I gave a Stamp Out Stigma Presentation at the Suicide Prevention Forum in San Luis Obispo, California, hosted by the Suicide Prevention Council of San Luis Obispo County. I felt honored, and honestly, overwhelmed at sharing such a personal experience that spanned almost 20 years; all in 15 minutes! It wasn’t the first time I had shared my eating disorder testimony, but it was the first time I shared the story of my depression that led to suicidal ideation.
Many of my closest friends and family were unable to attend the event due to time and place, living out-of-state, or work, so I typed it up and am posting it for everyone to read.
Disclaimer: There is no graphic content in this post, no mention of specific doctors, medications or behaviors. I believe this story is right for teens, possibly pre-teen, depending on the situation but I want you to know I take my reader’s safety seriously, and have done my best to respect this sensitive subject while opening myself to others. I pray you find comfort.
Below you will find the complete presentation…..
“My goal for this talk is to open myself ……. so you can see more of you. I hope you’re able to walk out of here tonight not just knowing more about me (because I’m sure that’s why you’re here:)…. but knowing more about yourself, life and recovery.
I was born in Baltimore, and raised in the mountains of western Maryland by a mother with dissociative disorder, and a workaholic father. I have two older brothers, we were and are, very close. Due to my father’s perpetual absence, I never felt good enough; I felt invisible.
At the age of 12 I discovered classical ballet and a talent that would end up catapulting me into a pre-professional ballet career.
At the age of 14 I moved away from home and studied ballet full-time at a performing arts school in Lynchburg Virginia, under Jan Petrus Bosman Principal dancer with the Royal Ballet.
I danced 6 hours a day, 6 days a week and that’s when we weren’t rehearsing for a show. It was stressful, strenuous, and competitive. I found a place to bury my pain, and just be me. By the age of 16 I was auditioning for advanced training programs with Houston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and the School of American Ballet in NYC.
Praised for my body parts: long legs, long arms, long neck, short waist, arched feet, and graceful movement, I was skinny, hard-working, driven and perfectionist. But best of all….I was no longer invisible. My soul breathed when I was on stage, and my Dad was in the front row, with bouquets and proud smiles. As a ballerina….I was enough.
Unfortunately, it all came to an abrupt halt in the spring of 1994. After a long day of rehearsals and a Swan Lake performance that pushed my body past what it was able to endure I woke the next morning unable to move. I went from a local physician to the best orthopedic doctor in Washington D.C. the diagnosis: degenerative disk disease, three herniated disks in my lumbar spine, arthritis, told I had the spine of a 40-year-old. I was 17. “You will never dance again.”
Something inside me broke. The large brace that fit from the tip of my ribs to the top curve of my hip I had to wear for at least 6 months, held the pieces of my life together. Heartbroken by being replaced by another dancer, I packed up and went home. My Dad went back to work, and I was invisible again.
That’s when I met Ed. The Voice. It said, “If you can just stay thin, you can hold happiness.” With that voice crept a darkness so thick it let me into a deep, dark depression. I tried to fit in at the local high school, hide the brace under my clothes. I was different from the other girls because of my weight, and maturity. I had already balanced a checkbook, and taken care of an apartment. They worried about boys! I felt separated from everyone around me, and it was the first time I thought of killing myself. Death would be easier than living.
By the time I was 19, the depression– now accompanied by severe mood swings, anxiety, and panic attacks– would no longer stay buried. I checked myself into an inpatient psychiatric hospital, prescribed an antidepressant and began counselling.
But, I still heard Ed’s voice, it was getting louder and more demanding “Just work harder to lose weight! One more pound! One more inch! One more calorie! Just one more!” I became addicted to diet
pills, exercise and self-hatred. Ed’s voice would echo off the walls at the gym when I was on the treadmill telling me I couldn’t get of the machine until I burned an X number of calories showed on the display. I tried to live off my pain but it had no sustenance.
Fast forward to the age of 25. I had done the “diet pill, caffeine thing” and collapsed at work. At the ER, hooked up to tubes and sticky patches, I lay there looking up at the ceiling. I whisper, “I’m never gonna be skinny.”
I was really saying, “I’m never gonna be happy.”
The doctor guy gave me two choices: “You can keep going like this and risk death, or you can get help and live.” As loud as Ed’s voice and as powerful the depression, there was a little flicker of hope. The will to live. So, I took a chance and made the biggest decision of my life.
I chose recovery.
3 days later, I was on a plane headed to Remuda Ranch, an inpatient eating disorder treatment hospital in Wickenburg, Arizona, diagnosed with bulimia, and bipolar II. Finally, my life made sense!
But, ED and Darkness (my bipolar) wouldn’t give up without a fight. I spent the following ten years in and out of relapse. Every time I moved forward my steps turned to stumbles, crawling into coping; only coping with life, never fully living, and always between relapses.
I lived during the “in-between” for I cannot say living in relapse is living at all.
Fast Forward to the spring of 2010.
I went back to physical therapy because cortisone shots weren’t helping the pain. The physical pain hit my biggest trigger, I call The Master Switch. The emotional pain that came with my first injury outweighed the love I was able to feel from my husband and my then 3 ½ year old daughter. I was suicidal and hanging on by a thread. One afternoon, alone in my condo, I knew it was time. It had to end. I was in the kitchen staring at the refrigerator at a suicide hotline magnet. I don’t remember my doctor giving it to me but there it was, so I called. A guy answered and I remember him talking me into not hanging up, not doing something stupid, and somehow promising him when we got off the phone I would go to my Mom’s house so I wouldn’t be alone. Admitted into an inpatient psychiatric hospital 3 days later for suicidal thoughts and attempting harmful behaviors; things began to change.
I chose life in 2001 when I went to Remuda Ranch, but now I would have to fight for it, and battle with Bipolar II. Ed & Darkness didn’t want to let me go, and I still hated myself so I fought: for my husband–who always believed I was more than my illness–, my daughter w ho wasn’t old enough to know why mommy kept leaving, my family and friends.
Fortunately, I didn’t do it alone. I found the right therapist, a dietician, and psychiatric doctor. They helped me face my greatest fear–going back to the moment before I met Ed. As that broken dancer, I grieved the loss, accepted myself and for the first time in my adult life said “I am enough. I don’t need you Ed, and I don’t deserve to live with untreated bipolar because I deserve recovery!”
You know that Doctor was wrong. I never stopped dancing, I was just dancing with Ed. I danced with Ed for 18 years and through that journey was born a new dream out of a broken one. Being a professional dancer wasn’t meant for me. Part of my healing was accepting that fact, and what I do. I help them. By starting Dancing With ED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to awareness of eating disorders in the dance community, and writing a blog called Dancing In Recovery.
I am no longer trying to change myself or punish myself for the mistakes I have made. I am more than my illness, and more than the reason I take pills. I am me. I am enough.
Eating Disorders, as severe mental illnesses, are not a choice, about food, or weight and have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. They also have a high rate of suicide. An eating disorder can kill you. You’re sick and look totally normal just as someone can fake a smile and be planning a suicide attempt.
But there are signs of eating disorders and suicide, and if we can get rid of the stigma we can learn what those are.
Thank you for letting me share.
Special thank you to Transitions Mental Health Association for supporting me, Dancing With ED, Inc. and breaking down barriers of stigma.