While volunteering at a Los Angeles animal shelter, I met a brindle, ten-month-old pit bull named Sunny. She was very undernourished, and her tail looked like it had been chopped in half and then stomped on in three places. Yet despite her dire circumstances, a joyful energy moved through her. Every time I slipped inside her kennel, she came barreling into my arms and sprawled across my lap—her whole body wagging along with her stub tail.
The outdoor kennels gave the dogs little relief from scorching summer sun. Sunny often panted with saliva dripping from her mouth, and I knew she was excruciatingly thirsty. Sometimes she approached her water bowl, but then would back away with her ears flattened on top of her head. And soon enough I realized what she was afraid of: her reflection. Sunny’s body told her to drink, but her mind told her a scary, dangerous dog was in her way.
Until one day, when the temperature was in the nineties, Sunny stood over the bowl and peered down. Her chest heaved. Her ears unclenched, her body loosened. Then, as if she made a decision, like she was standing on a cliff and saying “screw it,” she jumped. She dunked her mouth inside the bowl and drank and drank in big gulps. Sunny came back to me gloriously slobbering, looking like she felt a lot better, like this was the first time she felt satiated in a long while. I nearly stood up screaming and cheering, nearly became liquid myself.
I knew this feeling. How powerful our fears can be. And finally, the taste of freedom.
When I became bulimic in high school, I believed that changing my body (through getting rid of what I ate) could protect me from suffering. Crazy as it sounds, I believed in this as much as Sunny believed a scary, dangerous dog lived inside her water bowl. Unconsciously, I believed I was getting rid of more than food. I was getting rid of my problems and love handles and frizzy hair and acne. Of my alcoholic father and the guys who didn’t like me back and all the rage that never escaped my mouth. Of everything that scared me and made me uncomfortable.
I was getting rid of the difference between the girl I was and the girl I believed I was supposed to be.
I told myself that my bulimia wasn’t hurting anybody. I told myself that if I ever really wanted to stop, I had the power to do so. I told myself that if I looked “good” according to society’s standards, then I’d start to feel good inside.
These were lies of course, but I couldn’t see it at the time. Sadly, it took me eight long years to become willing to consider that my mind wasn’t telling the whole truth. To stop listening to the voices in my head and start listening to my therapist, my family, my spiritual teachers…and most importantly, my heart.
I didn’t heal all at once, but rather, in one microscopically small moment after another, as I struggled against what scared me. As I acknowledged my fear and did the frightening thing anyways. As I started to eat foods I was previously afraid of. As I went to treatment even though it seemed unnecessary and weak. As I told someone that I was freaking out over dinner , even though this embarrassed me. As I tried hard not to purge, even when I felt triggered to do so.
Today, I know the universality of suffering. I know that each of us has a heart beating inside of our chest, and as much as we’d like to build armor around it, as much as we’d like to fight off pain and feeling with food and starvation and drugs and alcohol and sex…sometimes, we just have to feel.
And when I look back at the girl hopelessly trying to puke up her problems—what I feel is compassion. I want to hold my teenage self in my arms and speak to her like I do with the shelter dogs. I want to tell her about her courage and resilience and beauty and limitless potential.
I want to say to her what I once said to Sunny.
Sweet girl, you’re going to be okay.
Sweet girl, you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.
About the Author: Shannon Kopp is a writer, eating disorder survivor, and animal welfare advocate. When she's not tapping away at her keyboard, you'll find her loving on adoptable dogs at her local shelter. Shannon has worked and volunteered at various shelters throughout Southern California, where homeless dogs helped her to discover a healthier, more joyful way of living. Her book, Pound for Pound (HarperCollins Pubilshers), has struck a chord with readers and reviewers across the country. You can learn more about her writing at www.shannonkopp.com. And if you don't mind an abundance of furry friends in your newsfeed, follow Shannon on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.