Speak Up!

There was a time in my life when I felt suffocated within my own self-perceived existence. Each day I scrambled under exhausting mental battles taking place inside my head. I felt confused, isolated, and numb even to my own feelings. Life’s direction was a mystery, and I didn’t have anyone to look up to, who had walked in my weathered shoes. I didn’t know anyone who I considered to be “like me.” Throughout my struggles, I thought I was a rare case and that my condition was such a horrid thing, and thus, something to be ashamed of. Yet despite all of this, a source of courage somehow managed to make its way through my rugged defensive walls, which then instigated the daring decision to open up about my past to others—a chance which was painful, nerve-wracking, and relieving all at the same time. I found freedom in sharing who I truly am (or once was, once upon a time.) Thus began a ripple effect of invigorating possibilities, potential, and purpose. I was finally able to come to terms with my real self, and I came to believe that I no longer had to grant control to a vicious power:

I no longer had to allow my past eating disorder diagnosis to continue to define me.

Just like the initial inkling to explore the roads of a restrictive lifestyle, true eating disorder recovery, or “stable remission,” stems from the same curious desire for a daunting, yet oddly intriguing change…

Rooted in that strong urge to constantly prove yourself, is a humming call to climb for escape. Chiseled within your heart of stone, is the determined will to survive. There comes a time when hovering logic finally clicks. Reality becomes clearer, and negative consequences become inevitable. Unless of course the will to climb overpowers the will to surrender to that tempting devious echo whipping at your ears. You see, only when we surrender to the demands of the eating disorder, do we remain buried beneath the rubble. It is when we surrender to our inner selves—our valiant soldiers for life—and to a higher power of truth and forgiveness, that we find the strength to climb. These inner soldiers will stand on defense until they die, bracing against resistance until their very last breath. Yet when these life-fighters are fueled with hope, the battle field gracefully glows…

A radiant light seeps into the shadowy tunnel, and our eyes wince at the brightness. Out of the hollows we reach our trembling hands, tearing down the faulty safety net of instability and shallow promises. The light has never been so bright…and the brightness has never felt so right.

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When speaking about stable recovery, the truthful golden thread is that you have to want it for yourself. This must be a real heart-felt desire, recognized by the very person who was victimized into accidentally tripping or adventurously nosediving in the beginning. You must first pinpoint the “why” behind taking such a leap of faith into the recovery zone. You must find the bravery to stare change face-to-face, and accept and genuinely desire not only the idea of recovery, but the actual physical, emotional, and mental state of recovery. You have to admit to yourself that you do want to get better. You must listen to your inner being that screams to you every day for freedom, and honestly ask yourself…

Are you fed up with the condition ruling your each and every day?
Why do you suppose you are in your current state?
Why do you wish to be free?
What will you gain from this decision?
Are you presently, truly happy?

Using the power of your senses and structured personality, now is the time to use your predisposed abounding determination to win back your life—the purposeful life you are meant to live.

As with any sort of anxious conception, we are the ones who ultimately give any sort of overpowering thoughts and fearful feelings any control at all. Without our own over-analyzing of these apprehensive thoughts, they remain simply meaningless thoughts—feelings which we often grant too much emphasis, and merely ideas in which we dwell to the extreme. It’s time to stand up against such fears. It’s time to join forces with that little soldier inside, and together, fight for the voice of reason. It’s time to speak up, stand tall, and march out triumphantly.

It’s time for your voice to be heard—by your eating disorder, by your family, and most importantly, by YOU.

 

The fact of the matter is, eating disorders are a deadly illness that often tends to trickle on silently—when frankly, such conditions belong right up there next to serious mental sicknesses such as alcohol abuse and drug addictions. Usually, the initial downfall is not a deliberate conscious choice to participate in harmful behavior, but it doesn’t take long for that choice to spiral into a state of lost sanity and misery—you can quickly become your own largest critic, and your own worst enemy.

Yes, eating disorders are a debilitating disease, which require scrutinizing attention and professional treatment care. It is also true that I did let the shame of this condition overpower me for nearly twelve years of my life. I had found my identity in the eating disorder and it’s nasty little lies. I thought I would be trapped behind those cold skeletal bars for life, and as a result, I was easily lured back into the tempting restrictive mindset. I was programmed to believe that what had happened to me was a terrible misfortunate circumstance that needed to be suppressed, and that it would only stir up painful memories if mentioned publicly in conversation. To escape this stabbing confrontation, I typically chose to avoid the topic altogether. But in doing so, and in strictly reserving my raw memories for my diaries, I realized that I was, in a sense, still living in secret. Slowly but surely I finally started to believe in the power behind overcoming the past through words, just as now I believe that sacred healing is indeed possible.

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Every time I tell my story it becomes easier. I can even tell it without crying now, which I perceive to be monumental, for this step is necessary in order to use my newly discovered strength to help others and pay it forward. As a matter of fact, opening up to my closest friends about my condition were major milestones in my personal recovery journey. It is often still emotionally difficult to discuss the topic around my closest family, who was there by my side through the darkest of years. But over time, it has even become easier to openly converse within this area ever since I began publicly writing about my story through blogging. The emotional rewards from opening up my heart have been exceedingly worthy, and I value every opportunity to share the mercy which has filled my heart to its rim.

Friends, it is finally time to break the silence. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness week this year, I choose to honor this year’s theme of “Just talk about it!” by using this moment to share with you words of promising hope.

I realize that many people may shy away from approaching this tragic topic, simply because they don’t know how. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be a trained professional to be able to make a difference in someone’s life. All you have to do is listen…

…really, truly listen.

Listen with the intention to understand, even though you may never truly be able to relate firsthand. Listen with a caring heart, and listen out of love. Encourage your loved one to talk this out, and give them the safe space to do so. Do not listen to correct or to scold; do not listen with judgmental, or even “expert” ears. Instead, educate yourself on where you can seek help and assistance when necessary, and act upon this knowledge accordingly. Simply be there, fully present with your loved one, or even perhaps, with yourself. Be patient…with others and with yourself. Be kind…to others and to yourself. True healing takes time. But the time that you spend today, truly matters.

No one is in this journey alone…no victim or helper ever has to walk these arduous trails silent.

It is time to SPEAK UP.

Speak up on behalf of your loved one struggling; your friend who once fell; your teammate who sat on the bench; your daughter who resents herself; your classmate who never came to lunch; speak up for yourself. I promise, there is always someone out there who is listening, or who would take the time to listen if you asked. Talking about our troubles is not weakness, but strength. To be able to come clean about your past, and to make peace with yourself while accepting your transformation along the way, is the bravest thing you could ever do.

Together, we must learn to simply “trust the process”…

and to “strive for progress, rather than perfection.”

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Keeping this deadly condition underneath the table only gives it more power. Little piercing glass pieces constantly being swept beneath the carpet are exactly how diseases like this spread. It is a cumulative effect which fires the bullet—nothing ever happens overnight. By ignoring small thoughts and feelings surrounding damaging behavior only fuels the satanic scheme. Put a cap on the muzzle before shaky fingers can wrap themselves around the trigger. Try to listen before you speak, and when you do speak, take note of which voice cries out first.

In situations like these, we must stand firm for what we believe to be true. Not what other people have told you to be true, but what your spirit tells you to be true. Pinned beneath the tight strangle of the eating disorder, your spirit is still fighting. Fuel this spirit with living fire, and it will ignite the whole rest of your being with the light of life. This is a different flame from the false energy that the eating disorder promises—this new flame reins forever. This invigorating flame brings hopeful heat, and displays a beautiful brightness.

It is time to unite powers of living flames, to overthrow the fiery deceiving tongue. We must stand together, hand-in-hand in advocacy and education, if we desire to make a difference in this overlooked corner. We must extend efforts by teaming up against misinformation, miscommunication, timidness, and false-accusations, and begin speaking out in truth and transparency. Knowledge and awareness are vital stepping stones to joyous victory. We all deserve a chance at life and freedom in this world. The dynamic movement of self-acceptance and transformation can start here with you.

Speaking to you today from a position of vibrant vulnerability, my conscience has never been so clear. The remarkable truth is that bold confidence and solid faith can be contagious. The spirit of hope and self-love can be unconquerable. Words of wisdom and compassion can save a life. And in my book, these humbling words of truth are words worth spreading. ❤

 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237, or visit
http://nedawareness.org

“Pep Talk”

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I often get asked the question:

“How did you find recovery?” or

“How did you finally reach a place of safe rest and reflection?”

As Jenni Schaefer would say, “Recovery is like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are different for everyone” (paraphrased.) While the pieces of the puzzle do vary for each individual circumstance, the bottom line is you have to want it. Strong recovery is a choice which occurs deeply and internally, and stable living cannot be attained through force alone. It has to be a personal decision as a result of a new perspective, mental breakthroughs, and personal emotional commitment and maturity. It isn’t a smooth road either…yet each stumbling block has the potential of creating an even stronger soldier. Such individuals like myself already have the type A personality…we are already intrinsically motivated and extremely determined. It’s just a matter of shuttling this drive into a positive energy towards healing.

 

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There will be fear of losing that control—that security blanket of meticulously counting, measuring, recording and obsessing. We get so trapped and convinced that we cannot exist without it—that we will always be different, and always have to be alert so the evil voice won’t creep back in. In a way, we let this feed us. Deep down we want an escape, but for so long this has been “comfortable” —a sense of grip over our constant climb while trying to keep up in this world.

If you want to gain the trust and respect and self control over your own life again you have to be adamant about true recovery, and outwardly show your serious effort to change in order to regain your friends’ and family’s trust. Even with my respectful degree in Exercise Science, my family probably feared that I would use this new knowledge in the wrong ways. Despite popular belief, this knowledge assisted in extensive intellectual understanding about what exactly was taking place inside my frail body, and everything else associated with the illness from a physiological standpoint.

Today, I use this knowledge to my own health advantage, seeking opportunities to apply the practical information to myself and to others. And I’m still learning. But that is the glory of becoming one with yourself…it makes you feel so alive.

With that said, I’d like to offer a little pep talk—[the inner coach in me can’t help herself ;)] Below is a message directed to anyone who feels this sense of trapped identity and confusion. May this huddle empower you to take a stand, on behalf of yourself, or on behalf of a life you care about:

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~A message from your Coach…

“Instead of viewing this step towards healing as relinquishing the sense of control that you have idolized for so long, redirect your perspective to a control GAINED. By surrendering your old strangling ways and obsessive habits, you gain a brand new freedom, and a brand new peace. Break free of the shackles of restriction and lies of stagnancy. You were born a free spirit with influencing outside circumstances. Everyone deals with the same stressors differently, which determines the prognosis of our unique journeys.

Your identity does not lie within your eating disorder. Yes, it is a part of who you are, and contributes to your story, but only to reveal just how far you’ve come with your newly acquired strength. In the beginning, self-discipline and desire for control simply got out of hand. Take back your life with this same discipline and desire. Don’t let this disease control you. By remaining enslaved to the familiar behaviors, you are simply fueling the fire for disaster.

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You have to forgive yourself in order to love yourself. You have to stop making excuses for your suffering. You must stop trying to convince yourself that you were meant to suffer and that you don’t deserve to be well. You must preach to yourself the truth that your suppressed spirit knows so well…while trapped behind your ED voice, you are not truly well.

 
Once you admit you do want to get better, you then have to allow yourself to get better. You must be patient with yourself, and allow your body to figure itself out, piece by piece. You have to spiritually realize that God did not create you with the intention of living a life of pain—He created you with purpose. You must conceptually come to terms with the fact that it is “ok to be ok”…it is ok for you to be healthy, and it is ok for you to be happy.

No more feeling guilty about the past, and no more feeling guilty when you give your body the quality care that it needs to survive. Enough of this “But I’m different” business—everyone is unique in their needs, including you—but this doesn’t mean a life of deprivation, isolation, and slavery. I believe that God envisioned you in your best version when He formed you in his hands. He had wonderful intentions and dreams for you—so much that He saved you, and placed this book in front of your tired face.

God wants to be your center. He wants all of you, including the piece of your heart which was deceived so long ago. Give Him all of your guilty filth. Give Him all of your secret thoughts. Surrender to Him all of your mess-ups and give-ups. Present to Him all of your shameful fears and regretful tears.

The truth is, you are already forgiven, my friend. Live with the knowledge of this truth. The past is written, but the next pages are clean. It’s time to forgive yourself. It’s time to free yourself. It’s time to love yourself, and to love yourself without feeling selfish about it.

Consider for a moment who or what it is that you worship. Don’t grant evil rules and fretful lies more attention than they deserve. Instead, direct your attention to the one sustaining source of life, who has stuck it out through it all. It’s time to get better…truly better; selflessly better; holistically better. It’s time to draw near, reach inside and march out victoriously while lifting up your roughly-beaten soul. It’s time to reverse the curse, grab the reins, and believe in a better tomorrow. Though scars may be lingering, nestled within them lie badges of courage. The fears of change are minuscule compared to the joys of recovery.

