Diving into Belize

I just got back from a week in Belize of diving, getting my advanced certification, and enjoying some breathtaking experiences.  Here is a recap of that experience and how my recovery tied in. Bear with me, it’s long, but I couldn’t leave anything out…

Day One:

My sister, dad, mom, and I had gotten to Hamanasi Dive Resort the previous evening after a sixteen-hour travel day.  We had to take three planes as well as drive an hour before arriving in Hopkins, the village where the resort was located.  Upon arrival we were oriented to the resort.  Told where our rooms were, how meals worked, where the dive shop was, etc., and then hurried off to the restaurant for our first of many all inclusive dinners made from Belize’s number one rated chef.  Now, having an eating disorder the words all inclusive are typically terrifying and panic inducing.  What if I don’t want an appetizer, entrée, and dessert every night?  What if I am unable to restrain myself?  What if I eat all that food offered to me and also the homemade fudge left on my bed? What if, what if, what if…

I can say that on that first night in Belize, I had all those panicked thoughts.  Thoughts that clouded my ability to remember that I was diving in the morning, that I was minutes away from some of the world’s healthiest and most beautiful reefs, that I was in Belize was crying out loud! So, I went to sleep in my canopy bed with the sounds of the ocean only steps away from my room, ruminating on the fact that I had had an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert for dinner.

Something amazing happens to my mind every time that the sun rises in the sky.  It is as if my headspace is in sync with the rising and falling of the days. As if that ball of fire radiates down into my anxiety ridden chest and melts the icicles that the eating disorder has left around my heart, leaving me renewed, motivated, and positive about the day’s events.  I got up on that first morning at Hamanasi and felt like a million bucks.  Fuck the eating disorder, I was going to remember this trip, I was going to experience it, I was going to live it up even if that meant battling my mind every night for the coming week.  I was not, under any circumstances, going to leave Belize having only experienced my obsessive thoughts around food and the restaurants menu.  So I put on my swim suit, grabbed my dive equipment, scurried to the restaurant, and order a personal favorite for breakfast, waffles, and didn’t think twice about the critic inside of my head. “You’re fat,” it said. “Who cares,” I told it.

IMG_5304.jpgThe first day there, my sister, dad, and I left the dock at 7:30am to set out for the Great Mayan Barrier Reef, the second largest reef in the world.  I was pumped, the crew was pumped, and, unfortunately, the ocean was pumped as well.  Meaning, the seas we real real choppy.  15-20 knot winds, 8 foot swells, and my stomach was not feeling too great.  I felt time and time again that breakfast coming back into my throat with each rise of the waves.  It was hot and choppy and I was in a black wetsuit, certain I would barf at any moment over the side of the boat.  But as soon as I jumped in allowing the cool, warm to rush over my face, and the crystal blue to reflect like glass below the burning sun, all was calm. My stomach quieted.  My heart beat steady and sure inside my chest.  The water held me, comforted me, whispered to me.  All was right and good and perfect, just a few feet below the crashing crazy waves.

turtle 4That first day of diving was unreal.  We saw more than I could have hoped for.  Eagle rays, nurse and reef sharks that swam right under your feet and straight past your face, turtles galore, and a forest of coral. Honestly, I have never ever seen such amazing configurations of coral, canyons of it, rolling hills of beauty that very few in the world are blessed to see.

eagle rayThat did it.  That first day in the water solidified the direction the rest of the trip was going to take.  I was in love.  In love with the water, with the reef, with the marine life, and, I am hesitant to say it, I was in love with my body for allowing me to dive deep into the ocean and experience the world that exists below the surface.

Day Two:

The second day at Hamanasi started before the sun came up.  My mom, dad, sister, and I, along with a boat full of snorkelers and divers were all headed to the Blue Hole for the day.  It was a 2.5-hour boat ride there and since the seas we still choppy that was estimated to be closer to 3.5-hours. The Blue Hole is the world’s largest sink hole, reaching 450 feet in depth, and 1000 feet across the diameter.  It was only after the divers dove 136 feet (the maximum depth allotted for recreational divers) into the center of the hole and ascended successfully that the divemaster, C-Dwag, let out a big sigh saying that, “it always makes me nervous bringing people down there for the first time.” “Why?” I asked. “The Blue Hole has claimed more divers than any other spot in Belize,” he explained.

Side not and bonus of the trip out out, our captain spotted a sperm whale! Incredibly rare to see in these parts of Belize.  The crew said they had seen one maybe 8 months ago and before that hadn’t seen one for 6-7 years.  The entire boat went crazy.  Yelling, whooping, hollering.  The massive creature was right next to our boat.  I could have jumped in and been next to it in two strokes.  The way we all became giddy, connected us.  In those moments of discovering we realized how similar we all were.  Foreign visitors in a space that only marine life roams, excitable with every new encounter.

blue hole silhouetteIt makes sense why the Blue Hole had claimed divers.  The dive is pretty tricky.  You have to descend to no lower than 130 feet, which I did not do.  I got too excited because at 120 feet is when the stalagmites start to form.  They are huge, probably several feet in diameter, and you can swim into the side of the sink hole through their formations.  All while dozens of sharks are prowling the space below your feet.  It was utterly amazing and words don’t do it justice.  That is why I descended a few feet too low because I saw a big reef shark and wanted some good pictures of it.  He was stunning, I was swimming in the stalagmites 130 feet below the surface in the world’s largest sink hole, the sun appeared purple above my head because colors change in the densely blue water, and I just could not contain myself. em in blue hole I wished to stay down there forever peering up at the strings of bubbles from the descending and ascending divers surrounding me.  But, like I mentioned, the dive was tricky.  You only got eight minutes at the bottom before you had to start making your way up. (You consume air much more quickly when you are that deep.)  And you had to do so slowly or else you risked decompression sickness.  No more than 60 feet a minute.  It sounds like a lot, but when you are submerged in the water, weightless, and effortlessly gliding through the ocean, you would be surprised how skewed depth perception becomes.  Slowly, calmly, ascend towards the purple sun, that with every ten feet turned a different color.  Purple, then red, and orange, then back to its yellow self.  It is funny how things change to deeper you go, the farther away from your known reality you sink.  A series of high fives met me and my sister as we climbed back onto the boat.  “Nice job!” My advanced instructor said with a smile as I slipped out of my BC and beamed with pride.

