It’s 6:30 a.m. in Germany, and I am underwater, pulling my body through the cool water’s drag. I’ve ridden my bike to the swimming pool (das schwimmbad), and have lost my location amid the winding streets. I only know that I must exercise. That is enough to pull me from sleep at dawn and push me through the unknown streets while my heart clanks like a rocket in my chest.
I will risk venturing into unknown safety to exercise. The compulsion scares me. Not appeasing it scares me more.
The pool is centered inside a gray concrete building with the texture and window linings of an old church. It’s fitting since this body has become my religion. I pretend that I assimilate into the culture. If I say few words people assume I belong because my face holds blends of European origin. I say good morning in German and keep to myself so they won’t find out that I don’t fit in anywhere.
I want to be better. I am sick of my eating disorder, but I don’t know how to start. My body slithers though the water like an eel, my mind regurgitating thoughts of the therapist I saw, at home in Hawaii. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be traveling,” she’d said. “It would be wise for you to stay here and be in therapy.”
I remember how her words left a bitter taste in my mouth. The disorder had taken so much from me already and I wasn’t going to let it ruin my chance to travel to Europe. Depression was normal. I could handle its somber distress and preferred it to its sister, anxiety.
A few weeks before coming to Germany, I had injured a tendon in my knee trying to run a long distance while ignoring the pain. Now I must swim. I half appreciate the irony because at 15 years old I was a lifeguard, and spent the entire summer at the pool — the summer anorexia first tricked me into becoming its friend.
As I flip turn off the nearest side of the pool I feel the little rush of how sleek I must look pushing off in a cluster of bubbles. The tiles pass underneath. My mind runs with a plethora of recognizable thoughts — body image, food.
Ten feet from the edge, I hear someone call my name in a voice so clear I forget that I am underwater. My pace slows, thinking I’ve heard someone talking from outside the pool. There is no one there, so my arms resume rainbow arches.
The voice returns, speaking to me in English. Suddenly, I put together that people speak German here, and they think that I do too. “You’re going to write a book about this,” the voice said, and I know that “this” means my eating disorder.
I almost choke but remember to close my mouth in time to keep the water from siphoning down my throat. “No, I’m not,” I say to the voice.
“Yes, you are,” it says.
“How am I supposed to write a book when I’m not better?” I say. “What a cruel joke, setting me up to be a liar, the thing I despise myself for.”
The voice holds silent as I complain, as I tell it why I cannot, will not, do it.
Then I go home and jot down chapter titles in my fat blue spiral notebook, the color of deep ocean depths.
What I realize about this moment, looking back, is that this was the moment that the voice (God) believed in me. He told me something would be so and gave me a promise to hold onto if I could persevere. One magical day, I would recover and I would write a book about it. But here’s the thing: in order to write a book about being free, I would have to be free.
I spent a lot of my teen life thinking I was a constant disappointment to God, so this message was a calling. Back at the schwimmbad this task held the promise of fulfillment, and if I complied, God would be proud of me.
What was asked of me consumed years and was constantly there, scratching at the back of my skull. My recovery began as a desire to please someone else. Only later did I realize that the voice wasn’t so much a task as it was a promise.
I like to say that “I don’t need to be saved, just helped.” The message in the schwimmbad that morning provided the underlying motivation to recover even when I didn’t think it was possible. It reminded me that not only was there a possibility, but at some point in the future, there was a me that was free. I just had to find her. I had to grow into the version of that future me.