Blowing out the candles on my thirteenth birthday I had one wish. It was something I asked God to take away every night before I went to bed. Holding back tears in front of a room full of family, I closed my eyes tight, pretending to wish for something grand in the eyes of my family and blew out the candles. For me though nothing could be grander than being normal again. Being happy again, and not worrying anymore. When I opened my eyes I thought for sure this wish would be granted and things would be the way they used to be! The next morning, I woke up and the same daunting worries were on my mind. Nothing had changed. My brain was still infested with horrible thoughts. The same thoughts that clouded my mind since that fateful August afternoon.
The irony of this whole story is that before all of this started, I never had a problem with weight. I never had an issue with body image, and I never would have thought this was ever something I would have to worry about. I was happy, healthy and active. I had a great childhood with loving parents, supportive sisters, and at the time, I could not have asked for things to have been better. As a child I was always on the tentative side and usually always the last to learn something, but I never shied away from the experience I always eventually learned or tried things. There was nothing in my childhood that I can remember that would have made my parents or myself believe that confidence, self-image or self-doubt would ever play a role in hindering my development, much less concern them with me having an issue with body image. Then on a warm sunny August day while basking in the last few weeks of summer vacation everything changed. Pandora’s box opened and my mind was flooded with unstoppable thoughts. I went from happy-go-lucky and carefree to quiet, cautious, and filled with fear.
It was the last week of summer camp and the annual trip to the water park was always the highlight of the whole summer. We waited months for this. This was why we went to camp. We thought we were so grown up. At the age of twelve to go to the water park without our parents made us feel very independent and confident. The counselors were cool, they pretty much gave us the freedom to do as we pleased as long as we were back at the bus on time. It was the perfect summer day, warm, sunny and just right for a day at the park. When the bus pulled into the parking lot, we could hardly contain ourselves with excitement. We took our seats feverishly planning our day with friends. Once at the park we jumped out of our seats and as we exited the bus the counselors shouted “be back at 3:30 pm” we barely heard them we were so ecstatic. Straight to the water park was our initial destination. We did not want to waste one minute of our time dawdling around. We knew it would get crowded fast and we didn’t want to be held up in lines. Off we went basking in the sunshine, zipping down the water slides, having a great time.
After endless runs on down the water slides my friends and I gathered to decide if it was time for lunch. We decided a few more runs would be better and then we could eat quickly and check out the rest of the park rides. On my way up to the top I felt something funny on the bottom of my foot. Thinking nothing of it, I picked up my foot and saw it was a band-aid. “Gross”, I thought, but with my mind on the ride, I quickly brushed it off and kept going. I made a quick mental note to wash my hands before I ate and forgot all about it. About an hour later, we decided enough was enough and it was time to eat lunch. We grabbed our lunches and sat at the table planning what we would do for the rest of the time. Finishing our lunches and our plan set, we cleaned up and headed out of the water park. As we were packing up, it hit me like a ton of bricks on the head, I had not gone and washed my hands. I just ate lunch with my hands, the hands that had touched that band-aid. What if that band aid had been worn by a person who had HIV? Having just learned about this horrible disease in health class I became nervous. Could I have contracted HIV from that band aid? Could I get sick? It was at that moment that a switch had been flipped in my brain the “on” button had been pushed and like a flood gate, the thoughts took over my mind and like flooding water rushing down a street they were unstoppable. I became terrified, it was at that moment my life changed forever.
My days became consumed with research, reading encyclopedias, searching the internet, and asking vague questions to counselors at camp. I prayed nightly that the tormenting thoughts of getting HIV would just stop. I became quiet, reserved. I became cautious, careful. I didn’t want to get sick, I didn’t want to do anything to set off my “compromised” immune system. I thought for sure once school started, that the thoughts would disappear, that I would be too consumed with homework, theater practice, etc, that I would not have time to think about it. It didn’t. The light-hearted things that most pre-teen, teenage kids thought about, talked about, and worried about, were not things that I thought about. I spent my time, reliving that specific moment at the water park when I made the decision to touch that band-aid. It became difficult to concentrate, I lost interest, what was the point? I was doomed to spend the rest of my days in a hospital bed, or so I thought. While my friends started going to parties, and talking about boys, I waited anxiously for symptoms that might begin popping up. Instead of counting days to homecoming, I was counting how many days it had been since I had touched that band-aid. As the days progressed, my behavior started changing too. All of a sudden the finger I had used brushing the band-aid off, I would not use it. When I saw a band-aid on a waitress at a restaurant I would not eat. I was constantly washing my hands every time I touched something that I believed was contaminated. I would not shake people’s hands at church. Now, not only was I obsessive in my thought patterns but to calm those thoughts I started acting strangely and my parents started to notice.
