the mountains within

Since receiving my admission in the spring of 2014, I had so been looking forward to going to Middlebury. I imagined myself discovering passions, developing invaluable relationships with peers and professors, crossing thresholds of bright blue doors, leaf-peeping at foliage, and skiing. However, upon moving in as a freshman at Midd, I approached a precipice. For six years, I had been struggling from punishing relationships with food, exercise, and school work. I needed help, otherwise my body would join my soul and shut down, too. Thanks to the compassion and guidance of supportive family, friends, and even strangers, by the first days of October, I had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. I withdrew from Middlebury and was admitted to residential treatment.

While I was in treatment, I received a piece of mail almost every other day, mostly cards. At the end of a long day, feeling drained and often uncomfortably full, I loved reading these letters from friends and family. They shared words of encouragement, sympathy, pedestrian information such as weather patterns, and humor. After a while, I started recognizing that I felt loved when reading my mail, something that I had been unable to feel or notice for several years due to my mental illness. I reread letters multiple times, ran my fingers over the handwriting, and even smelled the letters, sniffing for familiar scents such as my grandmother’s grapefruit perfume. I have all of these pieces of mail saved in a biscuit container in my room at home, and I have five here with me at school like Epi-Pens of love.

While in treatment, I came across the poem “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and the last line really struck me:

I want to know / if you can be alone / with yourself / and if you truly like / the company you keep / in the empty moments.

For many months after I read the poem, these lines haunted my brain. I knew I did not like the company I kept in empty moments. Eating disorders thrive in isolation, so I often felt strongest, safest, and most like myself when around others, especially with caring members my support system and my treatment team. I did not feel safe in my own head; I was scared all the time.

Over the course of a year full of exploring vulnerability and risk-taking, I felt more comfortable with myself in empty moments as the eating disorder voice in my head quieted down and slowly lost some of its power. At the same time, my healthy voice blossomed from weak whispers into earnest encouragements.

Gradually reintegrating into the real world was challenging, scary, and invigorating. After many months of arduously transforming my life and of personal growth, I eagerly approached my long-anticipated return to Midd. Yet, a fear festered within the pit of my stomach that I would not stay in recovery from the eating disorder on my own, especially in such a new, unpredictable, and demanding environment. I know what the habits of recovery look like for me: following a meal plan, going to appointments with a therapist and dietician, taking my medication, keeping my exercise in check. Yet, I have learned I am not a machine that can repeatedly operate on a preset program.

For years, I tried to be a machine, channelling all efforts towards following a pattern with strict rules that would lead me towards success and achievement, even if it meant punishing myself for having emotions and straining my relationships with my family. My external accomplishments were supposed to make me like myself. And it almost worked. I accomplished a lot…but I did not like myself, which scared me. This is how I saw the world while suffering from a mental illness: what was rational and meaningful, like emotional experience and family, appeared irrational and unimportant. At the same time, irrational fears and compulsive obsessions dictated my life. And in the end, the desired goal, for me to like myself, never came to fruition. My mental illness developed as a way to protect myself when I was a scared twelve-year-old in need of stability and caretaking; it was my brain’s best effort to keep me safe. However, it evolved into a self-destructive mental illness that made me think I was incomplete and incapable.

These days, I sing songs out loud in my room (with very thin walls!), I cry in front of others, I dance on tables, I engage in a daily fight to maintain my good health. I have fun and I have difficulties. In quiet moments, either looking out of a window or walking from one place to the next, I look towards the mountains that hug Middlebury’s warm community. Some days, I feel the fortitude of the mountains settle in my chest as I gaze at them, knowing my good health, mental and physical, enable me to live the life I imagine for myself. Other days, I look to them for respite and refocusing of perspective when I feel like a pack mule, straining myself carrying the heaviness of anxiety, self-critical thoughts, and fatigue. No matter which kind of day it is, the hushed blue contours of the mountains inspire me to embrace their enduring strength for myself.

“If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.” – Buddha

The hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the hardest thing I do, is love myself.

Middlebury College, ’19