Abbi | Peer Support: Pay It Forward
In celebration of Volunteer Appreciation Week, ANAD peer support volunteer Abbi shares how she has turned turned their own experience with an eating disorder into a mission to help others.
Maya Angelou resonated deeply with me in her quote, “It is important that we learn humility, which says there was someone else before me who paid for me. My responsibility is to prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who is yet to come.”
I have always had a passion for helping people. I’ve heard countless stories of how my younger self would step in to help or advocate for someone who I felt didn’t get what they needed or deserved. I was great at speaking up for others but lacked the necessary skills and confidence to advocate for myself. It didn’t pose much of a problem until middle school.
As my lack of self-worth began to grow, so did my eating disorder. I turned external pain inward and wrapped my internal struggles in secrecy. My support system now felt like the opposition. What used to bring me joy and comfort was now a threat to the secretive life I was living. My mental health began to suffer and, to put it bluntly, I was reaching the end of my rope.
In the darkness of my eating disorder, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation. I hit a breaking point. I sat crying on my bed, wondering why I hadn’t been able to leave this earth. While I didn’t know what the future would look like, I made a commitment to myself that day- I was going to make my experiences mean something more than pain. I was about to enter treatment for the first time and might as well give it a shot. I didn’t instantly become a model of recovery. Truthfully, that’s never what I’ve strived for. Instead, I saw my recovery journey as a way that I could create a fulfilling life.
Working with my therapist provided my first experience with someone who truly understood the valleys of an eating disorder. She gave me the hard truth without judging me for what I was experiencing or thinking. I left that treatment center with the specific goal to do just what she did for me: I wanted to make a difference and show the potential for light to someone who felt like hope was lost.
I’d love to say that at this point my life was paved with gold streets, but that is not the case. There have been many valleys and some amazing mountaintops. With each experience, I have been surrounded by individuals who have held me up when I couldn’t do so for myself. I have been poured into when I didn’t see the value of being filled. I have been heard and embraced when I didn’t see the value in my voice. Because someone paused and saw me, I am here today.
I remember returning to a mentor a few years ago and asking how I could repay her for her support. I floundered trying to express the smallest bit of my gratitude. Her words back were very simple, “Pay it forward.” She explained that someone had provided support, empathy, and guidance when she was lost in her eating disorder. When she asked her mentor what she could do to thank her, she was told to pay it forward. These three words are now my living mantra. I have been given so much and I can, in turn, give much to others. I want to make it clear that my life is not a currency that I use to repay my ‘debt’. Instead, I strive for my life to become a platform on which others learn to stand.
I have been able to fill my life with opportunities to serve the community that supported me. I currently work at an eating disorder treatment center and pour into patients every day. I volunteer as a peer support group leader with ANAD and am able to share my lived experience in moments of need. A good friend of mine created a documentary of my entire family’s experience with my journey. It has reached thousands of people. My parents mentor other families as they navigate eating disorder treatment. The desire to do more with my story has been a driving force in my entire family’s lives for many years now. I am currently in school studying psychology and plan to pursue a doctorate program afterward that will enable me to become a psychologist that treats clients with, and researches, eating disorders.
There is hope beyond the eating disorder. That is not to say there were not many times that I believed that I didn’t want to experience life without it. My recovery has been exciting, scary, hopeful, confusing, and amazingly imperfect. I am forever grateful for the people that poured into me when I could not fill my own cup. My recovery has allowed me to grow in ways I never would have experienced otherwise. It is worth every tear shed, every fear conquered, and every moment of doubt. I will continue to share my story, the skills that I have learned, and the hope that I have beyond disordered behaviors.
It is organizations like ANAD that provide essential services like peer support that truly supported my recovery from day one. They provide a community to connect through mentorship, referrals, and support groups. These resources made a massive difference in my journey. It is an understatement to say that I am proud to be a part of them now. For those who have found their strength in recovery, I encourage you to find a way to pour back into the community. There are many people with a variety of experiences that show up to provide support in the ways only they can. Even people who were in my life for a finite amount of time inspire me to be my favorite version of myself today. Please know that you make all the difference in someone’s life. To those of you who held my hand in moments of need, provided a sense of safety when I could not find my own, and continue to drive me forward on days I feel weak- thank you. I continue to aim to be grounded in my self-worth, unapologetically me, and available to those who need my support. I pay it forward every day.