The following piece was written for Professor Ralph Quinn's Psychology and Religion course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in Fall of 2017.
I was sitting on that terrible paper when I got the news.
You know the kind; the crinkly, waxy, white stuff you’re forced to sit on every time you go to the doctor’s office. Even though it’s supposed to be a symbol of a sterilized environment, all it does is serve as a reminder of how dirty everything in there probably is, and how unwelcoming doctor’s offices are. I still remember the way it sounded when I’d shift around on it- the way it’d moan under my weight and fill in the silent gaps that always seem more uncomfortable in a waiting room like that.
It’s one of those sensory combinations that take you right back to moments in your past you’d like to forget )and would likely be better left forgotten). Like if you were someone whose dog died when you were 12 and eating a red lollipop, you’d probably be reminded of your poor dead dog every time someone offered you a red sucker. Or if you were someone who was hit by a 2008 Honda Civic, you’d probably feel pretty uneasy around used car dealerships.
That’s how it is for me and that terrible paper, because I was told I was going to die when I was sitting on it.
I was 14, and I hadn’t even known I’d be going to the doctor’s office that day. I’d just been pulled out of my freshman English class and told by my mom that she’d “forgotten to tell me about it” when I got in the car. I knew something was off, of course, because this was only the most recent in a long string of “surprises” she’d been tossing at me over the past few years of my life. The biggest one, of course, being the surprise therapy appointments I’d been gifted when she discovered the tubs of vomit under my bed. My fragile mental state had always been something that plagued my family, even when I was a young kid. I was always swinging between being incredibly anxious (feeling too much) and incredibly depressed (feeling too little).
But now, things were getting too tangible. The tubs of vomit were what pushed my parents over the line into panic mode, but I’d felt their worry for over a year by the time the surprise doctor’s visit came. They’d comment on my frail structure, the way my bones seemed like they’d pop through my flesh at any moment. They’d stare with concern at the greying and waxy skin stretched thinly across my cheeks, which had once been plump and perpetually flushed. They’d turn their lips into lines so tightly pursed they’d disappear when they’d watch me, day after day, refuse to eat any meal placed in front of me that wasn’t carefully weighed and measured into miniscule portions by myself.
They knew I was sick, but until the doctor said it over the crinkling of that terrible paper, all of us were too afraid to utter it aloud: “She has an eating disorder.”
There was only a moment of brief tension before she continued, as calmly as if she was reading her grocery list to us, “I already contacted Stanford Medical in Palo Alto. They have an open bed waiting for her. You’ll need to voluntarily check her in by the end of the day or I’ll be forced to get someone else involved. I can arrange for an ambulance if you’d prefer not to drive her yourself.”
My mother and I stared back in stunned silence. She, of course, immediately began crying. I simply shook my head. There was no way, I thought, that this was truly happening. Eating disorders were things that happened to tiny ballerinas and blonde bimbos, not me. Not mousey Maris with her nose always in a book or up in the air. Not the smart one, the plump one, the clumsy one. Eating disorders were for people who’d spiraled out of control, and I’d only just begun to feel like I’d finally found that control. Not eating made me feel like I was in charge, and watching my body wither away (or, from my perspective, finally become appropriately sized) made me feel it even moreso.
“I don’t think you understand the severity of the diagnosis here,” the doctor said, flipping around her clipboard so that we could see the long line of checkmarks running down it, “Dangerously low blood pressure, dangerously low heart rate, dangerously low body fat....you’re at an incredibly high risk of a heart attack. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t had one yet.”
My mother continued sobbing, but the doctor remained all business. I shifted around uncomfortably, still completely in denial, hearing nothing but the blood pounding in my head and the crinkling of that terrible paper. It’s the sound of that paper that is the last clear memory I have before everything became a blur. Before I could process what was happening, I was quickly ushered out of the office and driven home by my mother (who was, admittedly, in no state to drive). She threw some of my belongings in a bag while my father wrestled me into the car. I fought back with a strength I didn’t know I had, a strength my frail body shouldn’t have had.
