WOMEN

An Eating Disorder Nearly Took Her Life. Yoga Helped Her Reclaim It.

"I wanted to wither away. I wanted to exist on nothing. I wanted to prove that I didn’t need anything or anyone."

In 2005, when she was only 15, Chelsea Roff woke up in a wheelchair in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Texas.

‘Woke up’ is the wrong term. She was conscious for the month she had already spent at Children's Medical Center Dallas, but to this day she doesn’t remember a moment of it.

She weighed a staggering 58 pounds and had suffered a stroke at a Whole Foods while shopping with her younger sister. Chelsea was two weeks away from her sixteenth birthday and would stay in that hospital for 18 months.

At the time of her hospitalization for acute anorexia, Child Protective Services (CPS) took her out of her mother’s care and deemed her doctors her legal guardians. Chelsea’s sister was sent to live with their godparents and the girls didn’t see one another for a very long time.

Born in 1989 in conservative Williamson County, Texas, Chelsea was bullied in school for being the girl with lesbian parents.

Her mother was disowned by her family when she told them she was gay. She got pregnant with Chelsea with the help of an anonymous sperm donor as a way to prove her close-minded family wrong when they told her she would never be happy and would never be a mother.

Chelsea’s younger sister was born two years later. Their non-biological mom, Donna, helped raise them but was never granted legal custody of the girls by the state of Texas.

Understanding the cause of Chelsea’s illness can be mapped in the shape of a spiral, starting within her and moving outward, into her family life and her environment.

Genetics are a jumping off point. Chelsea’s great grandmother struggled with depression and was rumored to sit up in the middle of the night asking for her “nerve pill.” Chelsea’s biological mom suffered from depression, alcoholism and an eating disorder that Chelsea only learned about as an adult.

But whatever predispositions may have been at play -- anxiety, depression or a tendency to turn to substances -- Chelsea believes that there is more to it. “Genes are not these locked, little things. They can change,” she told The Huffington Post in an interview at her apartment in Venice Beach, California.

“If you think about genes like light switches, only some of them get turned on. What turns them on is experience and environment. My life growing up was chaotic and traumatic." 

When Chelsea was six, her mother’s nephew committed suicide. She says that was the moment when everything changed.

Her mother started drinking heavily. Chelsea remembers coming home from school on her birthday to discover her mom missing. She spent the entire day trying to find her and eventually did, passed out by the side of a highway.

Chelsea’s other mom, Donna, earned the main income for the family and was often traveling for work as Chelsea’s mom’s alcoholism progressed exponentially.

It was not uncommon to find shards of glass in their food or a joint in a school backpack. As the drinking got worse, the fighting between her parents became violent. Chelsea physically put herself in the middle to get them to stop. She was eight.

When Donna tried to call the police, Chelsea’s mom would threaten to never let her see the kids again. If Donna tried to take them away, Chelsea’s mom called the police screaming kidnapping.

 ****  

The stress Chelsea was under was crippling. She was often left on her own while her mom locked herself in the closet to drink.

At ages 10 and 11, she began to explore online chat rooms. “I was curious about men. The only message I got from my parents was that all men were bad. I got myself into some very dangerous situations with men that resulted in sexual assault," she said.

Her parents never found out.

“I hated my body and I was mad at it. I wanted to cut it off,” Chelsea said. “I wanted to make my body small and invisible. I didn’t want to be attractive to men anymore. Being in my body was a painful, agonizing experience.”

At 12, Chelsea tried her first diet. Her mother joined -- spontaneously cooking and going to the gym with her. “It was my path in. All of a sudden my mom wanted to do things with me. I think I triggered her old eating disorder,” she said. This was a sadly blissful time for Chelsea.

But after two months, her mom returned to drinking and Chelsea clung to what she describes now as her life vest. “When I was thinking about what I wasn’t going to eat, I couldn’t feel sadness. I was too obsessed with counting calories. When I was on the treadmill thinking about how much I hated my body, there was no space for all of the pain that was there." 

She received validation at school. Instead of being the girl with lesbian parents, she became the girl who lost lots of weight over the summer. The boys weren’t interested in her because she was so thin --- and according to Chelsea, that was great too.

