This is the part of a weekly column by Ashley Johnson surrounding the struggles she has faced in her own life and the concept of being human.
Warning: some entries, including this one, will contain strong content regarding abuse, addiction, self-harm and eating disorders.
We all made it through another week. Success! I literally did not think I was going to get through the past seven days, let alone stay sober. Yet here I am, typing away, having just celebrated a year and a half of sobriety yesterday. After reading more of my story, you will understand why that is truly such a miracle. Life’s challenges never cease to amaze me. What amazes me far more, however, is coming through them. Prevailing. That being said, I am definitely not “out of the woods”, as they say. My best friend still happens to be out there drinking, which brings me tremendous sadness, worry, and fear. I don’t know much, but what I do know is that I need to put myself first right now.
I used to hate the term “self care.” It reeked of my days of clinical therapy and treatment centers. Now I embrace it. Taking care of my emotional, physical, and spiritual health is the foundation for everything I do. I’m not always great at it, but am a work in progress. Part of staying on this path is sharing my experience, strength, and hope. Like I mentioned last week, its imperative to not forget where I came from, especially when people close to me are struggling with active addiction. It wasn’t so long ago I was in that black hole myself, and certainly do not want to be sucked back in to the darkness.
Darkness is all I could see when I withdrew from Lehigh University to go to treatment. I had been struggling with bulimia for about two years when I entered college. I remember thinking that I was so sick of throwing up that it would be easier to just not eat. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In the matter of less than a month, my obsession with exercise escalated, restriction of food became extreme, and I was incapable of rational thought or behavior. In my regular drunken state one night, sitting in my dorm hall, I called one of my best friends who was at Xavier in Ohio and told her everything. Before I knew it, my entire family knew. An intervention of sorts landed me in the Dean’s office and concluded that a treatment center was needed. I felt broken, scared, and lost, so I agreed.
My aunt and uncle flew from California to Pennsylvania to get me and formulate a plan. While everything was foggy during that time, I do remember sight seeing in Philadelphia. They would try to get me to eat and I would throw fits. I vividly remember being given an apple in the car. My response was to throw it out the window. I was fully immersed in my addiction and didn’t care who I was hurting in the process. That was a pattern that would continue with food, alcohol, and self harm for the next ten years. Addiction took a hold of me. I was a prisoner in my own body, driven to behaviors by an unsatisfiable need to change the way I felt inside.
I could go on and on about my experiences in treatment centers, but I will save that for the autobiography I am in the process of writing. In April of 2002 I went to Remuda Ranch, a well-known eating disorder treatment center in Arizona. I stayed for a month and a half and learned a lot about my disease and what I needed to do to stay in recovery. While I was there, I saw women with bandages on their arms. I heard about people overdosing on medication. This was all new to me. At the time, I couldn’t imagine taking a knife or razor blade to my forearm or taking a handful of pills. Certainly they must be crazy. Within about a month of being home from treatment, I became that woman.
The summer that I turned 19 was filled with chaos, desperation, and pain. I remember feeling lost and aimless. I was life-guarding at the Rogue Valley Country Club and had hopes of returning to Lehigh in the fall. My meal plan slowly became unimportant and I was back to the restrict-binge-purge cycle quickly. Those few months are fuzzy. I don’t remember the very first time I put a razor blade to my arm, but I do remember the feeling that came with it. Relief, satisfaction, and a sense of calm filled my body and mind. It was a form of self-punishment sometimes. It would shut my emotions off when I was overwhelmed and numb me. Without going into unnecessary detail, I will say that I did tremendous amount of damage to myself physically, emotionally, and mentally. I took a few trips to the psychiatric ward as a result of my cutting and overdosing.
As I reflect on that time, it baffles me to realize that it was only the beginning of a very long and dark road. The years to come, as you will read in the following weeks, were horrendous, heart-breaking, and tragic in so many ways. I sit here now unbelievably grateful to have breath in my lungs. The fact that I survived even that summer is a miracle. Perhaps you can’t relate whatsoever to anything I did or went through. Maybe you can relate to the feelings. There are countless ways we deal with emotions as human beings. My story involves alcohol, cutting, food, and various other things. Yours may look completely different.
The point is that we cannot escape the human condition. We are wired to feel. Sometimes I’d rather not. And that’s okay. Life is up and down, happy and sad, tragic and triumphant. Let’s embrace that together. Being present is a beautiful experience. Until next time, stay true to yourselves and real. This is the only life we get.