Ashley | Recovery Rebound
I started playing competitive basketball when I was 10 years old … and I absolutely sucked! I felt like I was decades behind my peers and I just didn’t have the competitive attitude that so many of my teammates had. Though something about the sport spoke to me, and I knew that if I dedicated all of myself to the game, I could eventually be great. So that’s exactly what I did!
From ages 10-18 I played all year round, on every team possible, while doing personal training and working out on my own. To put it simply, basketball was my identity. Everything I knew about myself, how to take care of my body, and my general drive for life, was all determined by my sport. So when I tore my ACL in my junior year of high school, it felt like everything had been brought to a depressing halt. Over the grueling months of surgery, physical therapy, and watching from the sidelines, I experienced the beginning of a feeling that would later return at my high school graduation: loss, confusion, and emptiness. Without basketball, I didn’t know who I was or what my life meant to me. This in conjunction with longstanding body image issues and insecurity led me to feel exhilarated when I saw the scale going down directly after my surgery.
I felt a false sense of confidence in my changed body and wanted to return to this state one day, after I completed my senior year basketball season. I soon began to have disordered thoughts surrounding exercise and food. I feared gaining weight as I couldn’t work out to the same level that I was doing before my injury. However, these thoughts quickly abated as soon as I was further along in my knee rehab. I finished off my senior season very proud and feeling accomplished with recovering so quickly. My hard work, resilience, and faith in myself pushed me through those difficult 8 months and that final season.
As soon as it was over, it felt like yet again I didn’t have a sense of self. How would I eat if it wasn’t for basketball? How would I exercise? How would I identify and present to the world if my first words weren’t “I’m a basketball player”? As the anxiety of these questions grew, and the uncertainty surrounding college due to the developing COVID pandemic, I fell into a depression and became enthralled in an eating disorder. I felt that with all the extra time from online high school, I could work on my body and turn it into something I could finally be happy with. In hindsight now, I can see how I used anorexia as a coping mechanism to deal with my identity confusion, anxiety about college, and my deep-rooted diet culture beliefs about myself.
It hit me how bad things were, when I ended up going to Ohio State for a month before I had to come home to get proper treatment for my disorder. I was depressed, unhealthy, unhappy, and unfulfilled with my life in every way. It felt like something had been taken from me, not only with my loss of self but with my loss of autonomy. With the support of my family, I gathered a group of therapists, psychiatrists, dieticians, and pediatricians to begin my recovery. I am extremely lucky to have had the resources, familial support, and self-awareness to get myself professional assistance when I needed it most. Even with this support, my time at home was difficult for multiple reasons. I felt like I was “falling behind” and not developing properly like the rest of the people my age. I was beginning to uproot years of suppressed emotions and thought-processes that I worked hard to stow away. And I had to navigate the family dynamics of trying to take ownership of my health and be an adult, but also still needing parental guidance in my care.
After the first semester, I mustered the strength and wellness to get back to school for spring while also applying to other colleges to transfer. In addition to my personal struggles, I did not feel like Ohio State was a good fit for me and I wanted to set myself up for success somewhere else where I could feel more in tune with myself and my peers. I think that when I was applying to college the first time around, I was internally resistant to wanting to go / being ready to move on from adolescence. Because of this, I don’t think I seriously considered what I wanted out of my education. As my year finished off at OSU, I continued therapy and nutritional counseling and got into Northwestern to transfer for my sophomore year. This was the kind of positive karma that I so desperately needed and felt that I deserved. To this day I cannot believe that I get to go to such a wonderful college filled with such exceptional people. I am thankful for every second of my time there thus far, and I look forward to cherishing my last year.
Recent news about some of the irreversible damage I’ve done to my body has especially motivated me to fully commit to my recovery. Since the beginning of my ED, I’ve struggled to believe that I was “sick enough” to override that ED voice and try to eradicate it from my mind. When I think about my core values, personal and professional goals, and physical wellbeing, I’ve come to understand that recovery is 100% vital for me to achieve the joy in my life that I want to harness. I wish someone had told me earlier in my ED the consequences that I would have to deal with now for my actions, though I also recognize that a part of me needed to hit rock bottom to accept making any real change. For anyone currently dealing with an ED, or really any mental illness, I encourage you to think about what you REALLY want for yourself in this life, and know that you how more power in that than you think. With enough self-awareness, professional support, and courage, you can rewire your brain to get to a more peaceful place.
After almost three years dealing with anorexia and depression, I have learned a lot. I’ve learned to separate my disorder from my authentic self and recognize what beliefs are “me” and what beliefs are those that have been imposed on me.
I’ve learned to have grace with myself, as I am up against a strong and prevalent mental illness that lots of people deal with, especially women my age.
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I’ve learned to have perspective in the face of disparity, and to remind myself that there is a beautiful life to be lived outside of the temporary pain that I may feel. I’d like to think I’m an open person, though I’ve realized that that “openness” with other people has its limits.
Through my mental health journey I’ve learned to push myself past the levels of vulnerability that feel comfortable and release the deeper things that I tend to hide away out of fear.
Lastly, I’ve accepted that I don’t think I’ll ever be the same person that I was before my disorder, but that this doesn’t necessarily need to be a negative thing. Yes, I have shed a lot of tears, felt insurmountable levels of loss and confusion, hurt the people that love and care about me, and have felt like a complete shell of myself physically and mentally. BUT, I’ve also connected with so many people going through the same thing, grown closer to my friends and family (only after letting them in of course), and have grown in my ability to appreciate the personality traits I hold that have served as lifelines to me in recovery. I know there is a version of me on the other side of this that is authentic, confident, and will look back at this time with pride.
1. You do not need to be hospitalized, thin, or extremely unhealthy to seek help. If eating or body image concerns are impacting your life in ANY way, or even if you just want to talk to someone, reach out. You deserve it, everybody deserves help, and this is a very real and powerful thing to deal with. Don’t do it alone.
2. I know recovery may hurt. It’s like being asked to do the one thing that you’re most scared of while also balancing every other aspect of your life; but it does get easier and it doesn’t hurt forever. You will look back on these times so damned proud of yourself for what you can get through. You just need to prove to yourself that you can do it, the first step is always the hardest and, biologically, the more you challenge your ED thoughts the weaker they will become.
Ashley is a rising senior at Northwestern University studying psychology and creative writing! She loves reading nonfiction, listening to podcasts/old music, moving joyfully, and watching TV. She has two older sisters and is originally from New Jersey! She wants to go to graduate school for psychology and hopefully one day make a positive impact in the mental health world!