My mom was the one who confronted me and asked me what was going on. When I told her she laughed it off. Told me not to be ridiculous and not to worry. She tried to talk me out of the nervousness and fear that I truly believed that I had HIV. She tried so hard to make me believe that it was not possible to contract HIV from a band-aid. She tried to explain that the chlorine in the water would have killed it. That HIV does not live outside of the body for very long. She made me watch the Greg Louganis story so that I could see that the doctor that helped him who was bare handed touched Greg’s blood and did not get HIV to prove how difficult it was to get that way. She started stating facts about how it is contracted and even set up an appointment for me to talk to my pediatrician. It didn’t matter though, my mind was convinced and nothing was louder than my mind. It hollered so loud, no amount of reason from my doctor was changing my mind. I wanted him to test me for it, but he said “No.” He felt that I needed to overcome the issue without feeding into the fear. Getting tested would feed the fear and he was confident 100% that I was fine and I needed to see a psychiatrist. Angry and frustrated I left refusing to get help.
As the urges to wash my hands, purge of contaminated clothing got stronger and stronger, my behaviors became harder and harder to control and in turn, they became very obvious and frustrating to my parents, friends, and family. Every time I washed my hands my mom asked me why? Every time I needed to throw something out I got asked why? I found myself making up excuses, lying and feeling guilty. I needed to find something less conspicuous than my go to behaviors, that’s when I found food. It was the one thing that I could turn to that was not going to be obvious and it calmed my mind just as well as washing my hands. If I could not control my thoughts then I would control my actions by eating.
The calmness that overcame me with each bite was almost addicting. It felt good to be able to hide my feelings and not get questioned. It was easier to convince my parents that I was better. By the time I was a senior in high school I had gained 50 pounds. I was self-conscious, I was lacking self-esteem, and my body image was in the toilet. I could no longer shop in the stores I used to shop, because I had gone from a junior 6-8 to a women’s 12-14 and I was heading towards 16’s. Shorts, tank tops and a bathing suit were out of the question. I was disgusted but I thought it was the only option I had. With this plummeting self-confidence came declining friendships. It was not long before I was besties with “Ben and Jerry’s.” Ben and Jerry didn’t care that I was gaining weight, they didn’t question me, they were simply there to quell my thoughts. To feel a little more like I had a social life or at least feel like I was a normal teenager, I spent my afternoons living vicariously through reruns of 90210.
Before I knew it I was graduating high school and going off to college. It was my chance I thought to start fresh. One of the perks of going to college was getting a physical and getting up to date with blood work and vaccinations. Knowing that my new doctor could not go to my parents because I was eighteen, thank you HIPPA, I was able to get blood work done. I was given a new lease on life. I was given a clean bill of health from my doctor. Finally knowing for sure that the band-aid at the park had not given me HIV, was surely just what I needed to get these obsessive thoughts out of my head. Or so I thought. The scale at the doctor’s office left me less than thrilled at the self sabotaging. I spent that summer in pants and short sleeve shirts to cover my thighs and arms. I tried to prepare for preseason as I was going into college as a varsity athlete, but it was so hard. The runs were unbearable on my knees and my runs consisted of me telling myself to “just finish fat-so.”
“ You are a disgusting disgrace.”
“ I can’t believe you let yourself get this way.”
“ How could you do this to yourself?”
“ What a jerk you are. “ The self loathing was incredible. The amount of self hate that I generated that summer was extremely intense and even though I was not binging my way through the summer the weight seemed to not budge. I tried my best to keep up with the workouts but my best to me was never good enough.
Despite the discouraging summer, I was excited to go to college. I was playing tennis on the varsity team and I was making friends and things were starting to look up. I hit the tennis courts and worked hard during the season. That resulted in the dropping of 20 pounds because I was not compulsively eating to calm my mind any more, plus dining hall food was less than desirable. It felt good. I was gaining confidence, I thought I had for sure kicked this thing to the curb. I had finally beaten it.
