On the 23rd April, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt delivered his speech ‘Citizenship in a Republic’ at The Sorbonne, Paris. 35 pages long, it is an eloquently written and powerful piece that stands out amongst the myriad of presidential speeches performed in the last one hundred years. Primarily a political tract, it emphasises the centrality of strong leadership in upholding the American values of liberty and freedom.
Yet, it also imparts some key words of wisdom: to strive valiantly regardless of success or failure, and ultimately to never give up.
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.Theodore Roosevelt
These were the words that got me through one of the darkest periods of my life. Scribbled on a folded piece of paper I kept in my pocket, I read them everyday for six months as I struggled through one of the most simple, yet essential tasks of living: eating.
In the middle of my second semester of my first year of university, I was admitted to a specialist eating disorder unit just outside of Edinburgh. This wasn’t new to me. I’d been suffering from anorexia nervosa throughout my teenage years, my restrictive behaviours surfacing as I transitioned into my new secondary school aged 11.
Struggling in an alien environment, I definitely felt the effect of becoming a small fish in a big pond. I had a great group of friends, but was persistently teased for being the ‘goody-two-shoes geek’ and was nick-named the ‘faceless blonde girl’, who lacked in personality, strength and backbone. Having been a bubbly, outgoing and confident child, by the time I had settled into year eight I had transformed into an anxious, passive and somewhat awkward pre-teen. I had lost sight of myself and was convinced I was never going to be good enough.
Feeling out of place, unsafe and I suppose insecure I turned to something I felt I could easily control: food. Over time I became more obsessive and restrictive and, since the majority of my day was spent at school, my parents didn’t initially pick up on what I was doing.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know what I was doing. I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t articulate it. And I was terrified. For years I tried my best to hide this dangerous secret from my family, but eventually it got too much. One night I just burst into tears at the dinner table and it all came out.
Officially diagnosed at 14, over the next few years anorexia reared its head time and time again. I saw many doctors, hospital walls, ticking waiting room clocks. I even took a gap year because I was too unwell to move up north for University. I became convinced that Edinburgh would be my fresh start and that this illness that had taken everything I wanted away from me would just disappear.
To an extent, it was a fresh start, until the pressure of university started to get to me. By the end of first year I was physically and mentally a different person to the excited, albeit nervous, teenage girl who rocked up to halls in eager anticipation of the first day of Freshers’ week. I fell into the all too familiar pattern of not only restricting food, but restricting my entire life: isolating myself from friends, obsessively studying for hours, stuck in a constant state of numbness. Tired, aloof, cold – I was an empty shell of the old me, yet I spent everyday pretending I was ok.
I guess the one good thing that came from this illness was that it demonstrated an ability within me to be an excellent actress; I still doubt even those closest to me really knew what was going on inside my head.
And that was the worst part. The silence. I was terrified to say anything. I was wracked with guilt, shame, fear of stigma; fear that as soon as I admitted how I was actually feeling, what I was going through, that I would be judged, that I would no longer be Jess but labelled, categorised, pitied; defined by an illness that wasn’t actually me.
This was far from a diet gone wrong, some act of vanity, or a desire to be skinny. This was a serious mental illness, a torturous cycle of anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and internal distress that resulted in a restricted intake of food and a body that gradually wasted away. Anorexia had completely destroyed me, but enough was enough. A few weeks into my admission something clicked. I realised I had never chosen anorexia, but I could chose to recover. And this time I desperately wanted to.
And this is where Teddy became more than just a historical figure to me, some politician in the distant past. He reminded me everyday to take risks, to acknowledge and not be ashamed of my disease, to push for my recovery, to not give up no matter how exhausting, or even agonizing it got. Some people would say the hardest thing they ever had to do was get a degree, or run a marathon, or endure heartbreak. For me, the most excruciatingly difficult, yet worthwhile thing I have ever had to do is recover from anorexia.
And it’s a battle I’m still fighting, but not one I experience alone. 104 years later, Roosevelt’s words give me comfort, inspiration and ambition. Most of all they teach us all an important life lesson: no matter how difficult times may feel, strive valiantly, work hard and if you fail, at least you fail while daring greatly.
Jess is a History student at the University of Edinburgh. A self-confessed caffeine addict, she spends most of her time café hopping in search for the perfect cup of ole’ joe. As well as enjoying the regular brew, Jess is partial to the occasional bevy and a good dance. The only thing she loves more than coffee and a boogie, however, is Ryan Gosling. But don’t tell her about Eva Mendes. That never happened.
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(Image sourced from: www.theguardian.com)
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