What I Learned From Six Years of Hell: My Personal Story of Survival

It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I was sixteen years old and my high school sweetheart broke my heart. He said the spark was gone. We all know what that means in teenage boy language. I felt heartbroken and alone. Soon after, I had surgery on the back of my calf to fix a scar and then had my wisdom teeth out one week later. I was having trouble eating while recovering from the surgery, but even when my mouth started feeling better, I still wanted to restrict food. I was losing weight. It felt good. Something had clicked.

My battle with food started slowly. At first, I was restricting carbs and then fats. I insisted that anything I ate was fat free. This WAS the 90’s, so fat free was the diet craze. It wasn’t hard to find fat free substitutes for just about anything.  Within months, I progressed to eating only vegetables or lettuce dipped in yellow mustard. 600 calories per day became my absolute limit. That’s about one-third of what an active teenager of my height should take in.

The calorie counting started to consume my every thought. My family was getting worried and constantly nagging me to eat. My friends were nagging me to eat, but finally gave up, and eventually gave up on me in the process. I felt so alone.

Why won’t you eat? You look horrible. Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you doing this to us? Why are you doing this to me? The truth is, I didn’t know. For once in my young life, I felt in control of something. Counting calories and losing weight felt good. I remember sitting in classes adding every last calorie in the margins of my notebooks. I was obsessed, and had no idea why.

At some point during the fall of my senior year, my weight dropped dangerously low, and my mom insisted I start therapy.  I remember sitting in the therapist’s office talking about my dietary needs, but never much about my emotional needs. I couldn’t rationalize why I was terrified to eat or why I was so depressed? I was so focused on controlling calories that I was unable to focus on the emotional healing I so desperately needed.

In the spring of my junior year of high school, I was named First Team All State for softball. I was a star center fielder, who was already being recruited by many Division One programs. I was also a starter on our varsity basketball team. I was fast and tough. By the time fall rolled around, I was fully consumed by anorexia and could hardly walk up and down steps without getting winded. When senior year basketball started, I was severely underweight. Coaches from opposing teams, who had watched me play for years, expressed their concern. My mom was horrified. This was a wake up call. I slowly started to recover, but still kept a close eye on the scale.

See, that’s the thing about anorexia. It may have appeared that, as I put weight back on, I was healing. When I got close enough to my original healthy weight, my family and friends breathed a sigh of relief, even declaring me “recovered”, but the eating disorder- that voice in my head- was still there, just lurking.

Eating disorders, while so visibly physical, require so much more emotional work to overcome. At this point, I had not done the emotional work. I had no idea why I was so focused on calories and my weight. It took quite a few years to finally reach the clarity to realize I needed to focus on those calories to keep my mind from focusing on emotional pain.

By the time I went off to college, I was back to my original weight and was seemingly healthy and recovered. My family was fooled. I was fooled. I went off to college as a pre-med Chemistry major, taking 18 credits in my first semester. I was also playing Division One softball, which was a full-time job in and of itself. Our practice field was a 45 minute ride from campus to boot. Often times, I would return back to campus in the evening and the dining hall would already have closed for dinner. I had to survive on microwave Chef Boyardee meals or anything my roommates could remember to bring me from the dining hall. My classes were hard. Keeping up with make up work when we traveled for games and tournaments was hard. Softball was hard. I wasn’t the star anymore.  My game was really struggling, as I think the anorexia had done more damage physically than we realized. My self-esteem was shot. I was feeling out of control again. In a big way.

Flash forward to spring of my freshman year of college and I was starting to lose weight again. That summer and throughout sophomore year, my anorexia was back and even worse than it had been in high school. I decided not to play softball anymore. I just wasn’t healthy enough. I am 5’8” and my weight went down to below 100 pounds. I had been very outgoing and social during my freshman year, but now I was fully isolating myself. I was commuting home every weekend so it wasn’t obvious to my friends that I was staying in my room. I think a part of me was also a scared, hurting little girl who needed her mom. It’s weird, but I remember going home and feeling like my parents hated to look at me. When I was at school, I felt like my friends and classmates couldn’t look at me either. I felt like a total freak.

I made it through my sophomore year. My grades, surprisingly, were not suffering. I was consistently making the Dean’s List. All of my brain power and energy must have been going to counting calories and studying. I had none left over for socializing or just being a normal college kid. I was sleeping a lot. I was no longer menstruating.

