I Exploited Myself: Or Did I?
“Every day is an opportunity” –B___ A_____.
On Tuesday, November 27, 2018 (8 days ago now as I write this), I participated in my college’s annual Mental Health Arts Festival. (I say annual, but it’s only the second year.) I did so last year as well, debuting “Self VS Self” (click to watch), and the growth (artistic and personal) I experienced led me to participate again. Participation was conditional, however; I could only allow myself to partake in the festival if I out-did the piece I did before.
With that I created “Carnivore,” which you will find below. The performance, however, did not go as planned. I shirked my preparation duties to an extent, because the material was both exhausting and triggering, and in addition to forgetting half my monologue onstage, I stepped right back into my eating disorder.
On Tuesday night, I played with fire. I played with fire and I got burned.
The best way I can think to tell this story is to take it moment by moment. Fortunately, my journal lets me do just that. Never underestimate the power of documentation, folks. Rather than speak from hindsight, I’ll let Past Bella speak for herself.
First I’ll provide context for what you are about to read: I began my morning in 12-Step, as I most always do, spending my 9 o’clock hour at the Sheen Center. At 10:15 I returned to my building, where I rehearsed my performance in the game room. In my residence hall, you need a key to access the dance room. I had left it open after my rehearsal the previous night, but when I arrived in the morning I found it locked. Too lazy to retrieve the key from the front desk, I improvised and practiced by the pool table, which did not require a key for access. I didn’t make it through a full run, but I felt decent about my progress.
I was also planning, at the time, to do this performance again on Thursday as a final presentation for a class (the same class I created my “Doughnut” piece for). In the entry you’re about to read, M**** is the professor for this class.
Okay. You may read now.
November 27, 2018, 11:45 AM:
I had a good rehearsal after my meeting and while I have not done my performance full out yet, I feel good about the memorization and I am able to visualize it start to finish. Progress! This also eliminates so much cramming for my performance in M**** ‘s class on Thursday. I’m really getting to perform a LOT this semester, which is exciting. I’m truly grateful to hone my craft, which I sometimes take for granted. Let me take a moment of silence to express my gratitude.
Ok! I just said a prayer asking my Higher Power to bring all the times and ways I take these opportunities for granted to the light for healing and transformation and when I opened my eyes K***** was sitting in a chair to my right and she whispered my name and said she hadn’t wanted to interrupt me and then we had a lovely conversation. More opportunity for gratitude!
Pre-Performance check-in, approximately 5 PM:
I realize now that my rehearsal this morning brought a shock to my system. My stomach is upset and I’m having trouble breathing and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m nervous or if my bra is too tight. I did a full run through of my piece in tech and while I went up on some of the lines in my Casey monologue, it was successful. I was fully committed and I had everyone’s attention. If I think about it too hard, I’m emotional being here right now, doing this piece in this festival. I have worked and continued to work hard, and this is a moment of “making it” for me. Bonus points for the fact that I am performing a brand new piece. Not that there is anything wrong with reusing material; it makes it stronger and allows you to become more connected. But I want to give myself credit for the fact that I created something new.
As uncomfortable as I am with “Busy-ness” and as much as I try to avoid it, today was busy and there was running around. I did my R.A. application between my personal rehearsal in the game room and my 12:30 class which was NOT a priority and I wonder if subconsciously it was a way to avoid rehearsing. I also rushed from Gallatin to Bobst to photocopy my license and then to 411 Lafayette to turn in my spring registration forms, another errand which could have waited. But they did have to get done at some point, so there’s no point in beating myself up about it. Examine my motives? Sure. But beat myself up? Nah. It’d be even better if I could shift my focus from this topic entirely. I’m backstage, god dammit! Can’t I just be here?
Okay sure. I’ll be here. But being here means experiencing fear, fear which in this moment relates to my appearance and my health.
I’m afraid that I’ll look too thin onstage. I am doing a piece about an eating disorder in too-tight clothing and I’m practically naked. Body dysmorphia goes both ways, and because of all the times and ways I’ve been told that I’m unhealthy, I live in fear that I’m “too thin.”
And being in this clothing–this tight, restrictive clothing–makes me feel thin.
And I don’t want that kind of attention.
On the other hand, my throat hurts. And I’m scared I’ve injured it permanently. I should get my vocal chords checked when I’m home for winter break.
But neither of these are concerns I can alter in this moment.
How I’ll appear onstage is beyond my control.
How my throat feels right now is beyond my control.
Tonight my audience will meet myself and my body exactly where we are. There is no “goal weight” to worry about. There is no goal, period, to be anywhere other than I am in this moment. It’s like we talked about in meeting this morning: being uncomfortable is not necessarily bad.
Bella, if you’re insecure about your weight, simply take it as a reminder to feed yourself well.
Plus, you look fucking hot right now. Own it.
Now stop thinking. You’ve got a show to do.