reef when snorkeling.jpgNext we went to a place called South Water Lighthouse and from there we dove the Aquarium.  Both dive spots are unable to be described in words because no matter what I write it fails to depict the overwhelming beauty that met me at the bottom.  Coral canyons like you couldn’t imagine, colors that you didn’t even know existed in the wild, fish of all shapes and all sizes, abundant, so many you wouldn’t be able to count, sharks, and eagle rays, and so many turtles, hundreds of feet of sea grass, laden with conch shells and grazing fish.  I felt like I was in an animated movie.  Surely this couldn’t be real life? I was dreaming, still in my canopy bed, would wake up soon to my 4:30am alarm, and head out for the Blue Hole.  This just couldn’t be happening. grass.jpg

I was like a little kid on Christmas.  Everything that day amazed me.  The boat ride peering out at the endless ocean and the expansive horizon, the Blue Hole and its deepness, its blueness, its eeriness, the reefs and their abundance, their colors, their marine life.  Everything felt like a dream, suspended in time, floating passed my eyes. Even my body amazed me.  That it was capable of diving so deep, of swimming with so many sharks, of chasing eagle rays, of seeing so many colors.  Among my amazement, I ate and my mind gave me permission to do so.  Eat because life is overwhelmingly beautiful and there was just so much to see, to do, to experience.  Cookies on an island, sandwiches on the bow of the boat, cheesecake back on the beach, I didn’t care what I consumed because on Sunday, while on that boat I loved my body, I loved my life, and above all I loved the ocean.

Day Three:

Sunday I spent nearly 11 hours on a boat.  Leaving at 5:45am and not returning until 4:30 in the afternoon.  As I sat at dinner that night, I watched as each one of my family members faded into their meals, eyes opening and closing slowly, dozing off for moments at a time before returning to the conversation.  We were tired, very tired, but I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want the day to end.  I was riding a high, but a high unlike the one’s I became accustomed to in my disease.  This was not the high that came from slowly killing myself, this was a high on life, on passion, on enjoyment.  And I was hooked.

I got up at 5am the next morning even though I didn’t have to get on the boat until 8.  I just couldn’t sleep knowing that I was going back out into the water. What would I see today?  What would I get to encounter?  The ocean, it was waiting for me, and I was giddy with impatience.

On that third day out, only my dad and I went diving.  My sister and mom wanted to sleep in and relax, having exhausted their energy supply with the 11-hour day before. But not me, I was pumped and ready to not only complete my advanced training, but to dive back into the space devoid of anxiety or fear or the petty parasite that my eating disorder has become.

We went back to the Great Mayan Reef to do some knowledge skills on the boat and with our buoyancy.  My dad and I’s instructor, Martin, went over the boat terminology, which we already knew but listened politely none the less.  After that we practiced our buoyancy.  “Not that it should be a problem,” Martin said, “You are buoyant already.”

IMG_5298.jpgBuoyancy in the water is a difficult skill to master.  It is the act of being perfectly balanced so you don’t sink or rise, but stay at a neutral level when stationary.  It requires you to understand your breath and how much oxygen in your lungs equates to your rising in the water.  I can say that I mastered this skill while in Belize.  I got the proper amount of weight on my belt, I figured out how to rest my body in the water, and how to fill my lungs accordingly.  I became like a fish.  I was flipping around, hanging out backwards, upside down, alongside the coral, in the small crevices in the reefs, you name it, I was doing it.  “You are a fish, Morgan.  You were this way and that. I was really impressed. There is a really skilled diver in you,” Martin told me as we headed back to the dive shop that afternoon to take my picture for my new dive ID card.  I smiled from ear to ear.  He had no idea how much that compliment meant to me.

Day Four:

IMG_5563My dad, sister, and I took the morning off from diving to go snorkeling with my mom.  We went out with another family we had become friends with while at the resort.  That is the thing about divers, you are all friends.  It doesn’t matter what you do, who you are, on the boat we all have something in common and that commonality means automatic connection.  We all know a world that most people don’t, the one that exists below the surface.

Snorkeling was a lot of fun because it was the first time in awhile that I entered the water IMG_5570without a BC and wet suit on and I was thrilled to practice my free diving.  How long could I dive down without a breath, how deep, how far?  I was up and down, on the surface and not, the whole morning.  I felt like a dolphin and was disappointed when I found our group heading back to the boat to head in for lunch.  But I was having so much fun.

The good news being I was going back out for some diving in the afternoon.  There were only three divers that had signed up to take a boat out so we got to ride in the small one.  This meant we got to do a backward roll off the side into the water which was an adrenaline rush in and of itself, let alone the fact that there were so few of us so we got to relish in the expansiveness of the waters around us.  We are on the animal’s turf. We are visitors and the creatures are curious.

nurse shark bwThat afternoon I had a very interesting run in with a shark.  I like to hang back in the group and take pictures, taking my sweet time, and trying to notice everything I can.  Well, while chilling in the back of the group a 7-foot nurse shark swims right in between my legs. “What the hell?” I scream, inside my head of course because underwater you can’t speak.  It swims real fast ahead of me and then circles back around to, once again, swim through my legs.  It was playing with me.  I started snapping pictures and silently crying inside because I was so overjoyed.  Eventually the shark included my dad in the game and a little later the whole group, but for those first few moments it was just me and that grey animal and I felt honored to have been able to be chosen in this way.

