Last year I wrote a piece for Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016. Twelve months of living later and things aren’t the same as they were.
To recap, twelve months ago I was several months out of an abrupt breakup, which saw me lose a big part of my support network. It turns out that when I’m left to my own devices I’ll try and wear my body town until most or all of it hurts as I lay in bed at night, asking why I keep making bad decisions. I did this because it brought me to some extreme levels of focus in my personal and professional life. An accidental outcome of that was an unhealthy calorie deficit. I’m not sure if what I have is strictly an eating disorder. I think at that point we’re arguing semantics, though, because it’s probably not normal.
Some time around March-April last year, I slipped after a few weeks of progress (more food and sleep, less running). I have vivid memories of sitting, in tears, in my room, on Skype to a dear friend.
I very rarely get angry. Frustration or impatience are well known, but to be truly deeply angry at a person, for a very distinct and obvious action - that was a very unwelcome and new feeling for me. I felt angry that someone could do something, and then appear to just not acknowledge it and move on. If you’re mean you say you’re sorry. If you’ve taken my mental and physical stability from me then you’ve been (perhaps unintentionally) really quite rude.
What struck me is that nothing seems to stop me from feeling these pains. That is: when I’m in a bad place, I always feel the same kind of bad. It’s like I said last year - my brain is a toddler in a waiting room, I have to get out. As far as I can tell, this will be the pain I feel for the rest of my life (that section of it where I’m in pain, at least). Acknowledging that was hard. Very hard.
Until the last nine months, contemporary dance made up an exceptional part of my life. I was dancing four-five days a week, most weeks. This involved open and professional classes and workshops (in the case of the latter, it involved a bit of creative lying).
For me, dance has always required a monastic devotion: ultimate focus on my current actions, while lining up the next 10, 30, or 60 seconds of movement in my head. Picking out moments and extensions I could sink into. A sense that my body existed to move this way, and for a very short period of time my body was not my own. That’s pretty appealing when you’re seemingly trying to erode your body.
Around the time I wrote the last article I began to realise that being in a dance studio wasn’t making me happy. Attending classes with your recently ex-girlfriend while you’re simultaneously excelling and nose-diving isn’t something I can describe. It guess it was like trying to fly a plane through a thunderstorm. I don’t know where I was or if I was going forwards or downwards. Sometimes I would just have to leave the space at a minute’s notice, because I couldn’t be in there any more.
So I stopped attending classes at my university. So now I’m dancing at most three times a week. I stop seeing progress and start plateauing. I’m frustrated that I can’t pick up choreography quickly, I’m lagging in routines, my technique isn’t as sharp as it was. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I have ideas, I’m trying to work on choreographic pieces, pieces that I feel really passionate about - but what’s the point when you can’t even do your own ideas justice?
So I made the decision to stop dancing. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, dance saved my life. Knowing I had a class to attend, or an upcoming workshop, or that there’s a weekly choreography course starting 40 minutes away and that you could definitely make it back in time if you got the last train… When these 60–90 minute periods are your islands, you become very concerned when the sea level rises. But they were putting me in a worse place, so I had to stop.
This has freed up time for me to focus on acroyoga (or sports acro) - a mixture between partner acrobatics and yoga. Twelve months later and I am paid (a symbolic amount) to teach every week, I get to introduce people to something I love on a weekly basis, I train with people who treat me better than I deserve, and I can find moments of complete peace and calm. These moments are no longer mid-pirouette, but in some other equally obscure position, often on some else’s feet.
I’ve recently started seeing dance again. I’m realising that a dance studio is different when it’s full of people. Dancers who are driven by their selves or by competition act very differently to artists in a studio with an idea. I’m realising it wasn’t dance that meant I had to leave, but the culture. Dance was always a tool for me, but for a lot of people I danced alongside it was an end goal. This produces some truly exceptional performers but I couldn’t handle the heat, and nor did I really like the kitchen’s decor so for now at least I’m staying out.
Demonstrably and repeatedly I am less fit than I was 12 months ago. I cut my PB 10k time by 20–25% over the course of a few months. I was fast, by my standards. Putting that 20–25% back on to my 10k time was hard. It makes me feel inadequate. If I could do it before, I should be able to do it now.
