Something I’ve thought about a lot over the years is a question I first contemplated the day I was admitted to the hospital in May of 2012:
Do I regret having an eating disorder?
The answer to this question has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. On some days, I despise my eating disorder. I curse its existence in my life, and torture myself over the pain it didn’t only cause me, but also my family and loved ones. I long for a childhood lost free of thoughts about food, body image, or mental illness. I wonder what life might look like for me had I never been dealt the cards I carry.
On other days, I think fearfully about the life that might have been had I never been admitted to that hospital what now feels like a lifetime ago. Would I have ever found yoga? Would it have touched me in the same way if I had? What would my purpose be on this earth, no longer given a passion and a cause to write and speak about? Would I be a teacher? Would I be at the same college, friends with the same people?
The life I now lead, undoubtedly, is happy in ways I never thought to be possible. As a child, I imagined a life that now pales in comparison to the beauty I’ve been able to experience these past few years. I thought I’d go to college, find some boy I liked enough, get married one day, and find a job that suited my needs well enough. That was what I thought success was: a life with as little outward problems as possible and as much “normality” as I could muster.
But the truth is, my eating disorder opened my eyes to the possibility of nuanced weirdness in life. Certainly growing up and aging played a role in this perspective shift, but I keep returning to how freeing, in a way, healing from a disorder such as this one was for my vision of future possibility. Truly, eating disorder recovery forces you to embrace what it is like to live a life that is alternative in many ways, and over time the freedom that can stem from this permeates into every other facet of your life.
Because being hospitalized for my disorder felt like being shoved out of a metaphorical closet into a new world that saw me for everything that I am: both the highlights they already knew and the ugly parts I’d kept hidden for so long. I wasn’t just Maris, the girl with straight A’s who teachers liked anymore. I was also Maris, that girl with the disease no one really understood who and acted strangely around food. I was Maris, the girl who didn’t want to eat out with you. Maris, the girl whose parents monitored her packed lunch and wouldn’t accept a morsel of food from anyone else. Maris, the girl with more doctor’s and therapy appointments than anyone you knew.
And at first, this was devastating. It shattered the public image I’d carefully curated over the course of my entire life in one fell swoop and sent me into a great depression for a long time. The first few months after being released from the hospital, I was plagued by shadows of who I’d used to be: now seeing the height of my disorder as the peak of my “greatness.” I was thin, I was smart, I was on the path to what I thought was success. And now, after being forced into a recovery I did not want, who was I but a bloated, ashamed version of myself?
But I knew I was faced with a choice: if I resisted this recovery effort and fell back into the arms of my disorder, I would either die or be shoved back right back into a treatment program. If I dedicated myself to healing, perhaps something good could come from my struggle after all.
Perhaps by the grace of some god I cannot identify- because I truly don’t know where this strength came from- I chose the second option. And the first few months of that recovery required that godly strength in so many ways. Healing from severe malnutrition with a mind that is plagued by persistent negativity is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my greatest enemy. Watching your body bloat and swell with water as your organs heal and return back to their normal size, watching you hair fall out in swift clumps and your nails break, waiting desperately for your menstrual cycle to come back so that something will signify to you that you’re truly healing. It’s like watching a slow, painful death of a former self with no escape.
No longer having the ability to define my self worth on the body I had once been able to control with my perfectionistic compulsions, I was forced into a practice I’m now incredibly grateful for: seeking happiness without regard for appearance, size, shape, or even state of physical well-being. I could barely walk around without feeling dizzy and fatigued, could I love myself without even the most basic of abilities? Somewhat accidentally, I was laying the groundwork for a lifetime dedicated to exploring what “self-love” truly means.
I was also learning how to become my own advocate. Being a freshman during the time of my hospitalization, I quickly learned that most high schoolers that age (and at that time) were not well-informed about the realities of mental illness. Recently, in fact, I peeled open my yearbook from that year to find messages I’d long forgotten scrawled in ink on the pages:
“Have a great summer eating a lot of food!!”
“Missed you while you were gone: eat a burger this summer!!”
“Try not to die. HAGS!”
On some level, I’m sure, it was a case of kids trying to cope with a serious topic they couldn’t fully understand. But parts of their ignorance deeply hurt me. I remember one day showing up to school, still exhausted in a body barely strong enough to leave the house again, and being teased for looking sloppy in the same clothes I’d been wearing most days. What they didn’t know was that I barely had the mental (or physical) energy to get myself out of bed in the morning, let alone pick out a cute outfit, and that my wardrobe contained few clothes that fit my body as it rapidly fluctuated in shape and size.
Another time, a “friend” picked up his chair and desk in homeroom and slid away from me, declaring he didn’t want to be next to a “sick person.” Others persistently asked me what the hospital was like, a topic that was highly emotional for me as my admission was what I wouldn’t describe as anything short of “traumatic.” Many offered well-intentioned words of support, telling me I “would look better if I gained some weight” or that I “didn’t look like I had an eating disorder,” but these only served to make me more preoccupied with my appearance than I already was.
All this is to say, I realized my support system would have to largely stem from self-advocacy and education. At first, I lied through my teeth about what I was going through. “It was a heart thing,” I’d say, because it was technically true, “I had a low heart rate.” But over time, I grew tired of maintaining the half-assed lies I was spewing. I started being bluntly honest: I had anorexia nervosa. I didn’t eat enough because my brain was sick. I was hospitalized because it made my body sick. It takes a long time to get better. It makes me feel nervous around food and social events that revolve around it.
