National Alliance on Mental Illness
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The Black Swan’s Shadow

By Joelle Maletis, MA.Ed., M.A. (IMFT)

I was a professional ballerina from a very young age, but my story isn’t glamorous, beautiful or picturesque. I danced hard. I trained even harder. I was emotionally, verbally and physically abused by everyone—the ballet mistress, the dancers (all thinner and more talented, in my opinion), by others in my life and, most importantly, by myself.

My dirty little secret was that I craved sugar. I used it like a drug. If I couldn’t get my hands on candy, I’d eat sugar packets I took from restaurants. In addition, I took painkillers to dull the pain inside. I had detached from my body along time ago and no longer felt physical pain or hunger. Instead, I took great pride in my high physical pain tolerance and the willpower that allowed me to dance for days without any food. When I did feel pain, I’d take something “legal” for it.

In the wake of the movie The Black Swan, it seems like everyone wants to know if the film reflected my life as a professional dancer. Depending on who’s asking, I tend to sugar-coat the truth. No, I was never into self-mutilation, nor did I have an emotional breakdown over a role. Yes, the other girls were that ruthless as they lied, cheated and fought for a position. I avoid saying, “Oh yeah, starving to death while fighting the food-monster is a blast!”

Too many times to count, I’ve heard “No wonder you’re so thin.” “You have a great body.” “Wow, I used to take ballet classes too!” Sure, people are just trying to be nice, to relate. What people don’t realize is for people living with eating disorders, these are common triggers that move us to starve, binge, purge or overeat.

These starvation methods were second nature by the time I was 12, when I decided to stay 89 pounds at 5’2” forever. At my worst, I was alternating between starving and purging with as many as 30 to 40 laxatives a day, exercising daily in addition to dancing and restricting my diet to a few carrots and a half-cup of salad if I felt indulgent. In fact, I felt nothing. No guilt, shame or remorse. It was my job as a ballerina, but no matter how hard I tried, I never felt beautiful or graceful—or thin. The validation and attention I received didn’t matter any more than the harsh reality of how thin I really was. There was always someone younger, taller, thinner, prettier and more talented than I was, ready to replace me.

My family members, who truly love me, are the worst about questions. They’re forever watching and waiting until I slip again. They ask me, “Are you eating?” “What did you eat today?” “Will you eat this?” “I bought your favorite whatever-it-is.” These questions are funny to me now since my “eating issues” (restrictive anorexia, anorexia binge-purge type, bulimia binge-purge type, exercise-induced bulimia, body dysmorphic behaviors, etc.) were a family secret for so long. They didn’t recognize the severity of my disorders because I hid them so well. No, it’s not my mother’s fault, yet eating disorders are a family problem.

Today, I’ve been “out” with my disorders and in recovery. I use the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) skills I was taught in recovery, in therapy, at grad school and as a new psychotherapist. I have no desire to starve myself any more. I do eat every day, multiple times a day, which is more than I have ever eaten before. I haven’t used painkillers, even when prescribed, for over 17 years and I can’t remember the last time I took 40 laxatives. I do have a whole list of restricted foods, but I’ve even had a few doughnuts here and there. There are no “good” or “bad” foods or even “good” or “bad” eating patterns. Rather, I tell people, every one has individual needs when it comes to food.

Yes, I’m a psychotherapist who goes to weekly individual therapy sessions. I don’t worry about countertransference from my clients with addictions and/or eating disorders—they no longer trigger me. Movies and media don’t trigger me. Whole Foods is my new favorite place to hang out and eat organic dark chocolate. I’m no longer afraid of rows and rows of food at the grocery store. And then there’s my love-hate relationship with the ballet. I love to see it, hate to see it; love to dance it, hate to dance it. I’ve danced Swan Lake for years—good white swan versus evil black swan. Depending on my mood, white or black, it can trigger a state of self-pity, body dysmorphia or remorse.

The difference is that now, I don’t use food, exercise, pills, sugar, friends and/or anxiety to deal with the triggers. They have little hold over me anymore. I rely on the treatments that work for me—CBT and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which have helped refocus so much for me as a client while the same skill set has helped my clients. I find that for my continual recovery, as well as for my clients, an integrated approach works best in the long run. Without help there’s no way some one can begin their own recovery process.

This idea, similar to an Alcoholics Anonymous concept of never forgetting where one came from, is what keeps me working on my own recovery and that of my clients. I figure that I’m not a rocket scientist and if I can do it, anyone can do it. Talking to those who are struggling, being completely authentic in the work we do together in the safety of the therapy room as we consider moving forward toward change—these are the things that keep me humble. Sometimes I disclose a little bit about my story, usually that I was a ballerina. I don’t really need to say much more—their therapy isn’t about me. I do find, however, that when I develop unconditional regard, empathy and understanding about the process of becoming healthy, people respond better. I’m no longer some thin woman with a fancy education who just doesn’t get it; I become a person in the room, with my own story, who’s been able to find ways of being successful in recovery. No better, no worse—I’m just another person with a similar story.

Joelle Maletis, M.A.Ed., MA. (IMFT), has been dancing, teaching and modeling for more than 35 years in films, commercials, television and on the ballet stage. She is the author of It’s Just A Social, Swing and Latin Thing. Currently, she practices counseling and psychology working with people living with broad-spectrum eating disorders, addictions and/or dual diagnoses. Joelle works with Eating Disorders Resource Center. She lives with her family in Northern California and can be reached at