I didn’t know what grooming was. It’s not a word that children would grow up hearing. In fact, I honestly didn’t know truly what grooming was until my most recent stay in treatment for my eating disorder. Child grooming is establishing a strong trust and emotional relationship with a child with the intention of harming the child.
I have been groomed by one of my dance instructors—David—from a young age to the present day. I just discovered this. I thought the sexual abuse that happened this past July was the extent of the relationship, I thought this man loved me. But he has been playing mind games with me for over a decade. He made me feel special. He wanted to be with me. He told me I was going to grow into a beautiful ballerina. He made me feel like I was connected with him, that I was safe and understood.
Looking back and gaining insight into what I remember, he was manipulating and taking advantage of me the entire time I have known him. I saw him as the father I didn’t have. I saw him as someone who would love me. But on the flipside, I could never disappoint him. I had to be perfect for him. I had to keep so many secrets. I was in love with David. I have loved him since I was a kid. I’ve not included a whole lot of detail about what he did to me in my story because it simply is too painful for me to speak about right now.
I was born on August 19, 1999, to Andrew and Judi Knowles. I was their first child. My earliest memories are happy. Giggles, Christmases, and my daddy. When I was four, my mom had my brother, Blake. I remember being so excited to be a big sister. Shortly after my brother was born, I stopped seeing Daddy. Mommy had a new man around, Bradley, and I didn’t like him. When I was five, my dad died. Alcoholism.
With the insight I have now, I know that losing my dad was the traumatic event that initially sent me into a downward spiral. Bradley and my mom didn’t talk much about my dad’s death. I was devastated at the time and didn’t understand why no one else was. Bradley and my mom had a baby, got married, and he adopted Blake and me. I spent so much time confused why I had to keep my father a secret and pretend it didn’t happen.
My anorexia started when I was five. My first memory of it is in ballet class. I remember thinking I was the biggest girl there and needed to lose weight. Crying about being fat. Hating my body, hating myself. It’s always been this way. Self-loathing is as natural as breathing. Looking back, I realize how sad it is for a little girl to be so aware of her body. David told me I was the smartest girl, that I was going to do great things. I interpreted that as needing the perfect ballerina figure.
In kindergarten, my teacher was teaching us about food. We took Cheetos and put them on paper towels to see the grease they left behind. Cheetos were bad, and they made you gain weight. That night, I was standing in the kitchen refusing to eat dinner because I was chubby. I was crying. My parents tried telling me that my body was perfect, but I couldn’t hear any of it. As I got older, my dislike for myself increased. For example, I wouldn’t brush my hair because I didn’t think I deserved to look pretty.
All throughout elementary school, I strived to be perfect. I was the best in my class and always made perfect grades. I was very shy and kids would make fun of me for being smart. I was still dancing, and I fell deeply in love with it.
My parents gave me so much recognition for my grades that I felt it was all they cared about me for. There was an intense about of pressure in my house to be the best. My dad would be disappointed in me if I didn’t do well on something. He would scream, and threaten to make me quit dance. He was in a constant state of anger it seemed like and he couldn’t be pleased. My mom wasn’t really present in my life. She was always preoccupied with work and my younger siblings. It just was expected that I was always fine and could take care of myself.
I read a lot. Reading allowed me to escape the anger at home, I could escape how fat and gross I felt at dance, I could escape the hunger I felt from not eating enough.
I spent a lot of time in my room alone. I figured my family was better off without me and no one was my friend. I would do sit-ups until I physically couldn’t anymore and I would write in journals. I’d write hateful things to my body, and I’d write what foods I’d eaten. My eating disorder was pretty manageable when I was younger because I was so secretive and I wasn’t extremely thin. I did lose lots of weight at times, but there was always an excuse—I was growing taller, dancing more, etc.
I started sixth grade. I felt reasonably proud of myself because I would go days and days without lunch. I started to get attention from boys. They liked my body. I started believing that my body was worth something-sex- but I still really disliked how I looked. At age twelve I got the role of Claire in The Nutcracker. I thought I was so cool. I started gaining more confidence as a dancer.
During this time, something was wrong with my back. It was causing me excruciating pain. But, I didn’t dare tell anyone. Not until after Nutcracker anyways. I had to go see orthopedic surgeons and no one knew what was wrong with my back. The only solution was to take a break from dance until it felt better. Dancing was the only thing that made me happy so sitting out was hard. But I eventually lied and said I felt better so I could dance again.
