15-year-olds aren’t supposed to have strokes. At least that’s what I thought. I try not to think about it too much. Even now, I only have bits and pieces; shards of memories that somehow remained intact even through the trauma my brain endured that day.
When I arrived at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, I weighed just 58 pounds. After a five-year battle with Anorexia Nervosa, my body had reached its breaking point. All four valves in my heart were leaking. My skin was yellow from liver failure. I hadn’t taken a sh*t in over a month. I was dying.
The first emotion I remember is rage. It was a violent, fire-in-your-veins, so angry-you-could-kill-someone kind of rage. I wanted out. I wanted the pain to be over. I wanted to die. I was mad at myself for not having the courage to just do it quickly, angry at the hospital staff for thwarting my masked attempt. I was convinced that I was “meant to” endure this, that my long, drawn-out starving to death would prove my willpower to God. In the days prior to my stroke, I’d had vivid hallucinations — of Jesus on a wooden cross outside my bedroom window and a satanic figure sneaking up under my bedroom covers to suffocate me at night. I thought I was meant to be a martyr.
I thought God wanted me to die.
As the fury subsided, delirium set in. I became confused, defiant and completely irrational. I told the doctors that they couldn’t possibly keep me overnight, because my family didn’t have insurance or money to pay. When a cardiologist responded that she wasn’t sure if I’d live another week, I told her she was full of sh*t. I hid the food they were trying to make me eat in my underwear, in flowerpots, even in my cheeks like a chipmunk — certain no one would notice. I didn’t want to get better. I was convinced nothing was wrong.
I remember having nurses turn me over in the middle of the night to tend to the bed sores on my behind, places where the skin was so thin that my tail bone was starting to protrude through the flesh. I remember waking up to discover I’d wet the bed nearly every morning for the first three months I was there. I was ashamed, disgusted. I’d lost control of the muscles in my bladder; I was like an infant all over again. I remember shooting a nurse the bird when she told me I couldn’t walk, only crumble to the floor when I angrily pushed the wheelchair away to give it a try.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my arrival at the hospital had launched an investigation by Child Protective Services back at my home in Austin. The caseworkers deemed my mother an “unfit parent” and my sister and I were placed under custodianship of the State. My care was left to the doctors and nurses at Children’s, while my sister was sent to live with our godparents. My mother, herself an alcoholic and anorexic, had literally drunk herself into oblivion (she was later diagnosed with Wernicke’s Syndrome, a form of alcohol-induced).
I spent the next sixteen months of my life in that hospital. I completed my junior and senior years of high school through a distance education program, talked my way through hundreds of hours of individual and group therapy and slowly, painfully worked to bring my body and mind back to life.
When Medicaid finally pulled the plug on funding for my treatment almost a year and a half later, I was unrecognizable from the day I’d walked in. I’d gained nearly forty pounds, and the feisty, fiercely independent spirit I’d been known for as a child was on her way back in (close to) full force. Although I was still significantly underweight and terrified to leave the security of the hospital, my medical team managed to convince the caseworkers to grant me emancipation. At 17, I re-entered the “real world” as a legally recognized adult.
My doctor at Children’s helped me make arrangements to move into a garage apartment with a close family friend near the hospital. I got a job at a local Starbucks, started applying for college, and, by the grace of who-knows-what, was offered nearly-free weekly therapy by a psychologist who’d treated me at Children’s. Three months later, I took my first yoga class. I was lucky. I was blessed. I was given enough resources to put the fragments of my broken life back together.
That was nearly six years ago. If you’d have told me then that now – as a 23-year-young woman – I would be travelling the country teaching yoga, speaking publicly, and writing my first book, I never would have believed you. I still wake up everyday half-expecting to be in that hospital bed, to discover that my life over the past few years has been one fabulous dream.
My hope is that this story might serve as a source of hope for people grappling with their own inner demons in silence and isolation. Whether it’s an eating disorder, abandonment, depression or addiction, please know:
There is a way out. You don’t have to suffer alone. There are people out there who want to love you, who would be honored to bear witness to your pain. Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are human and we have an inherent need to see and be seen, to touch and be touched. No one heals heartbreak alone.
For the broader community, I hope this story will diminish some of the stigma and misperceptions about eating disorders. Many of us have been taught that people with eating disorders simply want to be skinny, feel like they have to look like supermodels to be worth anything, or just have an unhealthy “need for control.” Those are all symptoms of an eating disorder, not the cause.
I didn’t starve myself because I wanted to be skinny. I starved myself because I didn’t have the inner resources to cope with the chaos around me. I starved myself because I wanted to reclaim control over my body, because I felt my mother had rejected me, because I believed myself un- worthy of nourishment and love. I starved myself because I’d lost all connection with who I was: my goodness, my worth, my vulnerability. I starved myself because I wanted to die.
I hated my body because I hated myself, not the other way around. And much as I wish it could have, inpatient treatment alone couldn’t change that. Treatment, in many ways, put a Band-Aid on a wound too deep to see from the surface. I was taught to eat when I wasn’t hungry, to think rationally rather than give in to my feelings, to stop looking in the mirror altogether so I wouldn’t sabotage myself. To survive, I had to disconnect from my body and my emotions, because at the time I didn’t have the inner-resources to cope with them.
Treatment did indeed save my life. But to move beyond merely surviving – to thrive, to live fully, to be happy – I had to integrate my body in the healing process. That, for me, is where yoga was an absolute godsend. Yoga taught me to relate to my body as an ally rather than an enemy, as a gateway to intimacy and connection with others and, perhaps most importantly, it helped me cultivate the skills I needed to be with emotions I’d nearly killed myself trying to stave off.
And that, in many ways, is the realization that guides the work I do today. I divide my time between writing, teaching, and speaking on these issues – to yoga teachers about how to best serve students with food/body image issues, to clinicians about best practices for treatment, and – perhaps most importantly – to those who are still suffering: to be living, breathing (and smiling) evidence that recovery is possible.
I realized last weekend that I feel like a child who was once desperately thirsty, was given enough water to survive and slake her thirst, and now feels compelled to go out and give water to anyone who’s parched. “Look! Water! I know, isn’t it good?! Drink up!!” When I see people drink the water, I can’t even describe the feeling – it’s as if I’m experiencing that first sip all over again. It brings me incredible joy, even healing. It’s an act of alchemy. It allows me to make light of some of the darkest days of my life.
I once had a therapist who, when asked how I could ever repay her for all she’d given me, told me: “Your life will be all the thanks I need.” This is how I thank her. This is how I thank all those who helped me find my way out of the darkness. Share the water.