I promise…

Your identity is not tied to the strings of your past. In untying your knots to the present, hope is set free. Reciprocating through the doors of faith, new life will return.

Imagine a meal with no regrets. A family dinner without fighting. An evening run with powerful strides, a smile that reflects a healthy glow. Laughing with pure joy…engaging with real intention…living in harmonic peace. A freedom which surpasses all understanding, and a new chapter to your survivor story.

Together, we are strong. Together, we are survivor strong.”

Man and woman couple help silhouette in mountains

Words of Wisdom

I am no doubt an introvert by nature. Quiet-time is a sacred gem that I store securely for a special moment in each day. Specifically, quiet moments alone with my words. Words have always created a “safe space” for me, and have served as a wonderful outlet for self-expression and reflection. I received my first journal when I was in the first grade, and ever since then I have made an attempt to recollect my thoughts and feelings around every pivotal event in my lifetime thus far. While in grade school, I discovered a love for writing short stories and memoirs. Every Christmas, I would write a new adventurous tale or thoughtful poem for my parents in lieu of the money required for a tangible gift.

Words always seemed to flow easily into my curious little mind, sometimes so feasibly that my writing hand couldn’t keep up with the sentences forming rapidly inside my head. I never enjoyed being pressured to write, though. In fact, it was mere torture trying to force the words to flow, while adhering to a random writing prompt posted on the classroom blackboard. Yet even so, I viewed writing as a gift. I saw words as a gift. It was because of this significance what words held in my own heart, that I sought to give to others this magical gift of words.

In Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, “Words of Affirmation” ranked right next to “Quality Time,” as my two best methods for giving and receiving love. In today’s world of fast-paced work life, tight deadlines, and a continuous mantra screaming “go-go-go”—words act as a clever vessel that force us slow down. It takes time to stop our frantic running around to read a collection of meaningful letters, yet the resulting words can be so meaningful, empowering, encouraging, and majestic. Even on the loneliest of days, words almost always seem to evoke a feeling of comfort (if applied in the right manner.)

Beautiful words can be precious as they make their way into our hearts. But words can also be harmful; they can bite, scathe, and scar. Choosing the right words when communicating with others, and with ourselves, can be crucial for our relationships, self-development, and well-being. And for someone who is stepping out onto the fringes of eating disorder recovery, words can either assist in the pulling towards a liberating life of renewal, or in the pushing backwards into the fiery pit of hell.

I will quickly note that I am currently speaking from a position of stable eating disorder recovery, therefore, my ability to passively discern and dismiss certain words or phrases has indeed grown stronger over time. Yet, even so, there are some thoughts and words which still make me cringe, even to this day. The following words and phrases are particular ones which I consider to be “curse words” for those who have ever severely struggled with such a severely dominating mental disorder. I am asking that as a reader, you would please take each of these notices to heart, especially when communicating with anyone whom you suspect may be struggling, or who has previously struggled with any kind of eating disorder or poor body image. My hopes are that you would be able to carefully consider your individual circumstance when interacting with your loved one who may be riding the recovery seesaw, and you would become empowered to pause and think before you speak. Your words matter, and your words can also heal. Make your communication thoughtful, and make it a priority.

1. Weight. Inches. Pounds. Size—[or any quantifying measurable words of any kind.]

This includes talking about yourself, your own body, and your own eating habits. Words like “calories, dress size, grams of protein, hours of exercise, etc,” are all words which dictate a specific number, and can actually serve as motivation to fall back underneath the eating disorder voice of betrayal; they are what therapists refer to as “trigger words.” Essentially, these words pull the trigger for a pre-existing perfectionist and obsessive nature. They trigger comparison and tempting thoughts. They can cause the individual to compare themselves to a previous version of themselves, or to compare their current habits to the habits of someone who holds a physique which they admire. These words place a value behind a specific numerical figure; they hint that our own value lies behind a symbol or number.

During my own treatment, the worst part of each session was the required weigh-in. I dreaded stepping up on that rocky metal scale, watching anxiously as the vile numbers climbed to reveal my new weight. I remember that when I was approaching the end of professional care with my treatment team, I was ordered to turn around and face away from the device, while they weighed me standing backwards (preventing me from seeing the number of pounds displayed.) Even the trained team of professionals understood that the numbers game was a mental battle, and that seeing them could send me physically spiraling backwards. Yet even still, so much of my treatment progress was centered around the scale.

From then on, that was where I found my worth. I still didn’t want to gain “weight”—that dreaded word that really no female ever wants to hear. I soon became very good at manipulating my awful relationship with that cold device of numbers. I knew where every single scale was in every gym and public restroom. Even though I hated the action of weighing in, the lying box still managed to temptingly call my name. I still found a sense of pride by standing up on the deceiving balance device and seeing a lower number. Yet, while I thought I was the one in control of all the numbers, the scale was the one that had gained control of me.

I remember the day I graduated to a shirt-size ‘Medium.’ For the last twelve years of my life, I had always been complimented by my petite size. “How do you stay so skinny??” People would ask. I will admit that even this politely-intended question is the wrong use of words for a recovering anorexic, because it places the emphasis on an outward perception of size and figure. I remember when even size XS was sagging on my poor emaciated little body, even though I preferred the snug fit of clothing around my malnourished bony frame. Now I shudder even thinking about those times, as I can proudly lift the tag titled “M” from the clothing wrack; allowing my new muscular back and naturally broad shoulders to finally settle in.

The fact is, numbers and sizes are all relative. One scale may be 5-10 pounds off from another. A size 6 dress in one brand of clothing may be a size 2 in a competitor’s style. One person’s nutritional needs and daily caloric intake may be different from their own identical twin. It just depends. But one thing is for certain: our value does not depend on a number, size, or quantifiable figure. We are so much more than a measurement on a screen.

2. “You look so healthy!”

I will say that I ABSOLUTELY LOVE these words now. But take me back 5-10 years ago, and these words would have pierced my ears. I understand that this type of comment only comes with good intentions, but lurking behind the complementing words themselves come the lying words of “you’ve gained weight.” While under professional care, it was all about getting to that “goal weight”— that “healthy” weight. Thus, the newly-recovering eating disorder victim associates this word “healthy” (when referring to themselves) as looking “heavier.”

Again, I will explain that with recovery, eyes and perceptions do change. Therefore, I now embrace this comment with wide open arms. “Healthy” is now my desired resting place, but it wasn’t always this way. In the past, I thought I was already healthy, though my eyes were sickly skewed. I thought my body could function in its starving brittle state, and I didn’t believe anyone else could rightfully judge whether I looked healthy or not. Though I was aware of the good intentions when others would say something like this, back when I was a new explorer along the recovery road, these words would actually serve as another backsliding trigger.

Even the words “You look so good!” were perceived as backwards motivation in my eating disorder brain—at least when I heard this from people who knew my history. Sometimes, when I would hear these words from a stranger who I knew admired thinness, this served as a compliment. But it is still a compliment which only feeds the little distorted thinking, creating an incentive to return to a restrictive lifestyle.

As I said before, I now take all of these associated words as genuinely positive compliments. In fact, I highly appreciate it when people notice the progress I’ve intentionally made in my personal health journey. So please, do tell me I look healthy. Please tell me I look “good.” Take the time to notice my new strength—it sincerely means the world to me. I am mentally in a place where I recognize these words for their true meaning, and I would agree with you about my own transformation. But when communicating with someone who has a recovery status of which you are uncertain, be respectful and sensitive to your observant language. Instead, try and use words which focus on other deeper qualities, rather than merely “looks”—use lines such as:

“I love your smile!”
“You seem so happy!”
“You sound so passionate!”
“You ARE so pretty!”

 

3. “Go eat a cheeseburger!!”

Just so we are clear, to this day I do not particularly enjoy cheeseburgers. Nor do I really enjoy sandwiches for the exact same reason. While scrambling in the initial treatment phase, both of these food types were considered “dense” foods, and perhaps easier forms of getting ‘more for your buck’, so to speak. The layered ingredients packed together are also mentally easier to accept, over an intimidating plate full of multiple separate menu items.

However, there was a time when I did choose to consume cheeseburgers while under strict supervision with my meal plans. But it was still my choice; I actually wanted the variety in my diet. The difference was simply this: I chose to order a bacon cheddar burger because the taste sounded appealing. I didn’t order it because my pediatrician (who was extremely uneducated on how to properly communicate to an anorexic teenager, I might add) told me I should, along with a ‘big chocolate milkshake.’

I didn’t order it because “everyone else was doing it”—frankly, “everyone else’s habits” were exactly what I was initially trying to avoid. Ignorant (and often inconsiderate) comments about why we are unable to “just eat a cheeseburger!” is utterly insulting. It makes the victim feel properly victimized. It makes them feel misunderstood. I never chose to be taken over by an eating disorder. It’s not simply a matter of fixing by “just going and eating something.”

When I finally comprehended the fact that my family and the doctors actually were trying to help me, I agreed to their care when I made them promise to help me by a healthy means. One of my motives for increasing my exercise in the first place was to improve my athletic ability—I had absolutely no concept of nutrition and calories. In my mind, I had given foods a label as either “good” or “bad,” and a cheeseburger was put on the “bad” list. In my weakest state physically and mentally, chained by my eating disorder mindset, I agreed to try and gain weight back the healthy way—through adequate and wholesome nutrition.

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t eat a cheeseburger today if it were placed in front of me as the only menu option, but it’s just not something I would choose over so many other healthy dishes I consider to be fabulously delicious. I LOVE food, truly, I do!!! But I love it even more when it makes me feel good, and when it makes my body and mind thrive. Being forced to eat something that doesn’t necessarily satisfy my taste buds ruins the whole food experience. And unfortunately, the sly suggestion from my doctor to “go eat a cheeseburger,” sadly ruined my entire experience with the precious patty.

Instead, try understanding the difficulty of allowing certain formally “forbidden” foods back onto your plate. Invite us to lunch, but don’t be offended if we turn you down. Share a meal with us, but don’t make judgmental remarks if we decide to order a grilled chicken breast (which may be, to us, just as tasty as a juicy double whopper, if prepared appropriately.)

 
4. Eating Disorders. Anorexia Nervosa. Bulimia Nervosa. Binge Eating Disorder. OSFED.

You might be thinking, why did the specific diagnosis titles make this list? Weren’t these particular words used in this very same document? You are correct, my friend. But what some souls may fail to realize is that these words are quite debilitating. For years, these words filled our intuitive ears. These words were permanently printed on all of our medical records, and embedded into our suffocating brains as the essence of our existence. There was a time when these labels became our reality; they became our identity. These words soon took the place of our own very names. They were not names that we chose for ourselves, but somehow had woven their way into our monograms, while overpowering our individual sense of self.

Ever since my diagnosis, I have hated the word “anorexia.” Maybe it’s the deadly letter “X” boldly beaming in the middle, or maybe it’s the fact that the word also begins with the same letter as my first name. Regardless, I rarely use the word unless I have to. Heck, I still have trouble saying it out loud. This is one reason why writing is so much easier sometimes, because it takes the stabbing audible pain away. I remember when I first recognized this inner sensitivity: I was driving in the car, and as painful as it was, I began saying the crippling word out loud, repeating it over and over again.
“Anorexia”… “An-or-ex-ia…” Louder each time……”ANOREXIA…”

After saying this diagnosis label over and over to myself, I realized just how silly it was. Any word can be played off that way…try it sometime. Pick one word and repeat it out loud to yourself until it starts to sound…well, funny. It’s oddly hilarious and will force you to abruptly stop verbally repeating it. I share this exercise, because I am trying to make an important point here…yes, I was diagnosed with anorexia. As a matter of fact, I was diagnosed with anorexia, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder when I was a mere 12-years old. But for the next decade of my life, I let these words rule me. They manipulated my being, and told me I couldn’t have a life of freedom. They spoke false promises to me, yet I still fell for their trap— Every. Single. Time.

I understand that these words are necessary for a clinical diagnosis, and for intervention purposes. However, these words are just a cluster of letters, which are given way more power than they deserve. This simply highlights my point in the beginning, about how words can hold exceptional meaning. Choose them wisely, and think of other descriptions when describing the point you are trying to make.

“…My past mental condition does not define who I am today”

When referring to my past, I often like to resort, instead, to the following collection of words, creating possible sentences such as: “Yes, I suffered from extremely poor body image and fell into unhealthy behaviors as a teen, which then led to a difficult cycle of health complications. But now, I am FREE”—(or something along those lines.)

The bottom line is simply this: my past mental condition does not define who I am today. I no longer have an ‘eating disorder.’ I am no longer ‘anorexic.’ I am no longer ‘depressed.’ Sure, I still experience difficult moments, anxious thoughts, lonely days, and need to keep an extra eye on my nutrition. But none of those things define who I am inside.

