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Life is a journey. It is filled with the unexpected. There are valleys, mountains, rocks, sticks and flat places. Sometimes there is water and things get muddy. Other times, life is filled with leaves that cloud the once known path. Other people will pass you on your journey and you might walk with them for a little while. But in the end, you end up having to part ways and go the way you have set out to go. In life, you have to choose which path to take. Sometimes the paths will not be clear and seem overwhelming, but that is the joy in life. It is the unknown leading to a million different outcomes. Every person’s journey in life is different. Everyone struggles, everyone experiences joy, pain, and sorrow, but no one leads the same life. Sometimes in life, you don’t have a choice. You may have been diagnosed with a disease, had a loved one die or were born into poverty, you did not choose that life. It was not your fault. However, it happened to you. And now you have a choice. Will you fight? Will you overcome the obstacles? You can’t change some circumstances in life, but you can change your outlook. Your fight. Your passion. What will you fight for?
As I climbed up the mountain I thought over the events of last semester. I went into this semester with no expectations of what was ahead of me. I was naive to the struggles and demons that I would face. I was unaware of what lay ahead. I had no idea that I was walking straight into a valley. As I journeyed down the semester I became a two-sport athlete. I went from cross country practice to tennis practice each day and my weekends were spent traveling away for tournaments. I worked four different jobs and I took 16 credit hours. Life seemed like it was going great. Until one day I couldn’t run anymore. I was frustrated that my body seemed to be failing me. I channeled my frustration into trying harder. The next day I ran as hard as I could but I still was not close to where I had been just days before. My body ached. My heart throbbed and my muscles burned. After several days of the pain and frustration, I realized I had to stop running and tennis for a few days. I thought that a few days rest would restore my body. It did not.
I ended up driving home midweek to Indiana to get tests done. I knew something was wrong and I was annoyed. I wasn’t scared yet, but I was so frustrated. I was frustrated that I had dropped two places on the cross country team, frustrated that could not get to all the tennis balls and frustrated that everyone seemed to be thriving except me. The doctor checked me and told me I had signs of malnutrition. That I should not be doing any physical activity for a while. He told me that if I did I could go into cardiac arrest and die. I tried to bargain with him but he was firm. If I continued to run, I would ultimately end up in a hospital bed. The next day was spent going to doctors offices and in hospitals for test. The EKG on my heart came back and showed that I had Bradycardia. I asked every doctor if I could run and do any physical activity. All their responses were the same, absolutely not unless you want to die.
In the midst of this valley, I felt confused, weak, frustrated and alone. I did not know how I was going to get better. I wanted to fight this, but deep down, secretly I felt like I couldn’t. I felt hopeless. I felt engulfed by this disease. The doctors told me, “Just eat. Eat more fats, proteins, and dairy. Gain weight. Rest and eat fattening foods.” But I couldn’t just eat. Every time I ate I felt guilt. A strong guilt that shook my body. I hated the feelings after I ate. It was worse than my body aching and my heart burning, it was worse than my physical symptoms. The regret and guilt I felt after nourishing my body was intense. I wanted to overcome but I hated the feeling of guilt. I wanted to get better, but I couldn’t deal with the overwhelming sense of guilt and panicked if I ate more than a few vegetables or a few fruits. I couldn’t make myself eat dairy, bread, chocolate or rice. I restricted all my foods in an attempt to manage my guilt that I felt. After a few months, I had cut out almost every food group except vegetables. I limited my fruit to once a day because fruit had even become too much for me. I felt dizzy and when I would talk I would get light headed. Going up the stairs was exhausting. I withdrew from friends, community, and things I once enjoyed. I had no drive to do anything. My body was fighting for its life. I tried to eat more foods but even eating 400 calories a day was too much for me. The guilt and shame wrecked me. I felt like I was in a deep hole. If I did not eat, I would die. If I did eat I would feel a shame and disgust that was unbearable. If I did not eat my “brain” felt okay and I was at peace when I ate my body felt no different and my mind would not shut off. See, the thing with malnutrition is it takes a while. Eating good one day will not make me feel better. It takes days, weeks and even months to regain strength and begin feeling better. I wanted to get better but I felt hopeless.
I couldn’t sleep through the night. My bladder began not working. I had not pooped in over 15 days. I knew I was dying. My mom would call me crying, begging me to get better. She cried and her heart broke for me. I hated that I was hurting her. That I was causing her pain. My dad would call me telling me he did not believe in me. That he did not think I could fight this. I wanted to fight this but I feared I could not. I wanted to be strong for them though I did not want my parents to know how terrified I was because, if I did they would be even more fearful. I felt like I had to be strong for them and act like I was fine.