At the time, it felt like self-preservation. Now I see it as the beginning to my life’s work as an advocate for those suffering with mental illness. I started spinning unintentional insults into learning opportunities, like some dark children’s show: I didn’t “look” like I had an eating disorder because most sufferers don’t look like the caricature of the disease you see in movies and TV shows. I can’t just “eat a burger” because I was at risk for refeeding syndrome and that alone wouldn’t heal my mind, anyway. I was wearing “ugly” clothes because I had to pick and choose my battles with the small reserves of mental strength I had at the time.
I’m sure it made people uncomfortable. But over time, things got easier. Being honest felt easier. I tried to view it as how I’d describe any other form of illness that wasn’t as invisible as a mental one, as though I was talking about healing from the flu or a cold instead of anorexia nervosa. It made me feel a little bit more normal, a little bit more understood. And maybe, just maybe, it helped someone go forward with a little bit more knowledge about what others were going through.
I started viewing recovery as my first and foremost priority. I started spending hours a day pouring through blogs, books, and websites about body positivity, ED recovery, and mental illness treatment. I started filling my mind with messages I couldn’t quite believe yet, but made me hope for a future where I could believe in them. Messages about self-worth separate from appearance, about being okay with perceived flaws, about being strong and taking up space instead of being as small as I felt I had to be in both body and voice.
Maybe someday, I thought, I’ll believe all that. And maybe then I’ll be happy.
In my pursuit of these beliefs, I fell into seeking anything that might help. I was the first of my local peers that truly found yoga as a practice, at least to my knowledge. I came to it under the guise that I wanted to strengthen my body- which was true to an extent- but a little voice inside of me wondered if it could do something more. Could it make me more confident, happier, kinder to myself? Could it allow me to believe everything I wanted to believe was possible, everything they promised came with recovery?
I vividly remember lying in one of my first yoga classes in supta baddha konasana- reclined butterfly pose- and listening to my teacher guide us into meditation. She spoke of self-love, acceptance, and guiding our lives towards the light we’re destined for. As she spoke, I quietly cried, and squeezed my eyes shut. My hands rested on my belly, a space of my body I’d been concentrating my anxieties on for the majority of my life, as though if its size and flatness and leanness could be controlled my happiness could, too. The shame I’d directed upon it for so long meant this was one of the first times I’d touched it in years. I’d never felt safe enough to, but here, in this yoga class, I finally did.
Maybe, I thought, If I keep coming back here, I’ll be happy. And this will get easier.
As I would come to learn, it would get easier. I’d come to class every day for the next few years, and with that repetition came a new freedom and understanding of the world around me the likes of which I’d never experienced before. Every class, the poses came a little easier. The names of the shapes became more familiar. And the messages of love and healing began to work their way into my heart. As one of my teachers says so concisely:
Repetition leads to belief, belief leads to a deep conviction, and a deep conviction leads to change.
It all began with believing the lessons my teachers were offering me, and slowly, oh so slowly, they became an unquestionable truth in my mind. Who was I to think I wasn’t worthy of love? Who was I to think this world would work properly if I didn’t love myself? Who was I to think I could make a difference in other’s lives without coming from a space of love in my own heart?
Things started changing. The seeds the lessons of my early recovery had planted began to blossom. I started carrying myself differently, no longer wanting to hide who I was and all that was stirring within me. I started talking more openly about my problems and less rigidly, finding a new kind of freedom in sharing my experience with mental illness. I started eating more mindfully and with a little less pain, seeing the value now in nourishing both my body and spirit.
I was living life a little differently than the people I’d known before my recovery journey began. I was immersed in things like journaling, self-improvement, and mental health awareness: all things that were a far cry from the short list of “interests” I’d thought high schoolers were confined to (sports, arts, partying, or academia- pick two). Before finding yoga, I’d been stuck in the “one way” of success: grow up, go to college, get married, have some kids, live in a big house, call it a life. But now, it seemed there was endless possibility in front of me. I was exposed, for the first time, to the idea of curating the life that served my highest and best, not the story I’d been fed my entire life by everyone around me.
And it’s in this way of seeing the possibility in creating our own lives that I started to see the hidden blessing my eating disorder was. It was offering me permission to escape the rigidity of my previous life by forcing me to confront the danger of staying immersed in it. I’d tried to fit in a box of my own expectations, and I’d literally nearly died. Now I was seeing the possibility that lay beyond it.
Today, I find it impossible to regret my eating disorder and all of the pain that it brought. Had I never been brought to that lowest low, I’d possibly never found the beauty in rebirth and an “atypical” life. I would never have found my passion for educating others on mental health and wellbeing. It’s even possible that my writing would have never become what it is today: a vessel for passion and healing that allows me to be a voice for those who haven’t quite found their own yet.
More than anything, I know I needed to go through the thick of my disorder because it now has given me my life’s work: to live in service of others suffering through the same thing. I truly believe the Universe sent me this obstacle because it allowed me to help others from a space of empathy and understanding, not third-person preaching. I’ve walked in these shoes for a reason, to truly understand what it is like to need help and know what help is actually useful.
All of this is to say, I’ve learned that whatever pain the Universe brings into your life is likely a clue as to what your purpose on this planet is. Every pain, every obstacle is a training for helping and healing others. It’s a first step to discovering your passion, your mission, your cause. It’s the beginning of your work to help heal this planet from the sickness it’s facing.
And it starts with learning how to heal you.
Photos by Roberto Martinez, shared with gratitude.