The Will to Survive

I believe in life after death—just not in the religious way. I don’t believe in God or Heaven, in reincarnation or ghosts. No, I believe in something very different. I believe in recovery, hope, and second chances, in the future and the promise of a better life. I believe in miracles, magic, and medicine. I believe in literature, cake, and fairy dust. Most of all, though, I believe in Shakespeare. Let me explain:

When I was seven, I stole a copy of Hamlet from my second grade teacher’s desk because the cover reminded me of orange sherbet; I took it home and acted it out with pieces of bread. I had no clue what was going on, and I recall having to crack open Polonius (an aptly cast dictionary) every other word. Nonetheless, I found myself enchanted; the words mesmerized me, and I wanted nothing more than to be a part of their world. Thus began my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare.

I devoted the next couple years to reading, seeing, and performing as much of the cannon as possible. I’d devoured the comedies (Romances exempted) by the close of fourth grade, and just prior to sixth I used the prize money from my violin competitions to fly to London to see the Globe replica; the following year I played Hermia in my middle school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which led to further performances in school, local, regional, touring, and festival settings. Performing and sharing Shakespeare became my greatest joy, and I vowed to star in the Royal Shakespeare Company someday.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, however, that I was introduced to academia. Ms. Kimberly Horne was lecturing on King Lear, and for the first time in my life I found myself challenged in an English class. Disoriented but intrigued, I practically lived in her office for the duration of the unit, interrogating her about everything from fundamental prosody to textual variation to the role of milk in Shakespearean tragedy. A gifted teacher as well as a brilliant scholar, Ms. Horne gave hours to my cause, talking me through passages, answering my questions, and acquainting me with relevant theorists/criticism. She exposed me to a whole new side of Shakespeare, the academic side, and I loved it; inspired and amazed, I decided to pursue criticism professionally.

I spent the following summer at Harvard with Ms. Horne’s favorite Shakespeare scholar, Dr. Marjorie Garber. The latter was leading two graduate seminars, and I, fresh out of high school, had managed to worm my way into both. The experience was truly transformative. Dr. Garber, the absolute apotheosis of intelligence, revolutionized my views on Shakespeare, literature, and the world. Under her tutelage I learned to read critically, think analytically, write professionally, and speak eloquently. I went into her class a Shakespeare aficionado, but I left a Shakespeare scholar.

A month later, I started my undergraduate education at King’s College London, my so-called “dream school”. It was, in short, a nightmare; my courses were elementary, my lecturers lackluster, and my peers imbeciles. Wasn’t this supposed to be a world-class institution? Were these acclaimed academics capable of nothing more than meager plot summary? Where were the Baby Blooms and Little Lessings I was so hoping to meet (and why did none of my aforesaid classmates comprehend that fairly mainstream allusion?!)? Bored and betrayed, I relapsed into my eating disorder. Starvation supplanted studying, seminars were shirked in favor of trips to the gym, and before I knew it, I had swapped out my degree for a bed at the local A and E. My ill-conceived endeavor at amusement had suddenly spiralled into a devastating deringolade, and by the end of term I was a 30 kg cardiac patient with no hope of a meaningful future. I had lost Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, and I just wanted to die.

Anorexia nearly killed me. It stopped my heart, ruined my life, and left me for dead, but somehow, somewhere, I found the will to survive. I had the one thing stronger than anorexia’s desire for thinness, and that was my love for Shakespeare. So armed with my Norton Anthology, I decided to fight; I packed up my critical collection, withdrew from university, and returned to America to get the help I so desperately needed. Two years, four cardiac rehabilitation courses, seven doctors, and nineteen kilograms later, I can now say I have recovered from anorexia. I am currently writing two academic articles, preparing a lecture circuit, and compiling a curriculum for an forthcoming symposium. I will also be returning to university this Fall. I have future, a rather bright one at that!

Anorexia is in my past now. It has to be. There are plays to read and books to write. So thank you to University College London for giving me a second chance, Sugar Mama’s Bakeshop for the most amazing cake, and William Shakespeare for saving my life. This year is going to be LIT(erary).