The adrenaline coursing through me was only amplified once I was trapped in the car for the two-hour-long ride, during which I could do nothing but scream and cry. I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t know what would happen when I got there. But perhaps the most terrible thing was that it didn’t feel as though I was being rushed off to have some foreign attacker eliminated from my body. There was no cancer to shoot with lasers or bacteria to be poisoned. There was only my brain. There was only me. I was the issue here, my own greatest enemy, and my own greatest downfall. I’d done this. All of this.
The next few hours continued in snippets.
A young-looking doctor asking me a million questions I didn’t know the answers to.
A nurse telling me I was placed on bedrest, that I’d be either lying down or in a wheelchair until further notice.
Me telling my parents I hated them, that if they loved me they’d help me escape.
Someone coming to take six vials of my blood while I continued to sob at the ceiling.
Seeing skeletal, tiny girls with buggy eyes peering through my doorway, ogling at me before being wheeled away by nurses.
Lying awake long into the night, my mother shifting restlessly on the couch in the corner of the room.
The next few days continued as such. My life became nothing but being asked questions I refused to answer and being force fed bland, dull foods until I felt sick every few hours. My life of chasing perfectionism felt like a train that’d been thrown off the tracks: the perfect grades, the perfect body, the perfect image, it was all out the window now. Now I was a sick person, forced to be still and alone most of the day. I couldn’t bear to interact with the other girls in the ward, all of them sickened by their own toxic perfectionism, playing one last game of comparison by seeing who was in the worst condition and who could stay that way the longest.
They let me have paint (but no scissors or anything remotely sharp, of course), and for hours on end I’d paint butterflies. Day in and day out, butterflies. Purple, blue, green, with big black antennae and white spots. I must have painted dozens of them, on little canvases I’d stack around my room. I didn’t know what they meant, and had never felt compelled to paint butterflies before my hospitalization, but they were the only thing that kept me occupied. The only thing that kept me from focusing on the futility of my situation.
One day, my mother told me her friend was coming to visit. I knew this friend- in fact, I’d gone to visit her house only a week or two before I’d been hospitalized. Her name was Erica, and she was a tiny little redhead that couldn’t have been more elf-like if she tried. She called herself an energy healer, and my mother had taken me to her in one last-ditch attempt to try and save me from the diagnosis that ultimately came anyway. I remember sitting on her couch that afternoon, in the fading sunlight, and letting her wave her hands around me with her eyes tightly shut as she did whatever it is energy healers do. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I didn’t know enough to refute it. I remember her saying she sensed a great pain inside of me that was longing to be released, but I was too exhausted to care. My body was tired. My soul was tired. Nothing much mattered to me by then.
When Erica arrived at the hospital, as elven as usual with a skip in her step even in that sterile segment of hell, she came bearing a balloon shaped like a giant, purple butterfly and a tiny fern in a pot that looked like a tree stump. She’d brought with her a tiny sliver of nature, something that brightened my mood despite the emptiness I felt inside. She plopped herself down at the foot of my bed and smiled at me, before asking if she could offer me something to help speed up my healing. With nothing to lose, I shrugged and said, “Okay.”
“You’re here because you’re imbalanced.” Erica said, brushing her fiery red hair out of her eyes as she smiled cheerily, “That’s safe to say, isn’t it? Your soul, your spirit. Your heart...literally and figuratively.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said hesitantly, “I guess.”
“So I was thinking you could do a meditation about the most balanced thing there is: nature. Nature moves in cycles, it ebbs and it flows.” She sat up a little taller, crossing her legs and closing her eyes. I took it as an invitation to do the same.
“Imagine a river, with water flowing through it. Nothing is stuck or clogged in the river, it’s all moving freely.” In my mind’s eye, I pictured a babbling brook, and quietly wondered if I was doing this “meditation” thing right. Throughout all the therapy I’d done and doctors I’d seen, I’d never been able to fully grasp the practice of it.
“And all around the river there’s green grass. It’s rooted in the earth, just like the trees that grow out of it. They’re rooted and grounded, they have a purpose.”
Laying there motionless in my bed, my eyes squeezed shut more effortfully than I thought meditation should be, I started to realize what Erica was doing. This visualization wasn’t just about being calm and thinking about nature, it was about what it all symbolized. It was about getting in touch with the elements- not just literally- of nature that were missing in my own life. Although every doctor in the hospital had tried to poke and prod an answer out of me as to why I’d ended up here, I’d never been able to find an answer. But perhaps Erica was giving me a place to begin.
