Though sprinkled with sarcasm, this blog of mine has maintained a fairly sunny sort of appearance. (I mean, hello: one of my recent posts was a few thousand words on unicorns. Doesn't get much more magical than that.) I don't plan on changing things, but I now feel comfortable enough to include a post on a partly cloudy subject I know far too much about, and that is the ever-so-touchy subject of eating disorders.
Yes, I used that phrase. The one so often associated with ballerina dancers (though I can vouch for my colleagues over on this side of the pond and say: we eat). It's a combination of words that has become a cliche in this profession, and yet has achieved this "cliche status" in whispered tones and behind closed doors.
Recently, however, a dance critic for the New York Times stirred up quite a fuss when he wrote some very uncomplimentary things about the appearances of two New York City Ballet principals, each of whom he apparently found to be looking too heavy for his taste. I’m sure he thought that he was being clever, but really his comments were just mean. (I’m not going to dignify it with a link; if you can use Google, you can find it.) So the topic of dancers and their weight problems has, for the moment at least, emerged from its closet.
And so now may be a particularly good time for me to share my story. As someone who has been down in that dark, addictive, and yes, empty vortex, I can tell you firsthand that it's not fun, it's not pretty, but it's not impossible to climb back out.
I grew up in a large, loud, typically dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family. With four siblings, multiple pets, busy schedules, and lawyers for parents, I was raised in a loving environment of organized chaos. There was a strict "no bullshit" policy in effect at all times; democracy stopped at the front door; if questions were not answered directly, the phrase "move to strike as non-responsive" was a perfectly acceptable request. And when it came to food--well, it wasn't really an issue. We ate healthy, we ate until we were full, we had desserts (after dinner, of course). The only "rules" applied to eating were: (1) my parents weren't chefs, home was not a restaurant, so eat what you were served, make something yourself, or don't eat; and (2) soda was only on the menu on special occasions--even at McDonald's, even on pizza night, the choices were milk, juice, or water. (Always stated in that order, I can remember so clearly.)
So. I grew up not thinking twice about food. Like most children growing up in America, I of course had an exaggerated sweet tooth, but my parents did make sure I ingested the occasional bit of the good stuff. I didn't know what calories were until middle school age; I was blithely unaware that there were heaps of people who believed carbohydrates to be evil; I had no qualms ordering (and consuming, with gusto!) a large chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream with cookie dough toppings and chocolate syrup when my grandparents took us to Carvel for "special order night." Blessed with a quick metabolism and a heavy after-school schedule of ballerina dancing, the only thing I was told to think about was my genetically high cholesterol. I didn't think about it, but I was the reason for the skim or 1% milk in the fridge.
As I got older, I only got more serious about ballet. But I never once thought about my body shape. I was getting accepted into very good schools and summer programs. My parents had generously given me a favorable combination of genes which resulted in my legs being noticeably longer than my torso. My boobs fell into the "slim-to-none" category, and my leg muscles were long; I was oddly toned for a young teenager, but aside from that and my canoe sized feet, I didn't think twice about facing a wall of mirrors clad only in a leotard and tights every day. I never weighed myself except at the doctor's for my yearly checkup, and even then, I was more concerned with being taller than my mother. (Mission accomplished, and easily. The woman is 5'1" (1.55 m) on a good day.)
And then, things started to change. I was never "big," not for life and not for ballet. I wasn't a waif, but I was ok. I turned 16, and it started to become clear to me that maybe my tendency to consume large amounts of chocolate and generally unhealthy, teenagerish sorts of foods every day wasn't really going to help my energy or my figure; I knew that this speed-of-light metabolism thing wasn't going to last forever. I knew that one year I would wake up and those quarts of eggnog consumed during the Christmas season would suddenly show themselves somewhere between my hips and my thighs. So, on an Easter vacation to Disney World of all places, I ate healthier. And I found I did have more energy, and hey! I did like sushi. Salad wasn't bad either. And when I got back home and back to ballerina class, other people told me the part that I hadn't noticed: I got compliments on losing a few pounds. This, I think, is when it started.