She starved herself for a year. On a 100-degree Texas day, Chelsea collapsed on a marching band field and was taken to the hospital. Her doctor diagnosed her with mitral valve prolapse, a weakened heart condition that is common in patients who struggle with anorexia.

The nurses tried to make her eat but she hid her food in the flowerpots when they turned away. It became clear that Chelsea needed to be put into inpatient care.

As a 13-year-old in 2003, Chelsea was sent to an adult psychiatric unit in New Orleans. “If you didn’t eat they would stick a tube up your nose,” Chelsea said. “But there was structure and it was safe. It was their job to take care of me and they showed up every day.”

Her health insurance covered 30 days, but when she returned home without any coping skills, all of her triggers were waiting for her. Violence and alcoholism had not packed up and moved. She went back into treatment six months later, this time to Florida for three months.

Once back in Texas, she realized things had worsened in her absence. Her mom was now unemployed and they no longer had health insurance. Donna had moved out and was living nearby so she could take Chelsea to her doctor appointments. She begged her, often with tears in her eyes, to eat. But Chelsea continued to starve herself.

At this point, she could manipulate her weight up to 20 pounds before getting on the scale. She would duct tape coins and Coke bottles to her underpants or drink four jugs of water before weigh-ins.

“Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can still see that face. It was like a skeleton,” Chelsea said. She was so thin that a woman in the grocery store told her that she would pray for her.

But it wasn’t enough.

“I didn’t like what I saw -- I wanted to be smaller. It’s not about wanting to be like a model on a magazine cover. I didn’t want to look anything like your version of beauty. I wanted to wither away. I wanted to exist on nothing. I wanted to prove that I didn’t need anything or anyone."

**** 

By the time she suffered a stroke in 2005, she was 15, close to death and her options were running out. But everything was about to change. Child Protective Services removed Chelsea from the custody of her mother and turned her over to the hospital. This meant that she would be given the full time she needed to recover.

CPS had been called many times throughout Chelsea’s life. But it wasn’t until they found a six-month old carton of milk in the fridge that they were able to take action. They needed something concrete.

Donna moved to Dallas to be closer to Chelsea in the hospital, but because she wasn’t recognized as a parent by the state, she had no family visitation rights. “She would sit in the waiting room and when I would see her out there, I would make a dive for the door. I would get tackled to the ground,” Chelsea remembered.

The first three months in the hospital focused on Chelsea learning to walk again. She didn’t have control of her bladder and wet the bed every night. Her skin was yellow. She hadn’t had her period in years.

“I wanted to die by the time I got there. I felt like my family had been taken away, my body didn’t work anymore and I had nothing left to live for,” Chelsea said. But her new doctors and nurses became her family.

“I will never forget the moment when my nurse, Miss Connie, took me out of bed and held me in her arms to show me a sunset through the window. I was crying. She told me, ‘Keep your eyes on the sunset. We are going to get through this together.’”

The hospital staff made Chelsea eat as much as 18,000 calories a day. Her belly was so distended that they would roll her around on the ground to get her stomach to process food.

One of the things we get from our parents, hopefully, is unconditional love, Chelsea told me. We internalize that love and learn self-love. “I did not love myself at the time," said Chelsea. "But my doctors and nurses told me that I was beautiful, intelligent and resilient. They told me I had something to live for."

**** 

After 18 months, Chelsea was back to a nearly healthy weight. She completed her high school courses remotely from the hospital and was able to apply to college. She was accepted to The University of Texas at Arlington.

Her nutritionist gave her a piece of paper that told her exactly what to eat each day. “By the time I got out of the hospital, I wanted to live. But that was it. I didn’t want to have a relationship with my body. I didn’t want to feel hunger or fullness,” Chelsea said. 

Her therapist immediately put her into yoga. It was the only approved exercise for her at the time but it ended up becoming something much, much greater to Chelsea.

“In the middle of my eating disorder, I never felt the sensation of hunger. I cut myself off from the neck down,” Chelsea explained. “I learned to ignore what was happening in my body -- whether that was hunger, fullness or pain. I let those neurological pathways die.”

What yoga did, without her realizing it, was bring those pathways back to life. In class, a teacher might say something like, “lift all five of your toes up and press them firmly into the ground.” That required Chelsea’s brain to go to her toes.

Or while in a pose, the teacher might say, “notice what’s happening in your inner left thigh.” Chelsea began to reconnect her mind to sensations in her body. This is called interoceptive awareness.

