I walked into the common room of The Center for Discovery, an eating disorder treatment clinic for teens in California. Glancing around the room I saw a dozen kids sprawled across leather couches. I was not impressed. I had left a community that I loved during the spring semester of my freshmen year in college, a small private Christian school in Indiana, to return home to the West and seek treatment for my anorexia. I immediately regretted my decision. I had just come from a college where my friends and I were involved in the peace club and where I was reading about feminist pedagogy for my Women’s Studies course. I quickly concluded the teens at the center were far below the intellectually rich world I had left.
One by one they introduced themselves. Raven’s arms were a maze of scars from many suicide attempts. Starving was her new approach. Miguel was a meth addict. He was always angry; cuss words littered his speech. Thad was a gay 14-year-old from Massachusetts whose past two years had been spent in and out of treatment centers for bulimia.
For the first week I shut myself out. Rarely talking, spending hours pressed into the folds of the couch, trying to push the pain away. I was cynical about everyone, including myself.
In high school my friends called me “the big ear.” I listened to friends’ boyfriend woes or complaints about a parent’s strict curfew. I love listening to people and take pride in my ability to ask thoughtful questions and show compassion through lending an ear. One day at the center I told this part of my story to Perla, my therapist. She asked if I had taken the time to listen and ask questions of the other teens at the center. I realized I had not. Being thrown in with people that led such different lives, my compassionate listening was gone and replaced by harsh judgments.
After that realization I listened. I heard people’s narratives. I understood the stories behind Raven’s scars; I heard about Miguel’s struggle with meth and his journey to become clean. I listened as Thad shared how hard it was to be gay in his conservative East Coast town. I also got to know them as people, not as stereotypes with scars and addictions. Jordan was an artist. Miguel was a sponsored skateboarder. Nick was an avid American Idol fan.
I believe in taking the time to listen to people’s stories. Before hearing the other teens’ narratives I had dehumanized them. Seeing the way I had treated them I realized this was the way I was treating myself. I was dehumanizing myself. My disorder consumed me with constant negative thoughts about my body and who I was. I slowly began to realize that I needed to listen just as compassionately to myself. I wouldn’t be the person I am today, I wouldn’t be the recovering anorexic I am today, if I hadn’t taken the time to listen.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.