By Chelsea Roff
Fifteen year olds aren’t supposed to have strokes. At least, that’s what I thought.
I try not to think about it too much. Even now, I only have bits and pieces, shards of memories that somehow remained intact through the trauma my brain endured that day.
When I arrived at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, I weighed just fifty-eight pounds. A five-year battle with Anorexia Nervosa had pushed my body to its breaking point. All four valves of my heart were leaking. My skin was yellow from liver failure. I hadn’t taken a sh*t in a month. I was dying.
I remember rage—a violent, fire-in-your-veins, so-angry-you-could-kill-someone kind of rage. I wanted out. I wanted the pain to be over. I wanted to die. I was mad at myself for not having the courage to do it quickly, enraged at the hospital staff for thwarting my masked attempt. In the days prior to my stroke, I had vivid hallucinations of Jesus on a cross outside my bedroom window and a satanic figure sneaking under the covers to suffocate me at night. I was convinced my starvation would prove my willpower to God, that I was “meant to” be a martyr. I thought God wanted me to die.
After the fury came delirium—confusion, defiance, complete irrationality. I told doctors they couldn’t possibly keep me overnight, because we didn’t have insurance or money to pay. When a cardiologist responded that she wasn’t sure I’d live another week, I told her she was full of sh*t. I hid the food they tried to feed me in my underwear, in flowerpots, even in my cheeks like a chipmunk. I didn’t want to get better. Nothing was wrong.
I remember nurses turning me over in the middle of the night to tend to bedsores—patches of skin so thin my tailbone protruded through the flesh. I remember waking up every morning for the first three months in a bed soaked with urine: I’d lost control of the muscles in my bladder; I was like an infant all over again. I remember shooting a nurse the bird when she told me I couldn’t walk, only to crumble to the floor when angrily I pushed the wheelchair away to give it a try. I was ashamed, disgusted with myself. I felt I had nothing left to live for.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, hospital staff had called the Child Protective Services back in Austin. My mother was deemed an “unfit parent,” and my sister and I were placed in the custody of the State. My care was left to the staff at Children’s, while my sister went to live with our godparents. My mother, herself an alcoholic and anorexic, had literally drank herself into oblivion (she was later diagnosed with Wernicke’s Syndrome, a form of alcohol-induced dementia).
I spent the next sixteen months of my life in the hospital. I completed high school through a distance education program, talked through hundreds of hours of therapy, and, slowly, painfully, brought my body and mind back to life.
When Medicaid stopped paying for my treatment a year and a half later, I was unrecognizable from the day I was admitted. I’d gained forty pounds, and the fierce, independent spirit I’d been known for as a child was back in close to full force. Although I was still significantly underweight and terrified to leave the security of the hospital, my medical team convinced the caseworkers to grant my emancipation. At seventeen, I re-entered the “real world” as a legally recognized adult.
My doctor at Children’s made arrangements for me to move into a garage apartment with a close family friend near the hospital. I got a job at a Starbucks, applied for college, and (thankfully) was offered nearly free outpatient therapy by a psychologist from Children’s. Three months later, I took my first yoga class. I was lucky. I was blessed. I had enough resources to put my broken life back together.
That was nearly six years ago. If you’d have told me then that now—as a twenty-three-year-old woman—I’d be travelling the country teaching yoga, giving talks, and writing my first book, I would never have believed you. I wake up everyday half-expecting to be in that hospital bed, to discover that the past few years have been one beautiful dream.
My hope is that my story gives hope to others grappling with their own inner demons in silence and isolation. Whatever those demons might be, please know this:
There is a way out. You don’t have to suffer alone. There are people out there who want to love you, who would be honored to bear witness to your pain. Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We are human, and we have an inherent need to see and be seen, to touch and be touched. No one heals heartbreak alone.
I also hope this story will diminish misperceptions about eating disorders, mainly that sufferers simply want to be skinny, look like supermodels, or just have an unhealthy “need for control.” These are symptoms of the disease—not the cause.
I didn’t starve myself because I wanted to be skinny. I starved myself because I lacked the resources to cope with the trauma and chaos in my life. I starved myself because I wanted to reclaim control over my body, because I felt alone and abandoned, because I felt unworthy of nourishment and love. I starved myself because I’d lost all connection with who I was: my goodness, my value, my humanity. I starved myself because I wanted to die.
I hated my body because I hated myself, not the other way around—inpatient treatment alone couldn’t change that. In many ways, treatment put a Band-Aid on a wound too deep to see from the surface. I learned to eat when I wasn’t hungry, to think rather than feel, to stop looking in the mirror to avoid self-sabotage. To survive, I had to disconnect from my body and my emotions because, at the time, I didn’t have the resources to cope.
Treatment did save my life. But to go beyond surviving—to thrive, to be happy, to truly live—I had to integrate body and mind. That’s where yoga was a godsend. Yoga taught me to see my body as an ally, not an enemy; as a gateway to intimacy and connection with others; and, perhaps most importantly, to cultivate the skills necessary to be with emotions I’d nearly killed myself trying to starve away.
That realization guides the work I do today. I divide my time between writing, teaching, and speaking to clinicians and yoga instructors about how best to serve the needs of those who come to them for help with food/body image issues. Perhaps most importantly, I do what I can to be a living, breathing, and smiling example to those who suffer: To remind them that recovery is possible. To offer them a few key insights as they find their own path out.
I once had a therapist who, when asked how I could ever repay her for all she’d given me, told me:
“Your life will be all the thanks I need.” This is how I thank her. This is how I thank all those who helped me find my way out of the darkness. Give it back.
Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author, speaker, and yoga instructor. She serves as Managing Editor for the Chopra family’s online magazine, Intent Blog, and speaks regularly at recovery centers, universities, and professional organizations. She is currently hard at work on her first book.