Later on the second dive, an eagle ray did a similar trick.  It swam around and around me, eagle ray close up.jpgcircling me for a good five to ten minutes.  It was so close I could have reached out and brushed its back.  I had, once again, that sensation of being in a dream.  It was too perfect to be real.  This couldn’t actually be happening.  I went to sleep that night still feeling like I was swaying to the rhythm of the waves, confused about where the water ended and land began.  I was a fish, remember, and the more days I spent at Hamanasi, the more foreign the shore became.

Day Five:

This day began before the sun as well because today my dad, my sister, and I were headed 27 miles off shore to the open water in search of the whale sharks.  I woke before my alarm yet again and started playing pop music full blast, singing along, and changing all the lyrics to involve sharks in some way.  I was wide eyed, awake, and overjoyed to be on a boat all day again.  This time with several of our new dive friends.  It is strange how close you can feel to people you have only known for a few days, but my sister and I bonded with all the crew, and found ourselves admiring several of the fellow divers on board.  “You have dove over 600 times?” we would ask in awe.  “You dove with hammerheads?” “You have been to the Philippines?” Everyone was so worldly, so mysterious, and I wanted to be just like them.

diver in blue water.jpg“Okay everyone. This is a blue water dive. Meaning, there is nothing around to orient you.  The divemasters on this trip are in charge of searching for the whale sharks, so we will not be baby sitting you.  You have to watch your depth gage.  If you sink lower than 80 feet you are in trouble.  This is the large animals’ territory.  Hammerheads, bull sharks, dolphins, and whale sharks.  Out of the blue could bop anything or anyone.  Be prepared, remain buoyant and calm, and above all enjoy yourselves,” Sam, our divemaster said in the briefing. We all had to sign waivers before stepping on the boat.  I was overwhelmed by excitement. My sister whispered she was nervous.

The dive was just as the divemasters explained.  Blue water.  Hundreds and hundreds feet of an endless blue abyss.  Nothing around you.  Nothing below you.  The echoing of dolphin calls in the distance.  For the first time since starting to dive, the ocean felt eerie.  Empty. Unpredictable.  We were all swimming 60 feet below the surface, waiting for something big to pop out.

We didn’t find any whale whole pod.jpgsharks. We did, however, get to swim with a pod of dolphins. Four of them. A mom, baby, and two others.  They squeaked just like the movies. The were playful just like the movies. I was overjoyed just like every other dive.  Except this one was different. This one was truly strange. A single entity in a massively expansive space. I was so small and being in the abyss just solidified that knowledge.

Day six:

We flew home and I tried my hardest not to leave behind that new found freedom that my diver self offered.  The freedom from food and my body and insecurities that existed on land.  I tried to hold on to the ocean, but as the plane landed in Houston and then St. Louis I felt the clutch of my eating disorder start to reach around my neck.  “Not now,” I whispered inside of my head, but I was tired and sad about leaving and had little fight left in me to counter the diseases lies inside my mind.

But just as I said at the beginning the sun has a wonderful way of resetting my mind. Offering new opportunities and the promise that some day soon I will be able to dive back under the surface where all the noise is quieted and my body becomes my friend.

Recap:

For those of you thinking about recovery, going on a trip in recovery, or just plane suck in recovery, I want to reinforce the magic that comes with putting the disease on the shelf.  Start with an hour at a time, or even just a few minutes.  Put it away, distance it from yourself, and just see what will happen.  For me, it means I have a wonderful week full of authentic memories where the eating disorder is not a part of them.

 

Adventures in Recovery

me on surfaceWhen people say the word adventure everyone has a different idea of what that entails.  Some think amusement parks, other think mountains, the ocean, or a new city, all of which I would agree are adventurous activities to partake in.  But what my mind swings to is probably quite different for the general public and I have a feeling that those of the you in eating disorder recovery will be able to relate.

blueholelgAdventure today means leaving for a week long trip to Belize where I will be diving nearly every day in some of the healthiest reefs in the world.  Adventure this week means possibly swimming with whale sharks and diving deep in a giant sink hole called the Blue Hole. Adventure means hiking into the jungle to see famous waterfalls and birds.  What comes up when I think about all of these experiences?  Excitement, sure. I am beyond excited to get up close and personal with the world.   It is something I have craved ever since leaving residential treatment in 2014.  But the sad part of all of these excursions is that the excitement is initially cloud by anxiety and fear because my eating disorder still preaches to me rules and regulations on what I can and cannot do.swimming-with-whale-sharks-in-belize-chaa-creek

Majority of the time food is not the source of the problem in eating disorder recovery.  There is some underlying issue that the food acts as a coping mechanism to appease.  But every once in a while I make the argument that food is the issue.  Right now I feel as though I am far enough into the recovery process that I authentically feel joy, excitement, and enthusiasm surrounding my trip to Belize.  It is the long history I have with unhealthy behaviors while traveling that are surfacing and causing an uproar inside my head.

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A typical conversation happening inside my head at a restaurant.

Me: I don’t want to eat that. I want to eat this.

Eating disorder parasite: You have to eat that.

Me: No.

Parasite: Fine then what are you going to do tomorrow to make up for that.

Me: Nothing.

Parasite: You have to burn it off somehow.

Me: Nothing.

Parasite: You have to. You are big and fat and ugly and that food will only make it worse.

Me: Fine I’ll order something different if you will just shut up.

Parasite: Don’t order something different. Order what I told you to.

Me: SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!

Everyone at the table precedes normally with their meal, enjoying conversation and ordering according to preference while I excuse myself to the bathroom to tug on my hair and silently cry for a moment before returning to the battlefield.