Recovery is a journey, just like life is a journey. I no longer travel these roads alone as “Amanda, the anorexic.” Instead, I now hike these mountains with fellow veterans as “Amanda, a daughter of the King.

 

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
~1 John 3:1

Forever Full

Today is the day after Thanksgiving 2016, a day which also has marked a series of “firsts”…

This year was the first holiday that my family has had the privilege of sharing with my little brother’s girlfriend (who, originally from England, does not normally celebrate the typical American holiday.)

This morning, I experienced my first encounter with serious debit card fraudulent activity, which thus called for a special visit to the bank to file a police report.

This warm Florida afternoon was the first time I have hit a baseball bat to a tennis ball in over 15 years, attempting to bring out the little 8-year-old girl still hiding inside.

And today was the first time in a long time, that I have awakened the morning after Thanksgiving full of peace; rather than hoarding the feelings of anxiousness, guilt, or regret.

Allow me to explain…

 

You see, for someone like me with a history of disordered eating, a day centered around stuffing food into overflowing tummies and onto crowded plates is something just short of a nightmare. All sorts of anxiety kindles in growing fear of anticipation for what the “food holiday” will entail: fear of getting sucked into the gluttony habits, fear of unintentional triggering comments from company, fear of being pressured into eating the “decadent indulgences,” fear of being judged by the amount of food on my plate, fear of binging on odd foods, fear of gaining weight…but mostly, fear of falling under an uncontrollable imbalance of thoughts and behaviors which I normally can keep on a tight chain.

I have experienced some wonderful Thanksgivings with my precious family, but many of those priceless quality moments have then been “ruined” in my eyes by my “mess-ups” of binging or guilty food behavior. In these circumstances, I wasn’t able to compartmentalize my relationship with food from my relationship with my loves ones. For years this first relationship overpowered my ability to interact and invest in others I cared about. It always seemed to dominate my thoughts and proceeded to rob me of the present.

I remember last year’s Thanksgiving being a true turning point for me in my recovery. I made it my goal last year to really focus on relaxing in the present moment, and on the relationships with my family surrounding me. I realized that even though the day is traditionally focused on what is on the dinner table, I could choose to focus instead on the smiling faces around the table and caring hands slaving away in the kitchen. I still ate more than I would on a typical day, but didn’t beat myself up about it. I laughed, I reflected, and I reminisced in all of the cheerful childhood memories shared with these people who were huge influences in my life. I sat and remembered what it was like before…life before my “disorder” took over my being. Before I knew how to pinpoint and direct my feelings, I found comfort in these loving connections of friends and family whenever little anxieties started to emerge. I was an anxious child by nature, but when I was in the vicinity of those with whom I felt comfortable, those insecurities seemed to disappear.

When I felt safe enough to let my guard down, I was loud and even obnoxious at times, but most of all, I was present. Last night, as I practically slid off the sofa in my family’s living room from belly-aching laughter which filled the cozy nostalgic air, I was so very thankful…I was happy…but most of all, I was present.

I told myself before Thanksgiving last year that this day was going to get better. Though each year is different in its own special way, last year my mindset, (in my eyes,) was in fact better than the previous years of mental battles. This year, I had no doubts going into the usual overwhelming atmosphere. Maybe it was the new accountability I have acquired as an eating disorder mentor and a health coach; maybe it was my own encouragement in a recent presentation about redefining nutrition; maybe I truly am far enough in recovery to be able to hold my strength; or maybe my body is finally able to calm down after physically starving and feeling unable to catch up–whatever the cause of this new feeling of contentment, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I feel physically satisfied, mentally sharp, and emotionally stable–three areas which are very vulnerable to falling out of balance. I had worked up an appetite from my annual Turkey Trot early that morning, but I was not ravenously contemplating every chance to divulge in a meal. I wasn’t restricting my allotted feeding time or quantity thereof, but instead filled my plate with what I wanted and how much I wanted, and didn’t think twice about it. I might have only chosen the dishes which I considered to contain familiar ingredients, but just like everyone else, I chose my meal based on my personal likes and preferences. I left the table satiated after clearing my delicious colorful plate, and continued to embellish the opportunity to socialize. I didn’t fret about all the workouts I would have to do the next day, or the “special occasion” foods I wished to binge on later, hidden from everyone’s judgment. For once I felt like a normal human being, simply enjoying the holiday.

 

I think what many people fail to realize is just how difficult social gatherings around food can be for someone struggling (or who has previously struggled) with any sort of disordered eating. If you think about it, it is essentially a built-up event which requires the affected person to publicly walk into a room enveloped by a cloud of their biggest fears. Curious eyes can be intimidating, foreign foods can be terrifying, conversations can be awkward, misunderstanding can be degrading, comments can be embarrassing, and worries can be piercing. Until we have one positive experience to serve as our new home base, each invitation to converse over a meal in an unfamiliar environment is more of a challenging dilemma rather than an exciting opportunity.

But I do believe that in situations like these, the only way to conquer these frightful feelings is to face them. As I mentioned, all it takes is one positive dinner with friends, or one successful relational Thanksgiving, to serve as a tremendous confidence-booster. It provides a new reference point, and the positive feelings following such an accomplishment are so much stronger than the old “safety set” of eating disorder retreating habits. The initial decision to step into the territory of interacting with a new perspective may not be easy, and the sequential steps may not be perfect. But just as I have mentioned before, these series of successful steps will continue to grow, and will provide the staircase towards a wonderful life of freedom.

It’s taken a while, but now I eagerly welcome the invitation to converse over a meal. I look forward to the quality time and the primary nourishment from cultivating genuine relationships, while sharing wholesome physical nourishment. So the next time we meet up for lunch, consider it my privilege to be able to partake in such meaningful moments together. Letting others in to the depths my past is not a task that I take lightly, and your trusting presence is something I highly value.

As I reflect on all of my many blessings this holiday season, I am thankful for the present. But even so, I am thankful for my past—my sufferings, breakthroughs, and this new position of strength. I am thankful for my company and my connections along this road of self-discovery—especially with my loved ones and acquaintances, yet also with myself. I finally feel welcomed inside my own skin again…I feel loved, appreciated, and valued in my own teary eyes.

I am thankful for the Love which taught me what it means to love, and the love which has given me a reason to be thankful. God has continued to show me this love (His love,) regardless of whether or not I chose to receive it or reciprocate it. This love is the love that has kept me going, and is the love which now shines to keep me glowing. I now remember what it feels like to actively cherish, while humbly stepping back in awe of thanksgiving. Grateful for the patience and opportunity for a second chance, the choosing does seem to get easier year after year…

I now choose family, forgiveness and freedom.

I choose patience, perseverance, and peace.

I now choose laughter, liberty and life.

I choose to be forever filled with thanks.

 

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Thess 5:16-17

A Heart of Humility

It’s hard sometimes, feeling like I’m all alone…not presently in a physical sense, but rather emotionally alone in my past struggles. I have made several distant connections with inspiring individuals who also hold similar survival stories, but it is still hard without that immediate affection from someone nearby who has literally been in your shoes. I talk to God about this though, all the time now actually. I know my God understands, because He suffered with me. He was waiting in my heart the whole time that it was fighting for its own beats. Against the voice of evil and deception, my God raised his cries of loyalty even higher. And I’m so eternally grateful that my patient Savior won. He always does, which is a truth I’ve slowly come to realize.

As complicated as this dual and sometimes triple diagnosis is, there is indeed a deeply twisted heart dilemma. Over time, we become fooled by a false idol of prideful satisfaction, dainty diligence, and piercing perfection. All of these things are only temporarily fulfilling, leaving us with a hollow begging bucket even emptier than when we began. Yet even amidst the anxious pounding of my own heart, not knowing what the next day would entail, I did know within my smothered being that this way of living was not what I wanted. I had convinced my logistical little mind that I could navigate through all these teasers of change and barriers of setbacks for the rest of my life. If this was how I was just “meant to live,” then I would settle to endure the pain day in and day out. I was tough…after all, just look at everything I had been through. I was different…and I willingly embraced this secret diversity.

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I don’t remember when my lost sense of realism finally came back around. I do believe that collectively, my prayers and thoughts and counsel from friends and family seeped into my pores from a spiritual angle, not a physical one. For years I appeared to be at an “acceptable” weight by the medical community’s standards, but little did even the smartest doctors know, that I was not yet internally healed.

 

Anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder are severe mental disorders like all other clinically diagnosed mental illnesses. Yet this doesn’t mean that they need to be deemed a chronic lifelong sickness. The labels are simply a way to be able to make a clinical distinction of symptoms in order to qualify for professional help, or to be able to personally pinpoint and deal with all of the associated physical, mental, and emotional implications. I think that so often we become so fixed on the label, just like the numbers on the scale, that we forget where our true value resides.

The descriptions pertaining to the clinical diagnosis are merely that in themselves–they are solely descriptions of the symptoms summed up in a word or phrase in order to facilitate communication, when in reality, very few people are aware of the proper way of communicating about any of these severe cases. As an advocate of eating disorder recovery and intrinsic healing, this effort of sound communication is one of my main goals in my writing and activist efforts. Communication, in any circumstance, is key to understanding. Even though we may not be able to directly empathize with a particular mental illness, we can all do our best to both convey and exchange feelings and emotions which still float amongst common ground. As human beings, we all have the ability to feel (to a certain extent.) It’s time to use this commonality to set aside our differences and reluctance to understand the transformation behind someone else’s tale.

 

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“Communication, in any circumstance, is the key to understanding”

Sometimes I can feel as if I am swimming in a sea of emotional tidal waves, but at least I can feel them now. I remember what it felt like to have a heart frozen over by ice cold depression. Shivering in my own sorrow, I grew numb to even my own real feelings. When loved ones finally noticed and intervened, the avalanche began. It was so hard to warm back up, to soften my soul, and to let that heart-melting mercy back inside. But as I write this now, with tears streaming down my full rosy cheeks, I am so humbly glad I did.

 

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“He heals the brokenhearted…”~Psalm 147:3

 

 

I believe in the sincere transformation of heart. I have watched it, I have witnessed it, and I have experienced it. I have felt my own heart violently shatter, and then be fused back together–little by little, minute by minute, piece by piece.

 

 

 

I can tell of my story because I am no longer ashamed. I can cry while I’m telling it because I now carry tears of joy. I can now joyfully live a life worthy of purpose, because I can humbly admit that I’m only the co-author of my book. I can credit my healing process to many doctors, therapist, family, and friends, and the climactic self-revelations to myself. But I can only direct the glory from the life-changing eternal transformation to the one who owns and guards my heart. My God reigns inside my patched-up vessel, and with boldness forever, my heart beats for Him.

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Image source: google.com

 

A Hopeful Promise

Sometimes, you have to first make the decision to change for someone else. Sometimes, the accountability and motivation must come initially from an external source, to drive you forward until you can reach a point where you finally begin to love yourself again. In the beginning of all of my chaos, the majority of my professional treatment was forced, in a sense. In my own blindness, I liked what I had going for myself as far as my routine and disciplined behaviors were concerned; I thought I was doing a good job managing my life, and didn’t truly believe anything was wrong with my current habits…I thought I had found happiness through my controlling routines and rituals of obsessive diet and exercise.

After I was clinically diagnosed, I went to all the doctor appointments and counseling sessions in submission to authority as a requirement, basically for my parents, while I was still thankfully underneath their loving care. Eventually, rational thoughts began to re-enter my mind as my primary reward system during treatment was introduced—the deal being that if I gained enough weight back, I would be allowed to return to the sports that I loved. For a while this was my only motivation, along with pleasing my family members who I hated to see constantly worrying about me…at that specific time, a return to the soccer field served as the perfect external driving force which gave me hope for something in which I associated the feeling of joy.

Later on in my athletic career, I picked up the sport of distance running—something I never thought I would have been “allowed” to do previously because running burns an insane amount of calories. But while one may initially think that a sport such as running would be an awful idea for someone with my history, I believe it actually played a very positive role in my recovery journey. While in high school, my reward for weight gain once again revolved around sport participation—though this time being the privilege to run in an annual local 15K. With my new nutritional training from dietitians and schooling, I knew very well that I had to fuel myself more efficiently in order to keep up with my training schedule. It “allowed” me to eat more (in my little twisted brain,) and I was ok with mentally granting myself the extra calories because I was aware of the large amount of energy that I was expending during my runs.

Just to make things clear, however, this isn’t to say that this grueling sport healed me—I still sported unhealthy body-image vision goggles while racing in my prime. I do think that my time spent in the distance running world, which later progressed further into the fitness industry, served as a necessary stepping stone in my own personal recovery journey. Once I realized the new fitness goals I had made for myself, regardless of whether they were endurance or strength related, I became more motivated to follow up on the nutrition side—this time with a new focus on feeding instead of fasting.