I had never before been much concerned with my physical appearance. I didn't consider myself to be beautiful, and I'm not writing this to throw myself a pity party: I didn't think I was hideous, but I convinced myself I was too smart and too serious to be worried about my body shape or my face or even how I dressed. But with these first compliments, I realized that it felt good to be noticed for my appearance. I had a new goal: to be the epitome of fitness and health and overall awesomeness. Achieving this goal would, in my head, make me a better dancer, generally improve my life, and maybe even erase those two or three years when I had the trifecta of awkwardness--braces, glasses, and a bad haircut. (Yes, there's blackmail photographic evidence.)
So I amped things up. I kept eating healthy. I replaced the frappuccinos with coffee, like a real grownup. I joined a gym with my dad, and worked out on the elliptical machine for 45 minutes to an hour almost every day, usually after I got home from ballet, to Green Day's American Idiot album. (It was a place called Planet Fitness, which advertised itself as a "judgment-free zone." But I was, in fact, totally judging myself.) I started weighing myself, and saw the evidence that the pounds were dropping off. That scale rapidly became my altar, and the numbers could make or break my day.
It took some time, but within a couple of months I had crossed over from looking healthy and fit to looking like I really could have used a month of those Carvel ice cream nights my grandparents used to take us out for. Teachers spoke to me, my friends and of course my parents expressed concern, but I didn't need to hear it. I saw it. For me, the problem wasn't that I wanted to be so thin. I could see that I looked sick in the mirror. I was actually embarrassed to put on a leotard; I grew to loathe my workouts because they just made me exhausted; I hated thinking about food and weighing myself all the time. I wanted to be normal again, to order an ice cream and not feel an obsessive need to go do situps right afterwards. But I couldn't stop. Somehow, it was easier to exhaust myself maintaining an underweight status, armed with the knowledge that at any moment I could legitimately pig out and it would in fact be good for me; it was easier than just admitting I had a problem.
During this first trip down the dark and twisty rabbit hole, I went away to a wonderful summer program for ballerina dancing where they helped me put on 15 much-needed pounds while still letting me participate in the program. (I had auditioned for them when I was at a happier physical place.) And I felt better. In the summer dorms, I had no scale--I had friends, sunshine, a summer schedule of nothing but ballerina dancing, and direct orders to enjoy food. I learned to enjoy my life again, and in the process improved my dancing enormously over the course of the summer program.
But the dark empty pantry that was my "safe haven" was still there. I had just taken a little summer vacation away from it. After the summer program ended, I moved away from home for the first time (for ballet, natch) that fall, when I was 17. Suddenly, I had grownup things to think about on top of my ballerina dancing and making sure to avoid the dark scary place. I had to clean an apartment; I had to buy groceries and remember toilet paper and get up with the alarm and all of this business. I had to put up with a roommate who could have been, shall we say, second cast for a part in the ballet version of “Mean Girls.” On top of this, I was getting wonderful opportunities at the ballet, and I have a type-A personality. So in times of stress, I chose to not eat. Or rather, I ate "just enough." And down the rabbit hole I went again, this time further than I'd gone before. By Christmas break of that year, I was 5'7" (1.7m) and tipped the scales at under 100 pounds. I had not gotten a correction or compliment in class since November.
The school where I was studying at the time did not sit idly by while I wasted away, I should note; and nor were my parents uninvolved. I was sent to the ballet school's psychologist--a wonderful woman who was the mother of two dancers, and so understood the added pressures beyond the physical ones. But as a then-stoic person determined to guard what I thought to be my one control in life, she could only help me to the extent that I was willing to open up and start helping myself. My ballet teachers also reached out. (Outside of the classroom, everyone wanted to help me except for me.)
I understood why my teachers felt they could not and should not correct or compliment me in class: not only would it send the wrong message to the other students, but it would certainly be sending the wrong message to me. My parents, from home, did what they could in terms of emails and keeping in contact with the ballet school and phoning me often. I had to keep a food log for them, but it was easy enough to invent a menu. The lies were somehow easier to digest than actual food.
Things got so bad that just before Thanksgiving, my father made a trip to visit me. It was, to say the least, not the most pleasant of visits--for him or for me. There was a weigh-in, at which point I faced the normal daily sight of numeric, black-and-white proof that I was literally fading away, only this time, my father saw it too. The sudden lack of privacy at my newly-found altar turned what had become a normal daily ritual into a painful experience. I remember distinctly that right after this, he cooked me a delicious (if oddly-themed) Indian masala dish for dinner, which in typical Irish-Catholic fashion, we ate in uncomfortable silence/awkward conversation in my courtyard. I remember him having to force me to eat a large brownie sundae from Ghirardelli, something I previously would have devoured with glee; and that the last meal before he left consisted of me crying at a crowded outdoor cafe and him looking so incredibly sad. This I will never forget.
