Amy Kathleen Lee
Share My Story: With Mia Sherman
Q: How old were you when you started dancing?
A: I was three years old when I began taking classical ballet. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I began experimenting with modern and contemporary. All of my sisters had also been actively involved in ballet and dance too.
Q: Tell us about your experience as a young dancer.
A: For the most part, I went to very strict classical ballet studios. I really only went to three different studios for my fifteen years of dance. Two of them did not have positive or healthy environments, instead, they were a breeding ground for thinness, restriction, and perfection. Teachers would often comment on the dancers’ bodies, mentioning that their stomach was not flat enough or making jokes about body size and shape. Also, dancers’ appearances were discriminated against, leading to them not being given a certain role in the performance because they didn’t look a certain way. The one ballet studio that had a wonderful environment truly promotes acceptance, beauty, and joy of dance.
Q: When did you start seeing the signs or symptoms of your eating disorder?
A: My sister started exhibiting her eating disorder when she would go for runs in the morning, straight after eating breakfast. Also, oddly enough, I think the kind of obsession with restriction began when she was almost joking about how she had had this protein shake every morning for months straight. It really seemed to be this false sense of control and comfort that led her to her eating disorder.
Q: What was going on in your life at the time?
A: At the time, I was still in high school, and my sister was living at home and going to college locally. She had been teaching dance classes previously. Although, at that point, she wasn’t dancing very much, so it was interesting to see how those past experiences in her life were really partially what caused her eating disorder. For myself, I had just gone through a lot in the previous year or two after having suicidal thoughts. I was just so afraid of being alone, no one caring about me, and wanting to escape high school and the fear of failure. I think in that sense she and I could relate because we were both just so emotionally overwhelmed- I think that might be one reason why I ended up really supporting her during her eating disorder. But I know that had I not taken care of myself and prioritized my own mental health, I would have never been able to support my sister through recovery the way I had. For me, overcoming suicidal thoughts meant creating goals for myself and looking towards things in the future that were more exciting than they were scary. Also, affirmations were a big part of my healing process because, while I leaned on my family for support, I knew I needed to be there for myself. I needed to not judge my thoughts or feel ashamed of myself, instead had to use this experience to learn about how to take care of myself and how to ask for help. So, when I am just having a bad day, I practice gratitude and always tell myself that tomorrow will be a better day.
Q: Have you struggled with other aspects of mental health? Depression, anxiety?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I struggled with suicidal thoughts and also some anxiety. Although there has never been a formal diagnosis, I have realized that some feelings and thoughts I have would indicate that I deal with anxiety. I can’t say for sure if my sisters with their eating disorders were going through anything else with their mental health, though I imagine maybe there was a silent struggle they were dealing with that I was never aware of. I think that is why it is so important to listen and be gentle with anyone struggling with their mental health- you just never know what is going on behind the scenes.
Q: What made you get help?
A: I think what made my sister get help was when it was no longer her choice, in a way, because it was either going to an in-patient care center or working with a team of dietitians, a therapist, and a doctor who would help her recover while still living at home. Also, she spent a few weeks during the month of December two years ago at an outpatient facility, which she expressed made her realize that this was something she could overcome. Obviously, I cannot speak for her on everything, but I do know that when myself and other family members showed understanding and kindness she was better equipped to heal from past trauma and triggers.
Q: How did your family react and what was/is their role in your recovery, if any?
A: I reacted with a lot of sadness, confusion, and empathy. I really felt the need to help her get better and to be the one that she could go to whenever she was anxious or feeling really stuck in her eating disorder thoughts. I think my role was to be the person that she could go to in a crisis, like during big family dinners or events such as Thanksgiving. Also, there was a point where she really only felt comfortable eating meals with just me around.
Q: Are you currently dancing?
A: I am currently taking ballet classes when I can and my sister dances on occasion. But instead, she found surfing brings her a lot of peace and is a great way for her to destress from anything.