 

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Just recently, after years of small increment changes on the consistency and quality of my food intake, I finally landed in a place along my recovery road where I sincerely wanted to change—I wanted to change for the better, and I wanted to change for me. Back when things spiraled downward years ago, it took compelling and begging from my family and friends; coaxing me and disciplining me to get better. Later on down the road, I wanted to show them how much I appreciate their love, concern, and loyalty during such a devastating time of my past.

Today, I still stand firm in my place of stable recovery surrounded by them as my backbone, and accountability partners forever. I made a promise to these loved ones to never again return to my dark corner, and I will most definitely hold true to this loyalty. Along with this pledge, now I finally realize that I do desire this talked-about life of ‘freedom’…I want this for me. I want a future full of promise and days full of laughter. I want to travel, see the world, meet new people and hike tall mountains. I want to be a strong presence for my family, instead of weighting them down with my insecure sufferings. I want to begin my own generation of family someday…to be a wife and a mommy…to sit on the back porch with my handsome husband hand-in-hand, watching our children playing in the yard…to be able to hold my daughter close and tell her how beautiful she is. I want to experience life and breathe the fresh air…I want to carry on a legacy of commitment and truth.

 

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I have finally reached a point in life where I’m no longer accepting any nonsense from that deceiving little seed that somehow planted itself in my innocent mind years ago. There are trails I want to explore, sights I want to see, and goals I want to reach. I want to reflect on my past and learn from it, without it controlling my very being. I want to redefine myself by what I have overcome, and who I want to be, not by a previous lifestyle that may appear to present unsurpassable limits.

Through the ups and down and thick and thins, my faith remains unwavering. Though it was often blocked and masked at times, it has marched back up to the front of the line to lead me onward over and over again. In all the turmoil, confusion, self-ridicule, heartaches, setbacks and disappointments, faithful love endured as my constant. I am finally beginning to open myself up to that love, which has been desperately knocking on the door to my heart ever since I fell off the cliff of stringency over 10 years ago. All these years that I labored over trying to become my best; only to recognize now that I was the one who was standing in the way. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in a hopeful future, I just frankly didn’t honestly believe I deserved it. I could tough it out till the bitter end, just as I had been habitually doing for more than half of my life. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in surrender and serenity…I was just so unaware of the mere extravagance which could come from a future of freedom.

 

Today, this hope of a better tomorrow, stemming from a grateful present, is what propels me forward. Realizing the strong importance of self-expression, day by day I am becoming one with myself, and making peace with my past. It is a journey of forgiveness, kindness, thankfulness, and acceptance. It is a road of diligence, discernment, empowerment, and determination. Just like all of my countless road races, I know there will always be a finish line. My life holds value; value which I cannot expect to try and rush. It has taken me many years to openly confess my past flaws and sinful mess-ups, and to stand up to my own fears of shame and judgment. But it is time…time to stand transparent and true, proud and tall. It is time to find that boldness to share my story, for my family, my friends, my counselors, my doctors, my fellow soldiers, my God, and myself. I want to share to touch the lives of anyone out there struggling with doubts, fears, past hurts, self-inflicted pressures, and internal and external stressors. All of the knowledge and wisdom which I have been fortunate to collect over the course of this rollercoaster ride, serves me no good if I simply ball it up and hold it inside.

 

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So, friends, this is for you. Let this account be an external motivation to bring out your best self. Perhaps you have a loved one struggling, could use some extra inspiration, or maybe you are hurting behind closed doors. Regardless of the particular circumstance, I can promise you this: there is a such thing as hope. Believe in this hope, and in the healing power of intentional presence and heartfelt understanding. I can now say with sound audacity that I do understand what it feels like to drown… but most importantly, I now understand what it feels like to fly.

 

“Promise yourself that you will never do that to your body again…”—Anonymous

“I promise…with my whole heart, I promise. And I always keep my promises.” —AR

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The Eye of The Storm #Matthew2016

I had anxious anticipations heading into the weekend, but for different reasons than those which gradually arose mid-week. I was supposed to travel to Tallahassee with the high-school cross-country team that I coach, to attend the annual FSU invite (one of my absolute favorite races by far.) I was extremely excited to return to my home turf, reminisce in the heart of Nole nation, see my girls race on my favorite cross country-course in the state, and bunk with my little brother. Yet after some scary news about a category 4 hurricane creeping along Florida’s east coast, my plans for an exhilarating weekend quickly changed–though the anxious anticipation and exhilaration remained.

It was an extremely difficult decision to not travel to Tallahassee with my team. I hated the fact that I wouldn’t be there to see my runners break personal records on the beautiful intricately-designed cross-country course which sported the logo of my alma mater. But deep inside something was pulling me to stay put…I simply couldn’t just leave my family behind knowing a monster was about to reek havoc. Yes, I would have been safe in my little college town, but the thought of being separated from loved ones amidst the turmoil, and watching the news from a distance seemed worst than the alternative. So, without knowing what exactly to expect, I began preparing myself for the utmost worst. Hurricane Matthew was well on his way, and my precious city was lying in its menacing path.

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After I received a peace of mind about my decision to wait out the storm with my family, the next step was deciding where we were going to “hunker down.” We received many phone calls from concerned family and friends, offering up their homes in outside cities and states to accommodate our safety. As the bulk of Jacksonville watched and waited, our timeline for escape continued to shrink by the minute. Within the chaos of last minute Publix raids, and frantic news castors screaming about “catastrophic” and “life-threatening” conditions, the westbound interstate was already flooding with cars. Not quite sure about our destination, I attempted to pack up all of my most valued belongings, planning as if this was a moment of no return. I suddenly realized the effect that such a wonderful childhood had on me and my already-shaken emotions; things which had held a special place on my bookshelf and in my heart since I was merely two years old; childhood books, cherished photos, hand-stitched emblems and a drawer full of my personal journals. All these things which represented so many memories in this cozy little house and beyond; things which I hoped of bringing into my own home someday; things which cannot be replaced. I realized how truly sentimental materialistic things can be, as I attempted to save these precious gems. These were pieces of the past that I held so dear, yet even still, I recognized my own shameful attachment to tangible things. The memories are, and always will be, safe within my heart. I had my family beside me and God inside me, and that was all I really needed.

Despite this minor revelation during my ambition to literally pack up my life, I still managed to haul along as many personal belongings as I could–with the backpack full of hand-written journals being a top priority on my list. After minimally preparing our house (which was now in a designated mandatory evacuation flood zone ), we set out for Nana’s house to ride out this bad boy. The first 24 hours were probably the worst, mostly because this period was all about waiting, while nervously watching the horror stories and tragic disaster scenes on the news. Though I tried my best to stay faithful, there were times when the unknown circumstances were indeed scary. I admittedly had my moments upstairs in my bedroom, with hidden tears in between prayers. I don’t think I have prayed so hard since my mission trip to Nicaragua this past summer. Once again, I was frustrated that I was letting fear trickle in. I knew my God well, and I knew that after all this was over, we were going to be ok. I just didn’t know exactly what that “ok” description looked like…

Ok without power? Ok with minimal flooding?

Ok with a tree in the roof? Ok in water up to our knees?

Ok even without a home to return to? Ok in heaven?

 

…The uncertainty of our situation and the safety of my loved ones was overpowering, but I fought to drown out these thoughts. I prayed for protection and safety, that God would place his hands of protection around us, and this city that I have called home for the past 25 years. I prayed that His arms would surround all of us like a shield. I prayed for our house, which had withstood hundreds of storms in its lifetime; the house I grew up in from days after I was born. I prayed for my cross country team and their safe travels, and the safety for all of those souls who were brave enough to risk the hectic roads to try and flee town. I prayed that The Lord would calm this storm, and that He would bring peace and comfort to his people. In talking to God, my prayer continued that God would again use this for His glory; that it would cause others to pause and reflect, and turn to Him while believing in something greater; believing in a God of hope. I knew my God was larger than this storm, but I also had to calmly accept His will.

 

In my prayers, I thanked God for my family. I thanked him for community, bountiful blessings, and merciful love. In crying out to God in search of peace, He turned my attention to a beautiful colored illustration I had come across when flipping though my mother’s old bible, which I had discovered when searching through our ancient book collection back home. The gorgeous picture that had caught my eye, was the captivating moment of Noah and the Ark–with beaming rainbow and all. Remembering this image in my foggy mind, I found the verse in Genesis from the picture’s tiny caption. Refreshing my memory on the well-known bible tale, God sent me comfort in the words of his promise.

“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
Genesis 9:12-13, 15 ESV

 

 

As the hours pressed on, our electricity did not. Expecting this premature power outage, we were more than prepared. Our coolers were filled with ice, bottled waters piled high, lanterns lining up on the mantel, and bathtubs and washers filled to the rim as backup. The dark wasn’t as intimidating with others to share flashlights with, and without the negativity of the broadcasts on television, distractions from the treacherous winds were more feasible. The down time was nice in a way, as I curled up in the corner of the closet and relived my college days, immersed in my journals by flashlight. Thank goodness for smart phones and cellular connections which the world relies on these days. Technology often demotes personal intimidate interaction but it served its purpose for important storm tracking updates, including the uplifting announcement that the storm had downgraded to a category 2 hurricane. Bit by bit, Matthew was slowing down. But even as the weather forces were weakening, the prayers were overflowing.

 

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Also, thanks to the luxuries of technology, I was able to keep up with the majority of my friends throughout the climactic events. Family members and friends would check in constantly, communicating about each other’s safety. I liked being at Nana’s house too, which has served as the family hub ever since I was a little girl. It was sweetly comforting to have my cousins, aunts and uncles all calling in to check on Nana, and to hear the scoop on everyone else’s well-being. It was nice to see the family all caring and looking out for one another, still interconnected despite time and distance. I am so grateful for my family connection, which has made up such a huge part of who I am. This is something I wish to carry on and instill in my own children and grandchildren someday…a dedication and loyalty, an unshakable support, all out of love.

As tragic as natural disasters like this can be, I love how such events bring communities together. Seeing all of the survivors emerging from their shelters, awed by the destruction and visible sunshine; Strangers helping strangers clear fallen limbs and debris; phone calls from long lost friends to check on the status of individuals they care about; churches offering space for air conditioning and water; parents strolling the streets with their young children pedaling on bikes close behind, everyone simply happy to be outdoors. I think that resilience in times like these is often difficult, especially returning to everyday work. Something as catastrophic as a hurricane really does shake up a city from its monotonous struggle to keep up with life. I think sometimes we need little hurricanes every now and then to break our dependence on the things of this world, and to help remind us of what’s most important.

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Today I stand hand in hand with thousands of survivors from what was projected to be the storm of the century. Our little house on the corner appears untouched, and does not appear to have even lost power. Everyone of whom I am aware, who stayed in town is walking out unscratched. My papa’s condo at Jax beach which was said to have not been realistically capable of withstanding the humongous storm surge, is still standing thanks to the sand dunes. As I lay tonight in my own bed, back in my home which I thought I may never see again, my heart is full. Praying for those areas which did receive more of a direct hit, and the restoration of those dear landmarks. But with knowledge of the manner in which Jacksonville handled this frightening occurrence, I’m not worried. So many officers and laborers whose work often gets taken for granted, are finally appreciated and respected. This whirling weather may have shaken up some emotions, but our community knot of trust is now tighter than ever.

“In the eye of the storm
You remain in control
And in the middle of the war
You guard my soul
You alone are the anchor
When my sails are torn
Your love surrounds me
In the eye of the storm”
~Ryan Stevenson

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A Heat Wave of Perspective

 

So I typically write a little recap after each annual Gate River Run 15K–my favorite road race of the year. I normally would have written this reflection a little sooner, while everything from the morning’s event was still fresh in my mind, except for the fact that post-race I was actually exhibiting some minor brain fog…due to  my first ever episode with heat exhaustion…not fun to say the least.

 

Despite the fact that participating in this running delight has been a yearly tradition since I was in high school, I was exceptionally excited for the race this year. I knew lots of people enrolled in the event, including my new pastor who had also become my morning running buddy and pace-partner. I had plans to meet up with people from work, and was in the 3rd starting corral of the first wave ahead of thousands of runners, right behind the elites. So far, all seemed to fall in my favor: eagerness for the journey, a few satisfying bridge loops under my training belt, and warmer true Florida weather–something  which my body usually thrives off of– not this time, unfortunately.

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The race itself wasn’t awful, but upon recollection, the majority of it seemed a blur.  I remember starting out faster than my normal pace (~7:45/7:30 per mile), which I knew was too fast,  but in the moment felt exhilarating and comfortable. I hung with another girl that I knew from among the galloping crowd and was able to keep up that ridiculous starting rhythm until around mile 3, before I first began to feel the need to slow down. I was frustrated with this, particularly because around mile 3.5 my family of spectators were waiting to cheer me on in their usual spot on the sidelines. During what is usually my favorite part of the entire race, I was literally just trying to hold on to my original goal pace of 8:30/mile. As a result, I wasn’t able to really soak in the atmosphere of that entertaining neighborhood stretch, or appreciate all the smiling faces rooting on the sidewalks in my familiar running route.

