Public Health, Student Life

Finding beauty in the breaking

By CSU Media | December 18, 2018
Hannah Silvia

Hannah Silvia became a runner in middle school when her Dad invited her to join him. By her freshman year in high school she had let health take over her life in an unhealthy way. 

Her distorted body image came from obsessing over everything she had learned. “I was scared about breaking under the pressure,” said Silvia. “I could control how much I ate and worked out, and I set out to try to control my body composition.” That confusing time in her life led to anorexia and an unhealthy lifestyle. 

It’s hard to imagine the poised, articulate young woman she is today as a hurting, broken teen fighting her way out of an eating disorder. 

Looking back, Silvia has learned that breaking under pressure can lead to something beneficial. She frequently shares a story she heard from friends several years ago comparing her heart to a clay vase. “If I put a candle in the vase, the light would shine out the top,” said Silvia. “But if I took a hammer and crushed the vase, the pieces all over the floor would be useless. If I magically put the pieces back together and put the candle back in – the light would shine through the cracks. I learned that there is beauty in the breaking.”  

Public health professor and Silvia’s research sponsor, Dr. Kate Thomas, said, “Hannah’s beauty in the breaking theme resonates with many of us because we have all had moments where we made mistakes or suffered hardship. What we learn from those moments and how we use them for benefiting our own growth and in service of others can be really beautiful.” 

Now a Charleston Southern senior, Silvia is majoring in public health and has researched eating disorders. She interned at Verizon Wireless’s Health and Wellness Center over the summer and is studying abroad in England during fall semester.  

Journey to Health 

Silvia’s journey back to health was a drawn out process with periods of relapse into other eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating. 

Anorexia is considered the number one eating disorder. Silvia said 32 percent of college students struggle with eating disorders, a statistic in the National Eating Disorders Association brochure, “Eating Disorders on the College Campus.” In addition, she shared an article in the Harvard Political Review that estimates 45-50 percent of college students struggle with body image issues. 

Silvia said people suffering from eating disorders share some commonalities, such as distorted ideas of health, perfectionistic personalities, a need for control and low self-esteem. “It is as much a mental disorder as a physical one; it is a type of anxiety disorder,” she said. “Many focus on prevention or treatment instead of pursuing wellness after disorder.”  

These days, Silvia says, “It’s a dark place I can stand on the other side of.” She is seeking to make a difference through her public health major. Thomas finds Silvia’s experience is a common one. “Many public health students are drawn to the field because they are passionate about helping others,” said Thomas. “I find that there is often a story behind this passion, and we encourage students to share that story as being core to their why. When our clients, program participants, and patients understand how much we care, it makes a difference to their success.” 

Silvia’s road to recovery included finding a blog called Setting Captives Free. It was an online resource offering mentoring, prayer, guidance and follow up. “Becoming honest and open with a person I didn’t know made it easier to open up to people I know,” said Silvia. “It’s ok to be selfish during recovery. You have to take care of yourself and love yourself so you can better love others.” She adds, “I pushed my parents away in high school. Since coming to college they are some of my biggest help.”  

Pursuing Wellness 

Silvia had to learn to manage herself. “I was tired of feeling the way I was,” she said. “My immune system was horrible; my hair was falling out. I wanted to take control. I wanted to be healthy.” She said, “It’s not just about a diet change – that’s a temporary fix. Get honest with yourself, deal with triggers, anxiety and the need to be in control. Behavior change is a part of it.” 

Silvia recommends becoming self-aware, including being aware of what triggers your stress and anxiety and how you cope with it. She also stresses pursuing wellness as opposed to focusing on just prevention and treatment. “Pursuing wellness identifies the underlying problem rather than a quick fix and easy treatment. By identifying the root issues and bringing them out of the dark, it can definitely help with wellness long-term,” she said. 

Thomas agrees. “I think public health, and Hannah, truly value behavioral medicine, meaning the work we as individuals can put into our own well-being. While conventional medical care is of course vital, there is so much we can do to promote our own health,” said Thomas. 

In addition to her parents, Silvia credits the community of believers in her youth group and church with helping with her recovery by reminding her of her worth. “If my faith taught me anything through this experience, it was the reminder that I did not have to be perfect to lead and love others,” she said. At the end of high school and through her college years, she worked at SummerSalt, a South Carolina Baptist Convention camp for youth groups. “I learned to be vulnerable and transparent with my campers, which helped improve my outlook on recovery,” she said. 

Silvia said, “Esther 4:14 has been my anthem for a few years as it reminds me that perhaps I was created for such a time as this: to praise God through the brokenness and use my experiences to help others who may also be struggling. This helped tremendously with doing away with the faulty standards of recovery that one has to be completely healed in order to make an impact.” 

She said, “Shifting my way of thinking from a mindset of shame and constant state of anxiety was the first step. God has reminded me that my experience with an eating disorder can help others. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 is such a great verse when looking at shifting thoughts in saying that God ‘comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.’ Paul continues in Chapter 4 that our affliction is momentary and produces an eternal weight of glory (4:16-18). With this mindset, I am reminded that my pain does not have to be wasted but adds to my testimony so that I can help others.” 

Silvia is grateful for the CSU professors and friends who continued to push her toward Christ. She realizes in retrospect that she was rejecting the life God had given her. “When I was hurting myself it was almost a slap in the face of God,” she said.  

Currently, Silvia is looking forward to integrating faith in a healthcare setting and looking toward graduate school. She would ultimately like to become a college professor. Silvia says her journey has been painful, but sharing her experience brings good out of the suffering. She is a vibrant example of beauty shining through the cracks.

Article originally published in the Fall 2018 edition of CSU Magazine. 

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