“You’re stronger than you think you are.”
If you’ve ever taken one of my spin classes, you already know that this is my motto. Whether I’m shouting it from the bike when we hit a round of Tabata (right after a monster hill climb of course), or gently encouraging the friend who wants to get her health and fitness back on track, it’s something I wholeheartedly believe. Each one of us is SO much stronger than we realize.
We have unlimited potential.
This idea of being “stronger than we think we are” has gotten me through some rather trying times in life. From making the conscious decision to enter eating disorder recovery to being confident enough to audition as a spin instructor and pursue my personal training certification, I had to remind myself that the possibilities were endless if I just tapped into that fire burning inside me. Everyone has had these moments in life–moments when they’ve doubted their strength or questioned their ability to succeed at something. These moments are driven by fear– namely fear of failure. In just these past few months alone, I’ve had the chance to apply this concept to my life once again in a new and scary way– both literally and figuratively.
As I started to write this post, I planned to go in a completely different direction before the words took a form of their own. All my writers out there know exactly what I mean . I read through the post at least seven or eight times trying to decide if it was even worth sharing such a personal account– after all, who cares about MY life story, right? Well, in the spirit of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I decided to take a leap of faith– no fear, just truth. If I can touch one life, or motivate one person to believe they truly are stronger than they think they are (eating disorder related not), well, my fears are unfounded and my job has been done.
And wouldn’t you know…
Here you are, reading my truths.
Once I hit 1,000 words and realized I was only halfway done with the point I was attempting to make, I realized I have two pretty distinct stories to tell about two pretty distinct times in my life. So in order to save you from reading a novel on your iPhone or tablet screens, and to best tell my story, I’ve decided to split the post into two separate parts. The next post will go up later this week. As we head into Part I, allow me to give you some context…
A little over 8 years ago I hit rock bottom.
Rock bottom lasted for so many months that I started to give up on life as I knew it. I was suffering from a debilitating eating disorder–anorexia nervosa, lost touch with amazing friends–both old and new, drifted from family and loved ones, and was forced to take sophomore year off from college. Life was so miserable and lonely and at times that I didn’t even care to see the light of the next day. I felt like a failure.
When I looked in the mirror I saw a monster and when I looked inside, I saw the same thing. I was unrecognizable to myself in every way shape and form that one could be– physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was living a vicious cycle of starvation, weight loss, over-exercising, hospital admittance, back to home, starvation, weight loss, over-exercising, hospital re-admittance (etc…)– this cycle lasted too many times to count. I was trapped.
Occasionally, it would become too much for my family or doctors to take and the cycle would be peppered with inpatient/outpatient programs that sucked me even deeper into the secret world of eating disorders. Having come from a place in my mind where I thought I was alone with this eating disordered mindset to essentially living in a test tube with other people who’s irrational weight and body thoughts were just as crazy– if not crazier– than my own, well, let’s just say that could make anyone lose their mind.
The first few tries with these programs failed miserably. I had never identified myself with have an eating disorder before. Even after the first handful of times I was admitted into the hospital, I thought my medical team was crazy for putting such a seemingly negative label on me. In my head, I was trying to be “healthy” — I was just exerting more willpower and more control, than the average human being. Even in failure, in my mind I was still winning. Yet every time I entered one of these programs, my Type-A competitive personality got the best of me. If I couldn’t win anywhere else in my life, at least I’d win at this. So, instead of getting physically and mentally better, my disease fed of of the other girls’ illnesses. At my most vulnerable I learned how to be better at anorexia.
Then something happened.
I looked around, and everything was moving but me.
After months of living this deadly game I started to realize something. My friends were back in school. They were getting internships, dating new people, making new friends, living with new roommates, going on trips, studying abroad, and filling their Facebook feeds with silly, drunken photos of their weekend escapades. ME on the other hand? Ashley, the straight “A” student who loved to run, dance, and write– the same girl who had big dreams to tackle, thrived off of success, and was always moving towards a goal– was completely stationary.
I was holding myself back from everything I loved and everything I desired to be.
I was my own worst enemy.
And THEN I was readmitted to the hospital. At this point in the game the doctors, nurses, and CNAs knew me too well and they all knew the drill (weight check, Ensure, blood work, Ensure, EKG, Ensure, bed rest, Ensure, IV fluids, Ensure, forced feedings, Ensure, vitals, Ensure, repeat). I felt like a nuisance– a stupid, stupid, girl who couldn’t get it together. Here I was chugging water before every doctor’s appointment so I could try to “trick the scale” into believing I didn’t need to go to the ER–and for what? For a few more days of “freedom?” Living this way was NOT freedom. It was a death wish.