3019205-relaxed-sleeping-dog-on-the-beach-sandNow while I am on vacation these type of conversations are amplified inside my mind because they happen at least three times a day, which makes the experience exhaustingly. After challenging my eating disorder, I am left feeling as though I could just pass out the beach and sleep for days on end.  Every meal is eaten on vacation is done so without the control or comfort of my own kitchen.  It requires the ultimate act of surrendering to my Higher Power and admitting that I am, in fact, powerless of this parasite in my mind. Powerless over the arguments i constantly have to embark on, powerless over the guilt I will feel after having what my authentic self wants at a restaurant.

Here is the the thing, I am more than willing to surrender.  I am more than willing to dive into my travels with intentions of enjoying myself and the food.  I am more that willing to relax, unwind, meditate on the beauty that surrounds me in Belize.  The difficulty comes into play when you add the eating disorder.  Because the sad truth is that I can’t just choose relaxation.  Because of the screaming voice inside of my head, I have to fight for relaxation.  And isn’t that the exact opposite of relaxing in the first place?

10931408_787320791316206_7535769775349464883_nThe eating disorder takes adventure and tries to digest it according to its rules.  When you are consumed in an eating disorder it is simple to just sit back and allow the disease to play by its rules, but when you are in recovery you are at a constant war within yourself, a war no one sees, a war no one knows.  Not to be disheartened though because the fact that I have to overcome my mind in order to have dessert or lay on the beach under the sun makes achieving those things so much sweeter because I know that parasite inside of me has just been beat down a little more.  Beat. Beat. Beat. Heck, I believe that by the end of the week I will feel like a world class boxer and because of my continual efforts to defeat my mind the maggot will hardly be a part of my adventures.

Why? Because I don’t want it to be.  Simple as that.  The results of your efforts lie in the intention behind them.  If you want recovery, if you want to be separate from the voice in your head, then you are going to find recovery because you are going to take the steps necessary to get there.  The eating disorder can scream all it wants but it lives inside the head and therefore can’t force you to act on behaviors. For anyone else traveling while in eating disorder recovery, remember this.  You are only as vulnerable to the disease’s reign as you are in your willingness to act.

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Silhouette of a man on a rock , at sunset, with the arms wide open.

Diving with 40 Sharks

2014 was a strangely dark year for me. Strange in the sense that it was simultaneously filled with amazing and terrible experiences. The year became a paradoxical existence that paralleled the sensation you get when riding a roller coaster. Up and down, around and around, excitement, fear, stomach dropping with each hill. 2014 began in the middle of my freshman year of college and it was the first full semester where I was attempting both recovery from an eating disorder and treatment.  10896190_787319994649619_4922777620822382493_o

In the fall of 2013, I hit a low with my eating disorder and my health reached a point where I could no longer lie to myself that the disease was not a problem. So 2014 required a lot of excavation of my mind to try and figure out why I restricted my food or used exercise as a means of punishment or whatever other behavior while also trying to juggle school. This lead to an identity crisis somewhere in July while I was interning in the fashion industry in New York. Alone in my crappy apartment in Greenwich Village, I came to the realization that the disease had overtaken my mind, my body, and essentially my entire life. Even the internship I was completing was a byproduct of my disease’s beliefs.

10931408_787320791316206_7535769775349464883_nAs you can imagine this lead to a series of events that paralleled that roller coaster analogy I used previously. I zoomed down a few huge hills and around several sharp turns before I opened my eyes and decided I wanted off the ride. I wanted my mind back and a body that was strong again and a heart that would beat to the rhythm of passion and not obligation. I wanted life.  So I went to residential treatment in August of 2014. This was my first experience with total surrender of my behaviors, schedule, possessions, etc.  I hated it.  I spent my first two weeks in that facility silent, moody, and noncompliant.  Yes, I wanted freedom but not without my disorder.  I wanted to be comfortable and free. Why didn’t anyone there understand that?

Over the next couple of months, I slowly came to understand what recovery was. I came to recognize that I couldn’t just decide I wanted off the roller coaster because the roller coaster was life. I had to learn how to ride the hills and turns with my eyes open and my arms in the air. I had to learn to relinquish my white knuckle grip across the guard rail and trust that my Higher Power would take care of the rest. It was not an easy process but one after years stolen due to my disease I was willing to try out.  What began to fall into place as I started to open my eyes, were possibilities. Living with an eating disorder was equivalent to walking through life blindfolded. When I took it off I was amazed at just how brightly colored the world was around me.

This was the time I started to reevaluate my goals, values, beliefs, and authentic interests. I was shocked to find how much of my existence was owned by the disorder.  I felt beyond grateful for Timberline Knolls for helping me to deconstruct my false sense of self because during the deconstruction I learned of my love for the outdoors, for diving, for writing, and for helping others. I switched my focus in school from fashion to art therapy. I started camping and hiking and, most notably, scuba diving, which I have written before about how this sport in particular has shaped my recovery.

10934040_787322961315989_1212227795706781982_nA few days after I left residential treatment I went diving with 40 black tip sharks without a cage. Why? Because I was thirsty for the life I had missed during the past decade. I wanted to feel that intense drop in my stomach with my eyes open and my heart pumping. I wanted to start living. I left a locked facility with my body newly healthy and nourished and went straight for the Bahamas because what better way to reinforce my recovery values than to experience them in real time? What I had been journaling about and creating in my mind the last several months played out before my eyes as shark after feeding shark swam around my body. Each grey 10931232_787323927982559_5336553686349123696_nbody represented my newfound passions, dreams, and goals.  The eating disorder had gotten me to believe that to hold those things was too scary, too unpredictable, much like a feeding shark.  But on the bottom of the ocean, I got up close and personal with the very things I was convinced would ruin me and came to find out just how magnificent they really are.  Sure, maybe feeling passionate about something is equivalent to swimming with a shark but that is the beauty of passion.  You get to welcome in the unpredictable, the risky, the hearth throbbing experiences that this life has to offer. And, that is true recovery. That is living.