When I went home for winter break during my junior year of college, I was struggling with the thought of going back. I felt like a freak, like a loser. I did go back to school in January but quickly withdrew for the semester.

I went home and had no idea who I was anymore. I didn’t have school. I was no longer a competitive athlete. I was still just a hurt little girl.

The next few years were full of ups and downs with my eating disorder and resulted in multiple hospital stays. The emotional work had finally begun. It was painful, and I will never forget those incredibly brave, strong young women who were there in the hospital with me as we all leaned on each other while trying to battle our demons together. No one else can understand the conflicted feelings of hating your eating disorder with every ounce of your being, but desperately needing it at the same time. I didn’t want to feel that way. None of us did, but we needed it.

When you hear, as a parent, that what your children hear from you is what they become, it’s true. Growing up, I constantly heard, from one of the people who should have loved me most in the world, that I wasn’t ever good enough and I believed it. I never felt like I was good enough. Excelling in sports wasn’t good enough. Making honor roll by busting my butt wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I was a “moron.”  See, that sticks with a kid. I was never good enough for my father so I would never be good enough for me.

My eating disorder helped me to quiet that voice. I’m not a medical professional, but I do see the parallels between eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction. Drugs and alcohol help to quiet those painful inner voices too. I was a teenager and in my early twenties when I was truly suffering, but inside I was just a little girl in pain who needed to heal. I needed to learn that that voice and that pain did not define me.

I remember my mom was so terrified that I was going to die. At one point I ended up in the coronary care unit of a hospital in Philadelphia. My EKG had no p-waves, which was the evidence that I was damaging my heart. I wasn’t feeding my body enough to keep my heart beating regularly. This was rock bottom. Here’s the thing: I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be alive. It was all too much. I needed a break from the pain.

It was a roller coaster six to seven years, but I did finally go on to fully recover. I finished college and after quite a few years of soul-searching, I found my purpose. My purpose was to survive and to help people. I had to make sense of the hell that I had been through and use what I had learned to help others.

I still don’t know what saved me, what kept me from finally giving up completely. Why did my story end so differently than so many others? What I do know is that I am here for a reason and I want to share my story. I went through hell, the deepest, darkest depression, the experience of not wanting to live another day, and I came out on the other side of it. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened.

In many ways, I am grateful for my eating disorder. Without it, I am not sure I would have ever faced what I needed to face to heal emotionally. The emotional pain and trauma manifested itself in such a physically obvious way, and so quickly, I had to face it. This was the most difficult challenge I had ever faced in my life. I faced death, wanting to die, and I survived. The new me- forever changed- was stronger, braver, and more in touch with who I was and what I wanted my life to mean. I wanted to take my experiences and help others. It took me a while to feel comfortable enough in my own skin to share my story, and that’s okay.

I am now happily married with three strong, brave, amazing little girls who think I am a hero. I now let that be my voice. They believe in me. They need me to believe in myself. They inspire me to be better every day. I also teach at an all girls’ high school. I am strong. I run marathons and have recently discovered triathlons. I am in awe of what my body can do. I am so blessed in so many ways. I truly love my life. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I could love my life and feel proud of the woman that I am. I still struggle with anxiety everyday, but I know how to manage it and I know my triggers. I know who I am. I love who I am.

No matter how hopeless you might feel, there is always hope. Focus on what you want out of life when you get to the other side, hold on to it, and don’t let go. Fight for it. Don’t give up. When you have lost the strength and desire to fight, let someone you love do it for you. You are worth it. You are good enough. The world needs you. Remember my story. Your pain doesn’t have to define you. Someone else’s voice doesn’t have to define you. Life can be so beautiful if you fight your way through the darkness and allow your soul to heal.

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Boys Will Be Boys With Respect for Boundaries

I recently read about an experiment performed by social researcher, Jackson Katz. He asked the male members of his audience what they do on a daily basis to prevent sexual assault. He was met at first with silence and then some awkward laughter, but it was clear that the men were simply unaware of what he was asking. Katz then posed the same question to the female members of the audience and nearly every hand went up resulting in a lengthy list of, think 30 to 40, responses. The men were stunned.