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Obligatory Post-NEDA Week Post

Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I never finished my obligatory “I hate anorexia” post. I had planned on describing my experience with the disease. I was going to tell you how I suffered for eleven years, how I weighed 70 pounds, how I refused to eat more than 200 calories a day, and how I was forced to dropout of school (twice!) to go to treatment. I had intended to throw in some gruesome details about hospital stays, ambulance rides, residual health problems, and diet pill overdoses. I was hoping to include some statistics, too—pie charts featuring mortality rates, bar graphs with instances of relapse, colour-coded information about demographics, etc. I had even picked out some literary-rhetorical devices to enhance the gravitas of my manifesto. I was supposed to convince you that anorexia was the worst thing in the world and that recovering from it is the best thing you could ever do. But I can’t, because that would be a lie.

The truth is I loved being anorexic, and I loved anorexia. It made me happy like nothing else ever had, perhaps like nothing else ever will. I genuinely enjoyed losing weight, and starving myself gave me an irreplaceable sense of self-actualization. I found solace in every pound that I lost. Each new bone that protruded was a badge of honour. Exercising five hours a day became a point of pride. Hunger made me feel elated, and there was no euphoria like resisting it! I delighted in the scared looks from strangers on the street. I greeted each hospitalization with a smug smile, because at least, they meant I was doing something right. Cutting up a protein bar into seven pieces and eating it–and only it–throughout the day was thrilling. And most of all, there truly is no greater joy than stepping on the scale and seeing that you’ve reached your ultimate goal weight.

But Let’s Get Real—that was this year’s theme, after all—there are other things I want to do with my life; I have hopes, I have dreams, I have goals, I have plans. I want to go back to school to earn my PhD in English Literature. I want to be Shakespearean scholar. I want to publish a variety of criticism and lecture at universities across the globe. I want to act in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I want to write a novel. I want to dance. I want to win a Tony. I want to perform in Carnegie Hall. I want to fall in love. I want to get a dog. I want to visit Australia. These are all things I cannot do with an eating disorder, so I have to make a choice. Anorexia is an all-consuming illness. It’s it or everything else. And I choose everything else; I choose a life, I choose the future, I choose recovery. Not because I want to, but because I have to.

Taking Time Off of School

She was a star girl, a top-of-the-class, supermodel-skinny scholar of her generation. She was going to graduate early with seven honorary degrees, a multi-book deal, and a tenure-track job. She was going to act in the RSC, edit the next Norton, and pedal a lecture series all around the world. She was going to win a Pulitzer, an Olivier, a Booker, and a Nobel. She was going to live in London, in the city of sunsets and Shakespeare, sipping gin and sinning sins. She going to have the most amazing life, and when she finally died, it would be because her heart exploded with joy. Oh, she had such big dreams; oh, she had such big plans!

She’d be halfway through her second year of university by now. Her debut academic article would surely be published. She’d be starring in critically acclaimed productions and gracing symposiums with the greatest of the greats. She’d go to school every morning and dance every night. She’d be living in that ramshackle Southwark flat with those nine semi-strangers, listening to slamming doors, drunken conversations, and someone else’s gangster rap. She’d be dating the dreamy neuroscientist nextdoor and co-writing their revolutionary article on linguistic impotency and sexual reparation within the post-Babellian context of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. She would be, could be, should be, somewhere, something, someone wonderful.

What happened? What happened to her? She couldn’t believe it; she wouldn’t understand. She would NEVER take time off of school–not in a million years. She would rather die; she was NOT a wastrel. How could she be so stupid? Why did she let things get this bad? Who was she now?

I see sparkles of her in my eyes, the girl I used to be. Maybe she’d be proud of me, of how far I’ve come, of how much I’ve accomplished, of how much I’ve grown up. With ribs and ridges hidden I’ve learned to live, to love, to laugh, to let go. I’ve become beautiful; I’ve become brilliant; and foremostly, I’ve become brave. Anorexia humanised me, and heart disease taught me more than any college ever could. Medical leave has made me a better person, and, indeed, a better scholar.