Updated: Oct 28, 2022
Many of you know that I celebrate Halloween like a lifestyle all month long. I love everything spooky! All the costumes, the macabre, the decor, the movies, the parties and the fall foods are just so fun. I love the very concept of Halloween, the thinning of the veil between the dead and the living that allows us to connect with loved ones who have passed.
This year I intend to honor not only those who I have lost but also the versions of myself that I have lost along the way. There have been so many. In Eating Disorder Recovery we often talk about identity. Who are you without the Eating Disorder? I ask many of my clients this and with wide eyes they usually respond with something along the lines of, "I don't actually know."
Now, I'm about to pull all of my skeletons out of the closet. This is a trigger warning for those reading. Warning: sensitive information ahead (Sexual assault, Eating Disorders).
Before I dust all the cobwebs off and let you peak inside my life, I want you to know that I'm OKAY! While I don't believe everything happens for a reason, I do believe in making the most out of shitty situations. I have learned so much about myself along this healing journey and am reminded by one of my favorite quotes:
"Someone once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to realize that this too was a gift." - Mary Oliver
My childhood was dark. It was dark in a way that you can't process til decades later when you're finally in the light. The thing is, I'm a 90's kid and"Are you Afraid of the Dark?" was a huge hit on TV. But you see, I was never afraid of the dark. I could go outside in the pitch dark and feel peace. Why be afraid of the dark when there are much scarier things like monsters hiding underneath your bed?
The monster I experienced at 5 years old was my friends father. He has haunted my nightmares ever since. Robbing a child of their innocence and forcing them into a situation of broken trust not only leads to identity confusion but also a whole lot of maladaptive coping mechanisms.
From the ages of 6-22 denial and avoidance became my best friend. I blocked it out for years but subconsciously it impacted me every day.
Trust was not something that came easy to me. I felt disconnected from my parents who I thought would intervene but didn't.
All of this sent messages to my young brain that:
1- I was a burden
2- My voice didn't matter
3- My body was not my own
4- Taking up less space = safety
5- You can't trust anyone
I was an angry and frustrated little girl. I was told I was unruly, unladylike, mean, aggressive. Things that a child isn't without reason. I was "bad". Yes...as a child I was made to believe I was inherently bad. Children aren't bad. The things that happened to me were bad and caused me to react in a normal way to abnormal circumstances. But, I internalized my parents responses to my anger... If they said I was bad, then bad I must be.
I became guarded and defensive, quiet and withdrawn. I started skipping snacks and stopped eating lunch in 6th grade. I didn't know why... I just was never hungry. The school called home to discuss the amount of snacks I had thrown away. I got in trouble. Leah was bad again...
I was not prepared for what puberty was going to do to my body. The summer between 7th and 8th grade my body transformed from a string bean to a fully formed woman with curves and all. When I entered 9th grade I was made hyper aware of it when the upperclassman began sexualizing me with body remarks and sexual commentary. Then when I was 16 I was assaulted and it rocked my world. The anger grew and the only way I knew how to release it was to run.
Some would say I was running from my demons, but at the time I thought that I was running towards the light. Running offered me an escape. A high. A sense of control and accomplishment. 1 Mile turned into 5 turned into 13 turned into 20. Multiple times a week I would drag the shell of a person that I had become out the door and hit the road. I had to rack up those miles or I was a failure.
Looking back now it's obvious to see that food and exercise became my main maladaptive coping mechanism. While the relationship I had with movement was unhealthy, I still to this day believe that fitness saved my life. There are much worse things I could have done to cope and fitness lead me to where I am today. That being said, I didn't realize how deeply troubled I was or how badly my eating disorder had become.
Google wasn't a thing back then. I got all my health reading material from the check-out aisle. Tabloids and weight-loss magazines let me know which celebrities had let themselves go and what I should do to make sure I never let myself get that way. One day in my psychology class my teacher was talking about OCD. It was so interesting, and quickly became my favorite class. It prompted me to read books about Psychology which is where I stumbled upon disordered eating information. (To my teacher- I thank you! I learned so much and you planted a seed of mental health awareness that potentially changed the trajectory of my entire life.)
The criteria for Anorexia resonated with me... but I wasn't underweight. I also ate food, just not during the day or at school. Bulimia? Nope, wasn't throwing up. Exercise bulimia was not a term at this time. In my eyes I didn't have a problem. I did have a few friends who did though. They attended residential treatment centers for being dangerously underweight and unwell. Because I never presented the same symptoms as they did, none of the problems I had were valid. The old, "sick enough trap".
But, I was sick. Sick enough to go to the Doctor's frequently. Sick enough where I was dizzy and cold. My blood pressure was low. My period was spotty. My hair dulled and my skin grew dry and pale. My nails were brittle and I was always so damn tired. I was tested for Mono, for Thyroid, for Anemia. I always thought I was healthy, my Doctors even told me that my weight was perfect. All of these symptoms were reasoned away. It was because I was such an endurance athlete, they said. One went so far as to say they wished they had my body. Yep, a full grown women admiring a 16 year olds body. Diet culture strikes again. She didn't mean harm, she just didn't know the impact a comment like that could have. Sadly, it shows how much she was impacted by diet culture too.
My interest in health and psychology lead me to read anything and everything under the Sun about Nutrition and Fitness. The more I learned the more I healed. The more I healed the stronger I became and the more I found my calling. I became a personal trainer and group exercise instructor before heading off to Colorado State University for a degree in Exercise Science to become an Exercise Physiologist.
