The first full morning of my freshman year of college, I went to the gym. I trudged down a bunch of steep sets of stairs, all the way across campus, and set up camp on the bike, the elliptical, the treadmill, whatever, for way longer than was sane. I remember that morning vividly. I’d forgotten the book I was reading in my dorm room (I even remember the title and the color of the book), and this was before iPods and iPhones, so I didn’t have anything to pass the time.
So I looked around. The gym was fairly empty. After all, it was the first day of college. Who would be working out at a time like that? There were people to meet, dorm rooms to decorate, a whole new campus to explore. The only people there were the athletes, or a few upper-classmen who didn’t need to spend those crucial first few days making friends or getting used to their surroundings.
And me, of course.
I didn’t have to be there, all alone. That’s the worst part. On my way out of my dorm room, gym bag slung over my shoulder, the courtyard mostly deserted, I ran into two girls I had met the day before. They lived in a dorm across the quad, and we had chatted for a while at some event or another. I remember thinking that they were nice, that they seemed like the kind of girls I could be friends with.
They were in workout clothes, too, shorts and t-shirts, and they invited me to go for a run with them.
I said no. I’ve spent years thinking back on that moment, internally screaming at that scared little girl to respond in a different way. If I’d said yes, my life might have gone in a completely different direction. We would have spent a half hour running together, then gone out for brunch. Maybe we’d have gone to a football game the day after, bundled up in maroon and gold scarves and sharing a plate of nachos. We’d have movie nights and I’d invite them home for the weekend. It would be the start of a beautiful friendship (cue cheesy music, something like “That’s What Friends Are For”).
That didn’t happen. Because the idea of going for a “quick run” scared me to death. A half hour, going at someone else’s pace, was unacceptable. I wanted to control the time, I wanted to control the speed. I wanted to work out the way I wanted to work out.
So I said no. Because I was scared. Because college freaked me out. Because of so many reasons I wouldn’t understand until later.
I said no. I cut myself off so I could burn calories. And in the process I set my life aflame.
I didn’t have an eating disorder at that point, not an “official” one, whatever that actually means. But the ingredients for one were already purchased and prepped, set out on the counter and ready to be dumped into the mixing bowl and served up fresh. All I do was follow the recipe and start cooking.
And oh, did I. I look back on that moment as the beginning of the end, the first time that insidious little voice snuck into my brain and told me to do something that I really knew wasn’t the best idea. I followed that little voice and put the first brick into place that, over the next four years, would build itself into a wall that shut the rest of the world out.
I know that I would have still gotten an eating disorder, even if I had said yes that morning. There were other invitations to snub, other dining hall meals to avoid, other new experiences to be scared of. I was a fuse ready to be lit. All I needed was a flicker of flame.
It could have come from anywhere.
The world is full of fire.
I’ve been through a bunch of stints in treatment. I’ve been through a few therapists. And I still don’t know where my self-esteem issues came from. I had a wonderful childhood. I had a lot of friends growing up. They liked me. I liked them. We had fun.
But I was still afraid that people wouldn’t want to be around me. I was afraid they’d find me boring or uninteresting or this or that or (insert negative adjective of your choice here. I’m sure I used it some point.) I was afraid of rejection, so I cut myself off before I got the chance to have the awful truth confirmed.
Then, to distract myself from these fears, I exercised. I restricted. I tried to control my body since I couldn’t control the things I feared everyone else was thinking about me. Because I was afraid people would find me boring, I became boring. I whittled myself down to an existence focused on things that don’t really matter at all. I erased my shape entirely, so that I had no lines, no form.
I had no essence, so there was no way for me to fit in at all.
I have a shape now. I’m not talking about my body, though. I’m taking about my self. The self that I tried to mute for so long, in so many different ways.
I transferred out of that college after freshman year. There were some other issues, too, but I also thought it would give me a fresh start, that the illness slowly creeping up on me would be scared away if I began again somewhere else.
I transferred out of my second college after sophomore year, this time to go into treatment.
It took me a long, long time to learn the lesson that seemingly comes so easily to everyone else: that I’m okay the way I am. That maybe some people will find me boring: my favorite thing do is read, I’m more obsessed with the television show Jeopardy! than 95% of the octogenarians out there, and we have more than a few shelves of board games in our house.
But I’m a fabulous listener and a stellar impromptu therapist to my friends. I can make my husband crack up with a well-timed snarky comment and I’m fun to be around.
Plus, who even knows what “boring” really means? Or if it’s actually a bad thing at all?
Even in the back of my brain right now, though, there’s a small voice whispering to me: “What if people read this and roll their eyes because I’m not fun to be around? What if you were actually right before?”
I’m still afraid sometimes. I’m afraid that the new mommy friends I meet on the playground will think I’m dull. Or weird. Or pretentious. Or whatever. Sometimes I’m afraid they’re just humoring me.
Other times I’m not afraid.
I think everyone’s like this. We spend our lives on a pendulum, swinging between okay and not okay, brave and afraid, confident and insecure. There are few moments of stasis, where everything feels settled and serene. Where life falls into place and the ground is steady beneath our feet. The rest of the time we’re swinging, though. Sometimes on one side, sometimes on another, but always moving.
Isn’t movement good, though? Isn’t that what life is, what we’re all shooting for? Because life on a pendulum may bring my heart up into my throat, may swoop me up and swing me back down again, but it’s still exhilarating. It still gets my pulse racing.
It means I’m alive. It means we’re all alive.
I used to think that everyone but me had found self-esteem. That everyone had been handed a treasure map when they reached college, a map with a direct path and carefully delineated steps to take.
I thought I’d been absent the day they handed that map out.
I know now that’s not true. It didn’t happen in college and it isn’t even happening now that we’re supposedly all “grown up.” No one thinks they’re perfect all the time. No one even think they’re okay all the time.
The world is still full of fire. I still have vulnerable spots that sometimes threaten to go up in flame.
I don’t shrink back from the fire anymore, though. My skin is calloused. It provides its own protection, born from years of burns. I wear armor, created from lessons learned and experiences endured.
A big part of me still regrets that morning, more than fifteen years ago. Another part of me is glad that it happened. Because even if that moment was the beginning of the end, it was also the beginning of the beginning, an experience that led me here, to the life that I’m living. An experience that led me here, to tell the world about it.
An experience that made fight back against the fire, harder than I’d ever fought before.
Now I know that if the flames do rise up in front of me, that I’ll be okay. That even though sparks of insecurity may nip at my heels, I can devour them, just as they’re threatening to devour me.
Because I may have scars, but I also have strength. I may have burns, but I also have badges, awarded for demons fought and battles won.
You do, too.
We’re all out there, fighting together. You with your burning buildings and me with mine.
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