Women learn at a very young age to constantly be on guard to prevent sexual assault. We subconsciously make choices in our daily routines and I am not sure we are even fully aware how much of our day is spent trying to stay safe. I, in particular, check my backseat when I get in my car, immediately lock my car doors, carry a taser when I run alone or in the dark, think way too much about whether my running clothes are too revealing, avoid parking garages when possible, and obsessively check that the doors to our house are locked and the outside lights are on. Until I read about Katz’s experiments, I had never thought much about the fact that men simply don’t have to factor in these decisions or this fear into their daily routines.

About four years ago, I was out for a run early on a Sunday morning. It was daylight but I was running in an area that is pretty quiet at that time of day on the weekend. All of a sudden, I heard male voices behind me. I looked back and they were walking, wearing jeans, and carrying backpacks, all of which seemed a bit off to me. I got that uneasy feeling, to which most women can relate. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Your heart starts racing, and you just have that debilitating feeling of fear. I kept running forward trying not to let onto the fact that I was absolutely terrified and certain that I was going to be attacked. Finally, after a few minutes of total panic, I saw a group of three runners heading toward me on the other side of the road. I crossed the road and asked if I could run back toward town with them for a bit. The three runners included a female college student and her parents. They said as soon as they saw me, and the two men behind me, they had a funny feeling and were glad I crossed the road to join them. After that day, I carried a taser with me anytime I ran alone, for almost two years. My point in recounting this story is to ask you to consider whether or not a man who was running alone would have even thought twice about two other men walking behind him. Why am I, and most women I know, so conditioned to make choices every day out of the fear of being sexually assaulted?

How do we change something that is so ingrained in our culture, accepted as status quo, or even “common sense” safety measures? We need to start by stopping the “boys will be boys” rhetoric in its tracks. Boys should be held to the same high standards for appropriate behavior, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of girls, from a very young age. Let’s stop giving them a pass for making girls feel uncomfortable simply because they are boys and cannot be trusted to respect boundaries or adhere to societal rules for appropriate behavior. Parents, teach your boys from a young age the meaning of abusive behavior. Abusive behavior can be verbal or physical. Boys must learn to take cues from girls what might make one feel uncomfortable and not another.

And what about our girls? Do they even know what constitutes abusive behavior? When we get uncomfortable due to the behavior of a man, unwanted verbal or physical attention, we are taught to just “lighten up”, to giggle awkwardly, and to not be such a prude. Most of us even remember being told from a young age, for me it was elementary school, that when a boy teased you or picked on you, it meant that he had a crush on you. This is how it starts. Boys get a pass and girls are taught to just accept it as the status quo.

I think back to my first experience with boundaries being violated. I was sitting at my desk in third grade, and I turned around in my desk to see that they boy sitting behind me had cut off my hair. I don’t remember the exact response from school administration, or even from our parents, but I do remember the message of “boys will be boys” being communicated. Was this somehow my fault? Was my hair so shiny and full and long that he simply couldn’t resist? Should I not have let my guard down while learning my multiplication tables? Here I was, an eight year old girl, my boundaries were violated, a boy had made a decision to violate my body without my consent, and the message was planted, internalized, firmly rooted in my subconscious that he was just a boy and didn’t know better. What if the school administrators had given him firm consequences and communicated that this was abusive behavior? What if his parents started the conversations at this age about appropriate behavior and how to respect a girl’s boundaries? Maybe by the time he was in 6th grade he would think twice before snapping a girl’s bra strap. Maybe by 8th grade he would choose not to slap a girl’s butt. Maybe by the time he was in 10th grade, he would choose not to ask a girl to send him nude photos. Maybe by the time he was at a college frat party, he would know that he needed a girl’s consent for any physical contact.

As for my family, for my three daughters, I will teach them that they get to decide what is acceptable behavior for them. They get to decide whether or not a boy’s comments to them are disrespectful or even abusive. They get to decide on the boundaries for their bodies. They will learn how to speak up and that they don’t have to settle for the “boys will be boys” rhetoric and standards. They shouldn’t have to make choices everyday to stay safe simply because our society has allowed for boys to have lower standards for their behavior or because our society has taught girls that they are somehow at fault for it. As a mother of three daughters, I am starting at home.

