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Reverse Black Swan Syndrome: How Ballet Helped Me Recover From Anorexia

“Oh look! There’s a ballet school in the neighbourhood! You know, I’d always wanted to learn ballet.”

“Why don’t you?”

“…no, really?”

“Yes, let’s sign you up for class!”

10 minutes later, mum had paid for me to attend a term of ballet classes. Thus my ballet journey began, in the most unremarkable and typical of fashions.

Except that I was 24. I was clinically depressed and anorexic.

It started in university. I’d taken up my parent’s suggestion that I should study law at the top law school in Australia, leaving my family behind on the shores of Singapore.  I had once been a terrible student who felt like a constant disappointment to them and I thought the prestige of a law degree would make my parents proud.

I floundered. The law school was filled with some of the brightest young adults in Australia – children of judges and top lawyers. I felt like a fish out of water, barely scraping through. Everyone seemed to be smarter, having to work half as hard for twice as good results.

joywomack----cvfw132Joy Womack for Cloud & Victory, wearing a C&V top

I decided to do everything in my power to make up for my perceived inadequacies. I holed myself up in the library, studying, from 10 in the morning until closing time. I read that good nutrition, exercise and weight loss would give me more energy to study and better concentration. So I started walking home from the university, gradually adding daily jogs and circuit training. I changed my diet, eating food that I read would enable my body and brain to maximise productivity. It seemed to work. My grades went up.

But every time my marks improved, they had to be bettered. Anything less it would mean failure; that I had regressed in some way.

My life began to be lived in numbers – the hours I studied per day, the amount I exercised, the number on the scale, the marks I obtained on every assignment and exam.  I started counting calories, keeping my intake to a daily net of 1200. I couldn’t trust myself. I could only trust the numbers. They reassured me that I was being disciplined, and doing everything I could to be as good a student as possible. Any deviation would bring on huge waves of guilt. I stopped socialising. My idea of fun became watching episodes Gilmore Girls or Battlestar Galactica over midnight dinners of bagels and vegetable soup. Even my designated ‘rest day’ on Sundays was spent cleaning my house, grocery shopping, going to a church I didn’t care for … doing anything I considered ‘responsible’.

I did really well at the end of my penultimate year. I was also really sick. My period had stopped for 6 months. I was tired, hungry and cold all the time – even getting out of my chair was an effort. I would come home, change into my exercise clothes and spend 15 minutes crouched in front of the radiator, trying to get warm before I headed out to jog in the dark Melbourne winter. I couldn’t sleep well, and my legs would cramp every night. My bones ached to their very core. I was perpetually dehydrated, despite chugging tons of water to fill the starving ache in my stomach. Sometimes I would look out of the glass windows of the law library late at night and contemplate smashing through them, hurtling 4 stories down until I became nothing.

My parents knew something was wrong, but nobody knew I had an eating disorder because I was neither underweight according to the BMI index, nor was I particularly fixated on my figure – only the numbers on the scale, an obsession that was easy to hide.

I tried to help myself. I stopped counting calories. But these things are harder to climb out of than fall into, and my BMI dropped below 18. Now, finally, the doctors said I had a ‘proper’ eating disorder (they called it ‘atypical anorexia’). My university granted me academic leave. I went home, and began the traumatic process of recovery.

That led me to the ballet school.