I have been seeking experiences like swimming with 40 feeding sharks ever since that day in 2014. That is why I went to Cancun last March, Key West in April, and now I will be going to Belize on Friday because I am now open to the world and whatever it has to offer.

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Reclaiming My Gut

image1(2).JPGYesterday I moved out of my apartment and left Chicago for a summer filled with trips, school, and projects.  This week St. Louis, the next Belize for some more scuba diving training, onto Michigan for a class at an artist’s residency, then off to Mongolia to spend some time reconnecting with my spiritual center.  Although goodbyes are sad, I am genuinely excited for what this summer holds, but as with every ending comes a time of reflection.

I just successfully finished my junior year of college. It was my first year in awhile as a full time student because previously my health had taken me out of school or forced me to only remain a part time student.   For those of you who struggle with mental illness, I know you can empathize with the struggle of juggling school and recovery. School cannot happen if you are not well.  That is the bottom line.  Sure, you may be able to attend classes or get good grades or even land two jobs, become president of thirteen clubs, get straight A’s, and invent the next hover board, but if your mind is slowly slipping away then none of those accomplishments mean anything.  I used to have this belief that my worth was measured in accomplishments and I still struggle with those thoughts because our society preaches to us “do, do, do!”.  I thought I had to join 60 clubs because if I didn’t then no one would know my name and therefore I wouldn’t matter or that I needed to complete 30 paintings a week in order to call myself an artist because what kind of an artist was I if I didn’t have a body of work to show for it?  But what good are those things if I can’t look in the mirror and say “good job”?  What does it matter if I get my name on the dean’s list or get the merit scholarship if I don’t even recognize the person staring back at me?  image4

Where I used to be self conscious and embarrassed about my leave of absence or my part time student status I not anymore because I understand that time was essential for etching my newfound perspective built on my authentic self’s values. Meaning, I now understand that to truly have a successful semester, my recovery must come first.  I was in an AA meeting about a year and a half ago and someone said, “whatever you put before your recovery you will loose”.  At the time, I thought that was bullshit, but now after years of back and forth, ups and downs, and countless defeats by my eating disorder I realize the truth of that statement. If I want to remain abstinent from eating disorder behaviors, I have to be able to look in the mirror and say “you are doing a good job” because at the end of the day, if I am not cheering myself on in recovery then who is? Recovery is the act of you getting up every day and choosing the next best thing.  No one else is driving the ship of your mind.

So as I move into the summer, I can say I did a good job.  Not a perfect job, not a wonderful job, just good.  I managed the semester as best I could and I am ready for a summer full of new experiences.  New experiences are both scary and exciting, the choice on how to react to the unknown is up to me though.  I could shut down and numb myself through my travels to Belize and Mongolia simply because I don’t know what to expect and because my mind tells me I am not worthy of positive experiences or I could choose to honor the authentic excitement that is stirring inside of my gut.

image2I think the idea of the gut is an interesting concept for many of us in eating disorder recovery.  First off, any connotation with the stomach is negatively charged simply by the nature of the disease.  The stomach holds food, bloats, purges, or shrinks according to our behaviors.  In a sense it is the powerhouse for all the destructive acts of the disorder.  So to listen to my gut after years of my gut revolting against me is not an easy task.

I use the term gut in conjunction with intuition.  Intuition is something that eating disorders steal.  The disorder steals our trust in food choices, in honoring hunger cues, knowing taste preferences.  But the thievery goes even deeper than that.  The disorder steals intuitive emotional responses, it numbs all feeling, it takes away ambition, passion, enjoyment. The disorder completely engulfs, swallows, and digests our intuition until it is nothing but a byproduct of a disease whose only outcome is death.

Part of the challenge of recovery then is excavating the gut from the casing that the eating disorder has locked it in.  This is the act of reclaiming our intuition.  Reclaim the ability to intuitively eat.  Reclaim the ability to cry, be angry, feel sad, and experience joy.  Reclaim our bodies.  Reclaim our passions.  Or, for me, in this moment as I move out of my apartment, it means reclaiming my excitement. image3

The intention for my summer is to listen to my gut because in my recovery I want nothing more than to learn to trust my intuition.  I want to be able to lean on my gut to allow me to authentically experience the excitement and joy that new experiences have to offer.  So I say goodbye Chicago and welcome the adventurous road ahead.

What are your intentions for the summer?

Don’t Turn Your Back on a Seizing Man

IMG_6236(1)After a celebratory Mother’s Day Dinner, my mom, dad, sister, and I got on the train to head back to my apartment and their hotel this past Saturday night.  On the train there was a man who started seizing. It happened quickly and all the sudden my sister and I just started noticing several people starting to move away from the area by our parents, which was one section over from where we were sitting.  Then I heard my mom call out, “someone call for medical help!” That’s when my sister and I knew to get up and find out what was happening.

There was a man, older, alone, African American, and appearing to be homeless seizing on the train car seats.  His body had slumped over so his cheek was pressed hard into the side of the chair, his mouth was foaming, and his body was shaking, yet no one besides my parents, my sister, me, and one other random man seemed to be concerned.

“Is this a seizure or an overdoes?” a train car passenger asked while their backing away from the scene. Her expression was a cross between annoyance and what are you doing as she looked back at those of us intervening with furrowed eyebrows and pursed lips.  And it became very clear to me that this woman, along with the dozens of others on the train who were even more enthralled with their electronics now that there was a seizing man on board, were turning a blind eye to this man in need of medical attendance simply because he might be an addict, or might be homeless, or might be…you can fill in the blank.IMG_5981

What difference would it make! I wanted to scream in the ignorant train car passengers’ faces.  Whether struggling with addiction or epilepsy or some other medical condition that would cause someone to seize, what difference does it make! All require assistance.  All are medical conditions.  All are potentially deadly.  The person asked the question like the answer was already predetermined.  They had decided that because this man was black, carrying a shopping back, and hanging out on a train car that he was an addict.  That they reason he was seizing was due to a drug overdose or withdrawal and therefore was not worth anyone’s time.