Middle school was when my depression got worse. I started at a new school, Liberty Christian. Kids were very mean to me. Boys would talk about my “nice butt” and how they wanted to fuck me. I felt ashamed of my body and needed to lose more weight.
I spent the majority of seventh and eighth grade crying in the restroom. I started to cut myself. I really wanted to be dead but I felt that I wasn’t skinny enough to kill myself. I was very intentional to hurt myself where no one would notice. But, being in a leotard and tights all the time made this very hard, so self-harming was brief and not really my thing.
I started focusing more on what I could let myself eat. I wanted my bones to all be clearly visible. I was beginning to notice worsening physical symptoms. Dizziness, headaches, etc. I spent lots of times at the doctor getting labs. They always just told me to eat more.
When I first started at Liberty, one of the science teachers was so kind to me. Mr. Porter was his name. Oddly kind to me, I thought. But, most people weren’t so I accepted his kindness. He was not one of my teachers at the time, he just sought me out in the hallway. He would compliment me often and was flirty. He singled me out often, and I spent a lot of time in his classroom alone with him.
It was obvious I was very depressed, I thought I had found someone who was looking out for me. I had David, whom I believed cared about me, but I only saw him a few times a year. I also had my first real boyfriend. His name was Tony. He wasn’t very nice to me, but I was convinced I deserved it. He took my virginity even though I had said no, but I didn’t care enough about me to stand up for myself.
I can’t remember if it was eighth or ninth grade when I actually had Mr. Porter for a class. But I did, and things got worse. He had a wife who was sick with leukemia, and in my head, I believed it was my place to take care of him. He told me I was the only one who understood the situation. I was the only person he could connect with. He even came to my ballet performances.
I can remember many times when he was sexual with me, but I made excuses for him. “He just misses his wife.” Or, “It’s my fault because of how my body looks.”
He also talked about God a lot, and how God wanted him to love me. I spent middle school and the beginning of freshman year confused and lonely. The things he would say started to scare me. After many months, my parents found out. After months of investigation, he went to jail.
When the people I went to school with found out, they all stopped talking to me. They thought I was a freak and had wanted the relationship. My parents didn’t react well. My dad told me it was my fault and I should have done things differently. I believed him.
I started going to a new school second semester of freshman year. I struggled a lot. I don’t know how it was possible, but I started hating myself even more. Then sophomore year came. Things turned up for a bit. I was cast as Snow Queen in The Nutcracker, and would be partnering with David.
More importantly, I was going to be Swanhilda in Coppelia. This was when I for sure knew I wanted to pursue dance as my career. I poured everything I am into working towards Coppelia that year. It was the perfect distraction from everything in my head.
All of my costumes for Coppelia were handmade just for me. They were made in the summer of 2015 and the shows were in March 2016. By March, they were so big on me and were falling off. Everyone assumed I had lost weight from all the rehearsing, but in reality I was barely, barely eating. Now, it breaks my heart to look back and remember how strong of a dancer I was. I was the lead of a three-act ballet and never left the stage. I was full of stamina.
I had genuinely felt beautiful during Coppelia. And it was over. I went straight back into my depression. I went from restricting to completely starving. I had no purpose. Nothing to live for anymore. A few months went by, then auditions for the next season came around. I basically thought I had peaked and wouldn’t get any lead roles. But, I had severely doubted myself because I got cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
This is a big deal. Every little girl grows up dreaming about this. It’s one of the most difficult, most beautiful pas de deuxs in the ballet repertoire. I would be performing with David, that was also exciting because of how much my love for him had grown. I felt a sense of purpose again, but wanted to lose weight to look great on stage. I had no desire to eat.
In September, I met a boy. Drew. We started talking every day and hanging out. I had never cared so much about someone as much as I cared for him. For once, I felt safe with a member of the opposite sex. He wouldn’t hurt me or do anything without my consent. Unfortunately, I was so sick and full of shame that I never let him get to really know me. Our relationship was primarily sexual. One of my biggest regrets is ruining that relationship. Drew meant a lot to me.
