The Spiral Staircase


Living things rarely grow straight up or straight forward.  Often they grow in a spiral pattern, advancing, then circling back.  When we were preparing for our first home birth, we learned that in an unhindered birth, babies don’t move straight down through the birth canal, they move in a spiral.  My husband said that one of the highlights of attending these births was witnessing our children spiral into the world.

Spiraling motion in our lives tends to carry a negative connotation.  We talk about a “downward spiral” or say something is “spiraling out of control”.  But this ignores the fact that a spiral is orderly and can move in any direction.   It’s one of the most important design features in the natural world, and humans mimic it often.

Imagine a spiral staircase that you can traverse up or down.  I’ve talked a lot about my journey downward and inward.  So I would be remiss If I didn’t tell you how I climbed up and out on that same spiral staircase.

There are lots of ways to slow or reverse the recovery from an eating disorder.  That’s why few ever fully recover and most relapse.  But there were a few things that actually helped, and they weren’t what you might expect.

One was the death of my first childhood crush.

Ben had been my friend since age 4, probably my first friend.  I remember having a crush on him, but lots of girls did.  He was friendly and charismatic, and flirtatious even at a young age.  I didn’t know it at the time, but he had a bout of brain cancer when we were in kindergarten.  We ended up in different classes and different schools and I lost touch with him.

The cancer didn’t.

It came back and became more disruptive.  I remember talking with him in later years.  He was still cheerful, but it felt like something was missing.  He endured years of excruciating treatment.  The Fall I got out of the hospital,  I learned that he had gone home to die.

I sat on the edge of his bed and made small talk.  I tried to reach him, the Ben who had been my childhood playmate, but all I could think about was my selfishness.  How could I choose despair when he faced illness and death with such hope and appreciation for life?  I noticed his mother’s tenderness toward him.  It challenged me to take a step outside myself and think of  my loved ones.

I’ll never forget the day of his funeral. When I hugged his mom, she asked how I was doing.  How I was doing? She had just lost her son! The selflessness she showed, taking an interest in my health in the midst of her grief, presented me with another challenge.  I can’t explain it, and I may be imagining it, but I swear when they were processing in for the service, I caught his dad’s  eye.  He smiled, and winked at me.   It felt like he was cheering me on, daring me to live.

Another death around that time touched me in a similar way.  My mom had a friend who lost an infant daughter.  When we went to comfort her, this lady who had just lost her only child hugged me and asked about me.  I thought about all the possibilities that had died with that baby girl.  I saw in her grief the grief of my own mother.  “It doesn’t have to be this way”, I thought.  “My story doesn’t have to end like that”.  I took another step upward and outward.

My climb didn’t always look like progress.  There were times when the spiral curled back inward.  I had to face fears and apply truth to deeply entrenched lies.  I did relapse in my freshman year of college, to the point that I couldn’t read,  stay awake, or enter food service for fear of being confronted by all that food.  But at every stage there were people who reached out to me, and I wanted to someday offer someone the kind of hope I had received.  For my mom and dad, for all the friends and family that had prayed, I wanted a different ending to the story.  Gradually, as I climbed, I wanted it for myself too.

There was one more thing that helped, especially when I was still in the hospital.  I began this post talking about birth for another reason.  You know how people say a pregnant woman is eating for two?  The thing that helped most when I was in the hospital struggling to eat was imagining that I was pregnant.  How would I feed my unborn child?  In a very real sense the food I ate was for the children I wanted to have some day.  The people that would never get a chance at life unless I gained enough weight so that someday, I’d be able to get pregnant.   I still feel a deep sense of gratitude to my children, who helped save my life before they were even born.

What keeps you climbing?



  1. Pat Franey

    Em – enjoyed the spiral staircase imagery and the “spiral” concept – reminds me of the dialectic description of history. Vivid statement, “what keeps you climbing”! Had a bro-in-law die recently, his question for his priest – “what is the meaning of life, why was I here?” (and implied, ‘ why am I now leaving?’). Thank you

    • towardabundantlife

      Wow! I would have loved to talk to him about that. Did he end up with any satisfactory answers before he died? How did his experience affect your view of why you’re here?

  2. Kirsten

    I also had a crush die in a young age. He would have been going into 5th or 6th, I can’t fully remember, but I do remember no one told me and I just showed up at Sunday school waiting to see him and he never showed. The next time I finally asked where he was and then another student told me he had past away. The way I remember it is that he was the one person that truly liked me for who I was, all the good and bad, and then he was gone. As you can imagine he comes up alot in TPM 🙂

    • towardabundantlife

      I can imagine that being devastating. I don’t think adults “protect” kids by not telling them painful news. Has God revealed any truth about it that has been genuinely comforting?

      • Kirsten

        He assures me that he is always and has been there with me and for me, but I’m not allowing him to take the full pain and lies of this episode yet, it would seem. I hate know that I believe something contrary to his truth, but yet struggle with handing it over. Any ideas?

      • towardabundantlife

        When we hold on to something, there’s always a reason. This pain is doing something for you. Figuring out what function it serves sometimes makes it easier to let go of it.

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