Then like a slap in the face the obsessive thoughts started bombarding my mind again. This time, it was not that I had HIV, but that I could get HIV from contaminated things from my tennis team. During a team trip one of the girls got a blister from her sneakers and her heel was bleeding. She grabbed some bandages, and antiseptic. Cleaned it up threw her sneakers and blood stained socks in her bag. She then threw her bag in the van on top of all the other bags. I froze, what if it was on my bag, what if it leaked through her bag and stained my bag. I was silently freaking out. The whole ride home I was quiet on the outside, but on the inside my brain was screaming. I started crying. I could not help it. It was uncontrollable. My team mates were concerned. They could not understand why I was upset, I had won my match, I played well. I was smiling and having fun not a few hours earlier. I made up an excuse that I thought I had eaten something bad and that my stomach was in a lot of pain. They bought it. But not for long. With the resurgence of the obsessive thoughts came the compulsions. The urge to wash, toss, and avoid, was ten time stronger than it was the first time around. I was throwing out contaminated clothes like it was my job. I was washing my hands until they were red, and my self-confidence and fun-loving personality disappeared as quickly as it had come back.
My teammates started to notice. They started to question. I had to do something, but there was no way I was going to gain all that weight back. I felt good. I looked good, and people noticed the weight loss. It was exhilarating and it was empowering. There had to be another way to quell the thoughts. Again I turned to food. But rather than over consuming food. I began to restrict it. The less I ate, the more I lost. The more I lost the more I was complimented, it was powerful and it was perfect. It was a perfect way to hide my true problem.
I came home from college another 20 lbs lighter. Everyone noticed. It was awesome. It gave me something else to focus on. I joined a gym that summer and started taking fitness classes. I loved the feeling I got from working out. My obsessions shifted from worrying about getting sick to getting fat. I was so afraid that I would revert to old ways, I hit the gym hard-core. I gave myself reasons to not eat. I took a part-time job, went to summer school and spent my time at the gym. I ran myself ragged and was eating toast and milk for breakfast, sweet potatoes for lunch and a piece of grilled chicken for dinner. If I veered from this regiment I panicked. Being preoccupied with studying, work, and gym helped me to maintain my schedule.
As the summer progressed, and the self-sustained stress mounted my body started to revolt. I had the shakes, my hair was falling out and my skin was getting dry. I attributed the shakes to drinking too much coffee, my hair while it was scary, I attributed to stress at school. The dry skin I really didn’t think too much about it was summer after all and much of my time was spent in the air conditioning. Then one night I woke up, I had a funny pain in my stomach, I went to the bathroom thinking that might help. It didn’t. I thought maybe I’m just hungry, I will grab something small and go back to bed. I had to be up early anyways so I would consider that breakfast and head out to work. I never went into work that day. The pain spread, down my shoulder, into my back, across my stomach, before I could even think, I was doubled over screaming in pain. My dad came running out and rushed me to the hospital. The whole ride I was thriving in unbelievable pain. We barely made it in the ER I was screaming and crying and crying and apologizing. The woman who was registering us called a nurse and I was whisked into the ER.
On my way to get an ultrasound, the nurse was asking me routine questions about my height and weight. After I gave her my weight, I asked her if the weight and height were normal, if she thought I was fat. She stared at me and said, “I wish I could be your height and weight.” “You are perfect for your height.” She rolled me into the room and the tech came in. The nurse told me she would be back to get me in a bit. She brought me back to my room and my parents were there waiting for me. All of a sudden, I had to use the bathroom. I was barefoot and the bathroom was about 100 feet away and I was hooked to an IV. I asked my mom for my shoes and she told me she had put them in the car. I freaked out. I lost it. There was no way on this God-given earth I was walking barefoot to the bathroom on a dirty hospital floor. What if I stepped on a syringe? What if I stepped in blood. I was furious, and my mom began to understand exactly what was going on. It had nothing to do with not having my shoes, it had everything to do with me not getting over my fear of diseases. That the strict regiment I was putting myself on was to control my intrusive thoughts. The food restriction, the over emphasis on homework, the added stress I was putting on myself to take extra shifts at work. They were all to minimize my need to worry. That day I was given an ultimatum. I was either going to get help from a psychiatrist or I was not going back to school in August. With only 4 weeks left, I wanted to go back. I had friends, I loved my classes, I enjoyed playing tennis and all of it was going to be taken from me if I did not agree to get help. I agreed with a condition. That I get that help back at school. I promised that when I got back to school I would go to the health center and get a referral.
Knowing my mom would pull me from school in a heartbeat, when I got to school for preseason my sophomore year, I went straight to the health center. It happened to be perfect timing. The college was starting a new program with local mental health professionals to come onto campus and be a resource to students that needed it. If we needed more that a few sessions then we could get it covered under our health insurance.