The man’s body continued to shake and eventually fell onto the train car’s floor. I went over and helped my dad hold the man on his side because he started to throw up and if there is anything I have learned from the movies about seizures it is that you don’t want them to choke on their vomit.  While we held his body, my sister spoken sweet and comforting words to him.  After a several minutes the man’s body stopped shaking and he fell limp on the ground.  My mom kept yelling into the assistance button for medical help while me and my sister knelt beside the man trying to see what he needed.

“I just need my medicine,” he said.

“Okay. Okay. Is it in your bag?” my sister asked.

“Yes, in my bag,” the man said, “I need my medicine.”

IMG_6134Here is the sad truth though.  We didn’t find any medicine.  The man said that he wasn’t sure where it had gone.  The train’s security eventually came, but didn’t call an ambulance or anything.  They just stood over the man while he laid on the train car floor, waiting for him to “cool off” and “recollect himself”.  Once my dad helped lift the man back into a chair and put his hat back on his head, the security radioed to the conductor to keep moving the train. Everyone on the train acted as though nothing happened, nothing had happened, and that nothing will happen.  Just another night on the city train because as far as anyone else was concerned this man was a nobody, an addict, a homeless person, and so what if he had a seizure?  If he was no one then for the dozens on the train, it never really happened.

But what happens when the man needs to get off the train and can’t walk?  What about the fact that he can’t find his medicine?  What about the fact that people wrote him off simply because of the way he looked and their assumption about addiction? What about the heaviness I felt in my chest after this whole encounter?

Now, I don’t know if the seizing man was an addict or not.  I don’t know if he actually had medicine or not. (If he did, then I have a feeling there is a terrible reality in that he cannot afford to fill that prescription.) But for me whether it was an overdose or some other condition is irrelevant.  What is relevant is the ignorance of those on the train, the blatant turning of their backs, and the condescending tone used when assumption of addictions arose. “Is this a seizure or an overdoes?” As if that would make a difference! Wouldn’t you IMG_6336.PNGwant to help someone regardless of the disease they are battling, whether a disease of the physical body or of the mental?  That is what struck home for me, straight in the chest, leaving me filled with such anger and frustration that I thought I was going to snap at someone that no one besides my family and one stranger helped.

How could you do that to someone in need?  Just turn away and write him off as not worth helping simply because he might have a mental illness? Addiction is not something to look down upon.  It is a real problem that people need help with.  People need someone to sit and talk with them or hold them on their side while they vomit up their inner struggles and sense of worthlessness.  Don’t just walk to the other side of the train because that only further reinforces that people are ashamed of those struggling and how do we expect anyone to seek help if we shame them for needing it in the first place?

 

Images are a mix of original, CS Photography, and found files. 

Recovering Our Identities

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This semester I have had the honor of participating in a community art group at Haymarket Residential Treatment Center.  I took a class called Community Art Practices and we were paired with the treatment center to form a group with some of the guys who were there for substance abuse where we would make art for a final exhibition at the end of the semester.  The whole process has been really strange for me because only 18 months ago, I was one of the guys.  I was a patient having to be escorted to groups by staff or having everything I put in my mouth monitored and now here I was able to walk to and from group by myself, leading a life outside of the treatment center.  I didn’t understand how this could have happened, going from someone who was a danger to themselves to someone of who is liberating themselves in only 18 months.

I can say that along with the strange idea of being a leader of a group and not a participant at a treatment center, came the overwhelming humbleness I felt towards the guys.  As we made art each week, I felt so grateful to be given those hours in that space.  It was a familiar break in my crazy hectic week where I could take a minute to breathe.  Though I didn’t exactly enjoy my time in treatment, still to this day there is something strangely nostalgic about being in a space where vulnerability, emotions, and recovery are all welcomed.

From day one, our community group made a point of setting an intention for the group or a theme to center our art making around. The five guys and four students from my school worked together to come up with the theme of Recovery and Rebirth.  So for the next eight weeks all our art was made under the umbrella of rebirth.

It was really interesting to see what kind of artwork came out of this theme a lot of spring landscapes, talk of nature, talk of faces and body and identity.  The conversations were deep, insightful, and explorative and I can say that I think I learned more about myself from listening to those guys every Monday evening than I did in any psychology class or therapy session I have gone to.  (Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but for good reason.  It helps to paint a picture of just how impactful this community art space was for me).

This past Monday was our last group which meant it was the final exhibition of the work made in the past eight weeks.  So, we had a mini art show at Haymarket where we hung the work, brought in food, and invited the other guys from the unit to come and see what we had created.  All of that was very meaningful because it felt like an appropriate finale to the time spent at Haymarket.  And, as I know from experience, treatment is full of chaos, people leaving and coming, groups changing, staff leaving all the time, and so to have space for a goodbye, a resolution, a completion of work is a big deal. image2.JPG

I found seeing the artwork centered around rebirth hanging on those stark, white treatment center walls very powerful.  All of us came from a vast array of backgrounds. We had art students who had never stepped foot in a treatment center and men who had been in and out of prison and rehab and an art therapist and me who had a foot in both the art and rehab world, but we all came together and found a common thread in the idea of recovery. Through conversations during our time together, we found that though not all of us struggled with substance abuse, all of us have been personally effected by someone who struggles with addiction.  This was eye opening for me as I commonly convince myself that I am terminally unique and something that I am experience no one else could possibly understand.  But there is was on the white walls, evidence that all 10 of us understand recovery, experience recovery.

image1(2).JPGOne project that struck me the most and that was the photography collaboration between one of the kids from my school and one of the guys at the Haymarket.  The photos were portraits but for confidentiality purposes the faces had to be overlaid.  This series of photos made up the center point of the display from which all other work flowed, which is particularly interesting when thinking about the idea of recovery.  Because recovery suggests the redefining of the self and yet here were all these portraits without any faces on them.

