Dancing Through Mental Illness with an Eating Disorder
by Grace Bialka
My journey as a dancer began at the age of three. I knew instantly that I had found something that brought me happiness. My thoughts were consumed with dance — daydreaming throughout the school day about the time in which I could return to the studio. My dance career began with ballet but soon expanded to tap, jazz, lyrical, and modern. I embraced every style of dance available to me. Movement became both a balancing and driving force in my life; it shaped my journey to becoming who I am today. Movement affected me in many positive ways but also my lifestyle as a dancer resulted in having negative views of my body at times.
As a dancer, I became mindful of my appearance at a young age. Standing in front of a wall of mirrors in the studio I was hyper-aware of my body. This did not make me overly self-conscious but I was always considering the way I looked. Movement also allowed me to feel at home in my body; as I explored new movements I learned new ways to trust my body.
Growing up, my mother struggled with her own body image issues. I learned some of my disordered behavior from her. I looked up to my mom so seeing her unhappy with herself lead me to believe I should feel the same way. She was constantly trying the newest diet or exercise routines — these always ended in “failure” leaving her to exhibit even more hatred for her body.
I became fixated on my appearance. Whether it be my hair, the clearness of my skin, or my weight, there was always something. I was counting calories and keeping a food journal by the age of twelve. I vividly remember my twelve-year-old self tracking each item I ate and promptly reporting its caloric value. “Diet coke = zero calories,” I would write with a feeling of pride.
At that time, my behaviors stayed under control, it was not until the period of my parents divorce, my freshman year of high school that things began to spiral out of control. I did not confront their divorce, instead I began to self medicate with food. I ate until I felt physically sick each day. I anticipated the first bite of food touching my lips throughout the school day. This thought was constantly haunting me. I became anxious until the moment I was free to leave school and be with my food. As soon as I arrived home I’d drop my backpack and head straight to the kitchen, digging through the cabinets, in search of something to ease my pain. When binging, all the of the bad thoughts I was having would disappear. I would lose complete control of myself when alone with my food. I was only able to stop once the extreme pain and sense of fullness arrived.
Shame suddenly hit me after I took my last bite and the feeling of sickness set in. Immediately my mind would snap back into reality and I would begin to comprehend the way I had just behaved. I called myself weak, a failure, fat. I dreaded putting on a leotard and tights for dance class in the evenings. It felt like punishment for the way I had acted. At class I would look at myself in a mirror for hours with negative thoughts spinning through my head. I felt like the largest one in the room. The one with no self control. The ugly one.
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If movement had not often had the healing power for me that it did. I would have given it up for the sole purpose of not having to wear such form-fitting attire. But through movement I could escape these dark thoughts. Even with my body bashing tendencies I managed to develop what had become my true passion in life. Dance took my mind off of my binging behavior. I was excelling in class, being granted solo parts and I took every opportunity to further my art- attending many workshops and performances. I also loved performing. When on stage I would go to a different place. This place was a peaceful one free of the negative thoughts that occupied my brain.
Although I loved performing and it brought an escape from my eating disorder I began to feel depressed. Suddenly, I had no desire to connect with others. Nothing seemed to bring me joy; all I wanted was to be alone. The one thing I was interested in was my food. I cared solely about how much I had eaten, what I would eat, and when I would be able to binge again. The world became a very lonely place for me.
I would lie in bed at night dreaming of a life different from mine — full of love for myself and others. This life, I thought, was something I could never possibly possess. This realization only intensified my depressive feelings and took me further away from the outside world. Slowly within my isolation I lost friends. I told myself I was worthless, doomed for lifelong loneliness. The more these thoughts possessed my every waking moment, the more my eating disorder came to the surface.
Still, dancing was my relief. Around this time I started choreographing work, which created a place to creatively express the difficult emotions I was experiencing. Being in the studio allowed me to move through the emotions that I did not know how to speak. At this point I felt detached from my feelings but when choreographing my own work it felt as though I was releasing things I did not even know I held. This is the beauty of movement. I would do improvisation for hours allowing my mind to rest and my body to simply move.
As I entered college, I declared dance as my major. I packed my bags, my passion for dance, and headed to a college. I hoped that my eating disorder would not be something I carried- that it would suddenly disappear once I was surrounded by a new environment. My dream was not my reality and things only worsened while away at school.
I managed to complete my freshman year, still binging on a regular basis, but I thought my depression began to lift. However, I was just finding new and dangerous coping mechanisms. I began to numb myself with alcohol, similarly to the way I did with food. Eventually, this too became an issue. It became another form of self-medication.
One day as if a switch flipped in my head, I decided I couldn’t take who I was anymore and an immediate change needed to happen. I felt so much shame around my appearance and behavior I could not stand to be the person I was any longer. In my mind the only thing I could pinpoint all of these feelings to was that I was fat and needed to lose weight. I thought that would make it better, that it would bring me happiness.