I was at the height of suicidal fantasy. I mean, I was craving death. I was losing weight faster than ever. I was tired and irritable. In all honesty, I was dying. I could feel my body giving up more and more each day. I would lie in bed at night hoping to not wake up the next day. When I would wake, I was greeted with despair. My hair was falling out. I would take it out of a bun after dance at nights and clumps would come out.
In a way, this made me sad because I didn’t want any of the little girls at my dance studio to know what was happening to me. I was weighing myself multiple times a day and measuring parts of my body with a measuring tape. I wanted to disappear. That was what weight loss could give me. I was never hungry. That feeling was completely gone by this point. I was freezing and constantly shivering. My lips were blue and cracked, my skin gray. There was no color to my eyes.
In November, I woke up one morning determined to die. I got in my car and started driving. It was a crisp morning and still a little dark out. I decided I was going to wreck and hopefully die. I came up to a stop sign and saw a car coming. I didn’t stop. I got hit and spun out into a telephone pole. Every window shattered. I can still hear the sound of being hit. My car was so bent up that it was hard to get out. But I survived. Not only did I survive, I was perfectly uninjured. I was devastated. No harm had been done. Nothing. I had never been so disappointed. I had failed at dying.
When my parents came to get me, my dad could not have cared less whether or not I was okay. He was so pissed that I was careless enough to total my car. He didn’t speak to me for a few days after that.
One night at dance the director, Jennifer, wanted to talk to me. I followed her into the office and she shut the door. The people I danced with were my family, and they were the ones noticing my drastic weight loss. It scared them. Jennifer asked me the question I was most afraid of.
“Are you eating?” I couldn’t keep it in anymore. I burst into tears and said “no.” She helped me make a list of foods I would eat—my safe foods—and the conversation ended with her very worried about me. Either I got it together or I wouldn’t be in Nutcracker.
I didn’t start eating. I tried. But, when you have been starving for so long, refeeding yourself is basically impossible.
Ultimately, I was able to perform. And it was good. I don’t know how I did it. Honestly, I don’t know how I stayed alive. Drew came and he brought me flowers. I felt so happy. But, my parents didn’t like him so they didn’t let me see him anymore.
During Christmas and New Year’s, my family went on a cruise. It was awful. I was sick and nauseous and wanted to throw myself overboard. I did not eat and my laxative abuse increased.
After winter break I went back to school and dance. School was terrible as usual but even worse because people were starting to comment on my poor condition. My failing grades, my inability to stay awake, but a topic I was rather proud of—how bony I was. I loved hearing I looked sick. I thrived on it. I wanted people to be alarmed by my appearance, I was withering away, getting closer and closer to disappearing.
My mom started taking me to some dietician. I hated it of course. She was kind I guess but I really didn’t agree with her on anything and I told her food wasn’t an option for me. After talking to her for a while she looked at my mom, almost as if I wasn’t there, and said “She is a textbook anorexic.”
I was happy as could be. In my eating disorder, I was perfect. At least that’s what I wanted to believe. I think this dietician really wanted to help me, she just couldn’t. But, she did try very hard to convince me that carbs are good.
At dance, we were working on our next ballet, Alice in Wonderland. At this point, I was so weak and frail that dance was getting harder for me. This was frustrating. I’m stubborn, so no one knew that I couldn’t breathe most of the time and no one knew how my heart was barely working.
Honestly, I don’t clearly remember a lot of the past two years. I just remember this feeling. A hazy feeling. Exhaustion.
I still wanted to kill myself. I genuinely think that by starving myself I was just committing slow suicide. Starving to death was taking way too long though. I decided I wanted to hang myself. I had a noose. I thought it was beautiful. My longing for death could come true.
I would be able to feel the breath leaving my body, and I ached for that more than anything. I carried the noose everywhere with me for a while, contemplating when and where. I have written so many suicide notes in my lifetime. And I wrote even more, because I was sure I couldn’t fuck up hanging myself.
I feel stupid for admitting this, but I couldn’t figure out where in my house to attach the noose. None of the ceilings were right. So I went outside and was going to hang it from our deck. Long story short, I backed out. Something inside me knew that this wasn’t the thing to do. I did not hang myself that night.
I kept the noose though. And took it with me everywhere. I wasn’t happy that I kept on continuing my life. I was sorrow-filled I didn’t have the courage to end it.