I truly never wanted to become “one of those ED patients” who spent years of her life in and out of the hospital because she couldn’t do the one thing every human is expected to do to survive– EAT. I felt bad for those patients, and a part of me felt so separated from them…yet I was becoming just that. But it wasn’t always about the food. It wasn’t always about the calories or the way my hip bones protruded “just so.” It was about self-worth and the high expectations I had set for myself. The one thing I had going for me in life was also the one thing that was sabotaging my recovery– CONTROL. If I could just harness that disciplined energy and use it for something good, deep down I knew I could beat this.
I HAD no choice.
At this point it was a game of life or death.
The real saving grace of this whole destructive situation was school. I WANTED to go back to college. I WANTED to succeed. I WANTED to make a difference in the world, and most importantly, I didn’t want to disappoint my family. Heck, I was the girl who needed to be 10 steps ahead of everything for my own peace of mind, and here I was 100 steps back. I knew I had to work towards a goal and I knew I couldn’t go back to UMASS Amherst where my eating disorder began (I was scared about what people would think of me, and the memories were too difficult to face–plus, it was way too easy for me to hide and slip back into old ways at such a big school). I also knew I was on a strict timeline– those transfer applications had to be IN. When my doctor (who specialized in THE toughest love around) told me there was NO WAY I’d be able to go back to school by the fall, the fighter inside me came alive. Miss another year of school. HELL. NO.
Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll prove you wrong– take it or leave it, that’s me.
And wouldn’t you know that was the LAST TIME I was ever admitted to the hospital . I was ready to try this recovery thing for real. So right there in my hospital bed I wrote my essays and filled out my transfer applications and just a few days later my parents were driving me to the renowned Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders in Philadelphia. I was committing to my recovery, and on my own terms.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies from there. A few days into my stay I was celebrating my 20th birthday on bed-rest in a new home with dozens of people I didn’t know. I wasn’t allowed to use a phone or computer and I felt detached from the world around me (this is to keep you focused on recovery). Out of fear (due to lack of control) I started to revert back to my eating disorder minded ways. I’d secretly throw out or spit out any medicine I was instructed to take for the fear that it was some sneaky “weight-gaining drug” (for the record, they were just vitamins and yes, I understand how insane it seems now). I’d pour out cups of Gatorade I was supposed to drink to balance out my electrolytes. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to silently exercise and I’d do squats during my morning shower– until I was caught for both and put back on bed rest for misbehaving (this poor behavior is a very big no no in ED treatment– especially as I was on strict exercise restriction). Clearly, I was still very sick in body and mind. I was scared. And I needed to be there for a while–and I was.
After a few weeks I started seeing young women who came to center after me leaving before I did, and once I started to feel physically stronger (no more bed rest or grounds restrictions) I realized I needed to focus on something deeper than how skinny or fat I felt or I wasn’t going to get anywhere. Now that I had the proper nourishment and brain capacity to start thinking clearly, I needed to find the root of the anorexia and heal my mind. Sounds simple, right? Hardly.
I’ll be honest, this piece is still a work in progress– even close to eight years into recovery. For me, my eating disorder wasn’t always just about being skinny. Yes, of course a large part of it was about this, but again, it all came back to wanting control. During my freshman year of college I felt pressure– mostly from myself–to be the best, look the best, and feel the best. I wanted to have it all– the brains, the beauty, and the body to match– and I feared I wasn’t good enough. In my mind, you were supposed to go to college to find yourself. You were supposed to leave that high school persona behind and MAKE something of yourself. I wanted to be extraordinary, and I wanted people to take notice–because anything less than the best just wasn’t an option in my book. And guess what? I’m still that same control-driven girl today, but in a different (healthier!) way.
I want to be successful,
I want to be happy,
I want to be healthy,
& I want to make a difference.
One day I hope I will .
When it came time for me to leave Renfrew a few months later, I certainly wasn’t 100% ready and the work wasn’t done (unfortunately insurance dictates this piece of the puzzle) but this time, I was on the right track. With the love and support of a few friends and family, and with my incredible Mom by my side, I was recovering beautifully enough to go back to school at Roger Williams University that fall. A fresh start with a new environment, new friends (who I’m lucky to call my BEST friends), a new, supportive boyfriend (who I’m still madly in love with ), and a new beginning was JUST what I needed. And while life was far from perfect (I still had to attend class, drive to the doctor once a week, and visit the campus health center for weigh-ins twice a week until I could prove I was stable), I was far from where I started.
The next 3+ years looked pretty perfect on the outside, and for some time they were. But I was so fearful of my past and so adamant about it never happening again that I often wouldn’t check in with myself to see how I was really feeling inside. I tried very hard to hide my past– I never mentioned a thing to my boyfriend until well after we both graduated, and I didn’t fill in all my roommates until we practically became sisters.
I wanted to keep moving forward and never look back– constant motion made me feel best.
The next part of my story highlights my journey through recovery from then to now. Even all these years later, I was recently shocked to realize that some of those same self-destructive behaviors were still living in me in an entirely different way and continuing to hold me back from being my best self. Be sure to check back here in a few days for the next piece to my story –Part II: You’re Stronger Than You Think You Are .