by Kelly Berg
Often in these early days of anorexia recovery, I’m like a balloon about to explode, I’m so full. The headaches sear straight through, like molten lava. And exhaustion runs so deep, my limbs turn to lead. And then there is the constant mental fight; the days I swear my soul has been set on fire with acid, before being reduced to the nothing that my disorder wants me to believe I am.
Two days ago, my disorder had slammed into me faster than a speeding train. I was struggling to stay focused.
What saved me was a letter from my baby sister, Tori, waiting for me in the mail. The pages long epistle detailed all her stories and adventures in school and life over the last several months, with the last paragraph dedicated to me.
“You are strong! Don’t let that voice in your head tell you otherwise. It won’t be easy and you might end up taking a couple steps back at times. But just think about dog mushing. If you lose your team, what do you do? Do you give up? Nope, you get up and start walking down the trail after your team. Sometimes you find your team tangled on the trail, sometimes another musher stops your team for you, and sometimes a snowmachiner gives you a ride. So long as you keep fighting, you will beat this!”
I had grown up running sled dogs in Alaska. My family passed many winter days at the trails, harnessing up our dogs, stepping onto the sled and racing off into the woods.
The Iditarod was always a source of excitement in our home, and every year we’d don our snow clothes, wrap ourselves in scarves, and brave the cold to join the crowds cheering on the mushers at the start. The next morning, we’d wake reaching for the paper to learn the latest news, eager to see how our favorite mushers were faring.
While my family never came close to that level of mushing, our winter weekends usually took place at the kids’ races of the Anchorage Sled Dog Racing Association. What was normally quiet track turned into chaotic excitement full of kids laughing and yelling, parents rushing to get their kids and dog teams ready, and howling huskies more excited than any human to be out running on the trail.
In 2011, I decided that, while Alaska would always be home, it was time for me to explore another part of the world. I moved to Maine and said goodbye to family, friends and mushing. I love Maine, but miss and dream of Alaska every second I’m away. When my elder sister got engaged, I was thrilled because apart from my excitement for her, I got to go back to Alaska for her wedding.
In all the time I lived in Alaska, I’d never been on the trails at night, so before my trip back, I got it into my mind Tori and I just had to do a night run. I could tell she wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but she agreed to it.. My heart still smiles when I think of it, seeing my baby sister in her element; how she so effortlessly handled the dogs, the lines, and the sled. I loved her complete ease out on the trail steering and calling out commands, as someone who’s done it all her life,
In the heart of winter, Alaska is one of the most magical places on earth. The snow hangs off the trees differently than anywhere else, the mountains stand tall and glow in the sunset, and at night the deep woods offer promises of fairy tales come to life. It was dark that night, and the time of the new moon, so stars were our only natural light. We both had headlamps though, which allowed us to navigate the trails just fine. As we flew down the trail, we raced past tall trees and curtains of snows that sparkled in the light of our lamps. It was like the world was made of diamonds. The cold night air kissed my face, filled my breath, and made me feel free and alive in a way few things ever have.
Overall, we went about eighteen miles and stopped to rest about halfway through. We checked all the dogs’ feet for cuts, put jackets on them, and gave them some frozen meat to eat. Once they were taken care of, we settled into the basket of the sled with a down sleeping bag over us, and our lead dog Screamer curled up between us. We talked about her wedding the previous summer, our other sister’s wedding just two days past, and my plans—whether I wanted to continue living in Maine or go explore someplace new. The trees stood around us like tall guardians, and the night clouds took turns fading in and out. I’d brought my camera and we spent a good ten minutes trying to get a decent picture of ourselves. I could have stayed there forever. I almost fell asleep a couple of times, but eventually we decided it was time to head home.
At one point on our way back, we left the safety of the trees and ran along the frozen lake. The clouds had temporarily disappeared again. I looked up to see the Big Dipper bigger, brighter, and closer than I’d ever seen it before and was completely overcome by the beauty of that moment, my life, and the world.
I love this new way Tori has given me to viewing my recovery. Right now it’s tough. My dogs are new to me, new to mushing–young, untrained, and kind of hate each other. We are making our way down the trail at a pace so slow it’s painful. Sometimes I have to get off the sled and walk; other times I need to just stop and take a break. Every once in a while I tip over and get dragged on my face for three miles. The trail itself is a mess, almost no snow, and full of rocks and ice. Trees stick out all over. Here and there a moose stands in the way. Most days are torture. There are times I do want to give up.
But when you’re mushing, you can’t just give up and stop. Sure, someone might come along and help you out, but they might not, and if you just sit there and wait, well that’s just an invitation to freeze to death, or starve to death, or get chased down by a moose and trampled to death.
So you push on, and you keep practicing, keep training, and slowly—sometimes at a snail’s pace slowly—the dogs start to get the hang of things. You start to find a smoother flow, the movements come easier, and the dogs become teammates instead of enemies. Your pace gets a little faster, you can go longer distances in one stretch, there are less tangles, less fights, less falling off the sled and losing your team all together. And then winter comes, snow falls, and the trail turns from hell into magic, and before you know it you’re flying.
There is something else I get by being able to look at my recovery like I’m just out on another mushing run. Some days you go out on the trail, and everything about that run is perfect. Others you go out and nothing goes right. That is recovery. Certain days feel like hell, and others are actually kind of ok. Now whenever I do tip the sled over or have to stop to break up another fight or come around a curve to find myself facing a moose (figuratively speaking that is), I can just think of that night a year ago and the happiness back then. I can remember how complete I felt, how whole I was, and know that I can find my way back to that again. I just have to keep trekking down that trail!
Kelly Berg grew up living in and loving Alaska, but moved to Maine over three years ago looking for adventure. In 2013, she began her battle with anorexia and has been fighting for recovery since October 2014. Through her blog, “Exploring the World, Discovering Myself,” she has been sharing her life and recovery stories with family and friends. http://kellycatherineelena.blogspot.com/