In case you are unfamiliar with blogging, there is a menu that you can click on for your own blog that reveals internet search-words people used to find their way to your blog. This may happen by accident. For instance, if someone is doing a search for “tides” the entry I wrote called “Queen of Tides” might show up. There are ways to manipulate the search engine so that your blog shows up near the top of the queue for the purpose of increasing your readership. I have no idea how to do that, technology boob that I am. I just write the stuff.
Anyway, lately there have been a lot of searches for “tai jimenez eating disorder.” I haven’t tackled this subject in-depth here, but someone or some people want to know this story. This is a big subject and I pray that I can write about it in a way that is useful to others.
[Ooh chile, wait a minute. I gotta light a candle first.]
As a child, I developed shame around eating. My mother worked a lot to support two kids by herself. She was often not at home. Sometimes there was no food in the house and I would sneak snacks from a friend or neighbor I was visiting. I was too ashamed to ask. I once complained to my mother about the empty fridge and she got angry at me. I felt that I’d hurt her and this added guilt to my shame.
I was very fond of Oreos. When I had a little change, I would go to the cafeteria at the School of American Ballet where I was studying, and buy a six-pack of Oreos from the snack machine. I looked forward to this ritual without question. Then, a couple of years into my training there, I was skipped a level. I suddenly found myself in class with girls several years older than me. They talked about dieting. For the first time I heard words like anorexia and bulimia. I wondered, licking the icing from my Oreos, why anyone on earth would entertain such things.
After my fourth year, I felt lost at SAB. I left and went to study in a small, now defunct school that gave more personal attention to its students. The summer I left SAB, before freshman year at high school, I remember putting on a pair of shorts. My mother shot me a withering look. I was not allowed out in those shorts anymore. My body had started its change. I filled out and continued dancing with my new curves. My new teachers did not emphasize thinness. There were dancers of all body types at this school. There was one severely anorexic girl and the director of the school made her eat under her watchful gaze if she wanted to continue to take class there. It was tough, motherly love. It was understood that you had to be healthy to dance, not too fat, of course, but not too skinny either.
When I was sixteen, I started auditioning. I wasn’t quite ready for a professional company but was encouraged to go to auditions to get the feel for it. I asked my teacher if she thought I needed to lose weight. She said I needed to drop about six or seven pounds which I did by cutting out red meat and the oversized muffins that were popular in New York City coffee shops at the time. Oreos and soda were history. A year later, an audition was arranged for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and I danced with the junior ensemble for a few months before joining the main company.
Company life was very different from the small homey school I had attended. There was no tough motherly love. It was just tough. I won’t get into all the gory details here–
“The word Hitchcock suddenly comes to mind,” says Mr. Octopus.
What I mean is, ballet is supposed to be tough. I loved the challenge! I did it for the challenge, but that challenge is built-in. In a lot of ballet companies however, well, it is tough for the wrong reasons but I don’t want to get into all that here. I’ll save that for the inevitable ballet company reality show. I want to make it clear that I take full blame and responsibility for what I did to myself and will admit also that I was less than a ray of sunshine all those years to my fellow dancers. I don’t think I was an asshole, exactly. I was just…neutral. I adopted a stance of neutrality in order to survive. In order to keep dancing, which was sacred to me. I am still struggling with my default-into-neutrality setting. Teaching has helped with this somewhat because to be a good teacher, baby, you gotta fight.
Some dancers who were not the waify type were chastised about their weight. They were shamed publicly before their peers. I suspected that roles were withheld from those on the weight-list, not based on ability, but based on size. I didn’t want to suffer that fate. I wanted to be a principal dancer and most of the ones I idolized were tiny.
I started dieting with renewed force. It wasn’t even conscious. I was hungry and tired all the time. One day on the way home from work, I bought a pint of ice-cream. I ate the whole thing and, in a sort of trance, I purged. A few days later I did it again. I told myself I could stop whenever I wanted but it quickly became a nightly routine.