 

I can’t remember if I had already taken advantage of a water station yet or not, but my efforts were in attempt to stay ahead of the game in hydration. I had strategically carb-loaded the night before with wholesome clean foods, and had intentionally attempted to drink more throughout the day. I skipped my normal morning pill supplements to avoid upset stomach and dehydration, but did manage a cup of green tea pre-race. Glancing back, I don’t know if that was necessarily a good idea or not, considering I don’t usually consume that before runs on a normal basis. Needless to say, I thought I was on track. No excuses…at least not in my book.

 

My goal this year was to still give the run my best, without letting my overly competitive nature get the best of me (easier said than done.) I don’t know that I can honestly say I fulfilled this goal. I wanted to see what I could do…everyone is dealt the same deck of cards–it’s all about how you play the game (given individual circumstances of course.) I recognized (and began to regret) not adding in any warmer interval training runs in my haphazard “training” routine. But the truth was, I hadn’t really seriously trained for the race at all. This was more of a “community event” in my rehearsed perspective, and with my athletic history, was one I was generally able to just hop in and wing year after year. Perhaps the pivotal moment of turning a “quarter-of-a-century-old” a month prior had something to do with it. Age could have indeed played a role in my performance (or lack thereof.) The intentional refocus of my workouts on strength work with minimal running-specific training could have added to the cause. My body has been through a lot this year trying to figure out this new life season and balance itself out, which could have indeed just been too much stress for a prolonged period of time. Or maybe it really was just too freakin hot! …But last year was hot too, and in that race I set a new PR since high school. Again, I simply wasn’t looking for excuses.

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The fact of the matter was, I pushed myself, as any competitive runner would. I thrive off of that adrenaline high…the rewarding accomplishment that comes from conquering that mental and physical challenge to not give in, even when your muscles ache, your breathing heightens, and the sun beams into your face as sweat streams into your eyes. In all of my past experiences (running experiences, that is,) pushing it has always been worth it. I did finish in an acceptable time for my personal standards, despite feeling like a hot mess at the end (pun intended). And in a sense, it was worth it, because I unintentionally set my body up for another case of surrender–once again, I chose to battle against factors I couldn’t control. And then of course paid the consequences. Hey, ya live and learn.

 

Mile after mile seemed to be increasingly taxing, as I managed to keep form and prayed for a relief. I tried to make out faces lining the streets, which the lively-me would have normally shouted out and waved to. This time I pretty much just focused my gaze on the path ahead, which again robbed the community joy out of this captivating community event.

 

On the bright side, the race actually did seem to go by rather quickly, (which expedited the physical torture I was randomly experiencing,) though this course is usually one that I enjoy running through. I guess I really was pretty internally heated without really realizing it. I made sure to pour water on myself every chance I could, but mistakenly missed the last water station and last chance for a quick splash. The uphill battle on the green monster (aka Hart Bridge) was a doozie. I slowed down substantially, and it truly was a tough mental battle to not stop and walk. The rational voice inside me convinced my legs to keep going steady, since it would take even longer to get to the top if I chose to walk. I knew I would have regretted stopping so close to the finish line too. Again, my competitive ambitions proceeded to rule the field.

 

The bridge is always a killer, I’m not hinting that it’s easy even in the slightest. It’s always the most difficult part of the course by far, but you know while trekking up that it’s all downhill once you reach the peak. Usually I have enough reserve to really push it on the upward climb, and then simply use whatever I have left in the tank to speed down the finishing ramp. This time, once I did reach the top without stopping, I felt the need to hang on to whatever energy I still had just to even make it to the end. My legs wanted to fly, but my nervous system wasn’t giving in to the urge this time. I still managed a fast pace during that last mile, but it was disappointing relative to previous Hart Bridge descents. I took note of the meter markers along the guiding concrete walls, designating how much distance was left to cover…

 

800m…2 laps around the track…just under 3 minutes…

 

400m…1 lap around the track…90 seconds–if I can kick it…

 

The finish banner came into view sooner than I expected, and of course with the crowd lined up alongside and yelling, I gave it my all through the noisy straightaway.

 

So desperate to be done, I completely forgot about the cameras at the finish line. That picture should be glorious…

 

Immediately upon stopping into the finishing chute, my knees buckled and I felt like I could vomit any second. I kept moving, knowing this was necessary to prevent blood pooling, and grabbed my Top Ten Percent Finisher hat–(which is secretly really everyone’s goal.) All of a sudden I realized that I was beginning to lose control of my bladder, and the Spibelt pack strapped around my waist wasn’t helping the situation. I was shaking a little, and popped an electrolyte tab from my pouch into the water bottled I received from the volunteers. Somehow I knew I needed to replenish, and fast. Luckily, I had also finished early enough to get an ice bag too, which I smacked on top of my head and neck. All of this took precedence over the medal, which was the last item I accepted before being coaxed out of the immediate area.

 

I hung around a bit in the shade, and kindly let another woman use my cell phone as I pondered where to go next. In years past,  I’ve typically gone back to cheer others on during the last 100m, or sometimes I’ve just stepped off to the side to stretch. I tried to do some math in my head, while checking the time on my watch to calculate if any of my friends had finished yet. But my brain just wasn’t sharp…math seemed impossible…I hadn’t even bothered to look at my Garmin for my own finishing time yet.

 

Slowly I decided to make my way to the after-party grounds, and was able to pick out a few faces in the mob. I saw some of my cross-country girls, and then my pastor tapped me on the shoulder. I walked with him to the fair grounds, and we caught up on each other’s race, inquiring about his first Gate River Run experience. Ironically there were no Gatorades or bananas out for grabs when we arrived. They did have complimentary smoothies, but I just wasn’t feeling up for that yet. My focus was to down my electrolyte water, and then find something more substantial. But I also wasn’t hungry yet, which was odd. After conversing with my new running buddy, he set on home and I continued to make my rounds and met up with some friends from work.

 

After about an hour or so, as I was waiting for one of my friends to arrive, I began to notice that something just didn’t feel right. Sitting out in the open heat of the day, the sun was hot and high in the sky, and I was still dripping wet with sweat. My Top Finisher hat was helpful in shielding the rays, but the pressure around my forehead was giving me a headache. I got up to fetch some more water, and gave in to the smoothie samples, both which seemed to help the rather disoriented condition–at least for another half hour or so…

 

I did have fun seeing so many people, and being part of such a huge deal here in my hometown. Each year is different, and each year has contributed to wonderful memories in my racing archive. I always leave feeling elated, and still felt that way as I started the long walk back to my car. I’m glad I decided to head back when I did though, because again there was some instinct that signaled I was beginning to fade. Once I got to my car I just sat there for a minute with the door open, trying to let the car cool off and also just trying to compose myself. I winced at the dreaded traffic ahead, which defeated the fact that I live so close to the race site. Finally joining the long exiting line of cars, the bumper to bumper wasn’t helping my headache. I began to feel nauseous…“Something isn’t right…” I kept saying. I definitely didn’t feel well, and was confused by this unexpected afterburn effect. All I wanted was to just make it home…my eyelids began to feel super heavy, and I felt extremely tired all of a sudden.  Quickly surveying my surroundings and preparing for the worst, I emptied out my race bag and held it open in my lap to serve as a makeshift barf bucket if needed. Please God…please let me make it home…

 

About three blocks from my house, I felt those smoothies coming. “C’mon!”  I urged…”Just hang on, you’re almost there…”

 

Of course as soon as I pulled onto my street some lost soul from out of state was inching along and stopping at each and every driveway clearing without any idea where the heck he was going. Perfect timing, buddy. I’m usually not an obnoxious tailgater but I sure became one that day. I was simply desperate to get out of the car, with my tummy screaming at me.

 

Thankfully, I did make it home. Thankfully, I also live with caring family members who attended to me when I needed it. My unusual post-race symptoms were scary, especially with all my first-aid training echoing through my mind. At times I noticed I had stopped sweating, but my flesh was hot and my insides burned. I knew the best remedy was full body immersion in cold water, yet at the time this thought was perceived as utterly miserable. I did force myself into a cool shower, however, and began to feel better. Lethargy settled over the remainder of the day, along with a throbbing heat headache and dizziness. I attempted to retell my race experience to my family, but the pieces were all discombobulated. Instead of my usual perky runner’s-high-self, I was exhausted and still trying to make sense of my body’s weird reaction.

 

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Skipping forward through series of an upset stomach and attempts to guzzle down fluids against my tummy’s will, I now reflect on this occurrence 40 hours later, finally beginning to feel like myself again. The recovery was frustrating, without being able to properly utilize the refueling window of opportunity to restore my muscles. The last day and a half have been spent sleeping, moving from one couch to another, sipping water and electrolytes and slowly introducing whole foods as my tight stomach allows. Knowing my state of dehydration, accompanied by feelings of weakness and lightheaded spells, I was determined to get back on track and allow for proper recovery. I knew that drinking would be easier if the liquid had something to hold on to, and I knew my energy levels would also increase with fuel. With a holistic mindset of course, foods were the answer. This morning began with eggs and rice crackers, followed by a crafted vitamin-rich substantial smoothie for lunch which was easy to consume and aided hydration. Happy to announce that I was able to eat and hold a hearty dinner of rice, yellow squash and chicken. Weird and random bland cravings, but wholesome nonetheless. Slowly but surely, strength is returning. If given what it needs, and proper time, the body will indeed heal itself. Today it reminded me that I need to stop and take it easy…another forced opportunity to really cut back on the hectic pace, since I obviously refused to during the run. Despite the unfortunate discomfort this weekend, I’m glad everything happened the way that it did. Another opportunity for learning and growth, and another prompt reminder of where my stem of control lies here in this world.

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In hindsight, I admittedly should have trained smarter. I am getting “older”, and can’t expect my body to be able to just bounce back as quickly as it could in high school or college. Looking back, I don’t know if slowing my race pace down really would have made a difference or not. The positive side of pushing myself was that it shortened the duration of increased intensity in the heat, even though I did stupidly continue to hang around in the sun following the race. We can’t travel back in time, but we can learn from experience. The Gate River Run is still, without question, my favorite race of the year. The atmosphere, without a doubt, is one to far surpass any other sporting event out there. What better way to spend a gorgeous spring Saturday than sharing my passion for running with my enthusiastic lovable city.

Each year is a new adventure, as is each day we are alive. We choose what we see, even through the haze. Yesterday’s view may have been a little blurry, but at least there was light available to see the immediate steps ahead. Even in this hazy memory, I see passion and love for something greater. Even though the roads can seem winding, and the heat debilitating, there is always a finish line patiently waiting. Thankfully, this life has changing seasons, and even though it may appear as such, this life is not  a race. Looking forward to what next year brings, and what tomorrow will hold.

 

“But they who wait for the Lord will renew their STRENGTH…they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall RUN and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”

~Isaiah 40:31

Clothed With Dignity

 

In all of the hype about the 2016 Rio Olympics kickoff, with the opening ceremony well-underway, and anticipatory excitement swarming the crowds of loyal supportive sports-enthusiasts, an interesting headline stood out among the sturdy parade of athletic persona: “U.S. Women’s Swim Team on Body Image, Eating Disorders and Supporting Each Other.” Among the community of female athletes, USA’s Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman decided to share her past struggles with an eating disorder publicly for the first time. The article reads, “As a young girl, Misty Hyman thought that athleticism equated to attractiveness. She believed being strong was beautiful…”

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I too, shared these beliefs with Misty once upon a time. Growing up a competitive swimmer, ballet dancer, distance runner, soccer and basketball player, I can relate to the confusing thought processes that often raced through this Olympian’s head. “….When I [Misty] was a teen, it was very hard to separate those ideas of what femininity is, what beauty is, and what my identity was in relation to that as an athlete.”

It takes a special bundle of courage to be able to publicly confess about a struggle that is so connected to one’s sense of self (and in this case, a career.) But in doing so, the gorgeous understanding of self-value blossomed for all to see. By embracing her sensitivity, not only about herself but about her inner feelings and all the surrounding influences, a community of support was born. Among this new group of followers and fellow victims, there stands one agreeable consensus: growing up a female in today’s society is hard.

