(Originally published in REWILD)
When I was 15, I spent a summer in the most beautiful location: Tunnel Mountain, up near Banff surrounded by mountains; doing what I loved: dancing, all of the ballet; and eating the most amazing food (not to mention desserts) by world-class chefs. I was happy. I was beyond happy. One day, a group of girls suggested we all go down to the gym to weigh ourselves. Ok, I thought, this sounds fun. I never gave much thought to my weight before then.
There were about five of us...
There were about five of us. We all took our turns stepping on the scale and adjusting the marker to find our weight (yeah, old school). I was the heaviest. Now, let me point out that I am actually quite a slight female. Naturally I am slim, I have long limbs and not much body fat. At the time I probably weighed something like just over 120 pounds at 5'6". Not heavy at all. But… I was the heaviest.
Couple this with one of the other girls having been hospitalized that summer for not eating enough. And she was a great dancer!
Fast-forward a year. I’m now 16 and at a ballet summer school in New York. We’re on a campus far away from anything, our only access to food is a cafeteria with strict hours and we’re dancing about 10 hours a day 6 days a week for 6 weeks.
By this time I had already started restricting my food intake. After my summer in Banff, I’d eat lunch alone and I’d eat only half of my sandwich. My body wasn’t getting enough food so my body wasn’t expelling enough food. This seemed like a problem so somehow I ended up using laxatives. Still, all seemed normal.
It turns out in New York they had me on a list to monitor to see if I was eating enough. But I had food on my plate every meal and I was eating said food every meal so I was taken off the “watch list.” During the course of those six weeks, my hair was falling out, I had barely any energy for any of my classes, and I started shrinking my clothes in the dryer so they would fit. I was also up to about 5 or 6 laxatives a day to try to have a bowel movement maybe once a week.
You might be thinking, well she’s making herself throw up. Nope. I tried that for about a month when I first realized I was “not skinny enough” but hated it. I also did enough research to know that bulimia was a faster way to death and I wasn’t about dying. I just wanted to be perfect.
By the end of those six weeks in New York, I weighed just over 90 pounds.
I was skin and bone. I was lifeless. I was terribly unhappy and terrible to be around. At this point I had fallen, what I was unaware of, but what turned into years of depression and further self abuse.
When I was 17, I moved to Toronto to further pursue my dance career. I quit ballet, because I was so triggered by it, but I continued with modern. I was back to a weight of between 100 and 110 pounds for the next few years. I was still on laxatives. I counted every calorie and every food group. I also started bingeing. I was still dancing so much that it was never enough- also because I would limit myself to 2000 or less calories a day. I was, inevitably, starving myself.
Consciously, I never decided to have an eating disorder. I remember once going to a GI doctor because I was in so much pain and had such bad constipation and all he said was “You have dancer’s anorexia.” Then he sent me and my mom on our way, while both of us were in denial. (Looking back, that doctor should have gotten me some mental attention or given us some sort of resource for getting help…)
This whole time, I was always eating, so how could I possibly be anorexic?
I hated myself.
I had no friends.
I was terribly alone, young in a city I knew no one.
I remember several nights crying on the kitchen floor and calling my mom.
I remember one or two nights seriously contemplating suicide, planning it, but not wanting to traumatize my roommate with my dead body.
I continued on this way for another year or so in Toronto.
My mood got so bad that my family was paying for one of the most expensive therapists in the city. I started skipping dance class. I had terrible insomnia. I would cry walking down the street. I would cry in class. My hair was still falling out. And I hadn’t had my period in 9 months.
The time came where I started wishing that I was injured so I didn’t have to dance anymore. Where I thought about injuring myself… So I called my mom once again and she came to my rescue. We went to Cuba for a week so I could think and then we packed up my stuff and moved home.
I quit dance.
I spent the next few years without an identity. I started being sexually active and ended up in an abusive relationship. At this point, I wasn’t dancing anymore but I still had my terrible habits of starving myself and then bingeing. I gained a lot of weight. My boyfriend body shamed me and cheated on me.
My depression still went untreated and mostly unnoticed.
And then somehow, I found help. I decided to lose the weight in a healthy way. So I ran every single day until I liked my body again. I found an online program to help teens with depression.
Mindfulness saved me.
Being present saved me.
Gratitude saved me.
A while later, I found a therapy group for women with eating disorders. By this point, I had recognized that I had a problem, I had “fixed” it, and related to my body in a healthy way again. The group was amazing though. Realizing that other women struggled with the same thing I did, in another way, in other ways that were almost scarier than my own! I was lucky. I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I didn’t feel so crazy or abnormal. In fact, I felt pretty good.
I was healthy again.
My depression comes back again every once in a while, I still refuse meds, but I allow the feelings to come. I’ve learnt that for me, I need to feel it. I need to understand what it is trying to tell me, then, I move on.
Every once in a while I also fall back into not eating. Especially when I’m upset, emotional or stressed. So I’ve found my own ways to make sure I’m getting enough calories and I rarely exercise to the extent I did back a decade ago.
I’m not perfect. And I’m happy that I’m not perfect. I chased perfection in my teens. I had to be perfect. I had to control everything. I would fall apart if I couldn’t. But in fact, I couldn’t control everything… and I fell apart anyway.
I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me. I was just the perfect storm: a child of divorce, a high achiever, stubborn, and in a world of ballet where perfection seemed attainable.
Through those 5 or 6 years of darkness, I found the light. I went through so much pain to know that I can go through it again. I can find my own way back again and create something so much better.
I love my body the way it is. And I’m so sorry that I ever didn’t. I still get stuck in strange mental talk sometimes, but I come back to what I learnt.
Be in the moment.
Feel my body – what does it want?
Be grateful for something.
Then do more of what I love.
What I’ve taken away from all of this is there is so much power when women come together. When we share our story. When we talk about what we’re dealing with, no matter how silly or scary or benign we think it is. We need to be heard. We need to speak our truth. We need each other.
My story is unique to me, yet hopefully relatable to all. We all deserve our own love. That’s all there is.
Jan 29, 2018
Aka Sarah Bella
Find more articles like why I decided to be celibate and how I feel about contraception/menstruation at sarahbella.ca
Sarah is currently living in Calgary, AB with her puppy Tyson. She dances as much as she can, for the enjoyment of her soul. Bella teaches yoga, dance, reiki and constellation work. She has become a healer to share with others that they don’t need to be alone and sensitivity is a beautiful path to life. Her other job has her flying high in sparkles and bows as she pursues the aerial arts performing with the circus.