One evening, my mother heard me vomiting in the bathroom. (I was still living at home). She confronted me but I denied it. I felt terrible for lying to her and finally worked up the courage to confess. I could barely get the words out through my tears. She got angry at me. She said I was taking the easy way out. I thought she was right and felt humiliated and weak. She abruptly left the couch where we were sitting and came back with a piece of paper that had a phone number on it. It was the number for a therapist.
I went to therapy. For years. My therapist was somewhat impressed with the elaborate and unusual ritual of my disorder: I would stuff myself secretly, until I achieved a kind of numbness. Then I would sit on the toilet and sing my guts out, sometimes for hours. I would sing and sing and sing. By the time I purged, a lot of the food was digested, but I did it anyway. Looking back now, I think it was my soul trying to sing itself free…free from the pressure and constant criticism I received as a dancer, free from my debilitating sense of isolation and feeling unimportant, unrecognized, and unwanted in a mean cut-throat world that I nevertheless wanted to succeed in. I liked my therapist very much, but my “symptom” persisted, unabated.
I lived this way for thirteen years.
Somewhere along the way, I left therapy. I remember one day having the epiphany that mine was a spiritual problem and could not be solved this way. Truth be told, I do not “know” how I healed myself, or that it was all me that did the healing. I do know that I wanted to heal even though it was hard for me to imagine being free.
I started going to yoga. In my first yoga class, there was a lot of chanting. I just let myself cry openly. I realized in my first attempts at yoga that in spite of years of dancing, I was actually very weak. There was a spiritual bookstore at the yoga studio. I started reading spiritual texts and going on retreats. I spent time with like-minded people. I made friends. I enjoyed spending time with my friends so much in fact that I found myself sticking around, hanging out, instead of going home to my secret shame. I guess you can say that I “needed a whole community of people to pull me out of the water I was drowning in,” as the great teacher, Martin Prechtel says. There are certain things, like recovering from an eating disorder, that are too big to do alone.
In the beginning of my healing journey, I still thought about food a lot. Every once in a while, I would binge, but those times became fewer and farther between. I sometimes woke up in a sweat from a dream that I’d started bingeing and purging again. I didn’t consciously work on curing myself. I didn’t read about eating disorders or go to group therapy. After years of therapy, my will had proven itself impotent in the face of this monster. Rather, I just allowed myself to be pulled out of the water. I turned my attention in another direction. My friends that pulled me out of the water didn’t know that they were doing that. I need to find a way to thank them.
I am close to my mother now as well. Having a daughter who wanted to be a ballerina was the furthest thing from her mind when she gave birth to me. I was a hellion of a teenager. We were both in over our heads. I love her more than I can say. This blog entry is just a little part of the story. There is so much she gave, so much she sacrificed, and I am grateful to her.
It has been over a decade now that I’ve been on the other side of this thing. It is hard to believe with all the love I am blessed with, that I ever lived in such utter despair. There were times when I wanted to die.
I remember at some point opening up to the idea that I could actually love myself. It was just an idea at first, but a seed was planted. However, that hope came at a price. I had to openly look at the time and relationships I’d wasted obsessing over food. I realized that my best dancing years were squandered in a haze of self-loathing. I imagined, regretfully, what I might have achieved with a healthy body. I coulda been a contenda! I knew that in order to move forward, I would have to take all parts of myself, meaning that I had to forgive myself. Now, that was work.
I also had to do a lot of work with holistic medicine, especially acupuncture, to help with the healing process. One practitioner described me as having pushed myself so hard that I’d split myself in two. I still have painfully sensitive gums from all the years of bingeing and purging and for a long time, I had these weird stomach convulsions. But I feel healthy now. There was certainly a lot of grace involved but I am ok.
And if you are struggling with your relationship to food, I hope this story will help you find your way out. I am not a doctor, but I would suggest in the beginning, that you do not try to fix it. It will resist you. It’s very presence is your soul speaking to you. Try to be still. Listen. Turn your energy to what you love and to whom you love. That love will light your way.
A student recently asked me if it (my career) was worth it, and my answer was yes, but not for the obvious reasons. It was worth it because the struggle made me who I am today. And I am starting to really like her.