A whole lot of strength is required to open up in the spotlight about a painful past, but this course of action develops out of positive reflection in response to being sensitive to our feelings. Strength is capable of appearing in all shapes and sizes, even hiding behind drapes of sensitivity. In fact, I believe that at times, sensitivity does indeed provoke strength. Emotions and vivid memories can often come into play, creating a powerful empathetic drive which prompts actions that we normally would not extend on a daily basis. Sometimes, we may face the challenge of exemplifying our strongest character when called to serve as a backbone for others—especially on behalf of a loved one, or perhaps for an important cause close to our hearts. Right out of the blue, we suddenly receive a burst of courage from sensitive care and benevolence that allows us to withstand treacherous rain and winds, because we envision ourselves teaming up in a collaborative effort. We hold on to the preconceived notion that when we march though hardships together, the next hiccup tends to seem much more manageable.

I have experienced this type of collaborative strength, as well as the boost of adrenaline and superhuman power to fight for someone I deeply love. While I was battling my internal controlling alter-egos, my family and friends served as my fellow soldiers. Sometimes I felt as if they were fighting harder than me, when in reality I was the only one with the sole power of committing to a critical life-saving change. Now that I can clearly see the perseverance and elaborate efforts involved in a successful climb to recovery, I’m also able to recognize that inner strength which was always present, although very susceptible to suppression by a lingering insecurity.

The time finally came when I could spot my soul, caught battling beneath the trenches. If it had been anyone else trapped in battle, I would have charged in immediately for rescue under the sounds of gunfire. But in my attempts to be self-less in every situation, I would prefer to suffer myself than watch another person have to endure the torture. In sparing my own well-being, however, I wasn’t considering the possibility that in order to help others efficiently, I had to be chasing after my own best health as well. In those moments of inner warfare, I was ultimately experiencing a separation of self. Yet, as a result of this separation while in a state of reprieve, my heart ached with compassion for that strong girl I once knew. Utilizing this empathetic energy to save a lost soul, I somehow found the willful strength to dive into combat. With that same sudden jolt of power and determination that dominates when fighting for a loved one, I sought after that little girl who was frantically running against the pack.

Today, I use this same compelling drive to spare others the pain. The more strength I gain, the more I lean on this stronghold as a form of accountability. When I am placed in a position of advocacy, mentorship, or condolence in any shape or form surrounding the realm of eating disorders, my survivor strength rises to the surface. It is when this strength is silent, or when outside pressures dent my invisible shield, that the voices (to which I used to bow down,) attempt to creep back in. I have reached a position where I have gratefully been able to install storm shutters on my susceptible ears, and join forces and voices with those who were rooting for me from the very beginning.

Just as I sit here and write in this very moment, fully capable of acknowledging vast strides and acquired strong willpower, I was also able to recognize similar strength development and noticeable improvements even only 3 months following my diagnosis…

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“…I have so much more energy now…feel so much better now, and stronger too. I have been using my toning ball a lot, and with eating, have gained more muscle. Sometimes I can’t even believe why I would ever want to put myself through this in the first place. Now I am working my hardest to stay healthy and improve my athletics…” (Journal continued from March 2004.)

To provide some brief context, growing up I was quite the competitive athlete. By no means did I wish to cause my body harm through all of my intense training and restrictive efforts. But even so, as a part of my treatment to rapidly put on weight, all of my beloved sports were taken away. At the time, this seriously felt like the end of the world. With very little social outlets and hobbies other than my treasured athletics, sports were what kept me going; they were literally my pride and joy, though frankly I had forgotten what true joy felt like. Thus, it was concluded that reasonable return to the playing field was to serve as my main motivator for intentionally putting back on the pounds. My reward resided in the ability to engage in my physical activities again, and to continue to follow the ambition to be the best athlete I could be. I consider my situation very lucky, in a sense that this motivational tool worked magnificently and kept me on track towards the main goal of achieving a healthy weight. I’m not saying that there were not slips, trips and falls, but in a nutshell, this mental approach worked wonders along with my professional psychological and nutritional help. It gave me a reason to keep fighting; a vision even in my dark empty shadow. Once it clicked in my deprived little brain that all of this was necessary in order for me to essentially gain back my life, I was even more willing to cooperate. Though the future still appeared fuzzy, I knew what I was running after, and had acquired a team to help me get there. After convincing that demonic voice that this was the case, I began to make leaps and bounds that I didn’t even think were possible.

Undoubtedly, I will always hold a love for fitness, and now will always admire a strong and capable physique over dainty domains. Each and every person on this earth is unique; each has their own mold to fill and their own role to play. You simply cannot compare yourself to anyone else out there, due to an influx of other predisposing factors which make an individual, an individual. Things like genetics, hormones, bone structure, personality, seasonal circumstances, body type, etc., are vital parts of the playing field, and along with life’s changes, your own physical and emotional needs also change accordingly. Yet through all of this, I have discovered that for me specifically, working to maintain both an inner and outer strength helps hold me accountable to my promise in recovery. When I willingly take on those positions as a role model, mentor, educator, or advocate, I am reminded of the promise I made to myself, God and my family—the promise that there is absolutely no going back. This devotion and pledge of faithfulness are accompanied by a rising feeling of empowerment, self-confidence, and self-efficacy; and the strength keeps on building.

I have always been inspired by strong women; women who are confident, passionate, and determined to devoutly serve others and make a lasting difference on this earth; women who are strong enough to juggle their own needs plus the needs of others; to follow their dreams and remain true to who they really are. I find myself in a much safer place when seeking after this type of strength, both physically and emotionally, rather than trying to fight to fit society’s strict and “skinny” standards.

From an outwardly perspective, my eyes are now trained to see beauty in a sleek physique of musculature; whereas before, my distorted narrow focus was set on maintaining an elicited emaciated frame. From this new perspective, I believe that visible strength speaks ‘functional’ and ‘healthy’, or at least fighting to get there. With my own instilled inner-athlete persona, strength is something I desired from day one, but allowed myself to give up for some time while pleasurably engaging in the “Game of Thin,” even years after receiving professional help. I knew my physical state wasn’t realistically substantial long-term, but my tedious efforts to stay slim were “working” in my mind at the time…might as well enjoy it while it lasted, I reasoned.

In high school and even for a while in college, my eyes began to convince my brain that being thin was pretty. I had begun to identify myself with this new smaller figure, and let the comments of others and my own convincing conscience trick my brain into truly believing and dwelling in the idea of being favorably at an advantage compared to the majority who were currently fighting the popular overweight/weight-loss battle. I thought I was lucky… somehow I had missed that weight-gain train and was bound and determined to never board that frightening freight. I embraced being “tiny”, and though I may have appeared fit and healthy, I had dropped to the point where I was beginning to fear muscle. I refrained from strength training, scared that it would bring on unwanted bulk—a prime example of my poor body image at the time. Even as I began to pursue work in the fitness industry, I was reluctant to engage in any activity that would alter the misconceived outward appearance over which I had developed an idolized sense of control. I thought lifting weights would impede my distance running performance—a sport which I had stereotyped all of the admirable “skinny” athletes excelling in, and proudly identified myself with. For a while, I continued to live in my own little false reality…thankfully, a dear friend, being bluntly honest, opened my eyes to the painful truth: I was worshipping the label of thinness.

Although this physical and mental state I’m referring to was years after my initial diagnosis and most severe phase of sufferings, I was still trying to hang on to that small nagging piece of me from years ago. I was still classifying that painful glimpse of my life as part of my present identity. Though no one other than my close family and best friend knew the truth about my past, everyone associated me with the petite title, contrary to my elementary school days. I had therefore created a new norm for myself—the “thin” norm. What would people think if things suddenly reversed? How would they react if I suddenly woke up fat? How would I feel? What would happen to my own sense of self-identity if I actually committed to a different lifestyle? I had been referred to as “tiny” for years now, and accepted this as an accurate description…this was my new strategically-set and satisfied self. Or was it? I was happy with myself. Or was I? In this moment of utter confusion, I realized that in an attempt to hold on to the parts which I believed to make me, me, I had lost myself. A common occurrence when entering new stages of life, I came face-to-face with the fearful possibility of perhaps making a daunting lifestyle change.

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Unfortunately, because the most serious downfall occurred as I approached the onset of puberty, I did in fact stunt my growth and physical development. As I mentioned previously, I had always been abnormally tall for my age, yet maxed out around 5ft 3 in 6th grade. Today I hover around 5ft 4.5in., sporting my disproportionally large hands and feet in relation to the rest of my smaller-than-average structure. I still have broad swimmer’s shoulders, which look extra bony in emaciated form, but can also create a stocky appearance with my muscular legs if both are filled out to their capacity. I’m somewhat of a hybrid physical cross between a ballet dancer, gymnast, swimmer, yogi and soccer player—flexible beyond normal limits, graceful yet sturdy underneath. I may speak as if I’m attempting to scrutinize every physical flaw available, but my intention is not in any form to criticize my makeup; my purpose here is to demonstrate full body knowledge and awareness, and to reveal a new level of self-comfort and acceptance. The healthy muscle which I once feared is now something I value, cherish, and am constantly working to shape and grow. I absolutely adore my body, and with the understanding of what takes place inside it physiologically, I am much more merciful in accepting the frequent changes that occur from within. I have come to find that to be at peace with yourself is such a beautiful discovery.

From my continuing education and personal experiences, one thing I have learned is that our bodies don’t make mistakes…we are the ones who deceivingly fall into making poor choices, which are often disguised as perfect solutions. All these years, my body was trying to save me—I was the one incidentally fighting against its natural mechanisms for survival. My body is now my friend, and I want us to work together as a team striving to become our best, despite our little history of a mess-up. I now find muscle to be absolutely gorgeous, and would much rather be a female who is strong and filled out than fragilely frail. My frame will always be smaller on average because I halted my adult development prematurely. But even so, I love my body now…each and every part of it—especially when I feel strong and capable, functionally fit, and am supporting beautiful muscle tone within my new, comfortable skin. With so much more developing knowledge about what goes on beneath the exogenous layer, I’m now willing to cut my body some slack, endorsing restful breaks and brief hiatuses from exercise when needed. I listen now when my body starts waving white flags or tries to tell me to slow down. I make conscious efforts to stop and breathe, consider my surroundings, and honor my body’s needs and responses in the given moment. After everything we have been through together, I feel it’s the least I can do— that little trooper only has my best interest in mind—always.

Thankfully, I did conquer that initial fear to make a change, and a change for the better. But it wasn’t a giant leap into the unknown—I simply do not have the spontaneous personality type for that. Yet, I will say with sincerity, that any step towards positive lifestyle modification is worth it, no matter how small. Each step serves as a strong foothold for the next, and the higher you climb, the more your strength and determination increase. My personal small steps later on in recovery dealt specifically with nutrition and intentionally feeding at more regular intervals. This served as my small goal and starting point, which then led to experimenting with the science behind macronutrient ratios throughout a given day (something I would not recommend to someone just new to recovery as it requires detailed food recording and nutrient documentation, which can potentially serve as triggers to old obsessive behaviors.) Surprisingly, this curious tactic had the complete opposite and favorable effect in my particular case, because it helped me ensure that I was feeding my body enough to keep up with all of the high athletic demands day in and day out. Next was the decision to begin strength training, which gradually progressed to even sacrificing running workouts in return for muscle gains. For me, these steps worked, basically because they complemented my Exercise Science brain and enthusiasm for fitness. I was finally learning all the nitty gritty details I wished I knew about fitness and nutrition back in my determined 7th grade ignorance. This approach taught me to fuel my body appropriately for the activities I wanted to engage in, and with encouragement from strong idols on social media, I began to develop a new picture in my mind which viewed “strong” to be “the new skinny.” Just as I had to physically retrain my body to embrace strength, I had to retrain my glossy eyes. Healing both vision and perspective is definitely key in moving along with stable recovery, yet both simply require decently allotted time.

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The older I get, the more situations I encounter where I must step in and serve as the acknowledged and designated strong one. Some situations I’m ready and feel prepared for, while others feel more like a shove. Yet both circumstances are opportunities to continue to build upon this newly acquired invincibility and become even stronger. Each relapse is a shot at a second chance; each mistake is an opportunity to learn; each fall is a challenge to test my ability to pull myself back up.

From the words of Misty Hyman, referring back to the pressures surrounding eating disorder behavior, Misty remarks, “What I discovered when I gave myself permission [to let go of an obsessive diet/weight-controlling lifestyle]… I realized that people still liked me, that I could still perform on the job, that I was still a productive human being, that I could still have a lot of fun, that I could still have this really rich and fulfilling life.”

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I am no longer afraid of strength, or the responsibilities of possessing such a trait. I would say that strength and I are now allies, partnering to create a contagious movement of empowerment. Demonstrated and dispersed by my own friends and family, strength now joyfully beats within my heart, and fills my vessels with courage. I believe that we all have a willing little soldier pumping waves of confidence beneath our own frames of false beliefs. Let him out so he can lift you up. Allow the strong laughter and life back into your soul. Let your sense of self return to it’s nest. Let strength and dignity be your gorgeous clothing.