Before the hospital, I was perhaps as far from the idyllic river scene she was describing as is possible. My heart and my soul were more akin to the rolling, barren landscape of Mars than a lush meadow. Unlike the flow of the river, I felt stuck. I was only 14, but the panic of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life had already begun to set in with a paralyzing fear I couldn’t shake. And unlike the rooted trees, I felt nothing tying me down to this earth. There was no great cause that allowed me a sense of purpose, no passion that made me feel like the earth needed my presence. As Erica continued her guidance, a fear tears snuck through my eyelids, running silently down my cheeks while she painted pictures of playful flowers in all their unique beauty, clouds changing shape gracefully, and stones being smoothed by the anger of the river over time.
That night when I went to sleep, I dreamed of the river. I dreamed about sitting on its banks, making daisy chains out of the flowers that sprouted out of it. I watched big, purple butterflies float about in the air, not scared of me at all. They’d land on my fingertips, my hair, my cheeks. I wasn’t scared of them, either, even in the presence of their beauty. The sense of calm I had in that reverie was the first breath of relief I’d experienced in all my time in the hospital, and perhaps the only one I had until the day I was told I could go home. It was, as Erica had described, the first time I felt the beauty of a life hung in balance, not pushed too far to one side or the other.
I carried that visualization with me over the rest of my hospital stay, which lasted for weeks. Although I wish I could say that visualization was the end of my healing, and that all it took was one great meditation to recover fully, it was only the beginning. The time after my release was nearly as painful as the hospitalization itself, only this time being confined in my own home instead of a ward of other sick girls. There were long days of fights with my family, struggling against the rigid rules they’d put in place at the behest of my doctor: rigid mealtimes, increasing portion sizes, minimal physical movement. I felt so confined by their smothering attention; but despite what the disorder in my head tried to convince me, I knew deep down inside that without these rules I’d continue to be my own worst enemy. No matter how much weight I gained back or how stable my heart rate became, the voice still remained telling me that the only way to feel in control would be to starve myself again. To limit my consumption. To limit my presence.
After months of this limbo state- of being torn between my disorder and the freedom from the hospital that pushed me towards recovery- I stumbled into something that would change my life forever: a yoga class.
I’d never practiced yoga before, and to be honest, I didn’t fully understand what it was. Was it a religion? Was it hippie mumbo jumbo? Was it like Jazzercise? A new studio opened in my area that offered a free practice to new students, and because yoga was the only form of exercise my doctor cleared me to do, I was determined to try it. I showed up to the quaint little studio clutching a cheap mat, a bottle of water, and a timid hopefulness that I’d enjoy myself. The months of isolation from my peers and the limit on my activities had begun to wear on me, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I found something I liked to do, I could begin to pull myself back out of the endless void of emptiness.
What I found in that first practice was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. It was hot and sweaty. I felt like I was being tangled up into a pretzel. The music was loud. The teacher made us get up and dance halfway through. They spoke about love, compassion, self-care, and playfulness- all things my life had been completely devoid of for years. But perhaps most incredible about the experience was that I found myself doing something I didn’t think I was capable of anymore: smiling.
A real, genuine smile. A smile that filled my entire face and reached the corners of my eyes. The kind of smile that gives you wrinkles in old age, like memories of our most joyous times. I smiled until my cheeks hurt, and a laugh or two even escaped my lips as I stumbled through what probably appeared to be the most ungraceful yoga practice in history. I had never felt as unashamedly happy had I did in that first yoga practice of what would become a long journey in dedication to it. And while in the years after that smile would fade or be lost periodically, it was now not just a faraway dream- it was a possibility, something I now knew I was capable of, even worthy of.
The stacks of canvases covered in butterflies still sit in my garage, loaded up in dusty old boxes and hidden away from the world. They used to be nothing more to me than something I did to pass the time, to take my mind off the pain that plagued my everyday existence. But now in the butterflies I see something else, something that doesn’t just end with being caged. I see an emergence, an escape from something that once served as my prison into something that feels expansive and light. I feel as though that first yoga practice was a tearing away of the chrysalis that had kept me in the dark for so long, shielded me away from the wonders of the world.