This is all about boundaries. Teach your girls to have them, to stand up for them, to insist on them. Teach your boys to respect them.

Success and the Loving Life

In order to consider teaching our students the importance of building loving, fulfilling lives, I keep coming back to only one solution: we must help them to rewrite their definition of success.

The Oxford Dictionary defines success as the following:

  • The accomplishment of an aim or purpose
  • The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status
  • A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

 I do believe that most children have also internalized this definition of success. It seems that success in the eyes of a teenager has a dollar amount attached to it. I have even heard some students say that even though they would enjoy pursuing a career in education, they do not believe that a teacher is successful because of the salary. Their actions and pursuits indicate that success in life is a measure of financial, individualistic, and materialistic achievements. If we claim to be modeling our lives as Christians, is this the message we should be sending to our children? How do we think Jesus would define a successful life?

When I was a teenager, I must admit that my views of success were not entirely different. I wanted to be wealthy and only considered fields of study that were capable of delivering that result. Chasing that narrow-minded, materialistic ideal, I do believe, greatly contributed to my battle with anxiety and depression. Something in my brain was screaming at me because I was ignoring my gifts, my passions, and my values.

In that respect, how should we define success and how should we better steer our children toward that new enlightened ideal? I have discovered that success, for me, means finding fulfillment in the work that I am doing. When I hear that I am making a difference in the lives of the students I am teaching, that means so much more to me than any salary ever could. I have had the experience of working in the pharmaceutical industry, while earning a high salary with generous benefits and quarterly bonuses, but I was feeling empty and lost and was not being true to myself. I wasn’t helping people. In fact, I often felt I was being asked to do just the opposite to increase the company’s market share, but I was unwilling to continue doing it. I made a career change with a baby at home, and another on the way, and it was the best decision I have ever made. I see, everyday, the difference that I am making with my students. I love going to work everyday, as I am fueling my passions and serving the needs of others more so than my own. I wake up excited to see what each day will bring. I also insist on work life balance and finding time to pursue the hobbies that bring me peace. I say no when I need to and don’t feel guilty, most of the time anyway. I remind myself daily of my priorities and choose to spend my energy on those priorities, and make sure my children see me doing it.

Ultimately, I feel we are robbing our students of the experience of loving their career and personal life by continuing to demonstrate that wealth and achievement are the only definition of a successful life. Is a man successful if he becomes a billionaire by taking advantage of vulnerable or sick people, or if he steps on the less fortunate to get to that position? Is a woman successful if she gives her all to a career, but has no time for her family or an overall well-balanced life, or even sacrifices her health in the process? I want my children to find fulfillment in life, whether through a career they love, through service and charity work, through prioritizing family time, or even through their hobbies and down time. Success to me means finding the activities that fuel your passions and building your life goals around those passions. Success means using your passions and gifts to help others and to contribute to the common good of our society. Success means embracing mistakes and failures and learning from them to grow, to strive for personal growth that is unique to you and your talents and goals. Success is learning when we need to readjust our goals and reevaluating that to which we devote most of our time and energy. Success is knowing when to say no to something that takes energy away from the pursuit of your passions or your sense of peace. Sometimes anxiety is a sign that God is speaking to us, trying to make us listen and hear from Him why we are on this Earth and what good we can do with the gifts we are given. Success is so much more than a salary or a job title.

As parents and educators, we must be better models of this more loving, more community-focused idea of success. Our Christian values lead us to a life in pursuit of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I see no mention of wealth, impressive job title, high grades, or even acceptance to Harvard. When we congratulate our children for a job well done, what are we rewarding? We usually celebrate test scores, report cards, athletic achievement, etc. What if we had more awards ceremonies at our schools that simply recognize service to others? What if we treated our children to a fancy dinner for being kind to a friend or for helping out around the house? What if we simply reconsider the questions we ask our children at the end of their school day? The first thing I ask my children at the end of each school day is; tell me one nice thing you did for someone today, and then I give them an example from my day. I hope this helps to model for them my priorities and values, and helps them see what I love most about them. My goal is to raise strong, kind, compassionate human beings. I think we could use more of those in our world.