After a few months of living like this, I stepped on the scale. I was the lowest weight I had ever been. I weighed almost as much as my 11-year-old sister. I could not maintain my weight. I kept losing it. Each pound I lost, contributed to losing more of myself. I was terrified. I wanted to get better but could not. I was embarrassed because I knew that if I could eat, I could get better. But I couldn’t eat and that frustrated me. I was losing any hope I had. I couldn’t believe I was that skinny. I looked in the mirror, I was disgusted with myself. I was not beautiful, I was dead. I was withered and my bones stuck out. I looked like an alien with an abnormally big head but a shrunken body. I cried. I bawled. I was so sick of this. I wanted to change. My heart hurt. I was broken. I tried to push my fears aside as I studied for finals but I could not. I knew I was dying and I was terrified. I did not want to die. I wanted to live. But I was so sad. My body hurt and I looked at myself. “How did I get to this point?”
I was so sick I couldn’t control my bladder. I peed on myself. I sobbed as I tried to focus on a paper that I had to write. I couldn’t focus. I sat there for 11 hours trying to write a 4-page paper. I could not think, I could not be productive. I simply sat there thinking about nothing. In anger I went to my fridge and grabbed a potato, I had not eaten anything like this in months. I warmed it up and thought to myself. Take this. I don't want to die. I need this to write my paper, screw the guilt. I can do this. I ate the potato, I ate an apple, I waited. Nothing happening. I still was not able to focus. I did not feel better. I was still cold and light headed. I was so frustrated. I ate, shouldn’t I feel better? Instead, I could not focus because my brain screamed you just ate that. You just consumed 200 calories. You can’t take back what you just ate. Instead of helping me focus, I now not only felt weak, but I also felt the extreme guilt. I called my mom. I was so scared. I thought I was going to die. I called her, telling her I needed help. That I was so scared. That I needed to come home. I left school the next day and finally came home. I wanted healing. I wanted restoration. I wanted freedom. And I needed love.
I came home to open arms. My parents hugged me, supportive and with tears in their eyes whispered to me, “You’re going to get through this.” The first night I was home my dad knocked on my door. He came in softly, tenderly. His blue eyes were filled with concern and love. We sat there. Then I finally verbalized my fear. I verbalized that I thought I was going to die. I finally unpacked all my symptoms. I told him that I did not know if I could fight this. That I was so scared. That I had not been able to poop for two weeks, that I could not walk up the stairs, that I had peed on myself, that I was at the lowest weight I had been; and then, with tears and sobs, I confessed to him that I had not had a period in months. I told him that I thought my lifelong desire and dream of being a mom and having a family was gone. That I would never be able to be called mom. His eyes filled with tears. He gripped my hand and said, “We are going to get you help. You will get better.” We hugged and in that moment I felt a tender love that I had never felt from him before. My heart was overwhelmed by his soft words and his concern. I knew in that moment that he loved me and would do anything to help make my recovery possible.
Since that moment it has not been easy, it has not been simple. My journey has been filled with sleepless nights, extreme guilt and struggling, but I have found something that trumps all of that. I have found freedom and hope. I have broken free from the chains that suffocated me. I have regained my life back and I'm remembering what it is like to truly live. I no longer live in fear of death, but am able to think about my future. I can dream of being a mom one day because I finally got my period back. I can dream of playing tennis again because my body is getting stronger. I can talk and not be lightheaded, I can walk up the stairs and not feel faint. I can eat without the overwhelming guilt. I can enjoy life and indulge in some of life's little joys. I can laugh with my friends, I can eat chocolate, I can run around and laugh without fear that I am dying. I am free. The thing with eating disorders is that they control you. They give you the illusion that you are in control, but that couldn't be more from the truth. They control you. They tell you what to eat. They tell you how to feel. They make your body weak. They try to kill you. Once you break free from the lies and the grip of an eating disorder, you begin to see the beauty in life again and realize that life really is beautiful. You are bigger than your eating disorder. No matter how much you weigh, how malnourished you are or how terrified you are, you can find freedom. You can recover. You are worth it and one day you will be able to eat without intense guilt. You will be able to enjoy food again and one day you will look back and remember how far you’ve come. You are a fighter. You overcame. And you found freedom that unleashes you and sets you free.