Piece is done. It was clean. I feel like I got a good workout in. But I forgot big chunks of the monologue and I’m thinking, “well, great, now I don’t have a perfect version on video!” Bella, chill, let go of the videos. Don’t worry about sending them to Dan or Kristin or others for a while. You have now done it TWICE in front of people! You’re just workshopping it, remember? This is not the final performance. Only the first one. And the fact that you can speak while moving like that is amazing. Focus on the good feeling you are having right now! The THRILL, the EXHILARATION, the CATHARSIS, the JOY!
FACT: I am overwhelmed by this day and backlogged in the processing department. But I don’t have to have all of the answers right now. I achieved my biggest goal of the week just now. I performed. That’s enough. Nothing else is urgent. Everything else can wait. Now is the time to ground myself and simply sit in these feelings. Peace.
But peace is not what I felt.
Where this performance differs from others is that I did not allude to the eating disorder in the abstract. The dialogue came from old journals and was not written to be performed. I did not suggest my demons so much as put them on display, did not perform so much as channel this demon from my past. And what’s scary is how easy it was; what’s scary is how subtle, how practically nonexistent, the boundary is between Bella the performer and the Bella the character.
Stepping into my eating disorder, which is what I did, felt effortless, natural; as easy as flipping a light switch. And when I walked offstage, I was still inside of it. Or it was still inside of me. Never mind the order; the point is, we were one.
I wanted to show the disease as-is: perpetual in nature. Eating disorders transcend time. That said, I began the piece in motion, running before the lights came up, and ended in motion, running even after the lights had come down. By this end, I was successful. But in neglecting to take a bow, I neglected to release the character, and I exited the theatre as Eating Disordered Bella.
Let’s keep reading.
November 28, 2018, 10:05 AM:
Needy and raw: that’s how I’m feeling right now as a result of my performance last night, particularly the meltdown I had afterwards.
After the performance, I went to a 12-Step meeting at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village. I had not been to this meeting before, nor had I planned to go to this meeting, but after I performed, some part of me had the good since to pull up the 12-Step website and find a place where I could get support. I arrived at the meeting in a panic, unable to breathe, physically restricted by the bra I was wearing. After claiming a seat in the circle, I took myself to the bathroom, locking myself in a stall and taking hold of my inner child’s hand. I uttered soft “shh’s” while slowly removing my flannel and T-shirt, reciting the urge to thrash and hyperventilate and tear off my layers in a reckless, wild manner. I told myself that I was here and that everything was going to be okay. I can give myself love when I need love.
I took my seat in the new meeting, a fairly large one, not sure I would like it, when I saw three faces from my home meeting, two of who I had seen that morning. One leaned forward in his seat to smile at me, and I immediately felt safe. I thought I would just listen; it was a new meeting with a slightly different format than that which I was used to, and I was the youngest there, which I have a complex about. I don’t deserve to be here, I often tell myself. I don’t deserve to recovery this early in life; I haven’t paid my dues. What if the older members resent me? By the time we got to shares, however, I’d had a change of heart.
Given the size of the group, shares were three minutes instead of four, and not everybody had time to go. I did, though. I considered opening with my insecurity about my age, but I knew in my heart that was a waste of time, that it came from a needy place and was “al-anonic” in nature, inherently concerned with how other members perceived me. The beauty of this program is accepting what you cannot control, and my age relative to those around me is falls under that category. Instead, I took three minutes to publicly feel.
In a 3-minute share, I realized that I had not given myself space to acknowledge and process how hard it was to give that performance, to strip myself naked in a way I haven’t before. As I sit here now, what’s coming to me are the words “I exploited myself.”
Maybe that’s not true.
Maybe that’s too harsh.
Or maybe it is true.
Maybe it’s not too harsh.
After the meeting, I grocery shopped, allowing time for my feelings to drain. But I felt guilty buying groceries; that’s how triggered the eating disorder was. I arrived home tired, wanting escape, wanting sleep. But my wound was still open, and I knew I had to let the emotions out. I reached for my journal, but a voice in my head said stop: You don’t need to write now, Bella. When you write you search for answers; you search for resolution, wisdom. Right now you need to feel. So I curled into a child’s pose and did just that. After a moment, I called my father, something I never used to do, but something I have experimented with doing lately. And it worked. It was what I needed. I cried. A lot. And then I took a shower. And then I went to bed.
I slept restlessly. I had nervous dreams. I woke up naked, sweaty, and raw. Then I dutifully went to my morning meeting, a meeting which has just ended.
I am thoroughly amazed by myself right now. All of the “feeling” I did last night has led me to serenity, and I am sitting here resisting it! I am wallowing in pain and self-pity. I actually marched into 12-Step and did the “poor pitiful me” dance. What’s my goal here, attention? That was one ugly share. But hey; sometimes we whine; better to whine in a meeting than in the outside world. And it brought awareness to my neediness, revealing what today I should work on. Bella, if you’re worried about other members judging you, don’t. You are only judging yourself.