Knowing I would need more than one or two I called my mom and had her get things situated with the college and my insurance to get my help. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Disordered Eating. It was with this psychologist that I was introduced to meditation. Along with my primary care physician getting me on some anti anxiety medication, the psychologist had me doing daily meditation. We set up a gym schedule with boundaries that helped me to learn the difference between healthy exercise and using it to reduce anxiety rather than abusing it and using it as a crutch. I learned to understand that I had control over my situations and that I needed to develop language that was going to help me deal with my anxiety. I came to understand that my OCD was fueling my disordered eating and that while these things are part of me, it did not define me. I learned to have a healthy relationship with food.
With this healthy new outlook on food, exercise and life, I became intrigued with teaching group exercise classes. I wanted to know more and spent time studying to become a certified group exercise instructor. I worked hard not only to maintain a healthy weight but to also have a healthy relationship with food and myself. Having worked hard to get my group exercise certification, I was given an opportunity for an on campus job of teaching classes. I was stoked. I began making more friends, I was having fun and it felt good. My self-esteem was beginning to rise.
My senior year of college came quicker than I had ever imagined. I was playing tennis, I was having fun with friends, and I had learned to love myself and have some self-respect and confidence. I was still working weekly with the psychologist and I felt myself getting better feeling more like the fun-loving “kid” now young adult, I had planned on becoming. As senior year progressed I was still teaching exercise classes, but my regular classes were getting intense. I was still practicing my meditation nightly, but I was still feeling anxious.
These were things that I was working with the doctor with but I still felt like something was missing. I was flipping through the channels on TV and found Ashtanga Yoga. I fell in love. It was an amazing combination of the feel good fitness benefits, along with the meditation practices that I maintained as I worked with the psychologist. I made it part of my morning routine. I woke up a bit earlier, did yoga, got ready and headed out to class. At night before bed, I listened to my meditation CD’s. It helped. It was exactly what I needed to round out my self-care practice. Interestingly, the last semester of my senior year I took the Psychology of Buddhist Meditation. It was as if the college had dropped that class in my lap as a congratulations for working so hard on your studies and yourself. BAM mind blown. When I finished the class I knew I had to teach yoga and I knew that I had to share my experience with others.
After graduation I spent the summer teaching group exercise classes, getting certified as a personal trainer and I took my first job at a local YMCA. I then started going to yoga classes and reconnected with my love of yoga. I decided that it was integral to my personal growth to understand why yoga was such a powerful force in helping me heal. I became certified as a 200 hr yoga teacher.
Looking back on the experience, what I realized was that it was a weight problem, but it wasn’t. The reality was I needed to come to terms with and get a handle on my own fears. I was using food in both ways, over-consumption and under-consumption to fuel the fire rather than put it out. Since then, through teaching yoga and fitness classes I have been using my experience to empower women to take charge of their life and be accountable for them understanding why, they truly turn to food when they are struggling with their weight. I encourage women to look at themselves and question why they are choosing to eat what they eat.
I have learned that we have a choice and what we choose to do is what leads us down the path that we follow. I also learned that even though we might make the wrong choice the right choice is never far away and we can always choose to change our direction. The power and the choice is ours and ours alone. For so long, I spent so much time resenting myself for having that time in my life. I spent so much time I wishing I could have gone back in time and changed that fateful day. I day dreamed about how I would have told myself to go and wash my hands. I should have scrapped the band-aid off with the step rather than touching it. I spent so much time replaying that day, that I forgot how to appreciate what I had at that moment. It has taken a great deal of time to forgive myself for the resentment. However, part of my ability to be successful as a fitness professional was taking that time to forgive myself and to use my story to fuel motivation and inspiration to other women.
It has been 21 years since that day at the water park. I can not really believe that much time has passed. The lessons I learned from that fateful day have made me who I am today. I don’t regret that day anymore. I appreciate the experience. I feel that it has made me more compassionate and empathetic to the needs of my clients and the growth of my business. Today I have an amazing career as a fitness professional and most importantly I have a healthy relationship with food. I have a positive self-image, and I am confident in my abilities to be the best l can be. Are there days that those fears pop up, yes, but I can handle them so much better than ever before. I attribute my ability to snuff out the fear because I have learned to forgive myself, to be patient with myself. I remind myself daily that food does not have the answer to my problems. I have the answer to my problems with in me. For me it was a weight problem, but it wasn’t. I used food to hide and as a result my weight suffered. It suffered greatly. Now that I understand this I am able to move forward and create the life that I want and I will not be hindered or deterred from being happy, healthy and self-confident.
*This blog post can be found in the soon to be published book “BeYOUtiful Book” By Yaisa Mann & Contributors. This is my piece.