“There is beauty in everything, even in silence and darkness.” ~Helen Keller
When I was eleven years old, I would force myself to stay awake until the wee hours of the morning.
I was severely anorexic at a time when eating disorders were considered an “inconvenience” you brought on yourself. Anorexia was dismissed as a rich, white girl’s disease (although we were certainly not rich)—a disease that was easily curable with a prescription for a chocolate cake.
Although my emaciated body was a dead giveaway of my condition, it was school that noticed the change in me first. My once stellar grades began to slip, and I was falling behind in the advanced academic and art program I was a part of.
“Just eat already,” my teachers would tell me, and when I tossed my lunch into the garbage, I’d be sent to the nurse’s office to watch The Best Little Girl in the World. Again.
At home, grape-flavored bubble gum and bouillon cubes were my foods of choice. I did toe-touches, crunches, and jogged at least four times a day, passed out some mornings, and hid my body under layers of flannel shirts on the hottest August days. But even as my disease raged, home was still my refuge, a place where my eating disorder could take its hair down and run wild.
Thankfully, both my parents worked full-time and often through dinner, so mealtimes weren’t much of a struggle. And when we did eat together, I became as much of a master at hiding my food as I was at hiding my body.
I was also smart. Or maybe conniving is a better word. A weekly trip to Friendly’s for ice cream (the irony of that name!) fooled my overworked parents into believing that I was fine.
Puberty had simply shaved off any “baby fat” I had, they reasoned. What they didn’t know was that puberty never had a chance with me. No sooner did my period appear, I starved it away.
But even with the ice cream trips and their growing awareness, I still felt fairly safe at home.
Until that one moment that changed everything.
On a sunny, unremarkable fall day (Isn’t that what Joan Didion tells us? We are most surprised by those tragedies and traumas that happen on “normal” and “beautiful” days…?), my father surprised me by picking me up early from school.
Hurrying to the office for dismissal, there was a tiny, naive part of my eleven-year-old self that thought maybe he was surprising me with a trip to Disney World.
That’s what happened to my friend, Mary, the previous year. When she returned from her impromptu trip, she was sporting tanned skin and a perpetual grin. She then spent most of our fifth-grade year with mouse ears glued to the top of her head.
But there was no Magic Kingdom for me. Instead, without so much as an inkling as to where we were going, my father hustled me into his car, and we drove away. Sitting next to my father, a man who held all the power over me, my stomach ached as I wondered what was about to happen.
My weak heart pounded in my chest, and as we drove, I prayed it wouldn’t give out. Catching a glimpse of my ashen skin and white, cracked lips in the rearview, I knew that I was nothing more than a stray dog in a shelter, ripped from my cage by a complete stranger, wondering if I was about to be put down, thrown into a fight, or worse.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, a medical center in a strip mall. As soon as we walked through the front door, I gagged on the thick scent of medicine and grape lollipops that hung in the air. Without a second to catch my breath, I was whisked into a doctor’s office and onto a scale.
Looking down her nose at me, the doctor snapped, “You’re too skinny. You need to gain weight.” While I stood there on the scale, she turned to my father and diagnosed anorexia nervosa.
Then she looked at me. “If you don’t eat,” she warned in a sharp tone, “we’ll have you put in a place for ‘girls like you’.” She then informed me that once I was locked in that wretched prison of force-feedings and shackles (as I imagined it), I wouldn’t see my family again until I was “fixed.”
When we returned to the car, my father spoke the first words he had said to me all day: “So? Will you gain weight?”
“Yes,” I answered, too frightened to fight. Too scared to advocate for myself. Too terrified to tell him that this wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t choosing to starve myself; I was sick.
But even if I had spoken, he wouldn’t have understood. No one did.
From that moment on, I knew that I was completely alone. That’s when I began to stay up way past midnight, quietly jogging in place. I’d stop only to press an ear to the door, straining to hear what my parents were saying. Would they send me away? To that place?
“I’ll never let it happen,” I assured myself. I would die before I’d go to a place where I was literally stripped of myself.
For the next few years, the games continued, and although there were always doctors and threats, I kept myself just alive enough to stay out of that particular treatment center.
Flash-forward almost forty years, and today, my father is an old man with dementia.
As the Universe sometimes works in strange ways, I am now one of his primary caretakers. Although our relationship was strained for many years and I missed out on the experience of having a strong male figure in my life that I could trust, he did walk me down the aisle, and I am here for him now that he needs help.
My father doesn’t remember that day that will forever be burned into my brain. He doesn’t remember the hell I went through the years that followed—the fear, the insecurities, the isolation, and the self-inflicted bruises I sported because I hated myself so very much. More than anything, he was, and is, clueless of the real battle scars—the ones that lay deep inside.
He doesn’t know that that one “unremarkable fall day” when he pulled me from school started a negative spiral in my life, a time when I began aligning with damaging beliefs and inflicting self-harm.
All he knows now is what his dementia allows him to—if the sun is out, if the squirrels ate the peanuts he tossed to them, and whether or not I am there to help him; to deliver his groceries, to take him out on drives, and to care for him.
Yes, this could easily be the ultimate story of revenge, but years of teaching and practicing yoga have brought me down a different path.
The path I have chosen is the path of letting go.
Truthfully, my father’s dementia has left me no choice but to let go, at least of some parts of my life. I’ve needed to let go of expectations, of attachments to the outcome, and even, sometimes, like in those moments when he calls me “Sally,” my own name and identity.
But in letting go, I have found that his disease has brought some gifts as well. I’ve learned to slow down and appreciate the daisy he wants to admire, the flock of chickadees darting in and out of a bush he’s watching, and the feel of the cool fall air on my face as I help him to and from a doctor’s appointment.
Letting go has allowed me to experience all those things that I was previously too busy to appreciate. As Helen Keller said, “There is beauty in everything, even in silence and darkness.”
But letting go because of his dementia wasn’t enough.
I had to let go for me, too.
To let go of the toxic weight from the past, I released that moment when everything changed, all those years ago.
How? By simply deciding to put the weight down—and not just with regard to that event, but in all aspects of my life.
Was it easy? No. But it was doable.
In letting go, I didn’t worry about forgiving (although it is an important step for healing), or seeing someone else’s perspective. I simply unhanded my tight grip on all the “wrongs” I had endured and still carried with me, as well as all those things for which I blamed myself.
Every one of us will live through events, some that we consider positive, and others, not. The only control we have is in how we deal with the circumstances we’ve been given.
We can choose not to shoulder the burden, and to unpack those weights we’ve been carrying. We can close our eyes, breathe deeply, and tell ourselves, “I will put that weight down.”
That’s where our true power lies.
Have I forgotten my past? Of course not. But I have let it go, and in letting go, I have reclaimed an important relationship with my father, and more importantly, with myself.
By letting go, I have released my suffocating grip on life, and reclaimed my personal power.