“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” William Shakespeare
There are a lot of things about the eating disorder mind I likely will never understand, nor, I suspect, will anyone else who hasn’t lived with it. But there is one piece that I do get – a sentiment shared by many whose lives have been abruptly interrupted by these and other officious intermeddlers, especially for extended periods of time – and yet I’ve never been quite sure how to respond when confronted by it. It’s the sense among those in recovery, often rooted in friends’ Instagram, Periscope, Facebook and other social media posts, that their “unafflicted” peers are miles ahead of them in Life and that they (the sufferer) have little or no hope of ever catching up. It’s a demoralizing, at times debilitating mindset, but like most of the thoughts that populate an eating disorder mind it’s also a distortion of the truth. The challenge for me has always been how to articulate why that is in a way that not only convinces, but empowers those whose vision of self is clouded by that Big Lie. That is until a week ago, when I learned, via FB, that one of my favorite people on Earth, Marjorie Mims Dempsey (“Miraculous Marjorie” to her friends), crawled for the first time – at 13 MONTHS!
You see, ordinarily infants begin crawling between 6 and 9 months (I only know that because I looked it up on Wikipedia!), but there’s nothing “ordinary” about Marjorie. At 2:08 pm, on October 8, 2014, Marjorie fought her way into this world – all 1 lb., 15 oz. & 14” of her. No sooner had she arrived, however, than she was whisked off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, where she would spend the next 2 months fighting for her life. The mountain was steep. Born at 27 weeks, 2 days, Marjorie was just on the other side of the point at which doctors and families often have to make unthinkably difficult decisions because of the medical and developmental risks involved (tinyurl.com/pcp5h3f). But Marjorie, her family and her medical team would have none of that. It was never about WHETHER Marjorie would go home. It was about WHEN she would go home and how she would thrive when she got there. For 68 often scary, but always hope-filled days, Marjorie put on a clinic on “How To Do Life One Day At A Time”, on its preciousness, on the power that resides in daily declaring yourself worthy of it – on overcoming, on courage, on perseverance and on the resiliency of the human spirit.
On December 15, 2014, Marjorie “strolled” out of Wolfson and headed home for the holidays. Had it ended there, the story would be noteworthy, miraculous and inspiring enough. But less than six (6) months later, on May 27, 2015, Marjorie was back at Wolfson Children’s, this time on its Pediatric Oncology floor diagnosed with cancer – neuroblastoma (in her liver and adrenal glands) to be precise. The fight was joined again and, again, Marjorie rose to the challenge. While the adults in her world struggled to come to grips with the weight of the diagnosis and the intense emotions attached to it, Marjorie, thankfully oblivious to that piece of it (save for her mother’s tears spilling onto her cheeks) resumed the role of Warrior, of Life Grabber, of Braveheart, of Teacher, of “Whatever-It-Takes-Let’s-Get-It-Done-And-Move-On-er” – and move on she did. After several more heart-wrenching trips to the hospital, 2 rounds of chemo, too many scans to think about (and a few thousand prayers), Marjorie again waved goodbye to her team at Wolfson and, on October 22, 2015, she headed home.
And then it happened!
On November 3, 2015, almost 13 months to the day after her birth and nearly half a lifetime (re-read those last four words) after most of her FB friends had long since passed the milestone and were well on their way to walking, little Marjorie crawled a total of two feet – one uncertain, but deliberate inch at a time – for the very first time tinyurl.com/prbxly4 By then, she’d spent almost a third of her life in a hospital – much of it in Plexiglas incubator or tethered to a chemotherapy drip – while her friends were out partying at the local Gymboree. Truth is: Marjorie has every reason to be bitter, to feel sorry for herself, victimized, cheated, like she’s gotten the short end of the stick, as if she’s a failure – heck, maybe even a tad ashamed that it took so long to accomplish something that to most seems so basic. And yet, there’s not a hint of any of that in the video. In fact, it’s just the opposite – pride in place of shame, excitement rather than despair, effusive joy in lieu of bitterness or self-loathing, and determination instead of defeat. I see it in her smile, her eyes and her priceless chest thumps!
“How is that possible?” I wondered. How is it that someone can pass through such a dark place and come out on the other side so eager and enthusiastic to pick up where they left off, almost as if nothing had happened? “Maybe she’s just not old enough to know better,” I reasoned. After all, she’s only 13 months. And then it hit me. Maybe it’s precisely because Marjorie is only as old as she is that she DOES know better. Maybe her unworldly-adorned soul knows intuitively the truths that those who struggle to pick up the pieces of a life interrupted by adversity, especially those suffering from eating disorders, have so much trouble embracing:
That comparison is the thief of all happiness;*
That fighting for your life is nothing to feel guilty about, let alone be ashamed of;
That it takes immeasurable courage and strength to fight (and win) that battle;
That every battle scar earned along the way is intended to be a badge of honor – not a source of embarrassment;
That self-worth is not defined by others’ standards and expectations;
That sometimes progress is measured in grams and inches – not leaps and bounds;
That, on the path to overcoming, the only step that matters is the next one;
That each of those steps, no matter how small, is a cause for celebration; and
That the search for reassurance that we are enough “as is” begins and ends in the eyes of those who know us best and love us most.
Above all else, Marjorie has learned to be at home and at play in her own skin – a body that already has summited not one, but two once seemingly insurmountable mountains.
If I’m right (and I think I am!), then the good news is: There’s likely a Miraculous Marjorie inside each and every one of us just waiting to be discovered (or re-discovered as the case may be) and to be set free.
I don’t pretend to be very good at deciphering the words of a 13 month-old, but I’m pretty sure Marjorie’s video-taped message to the world is as clear as the twinkle in her eye: “Sorry I’m a little late to the party guys. I’ve been busy fighting for my life!”
*Jennifer Siebel Newsom