When I think back to who I was three years ago, I pity the fact that I thought my body was what mattered more than my mind and spirit. I grieve the fact that I compromised what was most important to me, forgetting relationships, health, life and love for the sole purpose of making myself smaller. I am haunted by the remnants of my twisted thought process when I revisit pictures or even consider my times that I achieved in college cross country and track. I was a shell of who I know I was and who I know I am today, still very much an ever-changing and growing individual.
The comments that were said to me, or concerned looks by loved ones did not matter, the significant red flags and downward spiral of my mental and physical health did not matter. What mattered was that I was continuing to grow smaller in all aspects, my body, running times, and consequently, my spirit.
I was on the verge of the biggest transition of my life, studying abroad in Argentina for a semester. What I was unable to grasp was that there were beautiful opportunities in the unknown. Instead of viewing the blessing of this educational opportunity as an incredible growing experience, I felt trapped in my own fear and did not know how to cope. What propelled me forward was not excitement to embark on a new journey, but a sick feeling of satisfaction as I discovered more ways to harm myself and hold myself back from discovering my true potential.
The times I felt most alone was when I was surrounded by people who loved and cared about me. It was when I was with my team in the dining hall, forcing myself to choose salad. It was the runs I went on for the sole purpose of punishing myself. It was the shameful nights where I laid awake intentionally researching ways that I could sink myself deeper into a seemingly endless black hole of anxiety, depression and the irrational fear of fueling my body. It took forcing myself out of the tiny box I so carefully constructed for myself and hitting my lowest low to build myself into the human I am today. I questioned who I was and what I stood for because being one of the top runners on a collegiate team was not going to last forever. I was taken away from everything I knew and flung into a land completely foreign. Even with a drastic language barrier when first arriving, the fact that I was lost was evident. The transition was monumentous, but what was downright frightening to me was the unconventional (compared to the United States) mealtimes and routines. How was I going to adapt to cultural expectations when the only thing that mattered to me, and what I prided myself in was my personal, and at the time life controlling, food rules routines.
My version of in-patient therapy took place in the form of participating in sit down meals every night with a complete stranger who was my host-mom. I was served a plate each night and was watched from across the table as I stomached the meal for the sake of being polite in someone else’s home. Popé quickly became a beloved part of my experience abroad and I give her a lot of credit for helping me heal and realize the beauty in sharing a meal and human connection. She might have taken on more than she bargained for as a host mom, but her matter-of-fact personality is what kept me at the dinner table each night. Believe it or not, recovery came in the form of carrot cake, served to me on a petite platter at a local cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was called “Libros del Pasaje”. From the red store front with the blue framed door, to the long shelves of books from countless genres, parting only to give space to long oak tables meant for travelers who were lucky enough to end up inside, I remember it clearly. Served from the in-store cafe, maybe it was genuinely the best carrot cake I had ever had, but maybe it was the freedom that I gave myself in that moment to cherish life’s small moments. The cake brought me to tears immediately. It was a symbol of freedom in a time clouded with lies. It was the start of a long process of easing myself from the burden of unnecessary and suffocating food rules.
Argentina shaped me in many ways but I hold that experience dear to my heart for showing me how much a person can miss in the world around them if they choose to listen to their inner torments. For the first time in many years, I put running in the place that it belongs and did not let it dictate my life. Although coping has continued to be a struggle, I can reflect on those times when I was overwhelmed by the mystery of a new culture and country and recognize the beauty in the struggles and triumphs of that experience. I am able to say that I have a much improved relationship with running and exercise and am mindful of when I feel myself slipping into negative coping habits.
Rock bottom always hurts, it always rips the rug out from under you, but it does not have to keep you down. I am continuing to follow my dreams of international travel by moving to Spain in the fall. At one point, I would have chosen a path of predictability and safety. I am a firm believer in that there is no growth without a little discomfort. If this new experience brings me discomfort, it is because I am growing through the pain. I can trust myself that my habits have changed, my inner self-talk has changed and that my amazing support team will catch me if I fall. My hope for everyone is that they do not let false truths or try to shrink themselves to attempt to control the unpredictable. Run and jump into a warm embrace with life, it will not give you more than you can handle. Rise up when you are knocked down and discover for yourself all the beauty that life holds. I believe in you.
From one free spirit to another, Maddy Blaedow