Post-graduation, I was given a tremendous opportunity: at the ripe old age of 21, I would be running the entire drama department at my local high school. The drama department was pretty renowned, at least in the days when I was still a high schooler myself. The old department director was a legend; however, she had retired a few years back, and, for a number of reasons I don’t care to delve into here, the drama department I inherited was in a bit of disrepair.
It’s tough enough trying to salvage a public school theatre department when the money has dried up and the audience has died off*; it was worse trying (and, more often than not, failing) to win the respect of teachers and administrators several years my senior and students very nearly my own age.
In brief, my year as the drama director was both the most triumphant and most difficult year I had faced thus far. My students–the ones who cared–worked hard to put our school back on the map. We did absolutely mind-blowingly wonderful performances of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dog Sees God, and Kiss Me, Kate.** My students won a massive number of Critic’s Choice awards at District competition, and one was even chosen to represent our district at State competition.
On the flip side, I had several nervous breakdowns. We lost a lot of money (and gained a little, too). I worked 90 hour weeks, and my cell phone was constantly buzzing with texts from my students as I helped them with their personal dramas on my down time. I cried a lot. I had no friends but my students (and some absolutely incredible members of the faculty) and my dog. I lived with my parents. I was exhausted.
I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about my body. I stopped exercising all together, because, between my 6:15 am arrival at school, my 3:00 pm rehearsals, and, more often than not, 11 pm bedtime after grading papers or writing curricula, I just didn’t have the time or energy.
ED only remained lurking in my daily food routine. For breakfast, I ate 3/4 cup Publix brand Toasted Oatmeal Flakes with skim milk. For lunch, I ate an apple and two lightly salted Publix rice cakes with all natural Publix peanut butter. (My students will probably remember this, since I usually couldn’t wait to eat until lunch time because I was so hungry. I would walk around my classroom during 4th or 5th period, eating my peanut butter as slowly as I could because I needed to make it last.) For a pre-rehearsal snack, I would eat another apple and two more rice cakes. At home, for dinner, I would eat my broccoli slaw/black bean concoction, only I had by this point taken to adding “healthy” mix-ins, like Terra Stix and soy nuts. (If we had a rehearsal that night, I would instead have a Clif’s Bar in lieu of an actual dinner.)
For dessert, I would fill a mug with more Toasted Oatmeal Flakes (Seriously, have you ever tried that stuff? It’s like “healthy” crack) and milk. When I finished the cereal, I would refill the mug to soak up the extra milk. My cereal time became sacred–the one indulgence I had built into my day. I knew that I was eating too many carbs; that my portion sizes were distorted; that I probably should have just eaten more of something healthy for dinner instead. But I looked forward to my nightly cereal, and I let absolutely nothing stand in the way of my habit.
I also developed a gum addiction. Do you remember Bubble Tape? I know–throwback to the third grade. Apparently, it’s still available at your local Walgreens. I started chewing gum because it made me feel like I was eating. The sugar spikes kept me powered through my constant post-meal attacks of hypoglycemia (which apparently happens when you’re not actually giving your body enough fuel. Who knew?) And chewing gum was a major stress reliever. By the end of the school year, I was going through two packs of Bubble Tape per day.
At the end of the school year, I announced my imminent departure. There was no way I could take another year as high stress and high stakes as this last one had been. Besides, Columbia University was offering me a fellowship to their School of the Arts, so I was packing my bags long before the last bell tolled.
I was still 125 lbs. I was “skinny” and maintaining. Sure, I still couldn’t enjoy a meal with friends, but I didn’t have any, so it didn’t matter. Things were finally looking up. All I had to do was make it through the summer, and I was free.
*The town where I grew up was mainly just a collection of retirement communities. The bulk of our audience came from one called Century Village.
**My principal was amazing. How I got away with half of the stuff I put on stage is beyond me.