So it is now March of 2017 and I’ve turned into a bitch. I was so awful and mean to everyone around me. I was not eating, I knew I wasn’t going to make it much longer. Alice in Wonderland was coming up.
I had spent lots of time at the doctor and was told my heart was going to fail. “Hell yeah, it is,” I thought.
During the week of Alice, I got kicked out for being too unhealthy. This broke me.
Not only was I not allowed to dance, my parents went through all of my stuff. They thought I was on drugs. They found the noose. I have never been yelled at so much by my dad. I guess he was scared, but he didn’t handle it well.
My parents wouldn’t let me go to school. They took me to work with them because they thought I was going to hurt myself. My mom also started sleeping in my room with me. I was pissed off and annoyed and every emotion a sick isolative depressed girl can be.
One night that week, I decided to go see Drew. We were talking again at this point. I disabled the alarm and stole my mom’s car. The only issue with my plan was that my mom was sleeping with me, so she noticed I was gone. Needless to say, I came home that night and it was ugly.
The next day I barely remember, I was so tired I couldn’t move. My parents had decided it was time to send me somewhere because I was getting worse physically, mentally, and emotionally. I would scream at them that I wanted to die and I hated them for force-feeding me because it had caused me to gain weight.
I vaguely remember talking to Renessa on the phone. I was perplexed by the questions she was asking me because no one had ever asked me anything like that before.
On Tuesday, March 14th, I was admitted into Selah House. I was such a brat about it, my parents had to drag me in and I was very rude to everyone and made it clear I didn’t want to be there. But, since I was an adolescent it didn’t matter because my parents got to decide.
After my parents had left that day, I met lots of people. Marcie, Chris, and Shelby. I was sitting at the tall table with Freddy the fish and Marcie just held me while I cried. No one had ever let me just cry before. I always thought tears were bad and that I didn’t have any right to be sad. That’s what my parents said anyways.
I met with Shelby and I was angry. I was not about to let this girl make me eat. I remember Shelby telling me how cool it was that we had the same last name. I thought it was lame. (It’s funny how different nutrition makes your brain work because eventually, I started to love Shelby and tell people we were sisters.)
Kadee was my primary therapist. I had never been able to openly talk about myself, but I could with her. Towards the end of my stay, I told Kadee I was still planning on killing myself. She talked me out of it, and whenever I would have a bad day, I’d remember that Kadee cares for me. I owe so much to Kadee, and she will always be a part of my story.
I remember so much about my first stay at Selah. I look back and can’t help but smile because I got the opportunity to meet the most beautiful people and they saved my life. I’m at a place now where I don’t think I could be more grateful.
My biggest struggle was weight restoration. I could deal with all the therapy but I did not want to gain weight. It was my biggest fear. A close second struggle was my parents. You see, my parents weren’t okay with trusting anyone. They wanted to control my treatment. We really didn’t get anywhere with family therapy and going back home after Selah was a mistake.
On my discharge date, I went home and didn’t eat dinner that night. It didn’t take long for me to relapse. My parents were isolating me, because they believed that was how to get the eating disorder out of me. I had been considering moving out at 18 for years, and I decided it was what I needed to do. So I held on to the hope that in a few months I could leave.
Things were bad this past summer. My mom thought that since I was a healthy weight that I was emotionally healthy too. Little did she know.
These months were awful. I was more suicidal than I had been before. I was restricting and overexercising and counting calories. I also wasn’t sleeping. There was some abuse that occurred in July and I believed it was because of my weight restored body. I’ve had this subconscious belief that I’m safer in a smaller body.
Nothing extremely significant happened after that besides turning eighteen. By this time I was so deep into the darkness again that I knew I needed more help than outpatient could give me, but I wasn’t ready to ask for it. Selah crossed my mind a lot, but I always shut it down because I figured that the staff would be disappointed in me.
More weeks went by. I was dizzy and tired and felt extremely weak. Selah still was popping in my head.
What happened next I can’t explain. I was driving and I had the urge to swerve into oncoming traffic. The next day, I thought, “I can’t keep living like this. I am either going to get bad in my eating disorder again and my body won’t survive it this time, or I am going to kill myself.”
I didn’t want that. For the first time, part of me ached to live, to truly live. I called Selah House the next day and came that same week.
The story so far, and I have the power to write it.