In the eighth grade, I was diagnosed by my family doctor with major depressive disorder and anorexia nervosa. To this day, my memories from the entire year are a blur of hunger pains, self-harm scars and constant calorie counting. After being diagnosed, I struggled (but survived) through the remainder of my eighth grade year, and I was accepted into a theater program at the high school I had longed to go to for years.
I never found the transition into ninth grade to be particularly stressful. I was fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful friends, and I managed to get straight A’s in my first year of high school. I dated a few popular boys my age, and I was pretty well liked by the other kids in my grade. After school, I bounced back and forth between volunteer opportunities, youth groups and horseback riding lessons. I had been riding under the same coach since I was 7 years old. So she was one of the first people to know when my home life started unravelling.
From the outside, I was seen as a happy and successful, young teen. Few people around me knew how bad it was. My mom knew about my self-harm and food restricting habits, but she never knew the extent of the problem. I would throw away my lunches at school, saving the plastic bags and Tupperware containers so she would assume I was eating them every day. I self-harmed on my stomach, thighs and hips so nobody could see the scars.
I can remember my riding coach telling me to, “Eat my Wheaties!” She said I needed to strengthen up so I could become a better rider, and she made it clear I couldn’t get strong if I wasn’t eating healthy. She knew I was going through a rough time in my life, and going to her barn was a healthy outlet in my most trying times.
When I was hospitalized near the end of ninth grade, she came to visit me. She was apologetic but optimistic, never making me feel guilty or responsible for my illness. She brought DVDs and horse magazines for me to pass my time with. She chatted me up about what was happening on the farm. I was on bed rest for 28 days because my heart rate was so low from my eating habits. Eventually, I had an nasogastric tube (also known as a NG tube) inserted through my nose and down my throat so I could be fed liquid meal replacements. My coach never stared at my tube or made me feel embarrassed about my situation. She was always willing to listen, but never forced me to talk.
After almost a month, when I was finally released from bed rest, my coach came back for another visit. She looked so beautiful in her long summer dress and her signature coral lip gloss. I longed so badly to be discharged from the hospital so I could return to the barn and have lessons with her.
She sat with me and chatted for a while before looking me in the eye and saying a few words that would change my life forever.
She told me one of her amazing horses, Ben, was up for lease as his rider had moved on to a bigger horse. She thought maybe I could ride him. I was absolutely floored. Ben was not an easy horse to ride. I didn’t feel like my skills were up to par, but she had an unwavering faith in me. She told me she wanted me to get back to riding, but I couldn’t do that until I was healthy again. She told me to remind myself every day if I could work toward recovery, then I would be able to ride her horse, which was an amazing motivator for me.
With time, I got healthier and became strong enough to return to the barn. True to her word, she let me try riding Ben, and we formed an instant bond. Ben changed my life forever. Every time I started to slip down into eating disordered thoughts, I could remind myself why I needed to be strong. If my coach ever noticed I was relapsing, then she was there to offer words of encouragement and support. She was always clear that she wouldn’t be able to coach me if I wasn’t eating. Every time I cried through a meal or considered feeding my dinner to my dog, I thought back to Ben and my coach.
Over the years, I have been able to recover fully with help from many friends and family members, but my coach will always be such an important part of my story. She gave me a reason to keep going when I thought I had nothing left. She kept me accountable when my eating disorder tempted me down an unhealthy path. She has and always will be an incredible role model. When I needed her the most, she stepped up to the plate. I will always be grateful for the motivation she gave me to get on my path to recovery.