The reality was that I built solid health habits that became as natural and routine as brushing my teeth. The body dysmorphia and negative self-concept remained, but my quest for knowledge kept me on the road to recovery without even realizing what street I was on.
It wasn't until almost a decade later when I was sexually assaulted at my place of work that everything came crashing down. I had used self-defense. I reported the crime. I thought I was doing the right thing ( I WAS DOING THE RIGHT THING). Without evidence or proof, my case was "invalid". Off he went. This would be the 3rd time a man sexually violated me and got off scot-free. All of a sudden the same messages I received as a little girl came bubbling up to the surface along with repressed memories I had worked so hard not to face.
1- I was a burden
2- My voice didn't matter
3- My body was not my own
4- Taking up less space = safe
5- You can't trust anyone
The stress of all of this lead to a significant weight loss in a short amount of time ( I have since regained it and am healthy now.) This time I faced my issues head on. I got a Therapist + I went to my Doctor. I focused on mindfulness and meditation. I dialed in my nutrition and shifted my focus to weightlifting as opposed to running and CrossFit. It took a few years of hard work to feel like I was back in control. My darling husband stood by my side through this difficult time and helped me when I lost hope.
After leaving the toxic job where the trauma had occurred I went on to become a trainer, CrossFit Coach, Nutrition Coach and Event Coordinator at Prototype Training Systems in Westborough, MA. I loved it. The community was amazing and I had the creative freedom to do what I wanted. I noticed that every single one of my females in the 14+ years that I had been training had severe body image issues. I began sharing bits and pieces of my story to clients in private and helped empower them to embrace their body and intuitive eating.
Then COVID hit and shit hit the fan.
My husband and I were fortunate enough to have job & financial stability during this dark time. The staff at Prototype quickly pivoted to an Online model and began to help people find deep health while in Quarantine. So much of this required us to consider the whole person. People were stressed, scared and fragile. Mental health impacts our body so much. All of my clients started exhibiting signs of increased anxiety and stress. The women I was working with in particular were struggling with body image and isolation. Being at home all day with their scale and free time made them overexercise and under-eat. Others struggled with emotional eating and binging or all of the above.
I created a class called Empowered. It met weekly and discussed stress, body image and health habits. It grew. I started mentoring little girls and teens on body image for Eating Disorder prevention. That grew too.
With the encouragement of my husband, friends, and business partner (At the time my boss) I decided it was time to turn this whole thing into a business.
Alas, Empowered was born.
Empowered helps women and girls to reclaim their health from disordered eating and find food and fitness freedom for life. It has been an honor to have helped over 500+ women in the 2 years we have been up and running. One day I was listening to a client and they said something that hit me hard. They noted that nobody understood them and that my story helped them to feel safe.
That box of darkness revealed itself as a gift. Tears released and I knew that there was some good that came out of all the trauma I had been through.
Diet culture is pervasive and it starts to harm the average girl at the age of 9 when they become aware of their body shape and size. This is when they start to internalize their mothers relationship to food and their own bodies. The average girl starts her first diet at age 12. It's no coincidence that this is also the age that the average girl gets her first social media account and phone.
Diet Culture and Disordered eating are so impactful and persistent that if we do not break the cycle and change the status quo it will harm generations to come. This is a form of generational trauma that has been so normalized that we don't bat an eye.
Life consists of a thousand little deaths. We outgrow things. We are human, we are supposed to evolve and change. Letting go of your Eating Disorder might be scary, but what's scarier is never getting a chance to truly know yourself. Who you are when the coping mechanisms, the shields, the outward appearances fall away.
The leaves are about to show us how beautiful it can be to let that shit go. In the spirit of Halloween and the honoring of those lost, I look back on the many different versions of myself.
The little 5 year old girl who made it through a nightmare.
The mean little girl who thought she was inherently bad.
The 14 year old girl who felt isolated and alone.
The 16 year old girl who was assaulted, struggling with body image and had so much pain.
The college girl who felt free, excited and ambitious yet guarded.
The victim and whistle blower.
The jaded woman who feared she would never feel safe again.
The woman trying to find greater purpose, always feeling like a failure.
The perfectionist, hiding behind a public facade.
The woman who took her darkness and made something of it.
Yea, none of these sound great do they? Imagine if I let each of these versions of myself define who I was? I can imagine it, because I did for so long. I felt like an imposter. I believed I was inherently bad. I held myself hostage for everything that had been done to me. I was the victim. I was accumulating traumas because something was wrong with me.
That was my mindset I kept and I put myself down eery day. I would shrug it off and say, it's just who I am. It took shedding all preconceived notions of who I was and letting go of what had happened to me to understand that none of these things are ME.
What I have gone through is part of my story. BUT it is not part of my personality. It does not define me. It has created circumstances where I had to choices to make or even times when I was forced to persevere and figure shit out on my own..
I am resilient. I am strong. I am brave.
I am curious. I am learning. I am here on this earth to help others but I can't help others if I don't take care of myself.
These things I know. They are constant with all the many seasons of my life.
I am changing and evolving all the time.
You can too.
You have to believe that you can let go.
You have to believe that healing is possible.
That that box of darkness you are holding in your hands... remember there is a gift within it.
** My story isn't easy to share, so I always hope it helps someone. If this resonated with you or if you are struggling to let your ED go shoot me an e-mail. Leah@empowerdrx.org.
You are not alone.**
Something to give you a little Seratonin boost