The wings on my back cannot be contained anymore, I know that now. There’s something I’m meant to do, something I’m meant to create, that I couldn’t see before. And maybe, just maybe, it took that long darkness to allow them to grow.
This is a true story, but I didn’t have the language or ability to fully understand it before taking this class.
Throughout every lecture, from the very first one, I found myself having aha! moments where I’d suddenly be able to articulate all the peculiarities of my life. When I received this assignment, I knew I wanted to write about my own “journey to the bat cave” (the journey Professor Quinn describes as being an exploration into darkness in order to gain spiritual insight), and gain some clarity on just how my life went from what felt like the end to what I now see as only the beginning. In the past few years, I’ve found myself saying over and over again that I had to make rock bottom my foundation, not my end, and this class gave me so many insights to understand why and how life operates in such a cycle of pain, loss, and new hope.
I started this story with a fixation on one single object (“that terrible paper”) that always brings me back to the most painful moment of my life: being forced to realize the pain and damage I’d done to my body, spirit, and family through my eating disorder. To me, this serves as an example of how narrowed our focus can be before we begin our spiritual journeys, but it also serves as an example of something I could fully place into words. It’s not something mysterious, tremendous, or ineffable in any way. It’s fully horizontal, and therefore represents how the ailments I was suffering from largely arose from my clinging to the horizontal plane (a Jungian theory that is defined as being not linked to the spiritual world, but more about day-to-day focuses). My disorder came from a lifelong obsessive perfectionism and desire for control, things that we must allow ourselves to release in order to explore the vertical (spiritual) plane Jung describes.
The first scene, where I’m diagnosed for the first time and whisked away to the hospital, represents being forced to confront my shadow, another Jungian theory that represents the aspects of ourselves we try to hide from the world. As mentioned before, I allowed myself to become overly identified with my persona of perfectionism, which ultimately led to my shadow overtaking my existence. This near death experience, in the context of Jungian theory, is my first introduction to the vertical plane, although it slides towards the darker side of it considering the mental anguish I was suffering from. I was heavily depressed, delusional about the decisions I was making, and obsessively zooming (as Professor Quinn would put it) through life. But all this being said, it could perhaps be seen that all this pain was necessary to the progression of my spiritual journey. Without facing my shadow, I would not have made the pilgrimage to my own “bat cave” (the hospital), and gain the insights that come from exploring the dark. China Galland describes this as a “longing for darkness,” and I think perhaps on some unconscious level I was seeking something to shock me or wake me up to the greater possibilities of life my disorder wasn’t allowing me to see.
The character of Erica - who is someone still in my life that I love very much - plays the role of my spiritual guide in the story. She was my first introduction to someone who truly reveres and understands the horizontal plane, and I look to her as someone who first opened my mind to the possibilities presented in this class. As Professor Quinn shared in class, guides are imperfect, and they can’t do the work for us, but they can point us in the right direction- something Erica did by introducing me to meditation. Erica also serves as an example of Jung’s collective unconscious- knowledge that exists in a plane that all of us can tap into- along with the butterflies I painted in the story (many of the paintings I still have in my garage today). She, without prompting or knowing what I was painting, brought me a giant balloon butterfly when she visited me in the hospital, and I think this is an example of both of us tapping into the unconscious knowing that butterflies are symbols of transformation, freedom, and escape.
The time after my release from the hospital offers an example of how we can be drawn back to the back cave once we leave. Although I was actively pursuing recovery and trying my best to heal, the disordered thoughts remained. Just as Professor Quinn described being compelled to return to the (admittedly horrifying) bat cave, I felt somewhat compelled to return to the hospital. But in resisting that darkness and pushing forward, I was able to continue pursuing my spiritual awakening. Perhaps the greatest piece in this puzzle, however, was my discovery of yoga. This is an example of a “peak experience,” a moment in one’s life where they feel as though time is immeasurable and they feel fully in touch with the spiritual realm. This peak experience is also one that has now led me on my quest for a plateau, a more sustained sense of the pure joy that first practice brought me. In fact, it led to me now being a yoga teacher and using my practice to help others find their own spiritual path in one way or another, and I now have the language to articulate why this feels so purposeful to me.