Q: Were/are there any specific triggers for you in the dance studio?
A: I think, although I was not the one with an eating disorder, it was sometimes very triggering for me to be in the ballet studio because it reminded me of my sisters not being able to dance when they were recovering from their eating disorders. Also, I sometimes took on so much of the pain and anxiety and feelings of my sister that I would sometimes have those eating disorder thoughts while dancing- judging my appearance and my body and feeling like I needed to change it. These feelings were not something that I could change externally or on my own. Instead, I asked for help coping with these feelings and decided to go to therapy. This was probably the best decision I ever made. Therapy has been a safe space for me to express all of my thoughts and emotions without judgment, and since I started going to therapy, I have been able to heal from that role of being the sibling of someone with an eating disorder and how it affected my self-confidence and acceptance. I am incredibly fortunate and grateful that my family has been supportive and understanding of my need to see a therapist.
Q: What has helped(s) you cope and work through the hard times?
A: I do not regret taking on the role of supporting my sister through her eating disorder, but it has nevertheless lingered in different ways. Once she started not needing me as much, I found that I was hyper-aware of anything that might trigger her, because I was so worried that she would just spiral. Also, I just think the trauma of witnessing everything my sisters went through really took a toll on my mental health. I had become hyper-aware of possible eating disorder triggers and constantly felt worried that I would do or say something to make my sister slip back into her eating disorder. I had to learn how to not feel responsible or blame myself if she ever had a setback. I think that started with me being honest with her about how I was feeling and talking to a therapist.
Q: What would you say to someone who is struggling?
A: Don’t ever feel ashamed or guilty for having an eating disorder- it is not your fault. Also, know that you are not a burden to others, and you are not alone in this. Seek help, seek therapy, seek relationships with people that positively impact you. Also, follow accounts on Instagram that post affirmations and eating disorder recovery motivation. Some that I follow are the @eatingdisordercenter, @Jenniferrollin, @eatingrecovery, and @edrecoveryblog. Please just know that you are so loved, and you deserve recovery.
Q: Do you have any advice for other dancers when it comes to their eating disorder recoveries?
A: My advice would be to know that it is not a linear journey, and the setbacks you have do not mean you can’t fully recover. Remind yourself that recovery is possible- and when you attain recovery you will have joy and fulfillment that your eating disorder can never give you.
Q: What have you learned about yourself through this interview experience?
A: I have learned that while it can be scary to share so much about myself and my experience having two sisters with eating disorders, it is worth it, even if it helps just one other person. And I know that there are not a ton of resources out there for siblings of individuals with eating disorders, so by talking about what I have experienced there is a chance I am helping other people know that they are not alone.
Q: Do you feel there is stigma around eating disorders in dance?
A: Absolutely, I think there is a stigma. In ballet especially, you are expected to look a certain way and have a certain body type. A lot of dance teachers will determine if a dancer should move up a level based on appearance and body type, rather than the dancer’s amount of dedication and hard work. Also, the general criticism and perfectionism that happens in the dance world cause dancers to have these expectations about themselves that are impossible to achieve, unless of course (as reinforced by teachers), you look the way professional companies and studios want you to look. In reality, dance should be a beautiful activity that gives students free creative and emotional expression.
Q: What do you think we can do to decrease stigma and increase awareness?
A: I think we need to be able to openly talk about it. We need to talk about eating disorders in dance just as much as we need to talk about sexual assault, PTSD, domestic violence and abuse, suicide, depression, and anxiety. When we talk about these subjects of mental health, we are actively reducing the shame and guilt that the people struggling often feel. Also, when we start conversations we are educating others. I think that is also why no one wants to talk about eating disorders in dance because it is an issue that can be difficult to understand when you haven’t experienced it or know someone who’s experienced it. It can be scary and hard to initiate a conversation about mental health, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more you have the power to decrease the stigma associated with it.