It’s not just that: I can’t get up at 7am to work out, then go to work, go to a fitness or dance class at 7pm, then go back to the gym at 9pm. I have all these other things I have to do. Like work a job that excites me and gives me meaning. Like read these excellent books, or spend time with badass humans. This doesn’t mean I don’t catch myself in the mirror when I’m getting changed and notice a loss of definition. It doesn’t stop me watching other people run or cycle, and constantly compare myself to them. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to count calories before I go to bed every night to double check I’m doing ‘okay’. But it does mean that my life is enriched in other areas.
The overwhelming gains
I spoke about the people I met through acroyoga. One of whom I now live with. These are people I respect a great deal, with who I meet 2–4 times a week to share, learn, and play. People who are kind to me, who accept my neurotic sense of what a movement should look like, and who (in the best way) strengthen me physically and mentally. This is a place I can use my physical strength and passion for teaching.
I’ve recently been involved in a number of creative projects, and I’ve got several more on the horizon. No it’s not choreography as I know it. But it’s taking what I loved from dance, and helping me explore it in an environment where I feel I belong.
Some time in June-July I entered a relationship, with a girl I call Angel because I don’t know what else you call someone who accepts and understands that sometimes I want to starve myself or make unfair quick judgements of a person or that I have a compulsive need to go to new places, be in bed by 9.30pm, and work too many hours at a job that I value too much.
I have realised that I can damn well do whatever I want for my job. If I want to be a web developer then I can probably just go and do that. So what if I’ve got a Master’s in Environmental Science - a department of chemistry happily pays me for work when I stopped studying their subject at 16. If I want someone to pay me money to keep improving some software I made when I was told explicitly by my supervisor to “not spend too much time on it” - then I should start asking a lot of people very nicely. These people do not care that I specialised in quantitative models of poverty, they care that I can show my current project has value and potential.
I realised that we’re living in a world that is literally the best it has ever been. No really, we are doing just fine. Not perfect, could still improve, and perhaps we should stop trusting the general public with internationally consequential votes, but there’s like no polio, fewer women are dying in childbirth, and more of these children are living and then learning to read (even the girl ones). I’ve started giving 5–10% of my salary to the issues I care about (you’re welcome, forest elephants), and 25% of the money I earn from teaching goes to other charities.
I am constantly aware that nothing is permanent, which includes my feelings and life (obligatory reminder that you’re going to die). I’m working on being humble. I’m working on being openly thankful. I’m grateful to all the people that made me feel unwelcome and unaccepted, because I was never going to fit in. I’m grateful to the excellent group of humans I have around me very often. I’m grateful to all the artists around me who have a vision and have to see it realised. I’m grateful to the hip-hop artists who reminded me what’s important. I’m grateful to the authors who helped me explore these ideas in greater depth. I am grateful to my to my parents and to the universe for just being pretty cool.
Managing a brain that advises you poorly on proper fitness routines, and which overly values an obscure art form you discovered 12 years too late to be any real good at it isn’t easy. But nothing’s really easy. I don’t expect it to be, and I expect my situation to look different in another 12 months.
I strongly agree we should be bringing discussion of mental health to the forefront of people’s awareness. But you need to show continuity and narrative. I don’t think a mental health story can ever truly be retrospective, because you’re always living it. I want this piece to show that mental health is still there, always there, and a part of who I am - and just because it’s no longer influencing my life to any great extent, does not mean this isn’t an important discussion and it doesn’t mean I don’t think about it often.
I hope more people who have opened up about their mental health continue these narratives to help themselves and others understand how it affects them day-to-day, but also year-to-year, and event-to-event.
Wilson’s tip-top hip-hop recommendations
Last year I was pretty clear that hip-hop played a massive part in my self-exploration. Below are a couple of the songs that constantly resonate with me, that I keep going back to, and that I think help to explain me a little better.
I ain't got the time to be your enemy That shit is draining, they're taking up too much energy I'd rather invest in something that's worth it, the time is precious So for Simz to waste it is something you'll never see, hold me to it Wings - Little Simz.
From the view of an atom the human body's a universe How impossibly big it be, this symmetry This brutality, and beauty and synergy And beyond what we'll live to see, I know nothing can limit me Just take everything ever and we are that times infinity Tiny Glowing Screens pt. 3 - Watsky
This is your life, you can't escape this bitch when it's hard Just know that it passes, but you'll collect scars They never go away, but they will make you who you are This is a beautiful struggle, I share it in song cause I can't control this, remember: the moment's beyond us Hold Your Head Up - Macklemore
I feel the waves getting far too big to handle Fail to turn this shit the other way Sail back to the harbor like your average Joe and play it safe But that's not life it's not what I chose Reflection - ATO X EDEN