(photography by Thomas Cole Burgess)
"...for the first time in five years, I realized that maybe I did want to live my life without an eating disorder."
Despite the fact that I’ve been visiting my dad’s Boston office since before I can remember, it was during January of 2016 when I first walked that beautiful, old city alone. I had just returned home from my semester as a ballet performance major at Butler University and it was my second day of eating disorder treatment at the Renfrew Center of Boston. I made the 2.5 hour commute by myself: two hours on the commuter rail and thirty minutes walking from Back Bay Station to Boston University’s West Campus in sub 20-degree temperatures. I could’ve taken the T and spent only five minutes outside, but I couldn’t give up the opportunity to burn calories I hadn’t even consumed.
Once I was buzzed into the clinic hidden behind a construction site on Comm Ave, I routinely failed to meet the standards set by my doctors. Frustrated that I vehemently refused their provided meals and continued to lose weight over the next few days, my doctors sent me to inpatient treatment in Philadelphia. Two months later, when I was finally deemed healthy enough to return home and restart intensive outpatient treatment in Boston, the worst of the snow had passed, but the wind that whipped through the city streets was still fierce and cold.
After two more months of commuting from Newport to Boston every morning and night, I eventually exhausted myself. I was spending my days fighting with counselors and lying to therapists and hiding food that I was supposed to be eating. I was given the choice to either leave the Boston treatment facility, or return to the inpatient facility in Philadelphia. I opted to leave Boston and look for alternative options closer to home.
While I haven’t fully maintained recovery and maintenance since April of 2016, making that choice was probably the best thing I could’ve done for myself. Around the same time that I left Renfrew Boston, I found a job that was a five-minute walk from my parent’s Newport house. My sailing career began about as quickly as my ballet career had ended. One day I was scouring Newport for retailers who’d hire a girl with no work experience, and the next I was standing excitedly on Bannister’s Wharf filling out a W2 Form for the Schooner Madeleine and accepting my men’s, size small uniform shirt that I could wear on my training days. I began attacking my days in precise, 1.5-hour increments. The first sail was 10:30 to 12, 12:30 to 2 was the hungry sail, 2:30 to 4 was the hot sail, 4:30 to 6 was the mellow sail, and 6:30 to 8 (but it was always more like 9) was the exciting sail.
Madeleine is a 72-foot Marconi rigged schooner, which means that she has a triangular mainsail and a “gaffed” foresail. The “aft” mast, which is “stepped” or situated, down into the middle of the boat, is the main mast and is the tallest. That’s the one with the familiar triangularly shaped sail that is on most sailboats nowadays. The “foremast” is stepped forward, more towards the front of the boat, and is slightly shorter than the main mast. The sail on the foremast hangs from a long wooden club that is attached to “halyards” which pull it straight up the mast. That wooden club is called a “gaff” and rather than allowing the sail to form flush to the mast, it sticks outward and makes the sail look more like a rhombus.
Even farther forward than the foremast is our “forestay”. The forestay is a long, twisted metal cable that helps to balance the foremast by holding tension between the very top of the mast and the very front of the boat (which, in Madeleine’s case, is a thick, round, wooden bowsprit). “Hanked”, or hooked onto the forestay is our “jib”, which is our third and final sail. The jib is smaller than the mainsail and the foresail, is shaped like a slightly uneven triangle and takes up the space between the front of the boat, or “bow”, and the foremast.
While raising, trimming, and lowering sails all day felt familiar to me, it was everything else that made my position as a Madeleine crewmember so important. Almost every one of my training days in April was with Matt, the head captain, and Charlie–in his third season–and Brody, who was a “greenie” to Madeleine, same as I. Jeremy and Chris and Dylan I met throughout my first week as a real, tip-receiving member of the crew. Jeremy laughed, Chris taught, Dylan flirted. Nora was the wharf’s morning sunrise – she worked on Rum Runner II and used to live at the Rose Island lighthouse in the middle of Narragansett Bay. When I wasn’t working on the boat, I was shivering from springtime cold and laughing in the booth with MK, Nota, and Lauren while we tried to entice early season Newport tourists to go sailing in fifty-degree weather.
As spring continued and summer reached full swing, I found myself spending more time on the wharf than at my house, which remained just a five-minute walk up the hill. The sun was too warm to be inside, the people bustling through our touristy sailing town were too interesting to miss, and that damn ocean had caught me again, hook, line, and sinker. Despite the fact that I was in yet another destructive binge and purge cycle, and gaining weight at an unhealthily fast rate, I was happier than I’d been in five years. There’s just something about the salt water and the way it crashes and flows and ebbs and roils. I don’t want to be away from that.
And I didn’t want to be away from the community either. There were the Aquidneck Boys who sat on the opposite side of our shared dock, in the big boat with the blue hull. They taught me how to count tickets in my head while having strings of random numbers yelled in my ear. They showed me how to feast on food left over from private charters, and we’d jump from one boat to the next, stuffing our faces like absurd, starved animals in the quick intervals between sails. Then there was the Dack, up the dock: she’s a sistership and while her crew sometimes won our races, they had nothing on our champagne cork aim. And Eleanor, Ship Of War, she was hidden around the corner so we’d yell jokes and insults from our cockpits as we pulled past each other’s slips and though our passengers didn’t always understand, we certainly laughed.
I felt like me on the water, and most days I couldn’t seem to keep myself away from the waves and the salt and the way the deck gets hot under the summer sun. Narragansett Bay is also a good place to hide: no one’s paying attention to the girl dead asleep down below on the green cushions, surrounded by unfolded, unwashed blankets. The decisions I made surrounded by those blankets might not have been the smartest, but they were almost always the most authentic.
Instead of inspecting my existence, I just let it happen. I forgot to put on sunscreen. I destroyed a few blankets. I did a lot of shaking: sometimes from cold, sometimes anxiety, sometimes laughter, and often something that combined it all. I iced my sprained ankle between sails. I scratched at old scars and pesky bug bites. I found champagne turtles everywhere. I lied about historical landmarks. I let myself fall in love.
Somehow, in the midst of everything, I found something that made me happy. Sailing didn’t change the fact that my electrolytes were struggling to remain stable and my heartrate wasn’t quite as high as it should’ve been. Being on the ocean didn’t take away the bingeing, purging, restricting, and overexercising. But for the first time in five years, I realized that maybe I did want to live my life without an eating disorder. Maybe I could be healthy one day and feel proud of that. Maybe I could choose to fight this illness. While nothing about my eating disorder became easier to manage, it was the introduction of hope that I am so grateful for. Hope to recover and hope to carry on.
Possible resources someone with an eating disorder might find useful:
(for more information on the above organizations, you can visit TWLOHA)