The holidays that year were not much better. At Thanksgiving, I can recall my mother serving me a second helping of spinach pie, and me eating it in tears. Christmas was virtually treat-free for me that year, something I shan't soon repeat. After every meal at home, I was miserable. Not because I wanted to look this way, not because I enjoyed being cold all the time or because I liked circles under my eyes or because I was losing my hair more than the usual "shedding." It was because I was exhausted, and I desperately wanted to shake myself awake, to climb out of this hole I had dug myself so deeply into. But I couldn't stop. Part of me actually feared reaching a "normal" weight--in a sick way, it was sort of enjoyable to be in a position where I could have pigged out, eaten everything in sight, and still have eaten more.
I went back to ballet school in January, no better mentally or physically. But then, one Friday night, my mom called. In an over-two-hour conversation, she asked of me one thing: to please not make her bury her child. And I don't know if it was what she said, or how she said it, or the fact that my mother--always a very strong person--was crying. But I hung up the phone, and somehow I knew that in the morning, I was going to wake up and start eating like it was my job. Because I wanted two things more than anything, to achieve what I had trained for the better part of my life to do; and to not end up in a coffin any sooner than necessary. And so I did.
I remember getting up that Saturday morning and stopping on the way to ballet class for one of my favorite breakfasts since I was little: egg-and-cheese on a roll, with chocolate milk. And slowly but surely, I kept eating. I started to put on much-needed weight. My color (well, what little I had even before the problems started) returned, the circles under my eyes went away, and I started to realize that not only did I feel better in the studio, but I had extra energy for life in general. And by the year's end, I was getting corrections again; the other students and faculty had stopped looking at me like I was on the verge of death; and I was able to face myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time.
For the next three years, I stayed out of the rabbit hole, though I had half an eye on it. Things were good: I was healthy and happy and ballerina dancing. And then things were fantastic. In the winter of 2009, I auditioned for and got a dream job here, in Denmark, with the Royal Danish Ballet. I could not have been more scared-excited-but-mostly-excited. When my season ended, I went home for the summer to spend time with my family, get my life into four 50-pound bags to move overseas, and to experience my first summer-program-free vacation ever. And during what should have been a summer of relaxing and enjoying family and having a good time before turning my life upside down, I went to my favorite dark scary place. I ignored my parents this time, consciously realizing what I was doing--or rather, not doing, aka putting enough good food in my mouth.
My initial reasoning for cutting back on the whole eating thing was multi-faceted. By my logic, during the summer I was “only” going to be taking one class a day, at best; not being in a full-fledged summer program meant no five-classes-a-day schedule for me. Thus, I would not be burning nearly as many calories, and so would not be able to take the "eat whatever I want" approach I normally would during the summertime.
Furthermore, I was suddenly faced with the reality that I was moving across an ocean to dance ballet in Europe, the home continent of ballerina dancing. On top of the giant stress of leaving everything I knew behind for a strange new city and culture, where I may or may not have fit in or adapted or made friends, I had this thought: this was Europe. I had to arrive thin and in shape and not look like I had spent the summer sitting on my butt doing nothing. And so this time, despite the warnings of my mom and dad, I ignored them. This time I was doing it for my fantastic new job, so their words fell on my deaf--and hungry!--ears. Once again, a time I should have enjoyed was spent worrying, packing up, and wasting energy on not eating.
And so I arrived for my brand new job looking frail and small and suddenly realizing that my physical state could very well get me sent right back home. I was embarrassed. I felt like a foreign idiot.
Luckily for me, however, my airplane had taken me to a very excellent place. When my dad left me in Copenhagen, after spending a little over a week helping me get settled (and trying to feed me), it was hard. I was suddenly all alone, with a big problem of being frighteningly small. I didn't understand the language or the currency. I knew no one, and from my appearance upon my arrival, had understandably alienated a good chunk of possible friends for the time being.