 

I took this concept and related it to my own journey. Recovery is both a transformation and a loss of self. It is the process of slowly coming undone so that I can collapse into a new alignment of the broken pieces I am comprised of.  It is the act of melting off my face so that I can remain nameless until a new identity, absent of my eating disorder and dark past, is able to form.

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For Every Mother, Everywhere

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Today is Mother’s Day.  A day meant to honor and appreciate those women that we call mother.  The one’s that help guide, teach, prune, and love us throughout our lives.  But this day is also a day of comforting, reaching out, and holding those mothers who are hurting because not everything is rainbows and roses and motherhood comes with a vast array of heartbreak and hardships.

As these last six months have been plagued by much grief for my family, I feel as though mentioning the hard stuff on this day is necessary. So, everyone who has lost their mother or for every mother who has lost a child may you find comfort in the knowledge that they are with you in spirit. If you read my last blog post, you know our loved ones send signs all the time to let us know they are here.  Invite the loved one in and allow their energy to be with you today.  If anything, honor a memory because it is the memories that keep them alive in our hearts.

For everyone whose mother is sick and you are hurting vicariously through them may you IMG_1020.JPGhonor today and only today. The moments, the laughs, the sunshine, and positivity because nothing is gained by worrying for your mother’s health in the future.  You can cross the bridges of cancer treatment or surgery or hospital stays or healing and remission as they come, but today is about the now.

In addition to the grief that accompanies sickness and loss, I have also seen the grief that comes with those recovering from mental illness who have to end a relationship with their mother.  Whether that be because your mother was not healthy for your recovery, did not support your recovery, or was not willing to change to aid your recovery, you had to cut them out of your life.  I have seen this play out time and time again and it is arguably the most heartbreaking thing to witness.  Not only are people trying to build a new life for themselves where true life can be sustained, but to do so they have to experience loss of old relationships.  For everyone whose mother was not the person they needed growing up, who hurt them, who betrayed them, or who never stood by their side may you find comfort in knowing that someone sees the strength it took to walk away.  It shows a great deal of self-respect and self-awareness when someone is able to say “this is not working” and turn down a new path.  You cannot help others if you cannot help yourself first.

IMG_1096.JPGLastly, for the mothers who are here and present and loving and supportive, and for the women who are about to become mothers, thank you.  Thank you for wanting to join the world of motherhood and the tasks that it entails. Thank you for showing up and being the strong rocks that you were called to be.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, all daughters, all sons, husbands, and friends.  May you celebrate in whatever way is appropriate to your experience.  Cry if you must, listen to an absent loved one’s favorites songs, write cards, send flowers, eat good food, but most importantly, even if it isn’t your mother, let your supporters know how grateful you are to have them in your life.

Out of the Darkness and into the Light

Today my morning started extremely early.  Alarm set for 3am and I was on the road by IMG_69703:30 heading out to the Chicago suburbs to participate in the “Into the Light” second annual 5K for suicide and self-harm awareness. During the car ride to the race, the streets were quiet and dark as the city continued to sleep and me, my sister, my dad, and my mom were desperately sipping on espresso trying to wake ourselves up.  We got to the Gaelic Park and it started raining and all my doubts on the outcome of getting up at 3am to run flooded back.  I didn’t want this to be a negative experience for my family who so graciously attended with me.  But then as we entered the building, were given bright yellow shirts so that we would glow in the dark, and asked to sign a banner for those loved one who were lost or affected by depression, I remembered something.  As my sister Emily and my mom bent over and wrote “for Avery” and “for my mom” the real meaning of the morning started to leak out of the dark night.

This morning was about those lost.  This morning was about wearing the shirt and running/walking because they couldn’t.  This morning was about remembering, honoring, and hoping for a future where conversations around mental health will be more prevalent.  Where lives will be saved and preventative measures to intervene during crisis will be understood. This morning was for Avery, my sister’s friend, and Nanna, my mom’s mom, both who lost their lives to suicide and I was so glad to be awake and ready to participate with other passionate individuals.

Before the run Pieta House’s founder had a letter to be read.  This same letter was read across the country as several locations with hundreds of individuals prepared to set off into the night running/walking towards the sunrise. The letter talked about those who were lost.  It was empowering and emotional and left my heart pounding violently inside my chest.IMG_6991  The run started at 5am and the sky was still a deep dark midnight blue.  As I ran, my legs felt liberated underneath my weight.  I felt powerful and purposeful in my strides.  Around the bends and threw the fields I ran, thinking about all of my sisters from Timberline Knolls Treatment Center that have lost their lives in the past year to mental illness, my sister and hearing of Avery’s death two years ago, of my mom and loosing her mom in such a tragic way.  I thought about the injustice, the heartbreak, the wish that more than anything those people could be running alongside me.  But they couldn’t and that was the reason I ran.

After the run ended, my dad and I looped back to find my sister and mom who were walking. This was the most magical point in the morning because now the clouds had cleared, the rain had stopped, and sky was illuminated by magnificent rays of sunshine just above the horizon.  We stopped to take some pictures and as we did so realized that in the other direction high in the sky was a rainbow. IMG_6989

My sister and I stood speechless, my head resting on her shoulder, “It’s Avery” I whispered to her.

“I know,” she whispered back.

Through the rest of the morning we took several more pictures of the sunrise and the rainbows in the sky. After the race, when we were sitting inside sipping more coffee and eating bagels, we went back to view them.  It was then that my sister noticed the glowing dots present in multiple pictures.

“Did you know,” she began, “that in Native American culture if a glowing dot appears on your picture it means that the spirits were present.”

