I have always liked this quote – “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I am both fascinated and inspired by people’s “battles”. What have they overcome? What holds them back? What haunts them? What motivates them? Recently I caught up with a friend Carmen, and we got talking about her battle. It was so compelling I asked her to share it here.
I have known Carmen for a long time, I also worked with her when coaching the Under 23 Australian Womens team in 2010. Carmen was our Team Chiropractor. She is a dedicated and accomplished professional. In spite of or perhaps because of her battle with anorexia, she is also an accomplished endurance athlete, ultramarathon runner and ironman triathlete.
This is what fascinates me! It is her mental strength and her mindset that makes her really good at all of those things. Even when we do things that aren’t “good” for us, it doesn’t mean we aren’t good at doing them. At the foundation of our habits and behaviours we apply the same mental skill.
I would like to acknowledge and thank Carmen, who during this process has felt vulnerable and exposed but has shown a willingness to share her story in the hope that subjects like anorexia and mental health are brought forward in a way that speaks of strength and bravery; not of weakness.
Carmen’s story so far………..
“It was 1995 I was 18 years old, living miles away from home in the small town of Alexander City in Alabama, and……..I had reached my darkest hour. I was huddled in a dark, small broom cupboard, cramped with a lack of room to move. The protruding bones in my back and their weeping open wounds, were excruciatingly painful as they were pressed hard against the wall. There was a horrible, overwhelming odor from the bucket of vomit next to me, an acute reminder of my recent attempts to prevent weight gain or perhaps even foster more weight loss.
I could hear the sounds of a ferocious hurricane outside, not knowing when or if it would ever end, or the disastrous toll it would take, a foreign occurrence for an Australian who had never experienced storms like these. I could hear the rain coming down in thick sheets, pieces of metal ripping from the roof, windows shattering, trees cracking, furniture was being dragged along the wooden floorboards, it sounded like a freight train. The chaos, the turmoil, the fear, the uncertainty, and the destruction ripped at my core.
Then, there was a sudden realization that what was going on outside of that small cupboard, in that remote town of Alabama, was nothing compared to the chaos, the agony and the destruction that had tormented my anorexic mind for years!
I started thinking – maybe this was my chance, I could escape……not only from the confines of this cupboard but by putting myself in harms way of the hurricane I could end the struggle from my tortured mind. Or I could stay here, wait out the hurricane, survive and then with the stillness that always follows a storm, emerge from the destruction, survey the damage, face my fears and rebuild my life. I suspected it would be a long road back, I didn’t know ‘how’ or even ‘if’ I could but I had to start with a vision. A vision for how my life could look without the perils of a distorted anorexic mind. A life of joy, health, happiness, purpose and love. It takes reaching the bottom sometimes to find the hope and the willingness to change!
I’m not sharing this story for sympathy, pity or compassion – we all have our stories. I am sharing my story to invite others to lean into their own insecurities, their own pain, to face their own demons. To not run from them, hide from them or numb them. I invite others to be open, to be grateful and be ready for a life of joy, strength, and authenticity. A result of confronting and owning the truth and totality of our experiences.
I choose very carefully not to define myself by my past, I choose not to live in the destructive wake that Anorexia can cause. I choose to embrace, with wholehearted gratitude, the gifts of my plight.
Each of us has within us the power to achieve greatness. But sometimes we lose our way. Sometimes the story we tell ourselves….
- I’m not good enough
- not worthy enough
- not pretty enough
- not thin enough
- not athletic enough
- not smart enough
becomes our perceived reality and we lose connection with our birth right for greatness and our connection to our life’s purpose.
On that dark day in 1995, I chose to emerge from that cupboard to face my destruction. In the previous 6 months, I had quickly and drastically lost more than 40% of my body weight, through excessive exercise and starvation. At 18 years of age I weighed a mere 36kg. I was weak, frail and lost. A shadow of the person I once was. I resembled someone who had escaped from a concentration camp. I no longer fitted in any of my own clothing and I had to shop in kids clothing stores, the only place I could find clothes that fit.
Returning home to Australia I was met with shock, disappointment, judgment and misunderstanding. Ironically, in my efforts to be more liked, more beautiful, more loved, I had alienated myself. I was attracting a different, unwanted sort of attention. I was miserable. My eyes were dark and hollow, my soul empty, my heart numb. My mind was rarely present on any task. I spent my every moment, typically counting calories, those consumed and those expended. I would strategize how I could skip my next meal, or how long I’d have to go without eating or how much exercise I would have to do. Knowing that there was a family dinner approaching I would set my alarm in the middle of the night and do countless squats or sit ups in order to burn the calories or in many cases punish myself for letting myself eat.
