My Own Key to Kindness
There is a particular force behind being kind. It is simple enough to be taught before children can even speak and powerful enough to be a non-negotiable characteristic of a “good person.” Like many others, I strive to embody kindness. Whether it was being surrounded by the “treat people with kindness” posters hung around my elementary school, or the genuine and overwhelming kindness modeled by my mother, it has become natural for me to approach everyone with a smile, a keen interest, and a desire to help. Over the past two years, depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder with anorexic and bulimic tendencies weakened the ease of being innately kind. I used all the strength my disorders did not take from me to hide this change, leaving me with a fragile, deteriorated version of myself. I did not treat her with kindness; rather, I treated her with cruelty.
I held impossible expectations for myself. Overload on your engineering courses, perform well in all of them, walk on to a nationally ranked team for a sport you had no previous exposure to, quickly pick up the complicated, nuanced rowing stroke within a month of being introduced to it. Maintain new college friendships from home during the pandemic, and force your undernourished body to train itself into better shape than ever before. Return to school, add an intense 75-minute dance class to your schedule, and ignore the fear of what will happen to your body if you don’t attend twice a week. Hold executive positions in two clubs, and join a second dance group as if the first dance group, dance class for credit, and rowing 20 hours a week wasn’t enough to combat the weight you started to gain after having your period medically induced 6 months ago. Back down from no previous commitments and take seven classes during your first collegiate racing season. Above all, prove to yourself that you can maintain that positive attitude through truly anything.
"Starting therapy is a terrifying thing – you are forced to turn right into all the things you have been unconsciously running away from. Anyone who steps onto that path is incredibly brave."
It was all too much. I was in pieces. I could not keep up with the busy schedule I made to protect my injured mindset, and my disorders were free to show their true colors. My friend could see the magnitude of pain I was in despite all my efforts to hide it, and she helped me find a therapist. The treatment process was slow at first – I was only interested in healing the parts of myself other people could see. Although I now know that treatment requires healing the deeply internal parts, I look back on that version of myself with so much pride. Starting therapy is a terrifying thing – you are forced to turn right into all the things you have been unconsciously running away from. Anyone who steps onto that path is incredibly brave.
I had sporadic therapy sessions with a variety of providers to help get me through the end of my sophomore year. The day after coming home from college, I met with a provider who would end up becoming my primary psychologist to this day. By the time I returned to Durham for my junior year in August, I had on the world’s best bandage: a bandage that required hours of therapy, tears, hugs, and, of course, smiles, to apply. I came back to school with one less club, two fewer executive positions, and three fewer classes on my plate. I knew more about how my disorders presented themselves and was aware of some of my triggers. Like most bandages, it was successful in temporarily concealing the wound. Come week three, blood was gushing harder than I had ever seen it. What I did not know then is that I would only hold a Duke oar five times that year.
I had entered the medically “severe” zone. I quickly fell behind in all my classes, I was pulled from dance and weights sessions, the amount of food I ate rapidly declined, and the number of hours spent in bed did the exact opposite. Eventually I had to withdraw from half my course load, and I was pulled from rowing entirely.
"Only then, when I noticed I could no longer treat the people I loved with kindness, was I able to reach down deep enough to heal my own internal pain."
This “pull” from rowing did not just separate me from my sport; it separated me from my teammates. Gone was riding the bus with them every morning, watching every sunrise together seated in the same boat, turning on our favorite music in the weight room and cheering for each other as if there was no one else in the world when one of us picked up that barbell. There were no exhilarating practice stories to keep me joyful throughout the day, no soreness to complain about when randomly finding each other in WU, no walking into TT every night seeing an intimidatingly large group of rowers. Sure, I was still on the roster, but I was barred the privilege of being a teammate. It felt like all my reasons to smile were depleted.
That’s what depression does, or rather, what it did to me. It took away every beautiful thing in not only my life, but also in the lives of those who dared to love me through it. Only then, when I noticed I could no longer treat the people I loved with kindness, was I able to reach down deep enough to heal my own internal pain.
"Hopeful light slowly starts seeping into that seemingly infinite amount of pain. Not because you got lucky, but because you showed up every single day."
I decided to leave school in pursuit of a more intense treatment regimen. My time in intensive therapy was debilitating. It was lonely, dark, and raw. At times, it was discouraging. Above all, it was constant. Constant pain, constant tears, constant exhaustion, constant guilt for the people who sacrificed parts of themselves trying to support you. But you continue showing up to hours of therapy each day because there is literally nothing else you can do. You continue learning about your psyche and how it is impacted by your environment, your routine, the people you interact with, and most importantly, how you speak to your mind and care for your body. Hopeful light slowly starts seeping into that seemingly infinite amount of pain. Not because you got lucky, but because you showed up every single day. You allowed professionals into your broken heart. You endured discomfort and consistently opened up to your family until it wasn’t uncomfortable anymore. You began rowing a single again, and you found more genuine love for the sport than you ever thought possible. You’re starting to feel that easy smile you used to wear coming back home. You don’t know it yet, but it’s only just the beginning.
"I had always associated kindness with how I treat other people, and I discovered that I excluded the three most important people in my life: my past self, my present self, and my future self."
That first bit of light gave me the hope I needed in order to run with the rest of the process. It continued to surprise me. I was confused how I could feel more happiness than I had remembered I could have felt, and still be told there is a lot of rewiring due in my brain. I was confused how I could be strong enough to apply for a multitude of jobs and accept a job offer working in Design & Construction in Manhattan, and still find myself a nutrition therapist who recommended a much more intense level of care for my eating disorder. Once in intensive treatment, I was confused how I could have lived through being pulled from rowing yet again and pushed myself to an uncomfortable level of fullness for so many weeks in a row, only to consistently be told “you still don’t weigh enough yet.” What shocked me the most is the trust I gained in my very own self. If the way I talk to myself has gotten me to the point where I am strong and insightful enough to write the following paragraphs, it can get me anywhere.
I found my own key back to kindness. I had always associated kindness with how I treat other people, and I discovered that I excluded the three most important people in my life: my past self, my present self, and my future self. I am forever proud of my past self. I get to learn from her mistakes because I understand why she made them, rather than regretting that she didn’t know better. I celebrate her successes daily and thank her for even the simplest of tasks. Thank you for setting out your clothes last night; it made my morning much better. Thank you for completing your meal plan yesterday; it will take us one step closer to being able to row again. Thank you for putting so much energy into healing yourself amidst all the pain; I am happier now than I could have ever imagined. I recognize it is a bit silly, but this “thank you” means more to me than a “thank you” I could have received from anyone else.
I began doing everything I could for the benefit of my future self. It required a present self that could accomplish the difficult task of balancing mindfulness, patience, determination, and excitement. I, my present self, do not dare to daunt my future self with unrealistic goals like I did my first two years at Duke. Yes, I still have my fair share of dreams, but I will always break these down for my future self into tasks she can achieve. After all, my present self is the one responsible for fulfilling my long-term desires: why would I set myself up to fail?
Of course, it is difficult. What’s the incentive of being nice to yourself when there are seemingly no public consequences if you aren’t? The incentive is finding true self-love: an ever evolving and entirely imperfect remedy for all the struggle and celebration for all the success. It is the most powerful form of love I have ever experienced, one that can expand beyond itself and shine out onto others. Which was our goal all along, right? To treat people, especially your own golden trio, with kindness.
- Charlotte Sendek
Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Charlotte Sendek