So, I am asking for your help in changing the narrow-minded definition of success for our children and modeling it through our own words and actions. If our ultimate goal as parents and teachers is for our children and students to live loving, fulfilling lives, we need to refocus their priorities, and to teach them that money cannot buy a happy life. Work ethic is important, don’t get me wrong, but hard work is meaningless and just plain hard if you are working toward the wrong goal. Make those goals meaningful and loving and fulfilling and we can change the world!!

Do Our Kids Know It’s Okay to Not be Okay?

Last August, I read Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, and was immediately overcome with emotion. Fagan describes Madison Holleran as the All-American teenage girl, the girl every other girl wants to be. Maddy is beautiful and popular, a straight-A student, and a state champion soccer player and track star. She is the epitome of what every teenage girl desires to be. Madison was an active Instagram user, consistently posting photos of her seemingly perfect life. In fact she was so good at portraying herself as the perfect, high-achieving, popular teenager, it seemed her family and her closest friends had no idea just how badly she was struggling. Within months of starting her college career at the University of Pennsylvania, as a Division 1 cross country and track athlete, she walked up the steps of a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, and jumped, taking her life at the age of nineteen.

I was haunted by Maddy’s story for many reasons, but probably the biggest reason was that I saw myself at the same age. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I started what would be a 7-year battle with anxiety, depression, and severe anorexia. I had always been a high achieving kid. I was a straight-A student and I excelled athletically, receiving multiple Division 1 scholarships to play softball. However, looking back, I never felt comfortable in my own skin, but I hid it well. I did eventually recover, but had spent most of those years wishing I were not alive. I can’t fully explain why my story has a different ending than Maddy’s, but that’s the thing about mental illness. Each story charts its own course.

Maddy’s story also made me think of my students. I teach Chemistry at an all-girls Catholic high school, and many of our students have an intense desire, almost an innate need, to achieve and succeed. Many of our high-achieving students are terrified of making mistakes and failing. A high stress approach to education is the status quo, and a high GPA and acceptance at a top-rated college are the ultimate goals.

My concern is whether or not we are teaching our children the value of learning from mistakes and failure. My most important life lessons were learned from picking myself back up after getting knocked down a few times and coming back even stronger. Life doesn’t always follow that ideal path that we hope for, and it is crucial to know that those plans can be recalibrated and that perhaps a different path in life is, in fact, our destiny, or God’s plan even. Many kids follow a particular path because of appearances and expectations from others. Maddy, for instance, thought her family and friends expected her to attend an Ivy League school and to play a Division 1 sport, but she was miserable and afraid to let anyone down. She spent her energy trying to maintain her image rather than directing her energy to making the necessary changes to get healthy.

How can we let our kids know that it is okay, even important, to fail? How can we make sure that our children know that it is okay to not be okay? We should do a better job of educating children on the signs of anxiety and depression and letting them know that it is okay to ask for help and how to ask for help.

In the age of social media, appearance is everything to kids. Even adults fall victim to comparing our own lives to what we envision others’ lives to be, simply based on what we see and read on Facebook and Instagram. What we see is only the highlights reel and not a true representation of real life. We need to make sure our kids understand this and find ways to be more real with their friends and family. As the adults in their lives, we need to model this and talk to them about it. Otherwise, they will grow up to believe that asking for help when they need it is a sign of weakness and a blemish on that image they have worked so hard to craft. Talk about your bad days. Encourage them to share the good AND the bad. That’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us “us”. Perfect is unrealistic and, frankly, pretty boring. Our flaws and quirks and idiosyncrasies make us interesting and relatable.

The feeling that I remember most from my darkest days when I was struggling in my late teens and twenties was feeling completely alone. I thought for sure that no one around me could possibly be feeling so incredibly depressed. I was certain that my peers thought that I was a total freak. What I needed so badly to hear was that others had struggled with depression or anxiety or anorexia, and that it was okay to ask for help and that I could and would get better. I needed to hear that this was not how I would feel for the rest of my life. I think Maddy needed to hear this as well. This is why I make sure to share my story as an adult and let my children and my students know that mental illness is more common than they think and that it is okay to let someone know if they are struggling. The story of Madison Holleran was a wake-up call for me, as a mother and an educator. I will forever carry Maddy’s story in my heart, in the hopes that both of our stories can help those who are struggling to realize that they are not alone, that recovery is possible, and that life after recovery is so incredibly beautiful and worth the fight.