A few weeks before my 22nd birthday, my oldest sister, Miya, killed herself at 28 years old. My first instinct is to write hung herself, but I try to hold back because who really wants to imagine such a thing.
The sensation of touching my sister in the coroner’s office haunts me, even eight years later. I think about her purpled tongue wedged between her lips. I think about her skin, rubbery. I think about desperately trying to pull her bracelet over her tightly clenched fist, terrified her hand would just fall off. I think about my dad and mom hunched over, tears blanketing the white cloth that entombed her body.
Everything that I considered easy and good about the world was shattered. I was infuriated with my sister’s abusive husband, infuriated how immediately people wrote off her death as a product of her bipolar disorder, infuriated my sister chose to leave me, infuriated with myself for not being able to save her.
And so I took it out on my body. You must eat to live, but my source of nourishment soon became my way to self-destruct. I’d binge—eating everything I could to try to suffocate the pain.
By the time Miya died, I had been a vegetarian for almost five years for moral, environmental, and health reasons, so what I would normally eat was quite healthy—lots of veggies and fruits and nuts and grains and legumes. But during a binge, I’d devour all the processed food I could get my hands on.
As a young woman, eating exorbitant amounts of sugary, fatty foods was something that previously occurred only around my period. My sweet tooth would go into overdrive when hormone-fueled. But while those bouts in my teens and early 20s negatively affected my energy level, leaving me drained and frustrated, they weren’t emotionally driven. I wasn’t trying to numb myself.
When my sister died, this cycle became a one-, two-, three-times-a-week ordeal. My body would feel like it was literally falling apart, and I would drop into a dark space.
I saw therapists and wrote my memoir, Must Girls Love, but nothing stuck or helped me to process the pain healthily. I was using food to grieve. Or avoid grieving.
I’d lie in bed most mornings, feeling hung over from the pizza and sweets I had devoured late into the night, terrified that the frustration I felt during my nightmares, trying to desperately call after my sister who couldn’t hear me, would manifest itself as a binge that day.
I’d wake up, feeling like crap, unable to move and sometimes even open my eyes, angered and drained. I’d internally scream, You’re not doing enough in your life. I hate this side of you. You are a waste! I didn’t disdain my whole being, only the part that allowed this cycle to conquer. Somehow, my mind and body would trick me into doing it again and again.
As an athlete who used to find incredible joy being active, exercise became something I disdained. I wouldn’t exercise, because I wanted to rebel and punish myself, my way of making a statement against the way I was brought up (my mom always fed us healthy meals as kids, and she exercises every morning). During this time, I'd rather sit on the couch, writing and editing, eating and eating and eating and eating.
I was using food to subconsciously fight and rebel against my life getting out of control. I would miss Miya more than ever when I was in that space, pissed off at her for leaving me and not doing anything to magically erase this darkness from my psyche—a darkness from which she herself suffered.
The cycle seemed endless and unyielding. For almost two years I lived like that: taking care of myself for a day or two, then bingeing for two or three or four days. I was weighed down, heavy with grief.
Fortunately, I have pretty good genetics. Eating so unhealthily didn’t affect my weight or physical health too much—but I was tired of the emotional roller coaster. It affected my moods and self-worth. Physically, I may have weighed only 115 pounds; emotionally, I was 300.
During that time, I was busy: I was writing my memoir, substitute teaching and tutoring at my alma mater, and coaching high school athletic teams. But no matter how busy I may have been, I always found time to binge. Those binges took precedence over everything. It was when I allowed myself to wallow in my sadness.
I was desperate, and desperation caused me to do what I had previously thought unthinkable: I got on Prozac. Within a few weeks, the smog around me began to dissipate. And little by little, I retaught myself what it truly meant to care for my body and mind; I embraced the realization that only I know what is best for me, no one else.
Dedicated to feeling as powerful and centered as I could, I challenged myself to get rid of habits that didn’t inspire self-love. I maintained a daily exercise routine, I ate foods that my body could easily digest, and I ensured I got enough sleep. I did what I needed to do to feel as amazing as a person is meant to feel. As I had since age 10, I continued practicing yoga, allowing the mixture of sweat and tears to flow onto my mat. Having grown up swimming laps with my mom, I’d get in the pool to feel lighter, freer, stronger.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit weird. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I bike more than drive, I bring my pug Monkey almost everywhere with me, and I eat super healthily. But being this way—and embracing my originality instead of fearing it—helped me transform my grief into growth.
After a few years on Prozac, I stopped. I simply just needed a lift, like a kid wearing floaties. As soon as I learned to kick, my lifestyle choices—exercise, proper sleep, writing and inspiring others to be true to themselves, being around unconditional friends, and eating foods that worked for my body—kept me afloat.
These days, I wake up every morning excited. The fear of losing myself is gone. Of course, once in a while I eat a few too many fries or chips, causing me to feel nauseous during my morning workout. But overall, the internal battle to escape the fog that consumed me is gone.
No therapist, friend, family member, or celebrity had the magical fix for which I prayed those mornings I spent crying in bed. It was on me to trust my instinct, to learn what works best for me. Self-love, self-discovery, self-acceptance: that’s what it took.