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I fixated on how many calories I consumed and how frequently I could exercise. I made sure to take as many dance classes as I could fit into my schedule in addition to working out each morning to ensure that I was burning off each and every calorie I put into my body. Isolation came soon after my disordered behavior and I began to feel crazed. I spent hours in my room researching the caloric value of each thing I consumed. I lost my passion for dance; every class felt boring because the sole purpose was to burn calories. Close friends knew something was off but no one knew exactly what to say or what to do. I wouldn’t have listened to any of their concerns. I was too deep in my disorder.
Weight flew off of my body and my energy rapidly dropped. I could barely make it through each day. I slept away any extra time I had between classes and rehearsals. Every comment I received in the beginning about looking great only fed my disorder and pushed me to go further. Eventually there was no desired goal weight as well as no intention of ever stopping. As more time passed the comments turned into questions and suspicion. People wanted to know what was really going on. My eating disorder lied — denying any inquiry that there was something wrong.
Within the dance community, the size of my body was rarely questioned. After I first began losing weight I was told that I had the perfect body for dance in a conference with one of my professors. There was only one teacher that confronted me about my changing weight. As usual, I promised I was eating and her concern seemed to quickly be brushed away. I am in no way angry at the fact that the teachers who saw me on a daily basis didn’t step in. To be frank, most people don’t know how to handle situations that involve an individual with an eating disorder.
I count myself lucky that I never felt pressured by the dance world to lose weight, I put that on myself. There is a common misconception about dancing and eating disorders. I think dance is what saved me from spiraling further. Dancing did not cause my disorder to grow, it helped me focus on something other than the thoughts that consumed me.
As time went on, things became worse. At this point I was crying most of the day. I felt trapped within the unforgiving confines, rules, and routines of my disorder. One night I was laying in bed, wishing to fall asleep and never wake up, I reached my breaking point. I barely recall doing this but something inside of me allowed my fingers to dial the phone and call my mother. What I said, I have no idea, but it is clear to me that I asked for help. My mother assured me that things would be okay and I would be taken care of. She did not panic, she merely comforted me. This moment, six years ago, is where my recovery journey began.
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Within days I met with a therapist and soon after a dietitian. This is when I was officially diagnosed with anorexia. I tried outpatient treatment but it did not provide me with the focused attention I needed. With that, I was sent to a residential treatment facility where I stayed for sixty-six days. I cried over breakfast, challenged my treatment team, and began to understand myself better. I was just given an additional supplement to help with the weight gain, which caused me a lot of stress. As much as I knew I needed this, I could not handle the thought of more weight on my body. My brain screamed, “Fat! Fat! Fat!”
While in residential treatment I was forced to be on many different restrictions because of my low weight. The most difficult thing to deal with was being shuttled to and from each part of the treatment’s campus because I was not allowed any physical activity, even simple walking. These restrictions made me feel like I was giving all my freedom away. Confronting my issues and disorder was triggering at times.
I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing women, all on their own path to recovery. The support we granted each other was a crucial part of my recovery. We had empathy for one another. I no longer felt alone in my battle and for the first time I had others to lean on for support. We were together twenty-four hours a day for months, we shared our deepest emotions in group sessions, and lifted each other up when we no longer felt we could do it on our own.
After graduating residential treatment I moved through a few other programs and eventually did only outpatient treatment, working with a dance movement therapist. I have continued to work with her until this day.
Recovery is not linear. Over the past six years I have relapsed countless times and entered into several treatment programs. Each slip seemed to come out of nowhere, taking me by surprise. I did not yet possess the awareness I have today. These slips could last for days or months. They caused me to believe recovery was hopeless and that my eating disorder would always control me. However, with each bout of treatment I was became stronger.
I can say today that I feel the most healthy I have ever felt thought I still consider myself in recovery. It is an ongoing process. I now value the person I am on the inside as opposed to basing my worth on my body; I have a passion for educating others on eating disorders, I feel gratitude for each moment I have because I remember what my life used to look like.
Not every day is good but I know that is life being life. I still experience times where my eating disorder takes over my thoughts and the temptation to use old behaviors is high. However, I am now able to cope with these times, not letting them take me from my current state of wellness. I am in a place where my past does not hold shame. I feel comfortable sharing my story with anyone who will listen in hope of increasing understanding. My passion for dance has returned and I continue to use dance as my main coping mechanism.
I in no way wish to change my past or the challenges I have experienced. These years have gifted me with more strength than I imagined I could possibly posses. The darkness I have experienced creates gratitude for each and every moment of wellness I have. I could not have done this without the support I have been surrounded with over the years. I plan to continue nurturing this recovery for the rest of my life.