Ok: I’m putting a stop to this pity party here and now. I’ve felt my feelings and now I can let them go and let my heart become stronger. Let’s count the victories, shall we? I turned off my phone this morning so that I couldn’t text my loved ones and say “Help me, help me, I’m suffering, and I want you to join my pity party.” No; instead, I kept the phone off while I did some meditation, and then, when I was ready and grounded, I responded to texts from the outside world. My mother texted me last night asking how the performance went. If I had answered her immediately, I would have spoken from self-pity. In taking pause, I enabled myself to respond rationally. I sent her a message that stated my truth but did not solicit comfort or a specific emotional reaction. I simply said the performance was “impactful,” to quote an audience member (which, I should acknowledge, is praise I’m letting in), and successful on a technical level, but that it crossed a line personally and that I am dealing with the ramifications of that. Simple, clear, and truthful.
The consensus? I pushed myself too far last night. I played with fire and I got burned. But you have to cross the lines to find them, right? As Dad reminded me, I could not have anticipated the effect this performance would have on me. I had good intentions; I must remember that. Anger is not helpful. Abuse is not helpful. All I can do now is forgive myself and allow this experience to let me grow.
Let’s return now to the present. As I mentioned earlier, I had planned to remount the piece on Thursday for a final in-class performance. But during our phone call, my dad made it clear that I was in no way obligated to do it again.
I knew he was right.
I knew that despite how proud I was of the piece, doing it at this moment in time was not healthy for me.
I knew I should let it rest.
But I felt guilty.
After the performance, a classmate of mine had expressed his excitement for the rest of the class to see the piece. As a compromise, I’d planned to show the video of the performance and talk about what came up for me as a result, but when I walked into class on Thursday I felt I was letting him down. I wanted to be a hero; I wanted to triumph over the experience by performing the piece again. And despite my better judgement, I almost did.
Six of us were set to perform that day; I was destined to go third. As I sat through the first two performances, I became less and less sure of my decision not to perform. I actively considered remounting the piece, even though I was not warmed up and I no longer owned the costume. When it was my turn to go, I owned up to my conflict, telling the class and my professor that I did not know what to do.
“Well, let me ask you this,” my professor said after a moment. “Would you like more time with the decision? Would it help you to have more time to think about it and then go last?”
“Yes, please,” I said. Then, “May I go to the bathroom?”
I stepped out of the room, missing the third performance, and eventually came back to my original plan (just like I do in the piece, go figure), which was to show the video. “I say this is a victory for Healthy Bella!”
At the top of this post, I quoted a mentor: my family therapist from Miami. I would love to honor him by name, but one thing 12-Step is teaching me is the value of anonymity. Instead, I’ll honor his message. Every day, whether it’s through going to a meeting, honoring a commitment, or simply journaling, I am grateful to myself for showing up. And I am particularly grateful to myself for showing up on Thursday. I learned a powerful lesson by showing that video and speaking honestly to my class.
I thought I was letting them down. I thought that showing the video rather than performing was failure. I thought admitting how painful it was to reunite with my eating disorder for a brief moment in time, to be reminded of the power I can wield over my body and to have to choose to release it all over again, was weak. To do the piece again would compromise my own well-being, and I thought that was what people wanted to see.
But I was wrong.
At the end of each piece, we reflected to the performer what we saw and what we heard, and what my class reflected to me taught me a powerful lesson.
“I have read some of your blog posts,” said one peer, “and when I watched the video and heard you say you played with fire, I felt worried. But by standing here and addressing us honestly today, I can see you genuinely working to put this behind you. I can see you how much you truly do want to recover, and how much you have recovered.”
I felt worried.
That hit me.
After the performance on Tuesday, I got compliments on my stamina, and the distorted part of my mind received them as praise for my eating disorder. I thought people liked what they saw and wanted more. I thought that performance was the place in which I should live. My classmate’s comment brought me back to reality.
My professor spoke last, and out of every comment I heard, I am most grateful for what she said:
“I saw a healthy body, one that at the height of the E.D. could not have done that without breaking down. It would have been physically impossible.”
As I mentioned, I still struggle with body dysmorphia, but if often takes an unconventional form . Because of all the times and ways I have been questioned about my weight and told that I am too thin, I live in fear that my body is not healthy. But:
She saw a healthy body.
I have a healthy body.
If that is all I get from this experience, that is enough.
There’s a post-rehearsal ritual I often use in which we ask, “What was good about that?” Despite how hard this experience was, I can still ask what was good about that. As my dad reminded me, I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. So I’ll take a moment now to claim my victories:
I pushed myself artistically and made good art.
I brushed up against my limits and found them as a result.
I discarded an old, triggering piece of clothing via a symbolic ritual, an action that was long overdue, and which allowed me to physicalize my separation from my eating disorder.
I connected with my father.
I received affirmation, support, and love which served as both comfort and a reality check.
I received a reminder that I have a healthy body.
I entered a very dangerous headspace. And it took a while to emerge. But now, 8 days later, I have successfully come out of it. And as a result, I have new insight, insight I get to share now.
There: 7 wins, each one rich with value.
“I say this is a victory for Healthy Bella!” And not a mistake, after all.
In closing, I would like to say that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and may not resonate with everyone; take what you like and leave the rest. If you liked what you read here, I invite you to share it, as these messages are for all.