IMG_6994And as we continued to browse, we came across more and more glowing dots.  One for Avery, one for Nanna, and even one for Andy, who didn’t die from mental illness, but still was taken five months ago at 16, which is far too soon.

“Everyone we love showed up this morning,” I said with a smile.

And on the car ride back into the city I couldn’t help but feel a tightening in my chest of bitter, sweetness because I know those who have been lost are not gone.  They send us signs all the time to let us know they are still around, like the rainbow and the glowing dots. For them I run, I speak, I blog, I write, I post on Instagram because I want to save lives. I know what it is like to be riding the line between living and dying from mental illness. I know what it is like to contemplate the meaning of life when you are so entangled in a battle with your mind.  I know that dark place, but I also have come to know the light and that is what I want to share with others stuck in the darkness.

In loving memory of Nanna, Andy, and Avery.

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Instagram and Eating Disorder Recovery

Food Logs, Selfies, and Transformation Pictures in Eating Disorder Recovery

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Yesterday was Eating Recovery Day and therefore I wanted to take a moment to honor the subject of recovery with a topic that has been pressing on my mind for some time now.  Ever since I started my Instagram on mental health advocacy I have been questioning how to both engage with those on Instagram who are navigating eating disorder recovery while not triggering myself into unhealthy behaviors.  I have searched #eatingdisorderrecovery time and time again to try and find like minded individuals who might find my account helpful and who could in turn inspire me.  The sad truth of my explorations on Instagram is that for every inspiring, recovery minded post there is a struggling, eating disordered minded one next to it and for someone who does not identify as recovered, but as trying to find recovery, seeing these things can be really detrimental.

The minute I type in that hashtag I am met by dozens and dozens of food log posts, moment-of-frustration-dayunderwear selfies, or feeding tube portraits and I can’t help but feel my heart sink.  “You are missing the point!” I want to scream through the screen to whomever is navigating recovery in this way because what the posts about meals and body image show me is that the person is still searching for outward validation.  Someone to comment that they are “still so thin” when standing in their underwear or “a true fighter” as they have a tube stuck through their nose or how “perfect their plate looks” when everything is unnaturally laid out and colorful. When for me true, authentic recovery is when I wake up in the morning and the mirror is not a concern and my breakfast is not a topic of conversation and a feeding tube is not a sign of strength, but instead I think about those outside of myself.  I think about how to pass along the torch to the next person in line for the recovered life.  I think about my friends and family and my school work.  I think about things larger than how I look in the gym mirror and whether or not to tag my workout photo with #healthyisthenewskinny when I know in reality that I am still manipulating my weight in one way or another and therefore that word “healthy” becomes a dangerous lie for anyone who scrolls past the Instagram post and finds themselves envious of your still boney arms and thigh gap.  “Why don’t I look like that when I am in recovery?” Others on Instagram, those silenced by the connotation that to post you have to be “super anorexic”, ask themselves. And, I wish I could then leap through the screen and hug every single person doubting their body in relation to the realness of their disorder and whisper, “Don’t let these posts fool you,” to those feeling lesser in the eating recovery world because of them.

But even more so than the food logs and countless selfies, the posts that I find the most frustration-mainharmful for myself to see are the transformation pictures.  Boney after boney girl alongside a new, still extremely thin, individual with #recoveryisoworthit attached to the caption.  I see these vastly transformed bodies going from being a complete skeleton to a fit, thin model type and my mind goes, “well, you certainly don’t have an eating disorder” merely because I don’t have a dramatic transformation photo that outwardly shows the struggle with my eating disorder.  In fact, during the most violent years of my disease I appeared quite healthy and my weight never fluctuated more than 5-7 pounds despite the abusive cycle I was in with food.  And though I know the truth about my struggle and I know that eating disorders don’t look like anything and I know that I was sick during those years same as the skeleton girls on my Instagram feed, yet I cannot seem to find it within me to validate this.

Why? Because society in addition to the eating disorder community has instilled within me a belief that in order to truly be a recovery warrior, to really have an eating disorder, to have your struggle be significant enough to earn outward support you must first fall below X amount of pounds.  You must be in inpatient treatment with a feeding tube stuck up your nose, being wheeled around in a wheelchair first so that when you find recovery you have a starting reference for your transformation.  As if you have to first convince everyone through a sick photo that “yes I had a severe life threatening illness” in order to own an eating disorder recovery story.  When no one would question a cancer survivor’s legitimacy if they were to claim to be in remission.  That is the sad truth.  Not only is society preaching to me that I have to be ultra thin to have an eating disorder, but the eating disorder community is sending me the same messages.  The people who struggle with the same disease as me are pitting themselves against one another by trying to one up each other with who hit the lowest low weight before entering recovery.  Who has the most dramatic treatment story. Who climbed out of the deepest hole.  And, tell me how exactly does weight translate into struggle?  How does a number, a photo, a weight restoration show what is happening inside of someone’s mind?  The answer is, it doesn’t.  So my request is this, think twice before posting a transformation photo.  Not because I don’t want those struggling to honor their progress, but because those in recovery from an eating disorder need to remember their audience.  Every person that scrolls through and sees that transformation photo is going to be comparing their struggle with that post.  It is detrimental.  It is not inspirational.  And it only further reinforces the stigma that we need so badly to break.  The stigma that eating disorders only look like one thing.

This is precisely why I chose to post the “transformation photo” on my feed yesterday image1(2)because it visually showed nothing.  No struggle. No body change. Just a happy smiling girl over and over again when in reality the two years when those photos were taken I landed myself in treatment centers and ER’s more times than I care to mention.  So no, I don’t have a boney photo from when I was underweight that I wish to publically post because that is not the point.  The point is not for me to flaunt my sickest pictures to gain validation of my struggle.  The point is for me to be able to speak about my struggle and people to believe me. I want my words, not my body to be the voice of inspiration.