After a start-of-season meeting with my boss, who was amazingly understanding about the whole situation, I was sent to a nutritionist. The ground rules were simple: I understood that I would not be put on stage until I got better. (And if I didn't get better...well. I would not be a dancer. Simple as that.) The instructors were very encouraging in terms of making it clear that I was being given a very big chance to get better. And there were several people in the company who did overlook my scary physique--some treated me normally, and some were there for me to talk to about it directly, but they all ended up making me feel what I had been searching for all along: I felt accepted, and like I could possibly fit in as myself.
There were a couple of dancers who reached out to me from the beginning. It was uncomfortable for me to open up to new people about something that had become so intensely personal, so much mine in a way, but I realized that these people wanted to help me. And as a new foreigner with a lot of baggage, I had to make a choice: I could keep on keeping to myself, keep hanging out in my little empty corner (because that had worked so well before). Or I could bite the bullet--and maybe a burger while I was at it--and step out of my comfort zone and start talking honestly to these people, and to myself, and hopefully make friends in the process.
I went for the latter. And it worked: these friends let me whine and cry and be scared. And in return they gave me lots of hugs, lots of advice, and lots of free therapy dressing room cot time. I got help, I woke myself up, I developed some truly wonderful friendships from it--and I haven’t shut up since.
Some of the other dancers who at first seemed distant or reluctant to talk to me later told me that they were just wary about making a connection. This company does have a (dysfunctional, awesome) family atmosphere, and when I arrived, I certainly didn’t look like I was going to be around for very long--forget in Denmark, I’m just talking about planet Earth. But as I gained weight and confidence, and continued my new-found hobby of not-being-quiet, I found that a lot more people started to talk back. I didn’t look so much like the Grim Reaper’s girlfriend anymore. When people weren’t distracted by the bones jutting out and the malnutritioned translucence of my already-fair skin, I think I was a lot easier to talk to and look at--not Audrey Hepburn, mind you, but also? Not dying.
The nutritionist helped, to be sure, but what really made me "get over myself" and start eating--and liking it!--was the strange sensation that in this weird, lovely new place, I could just start over. Life was exciting here; I had found people, places, and a culture that made me want to get out of bed every morning and soak it all in. And on top of that, my new job and the theatre where I got to go in to work every day quickly became the best things about my daily life. (Also, it's one of the most difficult things on planet Earth to resist the powers of Copenhagen’s famous bakery, Lagkagehuset.)
So I started eating again; and I won’t lie, the occasional beer didn't hurt either. And it paid off--once I started looking and feeling healthier, I started getting onstage.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m “all better.” I’m not sure I’ll ever be “all better.” There are still days where the last thing I want to do is put on a leotard and tights and stare at myself in the mirror. There are days where all I want to do is curl up under the covers and maybe skip lunch and then everything would feel "under control." But unlike before, I know better now; I know that skipping a meal is not going to make anything better. Besides, quite frankly, things--work, personal, etc.--go better when I execute the simple task of putting food in my mouth. Plus, dinner parties and in fact most events involving large groups of friends usually involve good food (and often, good wine!). And for me, right now, my life is too good to waste away.
This post is not meant to be a guidebook on how to overcome an eating disorder. It’s not, by any means, a sort of “Dr. Hamburger, or: How I Learned to Stop Hating Myself and Start Loving Food.” This disorder is highly personal, and my experience is just one of many. I consider myself lucky every day to have gotten out of the dark place when I did, and yeah--I am proud of it. But it was such a big part of my life during an important period of growing up, and so it will be with me in some ways forever.
Writing this was sort of like getting over a breakup. For a while after the fact, you know it was the right thing to do, but you still can’t really talk about the relationship without feeling crappy; there are even days when you miss things about it. But then, so slowly you don’t even notice it, those feelings stop. You find you don’t think about your ex-whomever so much, and when the subject does come up, you can talk about it--maybe even laugh about it--without wanting to cry and run into bed with a tub of Chunky Monkey and watch all six seasons of Sex and the City.
I had to go through the same sort of process with anorexia. It had become the most personal, deep-rooted part of me over a long period of time. And even when I let it go, I was not immediately ready to talk about it, or even to be truly, totally “okay” with food. It took a very long time for the scars to heal, for me to realize that I really am indescribably better off without this thing in my life. It took time and effort and daily, conscious thought, but I managed to swap my former scary “safe haven” for a much nicer new one: life, warts and all.