The wind slapped my face as if to tell me to wake up. I was standing alone near the East River in Manhattan. I’d just come from an appointment with an endocrinologist who had delivered unsettling news: “You have advanced osteoporosis. If you don’t immediately get yourself up to 125 pounds, your bones will begin to spontaneously crumble within ten years.”
That decade was roughly half the amount of time I’d been starving myself.
I first started denying myself food my freshman year of college—not to shed the “freshman fifteen” but because of something else. At the age of thirteen, I survived a horrific trauma. An allergy to a medication turned me into the equivalent of a full-body burn victim. By the time I left my quarantined hospital room, I’d lost more than 100% of my epidermis; I’d lost myself. While I went on to make a full physical recovery, emotionally I was not as resilient. Memories of the indescribable pain and terror filled me with anxiety. Within five years, I’d fallen into despair. Frightened of my mind and having little control over my body, I embraced anorexia as the seemingly perfect solution to reclaim a sense of control.
Now, the doctor’s challenge cut to the core of the survivor dilemma: Do I continue these survival-oriented behaviors and continue inflicting more traumas on myself? Or do I release the coping mechanisms and choose to heal? As I looked at the river, it occurred to me that the problem was not anorexia itself but that I lived in a fog of fear and depression that sapped my will to live. The unbearable anxiety and chaos of feelings, thoughts, and memories kept me paralyzed in an identity that I hated. Yet I didn’t know how to transform myself. It was at that moment when I decided I would have to let go of the identity I built in order to live in a body and mind that I loved.
Lost as I was in my pain, I had to relearn to value the good in me and respect the distortions I wanted to change. I didn’t know how or what exactly to do, but I set my healing intention, and over the next few years developed a process that led me straight out of post-trauma hell and into the heaven of recovery, self-love, and joy.
First I had to face my fear and confront my past. I hightailed it to therapy with a new mission: Be brave. I stopped skirting the real issues of my fear and went into them with the assumption I would prevail. Previously I’d accepted feeling less than and powerless. Instead, I engaged in therapy with the belief that I could handle whatever occurred. I had survived so far, hadn’t I? There must be something resilient within myself that I could depend on.
Once I processed my fears, I turned to the task of getting to know myself again—not as the person I’d become due to trauma but the core essence of who I was as a human being. This began with a deliberate exploration of interacting with intuition, a primary vehicle for connecting to who I am at my innermost core. I deferred decisions from my quick, ego-driven mind and opted for the subtler source of inner guidance. I began making choices and taking actions that were in alignment with the person I truly felt myself to be versus the adaptation to circumstance I had become.
With a firm anchor to this inner, non-traumatized self, I asked, “Who am I now?” Quickly, I discovered another important question: “Who do I want to be?” I was forty by then. It’s a tempting age to assume it is too late to be, do, or become something that felt sensational. But I knew what I wanted: Namely, to become the writer my seven-year-old self always wanted me to be. I wanted to become the kind of woman who experiences joy often. I wanted to help others heal from trauma much faster than I did. With this vision, I set out to recreate myself.
I succeeded. Today I easily maintain a healthy weight, and, thanks to a strength-training regimen, my advanced osteoporosis has completely reversed. All the fears associated with my trauma are gone; each morning I awaken feeling peaceful and content. I experience joy often, both through the dance habit I developed expressly for that purpose and my work as a post-trauma coach. My new book, “Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity,” successfully combines my desires to be a writer and a healing facilitator.
Experience can write many things on us. Some experiences leave an infinity of visible scars while others mark our souls. But we contain enormous healing potential; the goal is learning to access it.
Michele Rosenthal is the founder of HealMyPTSD.com, a post-trauma coach, award-nominated author and the host of Changing Direction radio.