Those who loved me were at a loss as to how I could let this happen, how they didn’t see it coming and certainly at a loss as to how to help me. Psychologists, friends, family members just wanted me to start eating. “You’re too skinny, why can’t you see that, just eat?” But my wounds ran much deeper than that. And if truth be told, 20 years later, sometimes I still have to step into the arena to face the same battle.
Then…my gift from the Universe! There was someone who allowed me to see myself through a different lens. Dr Rob our family chiropractor, who unknowingly through the telescope of the chiropractic philosophy, helped me remember what was ‘right’ with my body and not what was ‘wrong’ with it. Not it’s weakness or it’s frailty, but rather it’s strength, it’s resilience and it’s self healing wisdom. Dr Rob, like many Chiropractors, looked at the world vitalistically. He saw opportunity, possibility, cause and effect, the perfection in the imperfect.
As Dr Rob was adjusting me that day, he laid his hands on my spine, like he had done hundreds of times before and paused……. he commented about how amazing my body was, how strong it was! Of course my first thoughts were about aesthetics. How could he think I looked good, everyone else was telling me how bad I looked and that I needed to put on weight. He elaborated and said he wasn’t referring to how I looked. Whilst acknowledging that he knew I was in a deep struggle he invited me to see how amazing the human body is. Teaching me that I could be going through such emotional pain and physical stress and yet still get up each day, study, exercise and survive! He commended me on my strength, my resilience, my will and tenacity……..WOW!!
Up until this point, I had been focusing on where I was failing. How I had let everyone down. How bad I looked and how I had no idea how to climb out of this deep cavernous hole of misery and pain. Others, in their efforts to help me, just wanted to see me eat. They focused on trying to understand why and how I ended up this way? To me, this just felt as though they were shovelling more dirt in the hole and the burden grew heavier.
But things suddenly seemed different, a new perspective was offered. In order to successfully DO anorexia, I had to be determined, strong-willed, committed. I had to be willing to sacrifice what I wanted in the short term, to achieve what I wanted in the long term. These were my innate strengths and character traits. They were gifts, talents. I started to contemplate, what could I achieve if I applied these innate skills to other areas of my life? For the first time in a very long time, I breathed in possibility, happiness, joy and HOPE! Up until that point, the focus of my recovery was letting go of my apparent dysfunction but when my focus shifted to embracing my gifts, my true healing began. I was able to begin a journey of fulfilling my life’s potential.
I sit here now, 2 decades later reflecting on what I have accomplished. I sit here dressed in my cycling lycra having just completed a 100km training ride with a couple of my triathlon friends. It was a recovery ride as less than 4 weeks ago I was in Japan racing the Japan Ironman. A race that represented one of my greatest athletic accomplishments to date. I finished 2nd in my age group and 10th female overall. I’m still relatively new to the sport of Ironman and I am quickly discovering that it is a pursuit. On so many levels it embodies so much of what I am about. Being inspired by and inspiring others to pursue their goals, overcoming adversity, and witnessing and experiencing the enormous capacity of the human body and mind!
It is those same skills that I refined through my teenage years and early adulthood through – punishing myself with hours of excessive exercise, denying myself food in pursuit of the unattainable perfect figure, regularly subjecting myself to the tortuous task of throwing up my last meal – that primed me to be the person I am today. The Chiropractor, the Ultra Endurance Athlete, the Coach, the Friend, the Mentor.
It most definitely hasn’t been an easy journey. It has not been the road of least resistance. I have reached some devastating lows, I have waded my way through a thick swamp of self doubt, self loathing, and low esteem……time and time again. I still have days, in fact months, when I’m still learning to love the reflection I see looking back at me in the mirror.
But it is in those moments, when the going gets tough, that I draw on the gifts of my past, moments when I was
- lying face down in the dirt, at the 80 km mark of my first 100km Ultramarathon, when every sinew of my physical body was screaming at me to quit
- facing the rejection of not being accepted into Chiropractic College when I first applied
- 6hrs into a 10 hour Ultra marathon in South Africa and every single step felt as though needles were stabbing the ends of my toes as the nails were peeling away from the nail bed.
- 30kms into the marathon leg of an Ironman Triathlon, running in 2nd place and I am desperately trying to find more speed and stamina, to keep digging despite the pain – even though realistically I knew that there wasn’t enough road left in the race to catch first place and my chances of qualifying for the World Championships were fading.
- lying curled up in the bottom of the shower crying with a broken heart from a relationship break up
- desperately trying to find the will to keep going when life seems to be throwing me curve balls
It is in these moments, I’m reminded of that lost, lonely, frightened, emaciated 18 year old girl, curled up in the broom cupboard. The girl who was stronger than she knew, braver than she believed. The girl who found the strength and courage to emerge from the darkness…………….”