- Mental Health
- Other Addictions
One of my fondest memories from college (20 years ago) is of early morning rowing practice. In darkness and silence, we would run three miles from campus to the boathouse. Besides the occasional car that drove by, the only sound was the steady strike of feet on the pavement.
Teams of eight would march their boats to the dock and set off on a moonlit river for a warm up. We powered through drills as the sun came up, pushing and pulling to our max potential. It was a magical rhythm, this harmonious momentum we created with our bodies, the oar, and the water.
In grade school and high school, I played soccer, softball and basketball. I excelled at all three sports and was named MVP most years. My ambition was to achieve perfection, to score the most, win the most, and please my coaches and teammates. I practiced hard and played even harder. I prided myself on a reputation for being aggressive. I craved the sweat, physical exertion, and glory of athleticism.
During college, crew was by far the most physically and mentally demanding sport I had ever participated in. I was the stroke for my boat and I was intensely driven to be a powerhouse rower. In my sophomore year of college, my drive for athletic success was challenged in a new and fierce way. The bar was raised, and me being me, I was determined to surpass it. During an afternoon rowing practice, as we rowed by the dock my coach shouted, “I can tell how hard you work by how much your body changes.” I remember upon hearing his words, I slammed my legs and pulled the oar as hard as I possibly could. I had a new mission to master: I had to literally alter my body’s shape and size to prove myself.
Before college, I did not have a hyperawareness of my body. I was an average-sized and comfortable in my skin. I was successful on the playing field with the body I had; I could box with the best of them. The thought or fantasy of changing my body never occurred to me until the day I heard those very damaging words. If my body was now the marker of how hard I worked and the depth of my dedication to my team, that could only mean one thing — I had to shrink. And that’s exactly what I did. That single statement unleashed a vicious, relentless and life-threatening eating disorder that I would spend much of my life untangling and understanding.
Yoga has been a life-saving force in my life. After college and during graduate school, I taught yoga for seven years before getting married, starting a career, and having children. With the beautiful gift of motherhood also came a whirlwind of stress, endless exhaustion, a severe eating disorder relapse, and depression. As I frantically tried to balance being the perfect mother, wife, and professional, my yoga practice fell away.
I knew I needed help when someone once asked me what I enjoy doing and I literally could not respond. My brain searched for an answer, but there were no words, descriptions, or memories. In that moment, I felt empty, blank, and unsure if I would ever recover. It became clear to me how entirely disconnected I was from my passions—those essential things both big and small that ring true with who I am at my core.
For so long, I believed I had no choice but to run myself into the ground, that I had to put off attending to my needs until my girls went to college. The reality was that I had no choice because I was ensnared in self-imposed limitations. Possibilities or alternatives were nowhere to be found, or so I believed. I was faced with the hard truth that if I wanted to be well and whole for my children and husband, I needed to seek treatment.
The most challenging thing I have ever done in my life was to leave my husband and two young daughters to seek residential treatment for an eating disorder relapse. As painful as it was to be away from them for an entire month, it was one of the most pivotal decisions I ever made in my life. Going to treatment resuscitated my heart, soul, mind, and body. Now, several years later, I am whole for myself and my family. I have since trained to be a yoga therapist and now support others on their healing paths. I have transformed my pain into purpose, and my work fills me with immense and profound joy.
In my 20+ years of healing, I’ve developed a few philosophies that have shaped my own recovery. They have also set me up to take better care of my children and be present with the special people in my life. I share these philosophies with you, too, with the hope they will open up new pathways for deep and lasting healing in your life.
- Recovery is a lifestyle, not a side job. Between therapy appointments and going to groups and keeping food logs, recovery can feel like a time-consuming side-job. Over time, this attitude toward recovery can cause us to become resentful. The more resentful we become, the less motivated we are to keep up our efforts. I believe recovery is a lifestyle — it’s not something “extra” we must do. Rather, it is the foundation from which we must attend to everything in our lives to keep us well and moving forward.
To make recovery a lifestyle, let every choice you make be informed by this question: Is “x” going to support me in my healing or is it going to work against me? Get honest with yourself about the people, places and things in your life that merely help you manage an eating disorder versus those that support you in healthful ways. Choose to avoid the land mines, and replace them with things that will empower you and build you up.
- Find purpose. Find an activity, hobby, profession or something that makes your heart sing and connects you with your gifts, talents and passions. When we have a sense of purpose in our lives, we feel alive, whole, and happy from the inside. We remember we are more than an eating disorder as we connect to our inner spirit — our true selves.
- Include your body in the process of healing your mind. Our eating disorders pit us against our bodies. I believe that to heal the awful disconnect with our bodies, we must include them in our recovery lifestyle. For me, it’s yoga. This practice has been the pathway back to embodiment. Yoga has also put me in touch with my body’s power and strengths. I recommend finding an activity that allows you to reconnect with your strengths and a playful spirit. Resist returning to activities that turn on eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. This may mean trying something new or getting creative. Including your body could also mean taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and watch your breath. I understand that being in our bodies is not always easy or pleasant, but I deeply know that with time and persistence, patience and compassion, we can come home to our bodies and feel more at peace in our skin.
- Find new language. It is essential that we hardwire our brains with new ways of thinking about ourselves. One very important way to do this is by finding new ways to relate to yourself through language. For example, I believe saying “the eating disorder” instead of “my eating disorder” will create some much needed space between you and a diagnosis. Also, notice how you speak to yourself and others about food and your body. Watch your words. Are they eating disordered or perpetuate negativity? Begin to consciously talk back to the nasty words you say to yourself and strive to model language that supports your own healing and the self-esteem of others. One key change I’ve made in my language is by referring to recovery as a healing path. I use the words “recovered” and “recovery,” but sometimes those words induce insecurity or confusion and even a sense of failure for me. “Recovery” can feel like such a mountain and “recovered” can feel like a destination. Healing path allows me to feel more “in process” and keep an open mind to that process.
- Have a personal recovery “call to action.” This is an intention to help you clearly define your personal mission for recovery and allow your commitment to heal to take root. Doing so will also cultivate the beautiful gifts of self-reliance, resilience and trust for yourself and the healing process. I’ll close by sharing my personal recovery call to action, which is to “be of substance”.
The healing of recovery has allowed me to step into my fullest potential as a woman, wife, mother, writer, and holder of space for others’ healing. I actively strive to be role model for my daughters and empower them to experience their bodies in affirming ways–this is my greatest purpose. As a yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image, I support others on their healing path with workshops, retreats, and my one-on-one yoga therapy practice. I am hopeful that my forthcoming book, Body Mindful Yoga (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018), will be a gateway to connection with and healing for others who struggle to have an affirming relationship with their bodies.