Project HEAL Grant Recipient shares her Unopened Letter to the World
J.K. Rowling told Harvard University’s 2008 graduating class about her experience of hitting rock bottom, “I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive…And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I didn’t come to appreciate these wise words until most recently.
In Spring 2014, I had graduated from an Ivy League University, finished working in the most prestigious psychology labs in the nation, was accepted and worked for Teach for America, and had attained what I thought was a healthy body. Little did I know that in August 2014 I would hit my rock bottom. The years of anxiety, depression, anorexia, BDD, exercise addiction, OCD and PTSD, finally caught up with me. I was always an overachiever-compulsive and ambitious. It wasn’t until my third doctor informed me that my health was suffering and it was time to stop and face my issues. I looked at her in disbelief. I was the first generation in my family to graduate from both high school and college. My family had worked hard to provide a home for me and my sister and more recently to put me through college. I had now attained my dream job and thought surely if I just tried hard and kept giving more of myself to teaching my second grade class I could recover from what I thought was a nervous breakdown. After all, my career and academics allowed me to avoid my trauma and self-loathing. I did not want to confront nor change my eating disorder habits as they provided me what I thought was safety and family.
At this point, I had taken a week off from work, stayed in bed all day long, and just ate until I dissociated. Surely when I returned to my diet again, lost the weight I had restored, and started running again, I could save myself- or so I thought. The doctor looked at me smiling, and said, “Aww, sweetie you have never failed at anything.” Reality struck and although there was no plan B, I could not deny any longer that I needed help and couldn’t keep going. I felt betrayed by my body not being able to maintain the demands of an eating disorder. I felt exposed. Within two weeks, I resigned my job and knew I had to face my trauma and eating disorder. I had built my whole life on achieving worldly success and striving to become a human machine. When external circumstances deteriorated and were taken away, I just had myself and my own resources- realizing my worst fear. I lost everything.
I decided to live in Georgia with my sister, her husband and family. The vicious cycle of bulimia began again. Looking back now from my present vantage point, I can see that my two young nieces were my guardian angels until I could receive therapy. I would go days without speaking because the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain were too overwhelming. The only other beings I would talk to were my two nieces. After admitting to myself that I needed help, I moved back to Orlando, Florida to live with my father. I still had the belief that I could save the whole world and lived with false guilt about leaving my second grade students (even though it was the best thing for them- and me).
I accepted a job in social work. The demands of being the lead case manager in my department triggered and intensified my struggles with self-care, exacerbating emotional and physical maladies. I had exhausted all financial means for therapy, -nutritional and psychiatric. I applied to Project Heal for outpatient support. Less than a month later, I received an phone call from Liana from Project Heal informing me that I would not only receive outpatient support but that Oliver-Pyatt Inpatient Center in Miami, Florida wanted to sponsor me. At that point, I had resigned from my job and was working in the children’s ministry part time at church. Separated from career opportunities and the academic world, I did not know how to live or which way to turn. I knew I wanted to end the vicious cycle of my eating disorder but without knowing another way to live I kept turning back to these life-threatening habits.
Within two weeks I was on a plane to Miami for what I thought would be a one-month stay, which stretched to four months. Ironically, the most life changing experience was not a part of my resume. It was this experience-the counseling, support and rehab available at this center. The stereotype that people who suffer from an eating disorder are superficial and selfish is erroneous. I met the most selfless, humblest girls at the treatment center. Residential treatment was the most difficult challenge for me. I had to face my demons. I had no escape, nothing to run to to avoid these demons. Even running itself was removed and not an option. I remember after a tough counseling session I couldn’t bear to stand the realization that everything that I did in the past was not going to work for me anymore. During one of my sessions in which I broke down sobbing, one of the recovery coaches said, “There’s so much more to life than just weight.”
It was a realization to me that because of family history and emotional trauma, I strove to be a people pleaser, a rescuer, and a fixer. By contrast, in the real world there are simply things that are as they are and cannot be changed. Whether ones’ parents were alcoholics, or one grew up in poverty, or there is a health obstacle a person should not beat herself up for genetics or anxiety predispositions. As a child, I did the best I could to survive the best way I knew how. With the center’s resources, I was given the choice to turn back to my old ways or move forward embracing positive outlooks and handling each emotion a day at a time. After one particular panic attack, my therapist said, “Remember, Crystal, an emotion can’t kill you, so keep breathing, you’re still alive.” This truth has helped me face all my emotions and experience a new way of being.
Presently, my first priority is continued recovery. I am learning to accept all emotions. I was NOT put on this Earth to be a human machine on the road to material success. My purpose is much greater and there is no room for isolation anymore in torment. My purpose includes witnessing the pure bliss of seeing the first steps of an infant that I nanny, sharing laughter over the adventures of reading Charlotte’s Web while tutoring a homeschool student, empathizing with a friend as she cries her fears out, or visualizing myself rowing a boat in a movement class. Each day I am in the process of becoming and learning to live without an eating disorder. Three foundational basics to my recovery include 1. Believing in God, a higher being, 2. Speaking truths, and 3. Surrounding myself with positive support. A truth I repeat daily is “Never run back to what broke you” that I ironically found in a Project Heal blog. Whether it is an abusive personal or professional relationship, unhealthy habits, or negative thought patterns be encouraged to move forward by finding the support. For me, the primary impetus for support was found through Project Heal. Thank you, Project Heal! As I prepare for my second mission trip to an African orphanage this November, I hope to continue to augment my values of community, and continue steps to self-acceptance, good health, self-care, and healing so that I may better serve others.
I am forever grateful for the family and support I have discovered in Project Heal. They have literally given me a second chance to learn life skills. Through therapy, learning healthy coping skills, setting boundaries, having support through grief and acceptance, I am gradually building a solid foundation. My hope in sharing my story is to help others share their story. My therapist once said recovery is like open-heart surgery. It is messy and raw and may make you feel exposed but its only after you have gone through it that your able to create a new life. Be brave. You DO NOT have to suffer in the darkness. There is enough light in the universe to help you in the process of healing and becoming. Your footsteps will get lighter; you will love again in a whole new way once you learn to love yourself. You can learn to live with your head held high and lead life out of curiosity instead of fear. Trauma can leave scars but we are not judged by our trauma; we are truly judged by how we overcome our obstacles! Remember, YOU ARE THE SUN!