When she wasn’t on a yoga mat, Chelsea spent most of her time in the lab. “I had terrible social anxiety. People scared me and I didn’t trust anybody. I loved researching and studying,” she said.

She double majored in psychology and neuroscience and focused on psychoneuroimmunology -- the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems in the body.

But it was the community that Chelsea discovered in yoga that became the guiding light in her recovery. When Chelsea’s mom developed alcohol-induced dementia at age 49 -- Chelsea was 19 -- the grief she experienced nearly led her to relapse.

A friend from her yoga group pulled her aside, seeing that Chelsea was suffering. She suggested that they have a bagel every morning after yoga for breakfast. And they did. "She was my accountability buddy," Chelsea said. "The community stopped me from relapsing.” 

 Yoga helped Chelsea repair her relationship with her body, and the people around her filled her with support. Dedicating herself to service solidified her recovery.

****  

When Chelsea first walked into a juvenile detention center to teach yoga, she thought she would be far away from eating disorders.

But she was wrong. Many of the kids were sexual abuse survivors, and over time, a handful of them told Chelsea about their own eating disorders.

She now knows how common this is. “I would say almost every female client I work with who is dealing with an acute eating disorder has experienced sexual trauma,” she said.

At the time, she promised herself she would never go near someone with an eating disorder again. But she adored the girls in the detention center. “I found that I was not disgusted by them. They did not scare me. I felt an immense sense of kinship and empathy,” Chelsea said.

Her doctor from Children's Medical Center Dallas asked her to come back and teach yoga in the eating disorder unit. She said absolutely not. He convinced her to just visit and speak, half-jokingly saying: “Chelsea, you owe me.”

Talks turned into yoga classes. Chelsea is the first to say that the practice of yoga alone is not enough. It needs to be taught in the context of traditional treatment. “Yoga does not cure eating disorders. But it gave me the ability to sense what was happening inside my body.”

After graduating from college and being a finalist for a Fulbright Scholarship in Kenya focusing on yoga’s effects on the immune system, Chelsea decided it was time to leave Texas.

She moved to Los Angeles and began to develop a six-week yoga program for eating disorder patients. It focused on the most meaningful tools in her recovery: community, embodiment and service.

“Service is what sealed the deal for my recovery. It was no longer about me anymore. An eating disorder is inherently selfish. You’re in so much pain that you can’t think about anybody else,” Chelsea said.

She volunteered teaching yoga at eating disorder centers and joined Big Brother Big Sister. “Service got me out of myself. It taught me about my value and worth. I liked who I was.”

Chelsea began teaching her six-week course to facilitators all around the country and published an article about her illness. CNN filmed her teaching and Sanjay Gupta featured the piece.

At 24, she raised $51,000 to create her non-profit, Eat, Breathe, Thrive. Today it exists in three distinct settings: clinics in hospitals, community centers and on college campuses. Chelsea has trained over 100 facilitators around the country to teach the program, which combines yoga, community, service and lessons from the program’s guiding principals. 

Chelsea gives an example: “One lesson is starting to make choices based on functionality rather than form. When I wake up in the morning, I go for a walk. Not because I want to reduce fat on my thighs, but because going for a walk stimulates my endorphins, wakes me up and helps me focus,” she said.

“We are looking for functions. Same thing with my food. When I think about what I’m going to eat, I don’t think about how many calories are in something. I ask how does this food make me feel? Is it going to give me energy? We do a lot of exercises to learn which foods optimize certain functionalities.”

Recovery is a layered word for Chelsea, even today at 25-years-old. “A lot of people say once you have an eating disorder, you always have one. I do not subscribe to that. I don’t know where my eating disorder went. But around 22, it was completely gone,” she said.

Being in recovery and being recovered sound similar enough, but they couldn’t feel more different to her. Being in recovery meant looking at a plate of food, knowing all of the calories and eating it anyway. Being fully recovered means naming chocolate-covered strawberries, brussels sprouts and bacon as her favorite foods.

“I don’t have a ticker in my head,” she said. “It’s completely gone. I never thought I’d have freedom.”

Eat, Breathe, Thrive's college programs are free to students and the clinical programs are free to patients. The community programs are $350 per participant, but they give out many scholarships so that no one is turned away.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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