“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”
~Proverbs 31:25

References:
U.S. Women’s Swim Team on Body Image, Eating Disorders and Supporting Each Other. Nicole Auerbach, USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/rio-2016/2016/08/03/us-womens-swim-team-body-image-eating-disorders-and-supporting-each-other/88048534/

Essence of Community: Nicaragua 2016

When I was first introduced to this particular mission trip plan, it was at a casual dinner at Pastor Bruce and Cindy’s, probably only 4 months before the designated departure date. Right there at the dinner table I committed without even having any knowledge of what the trip entailed. The next day the Lord confirmed my calling by the means of finances, and a very sweet message from my uncle, pretty much requesting to sponsor me for the trip.

Of course I was extremely humbled by his generous offer, it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t know how to respond at first…especially since I have a hard time receiving gifts on a regular basis. I did accept, however, and viewed this as clarification to this commitment I had already made to God. On June 15, 2016, I would be heading to Nicaragua.

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Leading up to the trip, in all of my type-A-personality intensive packing attempts, I had another humbling moment, paired with an unveiling of my obsessive tendencies in this world. Out of unnecessary anticipation of my concealed journey approaching, I ended up dropping a lot of money on extra purchases which I felt imperative to try and squeeze into my luggage. I became very stressed about the whole situation, and all because of my anxiety and fears of the slight likelihood that the outright worst possible scenario could occur along the way–fears which shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. I did trust God, and knew that He had called me to proceed on with this trip. But I simply could not help my strategic-planner instincts from domineering my thoughts. Deep down, I knew that this opportunity would be great for me because it would force me to be flexible, but at the same time this idea was also intimidating. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to walk into. I was indeed a mission trip “newbie,” and only having flown on a plane once in my entire life, I was also completely naïve to the whole traveling experience. I realized that mostly I desired an assurance of safety and security, and thus had somehow convinced myself that I needed all sorts of random gizmos and gadgets and extra pairs of gloves and socks because—you just never know. As with basically every other task I regularly attempt on a daily basis, I simply had to have a backup. Call it OCD or over-analyzing all you want, yet I will also confess it’s true. But God hit me hard that day after my expensive Walmart shopping spree, by reminding me that HE is my sole provider. I just needed to let go and embrace this period for detachment. The money I spent rightly served as my own punishment for thinking I could once again manage this situation with my own hands. Yes, I did end up hauling along the majority of all the extra clutter that I purchased, but I trusted that God would equip our team with whatever we needed in order to do his work–I strongly believed that. In that instant I recognized once again my stubborn desire for control, even over rides which are supposed to mimic an utter free fall. I needed to just be content and faithful in the One who made me…my God has never failed me before, and He would pull me through.

Despite my novice state of travel, my flight experience actually turned out to be a wonderful ice- breaker for the approaching Hispanic cultural exposure. By luck of the draw, I ended up sitting next to a sweet fella named Derry whose hometown happened to be in Nicaragua, and who also thankfully spoke simple English. Within the first few minutes of conversation, he expressed to me that he, too, was a believer of the Lord. He was extremely thoughtful during the turbulent flight, trying to distract me from the ascent and rocky landing to assist in relieving my obvious nervousness. We had genuine discussion the entire way, though some phrases were a bit choppy. I could see the passion in his eyes when he spoke about Christ and heaven…a place which he described as a beautiful place where there are no divisions among people: “There is no need to be discouraged,” he said, “what you all are doing is good…We are all connected, and God is a direct hotline…We are all brothers and sisters in Christ…one day the world will see that.”

Derry’s words remained with me as we went our separate ways, through the daunting stations of immigration and customs in the Managua airport. Both processes were actually quite a breeze, (despite the horror stories,) though it was extremely hard emotionally landing in Nicaragua, with no immediate cell service, unable to tell my family we arrived safely. Access to instant communication in our country has become somewhat of a security blanket, which was difficult to release once setting foot on foreign soil.

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The next morning after breakfast at the hotel, we hopped on a tour bus for a 2.5 hour ride to Jinotega. Along the road I was mesmerized by the scenery–mountains to the left and right, and poverty in the streets like I had never seen before. I remember looking up at the sky, with no clue as to where exactly we were going, what we would experience, or what else we would see. I wished my family was there with me, but also felt relief that they were safe and sound in a place of certainty. We ended up meeting at one of the clubs where Vida Joven conducts large group gatherings. Essentially, the organization stems from the American Young Life youth ministry program (Vida Joven in Spanish.) It is a form of evangelism and outreach; an attempt to bring in youth off of the streets, inviting them to club and then camp at La Finca, and to introduce them to Jesus. The aim is to continue to plant more clubs extending around Nicaragua in a circular pattern. At this particular central location in Jinotega, which would serve as our “home base” for the week, we were introduced to an array of other Vida Joven leaders, and were each paired with a different family with whom we would spend our homestay visit. Caleigh and I were homestay buddies, and were showered with the kind hospitality of Maricio and Laydee. Maricio spoke some English, but even so, I found myself frustrated because I wanted to be able communicate so much more than my limited Spanish knowledge allowed. We ended up borrowing an English/Spanish dictionary from Kate Hedgepeth, which ended up being a life-saver during our stay with this happy couple. Our homestay family actually lived in the club where we met, so we didn’t have to even leave the building. They had turned an old storage closet into a guest room, with two neatly-made beds and a welcoming sign with our names handwritten under the message “God keeps his promises.”

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Soon, everyone from our church group began to break off and follow their homestay families to where they would be spending the night. Kate Hedgepeth and another fun girl named Rylie, served as our interns for the week. They would be staying in a hotel not too far away, but needed their overnight bags transported to this location. Almost immediately after arriving to this new territory, I was presented with the exhilarating opportunity to assist in the delivery of their baggage–on the back of Mauricio’s motorcycle. In that moment, I was reminded of the advice of a friend back home, encouraging me to be “all in” with everything during my time here–essentially to live fully in the moment in whatever I do while in this country. Without any real hesitation, other than the fact that the tiny kiddie helmet they jokingly gave me to try was not a feasible option, I hopped on the motorbike with a duffle bag in my lap, arms clinging to this friendly Nica I had just met not even 5 minutes prior. Jolting through the disoriented streets of Jinotega, the ride was quite symbolic for me. Upon my initial exposure, I was promoted to take off my own outsider American eyes, and put on the goggles of an entirely new perspective. Just moments after setting foot in this new city, I was zipping through the haphazard neighborhood streets through the eyes of a Nica. Cars honking, bikes zig-zagging, people staring, kids running… yet I felt safe behind Mauricio as he drove me by where he worked, the hotel, and other local hot spots. Surprised by my atypical spontaneous daredevil approach to begin my night at the homestay, I slid off the motorcycle with a smile. Again, with only the option to hang on and trust, we had made it safely to our destination.

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After spending some time playing futball and volleyball with Maghetti and Marcos, two beautiful children of another camp leader named Geraldine, we gathered around a long folding table for a lunch spread consisting of rice, pollo (chicken), jalapeño sauce, and tortillas. To both Caleigh’s and my pleasant surprise, we would be meeting up with our church group after lunch for a mingling activity together, which would make the getting-to-know-you part less awkward with the existing language barrier. While packing my backpack for the unknown group adventure (the bag I would be living out of for the next 24 hours), Maghetti quietly appeared in my doorway, flashing her contagious grin in my direction. When I returned the smile, she quietly made her way into the room and sat curiously on the edge of my bed, her bright joyful eyes staring up at me. I somehow knew that she understood the barrier of tongues which was before us, yet in that moment it didn’t seem to matter. Pulling from my fuzzy memory of high school Spanish classes, I began trying to talk to her with the limited Spanish that I knew, and she returned the gesture, considerately slowing the conversational pace down for me. Earlier we had received a hint about a mountain climb, and to the best of my ability (along with some charades,) I proceeded to try trying about it with her. I remembered one particular word which I picked up during our playtime together–“fuerta” which meant “strong.” When pronouncing the word she looked up at me, holding back a laugh. Politely, she motioned to me with her fingers and pointed, saying “errrrrrreeeeeehhh”–attempting to teach me to roll my “r’s”. Grasping the quick pronunciation lesson, I responded by saying the word correctly, which sparked an instantaneous burst of excitement and clapping from this sweet little girl. She continued by describing to me what we would see on this mountain climb, which would require great strength, or “fuerta,”: awaiting on top of the tall mountain was “la Cruz”–the cross of Christ.

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The steep climb up the mountain was indeed strenuous, and probably would not have been our first activity of choice before a week of intense physical labor. But, with frequent pit stops for name games and challenges along the way, the climb was much more bearable. From the start, we began an arduous attempt alongside our new amigos towards a common goal, looking ahead to the cross which awaited us on the peak. The view was absolutely breathtaking, and worth the sore muscles which would follow us throughout the week. Atop the gorgeous city of Jinotega, we sang worship songs together; we read scripture together; we laughed together and praised together. We cautiously made our way back down to level ground together, legs shaking but spirits stable. After dinner with our homestay families we attended club that night with other neighboring youth. Falling asleep to the gentle falling rain dancing on the tin roof, I felt safe behind the concrete walls amidst pigs and horses grazing in the yard.

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The next morning we hopped back on a van which took us to our worksite for the week. Our main project, along with cultivating Christ-centered relationships with these caring people, was to prepare the land for the construction of Geraldine’s home. We spent the majority of our physical labor with shovels, pic axes and metal rods, tearing up the rocky ground and breaking boulders within the floor plan of their future home. The sun was hot, our muscles were achy, dirt clung to our shins and blisters blossomed on our palms. Each day it seemed like we discovered a new buried rocky “treasure” resting smack dab in the middle of our assigned digging square. Admittedly, I am somewhat of a realist, and I will be honest in saying that when we first began our efforts at the worksite, I felt frustrated with the lack of efficiency–here we were, busting our butts to clear the area, shoveling hard-packed dirt, chopping up the stony soil and attempting to remove gigantic rocks from the earth, while a Caterpillar bulldozer and jack hammer sat idol back at the camp at La Finca (which would be our home for the next 4 days.) But in the midst of all of our sweaty brows, tired arms, spazzing backs and sore legs, I realized that efficiency wasn’t what it was all about. The community we were building was so much more important than the house structure we were building. My perfectionist personality would normally have scrutinized over how quickly we could clear the dirt, or how precisely aligned our footers stood. Yet instead, I found joy in hopping from hole to hole, checking in on the progress and condition of all my amigos. For once, this realist was taken over by the power of relationships.

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We cut the first work day short, after lunch back at the club. This would be the schedule for the rest of the week: breakfast at camp, worksite until noon, lunch at the club where my homestay family resided, back to work until about 3:30pm (weather permitting.) After staying with our homestay and living out of a backpack for the last day and a half, arriving at camp a La Finca felt like heaven. It reminded me of a cross between Camp Montgomery and Montreal (two camps I grew up attending with my church), with the cool air up in the mountains of Estelee, Nicaragua. Our first luxury happened to be the freezing cold showers we had been warned about, but quite frankly the temperature didn’t matter at that point–we were simply grateful to get clean. With the combination of sweat, bug spray, sunscreen and dirt, I don’t think I have felt so filthy in my life. This was something I adjusted to throughout the trip, and soon adapted to the rather rustic lifestyle. We had dinner at the dining hall, which would be routine for the remainder of our time there, followed by Mega Club (sessions similar to Montreat-style gatherings with energizers and devotional). The night ended with a meaningful labyrinth walk in the woods, sculpted from tall bushes under the crisp mountain sky…

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Just like the daring motorcycle ride, the winding labyrinth walk was very symbolic for me (though in a more calming way.) During our devotional that evening I had shared how I now have a continuous conversation with God throughout the day, and how I express my thoughts and emotions to him whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed. We entered the labyrinth spaced out one by one, each traveling at our own pace. Though we may have been physically alone on our quest to the center, the presence of God surrounded each of us individually and as a whole. Occasionally you would catch a glimpse of someone else’s flashlight light flickering along the ground–a reminder that we are all in this journey together, even while working within our own radius of light. While moving within your own unique stride, there was no need to feel pressured to catch up to the person in front of you, or need for fear of someone sneaking up behind you. Unable to see over the growing walls, with each unexpected turn deep within the hedges, I had to just slow down and trust God. Slow down, and trust…one of the other major themes of the week. Once we finally reached the end of our reflection walk, even in the shadows of the night, a tall cross stood clearly visible in the center. Just like our long mountain climb, Christ was there patiently guiding, waiting for us at the end. When I veered around my last neatly shaved bend of foliage, I was beautifully reminded of two comments from my teammates before I entered the confusing boots of twists and turns. “This isn’t a race, Amanda”, one of them had said. Another, offering reassurance about being alone in the dark, whispered “it’s ok, you can talk out loud to Jesus”–referring back to my confession about constant dialogue with God. Staring up at the bold cross of Christ, I realized that these two concepts summed up my entire labyrinth walk, as well as my continuing walk of life.

