This is an extract from Tara Stiles’ new book, Make Your Own Rules .
For me, like many of us, losing track of myself was a slow process. I spent my childhood eating pretty naturally, fresh from the garden and the farm in Illinois where I grew up. I ate when I was hungry, and I ate things that fueled my body and made me feel good.
I had loads of energy. I’d run around and play all day and sleep well through the night. I danced after school until late and had enough energy to feel great through all of it. My mind was clear and sharp. Focusing on schoolwork was easy, and there was plenty of space for daydreams and wondering about the world and where I would be in it through my years. I had no idea what a craving was besides being hungry. I ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full.
As a teenager, I started dancing in a conservatory program in Chicago. I was excited but also a little terrified to leave my big-fish-small-pond situation for a large sea of talented dancers from around the world. I loved the challenge, opportunity, and inspiration, and I threw myself in headfirst.
After a few weeks in the program, I was living a schedule of wake up, go to dance class, go to rehearsal, sleep, wake up, and so on – nonstop. One night I wandered my tired body back to my dorm room, so excited to crash, only to discover a huge party happening in my room. I was exhausted and wanted to tuck myself in for the night, but seeing that I was overruled by ragers and finding no other option, I took a plastic cup of whatever was handed to me and started sipping a mystery drink. I figured I would just wait it out.
The next thing I remember, there was a naked man on top of me in a room that wasn’t my own. I was confused, petrified and frozen. I had no idea what had happened. The door was closed, and no one else was in the room. I tried to play it cool and get out of there without screaming.
I managed to get out and ran back to my room, collapsing to the floor, huddling into a ball, and sobbing uncontrollably. My roommate eventually found me. I told her what happened, and she did her best to comfort me.
Every ounce of my intuition vanished in that moment like a lightning bolt. During the moments, days, weeks, and months that passed, I transformed into a zombie. I became extremely withdrawn, stopped eating, and began isolating myself as much as possible. I didn’t report anything because I didn’t know what had actually happened. I didn’t know anything except I felt like disappearing.
I composed a complex routine that kept me in isolation as much as possible. I woke up hours earlier than my roommate, tiptoed out of the room, went for a run, and stayed away from people until dance classes began. I went off on my own during meal breaks to minimise the chance of interacting with anyone and then returned to rehearsal as though nothing were wrong.
I became more and more isolated, and I was losing more and more weight. I hated eating because it made me feel good, and I didn’t want to feel anything. Empty felt okay. I took a part-time job in the conservatory’s cafeteria as a baker so I could lie about when and what I ate. It also allowed me to hide during normal mealtimes.
Controlling my body and restricting my food became something I could control. The act of controlling gave me something to do and something that I could be in charge of. Control was the root of my problem. I could not control what had happened to me, so I tried to make up for it. My external world was chaotic, intense, and scary. I was spinning out of control, and I was completely desensitized.
From the outside it must have looked as if I were developing anorexia because of the physical and mental stress that is common among young dancers. I was so afraid of being judged as a typical dancer with an eating disorder that I withdrew even more. I was too afraid to talk to anyone about what had or hadn’t happened.
To make matters even more intense, I saw the guy almost every day. He was the boyfriend of an older dancer in the program. He would come to pick her up and drop her off. I froze and tried to act normal anytime I saw him. The last thing I wanted to do was confront what had happened or feel what was actually going on inside me.
My actions began to destroy my body like a violent tornado. It whipped through me, leaving nothing but wreckage and pieces of a once happy, lively girl. My bones started protruding. My ribs started poking out in the front and then through my back. My strength was fading, and my focus and concentration drifted. My life became fuzzy and strange. I felt things slipping away. I noticed people talking about how thin I had become, and I felt judged and misunderstood. I heard snickers and whispers wherever I went.
Even worse, my behaviors affected others. Some of the aspiring dancers who looked up to me started to starve themselves to be like me – a side effect that was heartbreaking. I didn’t have the strength or confidence to help the girls or myself in those moments. Witnessing their self-abuse was torture.
A wall of guilt and shame went up around me. I hated that I had influence and that my self-abuse seemed like a good idea to copy. I was constantly embarrassed and hiding. I hated that people thought I was manipulating my body in order to achieve a skinny look. I was the only one who knew about my secret need for control, and I hated myself for behaving this way.
Life just kept going on like this until one day when I was on my way to a performance.
As I walked down an empty hallway, I saw my ballet teacher, who was actually pivotal in guiding me toward pursuing yoga, walking toward me. My heart sank. There was no one around, and I knew he was going to confront me. There was no escape. My hands felt sweaty and I was shaking.
I braced myself to be judged, and then something life changing happened. He stopped me, touched my arm with kindness, and gently told me that if I didn’t nourish myself, my body would eat itself and there would be nothing left. I was so embarrassed and mumbled something about how busy I was, promising that I would make time to take care of myself. He saw right through me and knew I understood his message. I was so ashamed that I didn’t have the courage to tell him why I had been destroying myself. His message hit me, softened me, and I decided to make a change. I was lucky.
Soon after that moment of grace and kindness, I moved out of the dorm and into an apartment with roommates. I reintroduced myself to food, taking care of myself, and healing. I found ways to regain control of my life and to feel safe in my own skin and in my surroundings. I relearned what it felt like to feel, and I practiced feeling my way through life again. I found yoga classes and healing centers, and I allowed the process to begin.
The road to recovery wasn’t fast and it wasn’t straight, but it was steady and it worked. Allowing myself to feel again helped me. Allowing myself to become sensitized through dance, yoga, meditation, and long walks in nature helped me. Telling this story to a few close friends at the time helped me. And now, sharing this story with you helps me close the loop and open the healing process to anyone who has gone through or experienced any kind of trauma that leads directly to desensitization and self-destruction. There is a way back to you, and trust me – if I can do it, you can do it.
Making your own rules is a practice of feeling your way into every part of you. Traditional diets, exercise plans, and how we’ve been shown to deal with pretty much everything in life has taught us how to disconnect and turn off intuition like a switch. No pain, no gain. Hold your breath. Push through the discomfort. It’s not supposed to be easy if you want to get anywhere. Of course, we already know these things don’t work. How could they? Turning off our feeling, disconnecting from ourselves, doesn’t work for us. It works against us.
So let’s learn how to breathe through every feeling and dive deeper into every aspect that makes up you. We’ll enjoy the process of cultivating a healthy and strong body, a calm and focused mind, and a spectacularly capable life. You’re going to go inside, get intuitive, get excited, and get inspired, and the best part is, you’re going to have a ton of fun! Being you is fun! Trying to be all those other people and follow their rules is a big energy drain. Get ready to step out of the followers’ line. Get ready to not just reach your goals but to blow past them.
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