crossroads before, every time I insisted “No, I know that’s not the way I need to go, THIS way is” despite having been down that path before and coming to the cliff edge that it led to, requiring me to go back. I wore that path bare with my constant cycling. And now, I stepped off it.
I don’t know if I’ll be okay from here. But I do know I have a chance to be, now.
Can you see ways that you have used unhelpful ways to cope with feelings or escape from reality in the past? Do you still do this now?