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Even after only being in Nicaragua for 48 hours, God had already revealed himself in countless ways. This trip had a lot of unknowns for me, and shamefully a lot of fears. But within this time in which I was forced to surrender and trust God and his people, He surrounded me with his peace. These Nicas who I had just met, already feel like long lost friends. Spanish started to become second nature, and became so normal to my ears that it even began to take over as the primary language in my dreams at night. It was such an eye-opener to me to share such special moments with such anointed people. It is simply beautiful how we can come from two completely different countries, speaking two completely different languages, yet still read from the same bible and pray to the same God. All of it sounds so simple, but in this moment of recognition I was reminded of my friend Derry’s words of wisdom: “We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. In heaven, there are no divisions, no barriers…” we are all centered around our Maker. Quite early in our journey, I was learning hands-on that God’s love has no boundaries. Just like my travel buddy had described, we are all one in Christ.
One lesson that I have learned from working alongside these passionate souls, is that missions do indeed extend both ways. My church group and I can all agree that we are now a part of a developing path with an aim of redefining mission: a Christ-lead mission which is highly relational and not just financial or labor-focused. This trip was different from other mission trips I have attended in the past–this one was personal. Perhaps it just depends on the heart of the individuals, and the consistent pruning which continues along our faith walks. I know that over time, God has been transforming my heart for His people. He has allowed me to witness others come to know Christ, placed me in uncomfortable circumstances, and softened my spirit for working with others from different backgrounds. I can feel Him continuing this work in me, because a few years ago I can’t say I would have been ready to embark on something so remarkably incredible as this. Slowly but surely, He has grown my compassion for service and helping others, more than I could have imagined. For so long I put up a protective wall around myself, still passionately helping people but more so from behind the scenes. This quest however, was up front and center, sharing sweat and tears while being completely immersed in the culture and living the lifestyle of the people there. These people have, and always will have, a special place in my heart. Barely knowing each other at all, we dove deeper into each other’s hearts. Climbing mountains together, enjoying meals together, sharing stories together, from all walks of life. Our daily living situations may seem like night and day, but our Creator is the same. Our passion is the same. United by one eternal force, we are all brothers and sisters, united by one same never-changing Love. Once we got to know them, not as a group of Nicas, but as individuals, hearing their testimonies and studying scripture with them, we realized they are just like us…possessing a sense of humor, feelings, outlets with social media, and adhering to the same written Word of God. All inevitable stereotypes we arrived with, quickly vanished.

It is all so sweetly touching…seeing how much these people truly love. They welcomed complete strangers into their homes and made us feel like family, sincerely demonstrating the phrase “mi casa es tu casa.” I do feel like I acquired a new family–a Nica family away from home. Almost instantly I felt accepted and comfortable, and they expressed their humble gratitude for our willingness to leave our own families in order to help theirs. A few of them shared that they considered us role models of distinguishable character, yet I felt as if this should be the other way around. I view them as my role models for living with a golden perspective centered around the Lord. In my eyes, they have their priorities straight: God, family, and relationships–all values which we hold dear, but which can often get brushed aside in the rising pressures of American society. It was evident in their radiant faces, that they know joy and how to spread it too. They know how to laugh and how to have a good time. They lead by example with their hospitality and fellowship. Passing down the role of discipleship, they act out of kindness and stewardship. Through their devoted spirits and humble hearts, they are the epitome of community.

Through all of our travel, back and forth between cities and destinations, we were always accompanied by a willing and friendly Nica escort; always there to assist us, with mere humble joy. No matter where we went, there was always a familiar face, even if we couldn’t remember their name. Exchanging smiles, we looked these people in the eye. We served these people, and they served us. In their kind and beaming eyes, I saw the face of Jesus. Jesus was right there next to us, leading us through the streets, up the mountain, and around every corner.

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Driving to Masaya on our tour day, with a zip line destination to end our visit, we encountered pretty much the only hurdle up until that point. Suddenly we became stopped in heavy traffic due to an angry protest only feet ahead. Tires were stacked in the middle of the road, and had been set ablaze, creating a fiery wall blocking our only route to safety. With no real organized traffic rules to begin with, cars and semis were all attempting to bypass the burning tires, just feet from the glowing flames. Flocks of people began crowding around as we sat in the van in a standstill with the other vehicles and watched from afar. Finally a gap appeared near the turmoil after traffic police arrived at the scene. Two semi trucks were attempting to pass in front of us facing in opposite directions, their gas tanks dangerously close to the fiery mound in the road. I was sitting next to Bruce in the back of the bus when we approached the mob, and as he moved up front to discuss the situation with our fellow Nicas traveling with us, I pulled out my bible and prayed. My devotional topic on faith from the previous day kept ringing in my ears…I opened up to Philippians and re-read the passage for reassurance…“the opposite of faith is fear….” I repeated my own message to myself as I crouched down over God’s holy Word.

Finally we managed to inch up to the heart of the chaos, and competed for space with the other cars wanting an escape. As we passed by the rising fire, a young Nica in the road began to roll a new tire our way, with an aim at placing another burning mound right in front of the nose of our van. Thankfully, we skidded through the crowd, glancing back at the frightening encounter, grateful for the Lord’s protection. During that moment, I will admit I was afraid of our safety. With literally no where to turn, I was forced to turn inside…to pray to my God my Savior, my protector and comforter. As I sat there with members of my church family, afraid and eager to get past the threatening experience, I remembered my own family…my family and friends back home who I love dearly, and whose prayers I know were surrounding us throughout the week, and embracing us during such a heart-throbbing time. In that moment, I did not believe that God would let harm come upon us. I strongly believed that He wanted us to come back home to be able to tell of our week outside of our country, to share the power of his love. As our week drew to a close, I longed to be safe in my own home with my parents and little brother. But even while we remained in a foreign land for one more night, I knew I was safe in my Savior’s arms. In the aftermath of our little frightful encounter, I flipped to Isaiah 41:10…reading it over and over again for reassurance…“fear not, for I am with you…” Praising God for his angel’s shielding wings.

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Here is an excerpt from my journal that eventful Friday afternoon:

“Zip lining was exhilarating, up in the trees with the monkeys. I agreed to take after my daredevil pastor and ride one line superman style, flying head-first tandem with a guide. It was nice to get outdoors out of the cramped van. Afterwards we had lunch, “papoosas,” at an El Salvadorian -inspired restaurant, and then visited the markets where I did some souvenir shopping. Now we are in our way to the hotel which we stayed in for the first night. There we will have access to hot showers and wifi…I will have a chance to communicate with my family again. Other than making it through Nicaragua airport procedures, and customs back in Miami, we have pretty much survived our journey. I had no doubt of this, but also know that I will indeed be returning to the states a changed being, and closer to the Lord. This week has truly been a wake up call and life-jolting experience. At times I was afraid for my life, yet had no other choice but to simply trust that the Lord has my life in his hands. Even with the upset tummies, blistered knuckles, sore muscles and dirty sweat, every bit was worth it. Every part was a mission in itself, not only for us to extend, but for us to receive; the mission of spreading God’s unconditional love out of pure humility, sacrificing our own comfort, and working together for the glory of God. Singing outside amongst our Nica friends, I was reminded that this is what matters. Christ is what matters. Love is what matters. Love hopes all things, and endures all things. I experienced true love this week. The kind of love which comes instinctively without even knowing yet. The truthful love, the welcoming love, the unshakable love. I experienced the heart of Love himself.”

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The Nicas are so caring, and truly genuine. You can tell by their stories that they, too, truly know the Lord…the same Lord who we serve even from across the world. That is so beautiful to me…No boundaries are too far for God. My best friend’s last words to me before our plane took off, were “You’ll never be the same…” And she’s absolutely right. This has truly been an eye- opening experience; a scary and daring one, but so good for my controlling personality and phenomenal for my walk with Christ. While on this trip in a completely foreign environment I have had no choice but to look to Him for guidance and protection each day. It is a different focus than our first-world minds are trained to think, yet it is the focus that I should be having even in my day-to-day schedule back home. I have sincere compassion for the people here and am realizing just what a wonderful influence Christian camps can have on the lives of youth. I can already picture myself returning next year, and want to do my best to describe the magic of this place and this entire journey to everyone back home. Even living out of a backpack with minimal water and stinky clothes, it is still possible to feel the peace and love of God. We ended the second to last night at La Finca with a bonfire and singing…singing to God, our central fire, and source of everything we need.

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This week has been a wonderful escape from my busy schedule back on American soil. Before the trip I had lots on my mind, lots of first-world pressures (money, work, tasks), yet once we crossed the Nicaraguan borders, all these burdens went way. Instead, the week was all about surviving, clinging to the cross, extending service, building relationships, and sharing love. And in the end, God covers them all. It made me realize how our society instills certain standards on us, often distorting our view of necessities. This week we lived out of a backpack in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, yet no one was without substance. We always had food to eat and water to drink. We always had a place to lay out heads after a long day of labor. We had each other, to laugh with, embrace with, work with, and communicate with (to the best of our ability.) Put in simple terms, “Our pockets were empty yet our hearts were full.” We had Christ surrounding us each and every day. And that is all we needed.

Being my first international mission trip, I did not have much to compare my entire experience to. Keeping the mentality during the motorcycle ride, my goal was to live large and embrace the present. Given my ignorant state as a young missionary, I feel as if I did succeed in achieving this goal to my capacity for this particular excursion. Because everything was so new, I was still a little reserved in the abnormal environment. But with the excitement of next year’s trip already developing in my mind, I know that I will be able to give myself even more when that time comes. Now that I know the drill, I will definitely be able to relax a bit more, and be even more intentional and more relational.

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It has been such a humbling experience working side by side with our Nica brothers and sisters, all for the Lord. Hopefully, the acts of service will have a ripple effect not only in the camp at La Finca, but in the surrounding community. The plan is to continue spreading the love of Christ in this sweeping motion, eventually reaching the entirety of Nicaragua. It was very difficult to imagine leaving for our home country and having to say goodbye to these people with whom we have all formed such strong bonds. The entire week seemed like a blur…but just as they reminded all of us, this isn’t goodbye, but rather, “Hasta luego” (“see you soon.”) I will definitely be back to this sacred land when opportunity permits. God has proved his love has no boundaries and his protection transcends across the seas. I prayed and prayed that I would be able to do this, to be able to handle these conditions, to be able to withstand all the hardships physically and for it to transform me spiritually and mentally. My God has fulfilled all of these prayers, and much much more. Upon returning home I am eager to share this unforgettable experience. Although we were present there to help serve and support the mission and outreach of La Vida Joven, the mission has trickled both ways. The Nicas have touched my heart in a way that I have never experienced before, and it is true that I will never be the same.

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Even retuning home, I wish to continue this idea of priorities and new perspective. As a church, we long to create a movement of community back in Jacksonville, among our church family and surrounding neighbors. I am not yet ready to let go of all of the magic which took place over the course of our stay. Jumping back into routine of work, duties and society’s stressors is something I am dreading, but will just have to take step by step. Moment by moment, depending on God for continued guidance, protection, and strength. I want to remember, not only the memories, but the feelings and freedom that comes from surrendering to the Lord in every circumstance. Even in the comforts of our country, I want to keep this perspective, I want to keep this peace, and I will forever view life differently. There were times when I felt fear for my life, but God is the source of my life. Remembering too, that we were all on this journey together, just like in the labyrinth. Even in the darkness, the cross is waiting at the end.

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I know I have experienced something special, something that words alone can never describe. It is an experience which is so personal, not only in the interactions with the Nicas and fellow teammates, but with God. Throughout the week of firsts, unknowns, and unfamiliar conditions, He was my constant–my never-changing source of strength and dependence. Even though life may lead us through bends in changing directions, the cross remains at the center. Geraldine said it best as we labored on the worksite, straining to break up an enormous Boulder stuck in the center of the floor plan: (in Spanish of course), “We will name our house ‘built upon the rock'”–‘The Lord is our rock and our salvation; we shall not be shaken.’

Though the majority of this week was spent living minimally, I felt so much more full of life…with the time set back two hours, I woke up naturally at 5:30/6:00 everyday, easing into the morning…no pressures, no makeup, no workouts to cram in before work, but just fellowship. Now back in the states, in the familiar territory of my own home, even with the reverse culture-shock, my heart is thankful, humble, full, and transformed. While it is comforting to set foot in familiar territory, among my own loving family, a piece of me remains back with my Nica family. The service and love which they demonstrated for all of us this week has been such a beautiful and humbling experience. Sometimes it takes stepping out of your comfort zone and living each and every moment of every day fully dependent on the Lord, to be able to really recognize that He is all we need. To all the caring spirits at Vida Joven, muchas gracias. God is at work in you and through you. Hasta pronto, amigos.

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