In The Journey by Mary Oliver, she shares, "One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began..."
I'd like to think that my recovery story unfolded in this way, but the truth is far from that. The struggle became too much for me to bare, and I was only just willing to surrender to being with the anxiety, anger, and grief that had steeped for too long.
Growing up in the Midwest proved to be a challenge; emotions stifled, people always aiming to appease. I began dance, which evolved into my physical and emotional outlet. Dance could easily be blamed to be a catalyst for my eating disorder. However, it was more so a feeding ground, for lack of a better term. The hours spent focusing strictly on my body--the disciplined movement and the idealized lines--often in front of a mirror that was unforgiving; the cross-training that lacked conscious awareness and surpassed a healthy amount early on; the rehearsals where I often felt defeated, a low self-confidence only making the feedback ache more deeply as I questioned my self-worth; an ever-present sense of competition--for a role, or with others who began as dear friends and quickly turned to enemies, or with myself, knowing I could always do better.
And no--it was not all bad. There were moments of joy: The stillness before the curtain rose on the dim stage, stomach clenching with the 'good' kind of nerves and then performing under the warm glow of the lights in front of a world where I was so vulnerably seen. The catch was that this "being seen" was only a fleeting false belief, never successfully yielding the questions and care I needed. The grief still lingering for a loss of something I dedicated such heart to...
Fast forward a few years later and I've landed in Portland, OR. This move, 2000 miles from what was home, provided new possibilities. One of those possibilities was exploring the forests and mountains which were unknown, awe-inspiring worlds. I'd start small with hikes, eventually exploring backpacking and Nordic skiing in the winter months. There was a freedom I came to experience--it really did not matter what I looked like. And there was something humbling about being outside--she, Mother Earth, had a louder voice than my eating disorder could ever dream of.
Portland was also a new chance, after a year of restless anxiety and deep depression that left no space for the hard work confronting such a strong disorder, to heal. I'd honestly examine the food preferences that transformed to orthorexic tendencies that turned to highly restrictive anorexic behaviors; the exercise addiction that exhausted me both physically and mentally; opening a conversation on body acceptance that was buried beneath messy shame. Embodying the phrase "recovery is not linear,” I sampled therapists until there was one who got it and, most importantly, heard me. At this same time, I met a new dietitian who I trusted, which is difficult when their role is to get you to eat the food--the one thing that I knew I had to do, but was so afraid of.
"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view." —Edward Abbey
Together these supports saw my willingness to recover with a healthy dose of reality, seeing the strength of my eating disorder. I started a partial hospitalization program, which tested my ability to soften, to surrender, to trust. And the practice of being held, knowing they were the audience I was always yearning so deeply for. I fought--and fought hard--at times, but there were many tender moments where I crumbled into the most beautiful mess. There was a realization that this, this surrender, was where the healing would begin.
On my admission day for this program, I sat down with a new dietitian. After disclosing a deep yearning to be outside and not trapped into the walls of that building, she leaned in, put both hands on my knees, and told me that I had the rest of my life to go up to the mountain, but where I was, in treatment, that day and for how many days to come, was so, so important. I took the time to challenge and soften myself within those walls. In my months of intensive treatment, I reevaluated my values. What did I want from this one sweet and wild life of mine?
Connection--something my eating disorder can never provide me. Connection to self, connection to others, connection to something greater. And it is meeting myself in the woods where I sense this. Here in the quiet hush created by the wind moving through the Douglas firs, I am further from distractions and closer to myself. Historically, this closeness was superficial and full of judgment, reliant on numbers which I naively believed led me nearer to the perfect body aka ultimate joy. Within that closeness, I attune to what is around me, whether it be the vast blue sky or the epic ridge line. This idealized image of myself now petty. My eating disorder can chime in with excitement at times for miles completed and elevation gained. But this is where I practice, and practicing is what I am doing. I am more willing to listen to the anxieties, the cruel voices, the grief knowing they are only a part of me. I am whole as I feel the ground beneath my feet and take a deep breath, air often fragrant from the sunburnt pine needles or refreshingly crisp from the frost in the air. I find gratitude in simplicity--sleeping under the stars with only what is necessary. I am developing a new found confidence in my adventures--Can I do this? Am I safe? Can I be flexible knowing that Mother Nature can scream a big 'fuck you' to my rigidity?
Being outside does not get rid of my eating disorder, but it has been helpful to soothe what once was crippling anxiety. I am still struggling with body image, but, really, who is not, and challenging behaviors surface that are many years strong. My recovery will take years of exploring the landscape of my body and mind, as I explore this great Pacific Northwest, with what I hope will be the same awe and amazement.
Sometimes surrender is what is needed for adventure awaits.