In the midst of a complicated childhood, where she was trying to pay attention to the Christian values her parents were teaching her but was constantly having her focus pulled by the battle with mental illness that raged around her, Kaitlin Celli leaned on writing like a crutch. When her attitude flared, she wrote down what she wanted to say aloud. When the mental illness that was toying with her family drew her parents away from the house, she wrote down the questions and thoughts that she had about what was going on around her, since there was no one there to say them to.
Years later, after her silent fight with her own eating disorder had worn her down to the point where she finally was ready to reach out for and accept help, Kaitlin once again leaned on writing like a crutch.
“When I was in treatment, I met with counselors and dieticians every day. I did different activities and exercises that were designed to help me come to terms with and overcome my eating disorder. On some of those days, the activity was simply to talk about how I was doing, what I was feeling, but I didn’t always want to talk so instead of voicing how I was feeling out loud, sometimes I would write it down on paper. After some time, for whatever reason, I took a black marker to those journal entries and started blotting out words – the unintentional result was the first poem I ever wrote about my trauma.”
That unintentional poem became ten poems, and as that number continued to climb, Kaitlin discovered a purpose for her writing – her words would tell a story about a suffocating darkness, but at the end of the story there would be a light. Her words would tell her story, a story about pain, loneliness, and fear. And, eventually, about Breakthrough.
Q: Why did you choose Breakthrough for the title?
A: There’s a song that was popular at my church that just so happened to play in the car every day when I was on my way to treatment. There’s a part towards the end that says, “There will be breakthrough” that always kept me hopeful that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel and there would someday be a breakthrough.
Q: There are three sections to the book – The Fall, The Broken, and The Healing. What do they mean?
A: The Fall – the poems in this section are about my time before I started treatment. When I think about this section, I think about Adam and Eve and their decision to eat the apple, giving birth to sin. We have choices and every day we face temptation, and we are defined by what we do with that temptation. The Fall is about everything that tempted me and all of the times I succumbed to those temptations.
The Broken – the poems in this section are about my time during treatment. During this period I acknowledged that I needed help. I acknowledged that I was a sinner, that I would likely sin again, and that I needed to change.
The Healing – the poems in this section are about my time after treatment. I had acknowledged that I didn’t have to look a certain way – the way that society wanted me to look – but I still needed help to finally defeat my eating disorder. During this period, I started to rebuild my relationship with Christ and with those around me, who I hadn’t been the kindest to during The Fall.
We picked some of our favorite Breakthrough poems and asked Kaitlin to give us some deeper insight into what inspired her words and the meaning behind them. Here’s what she had to say.
“We’re engaged now, but I wasn’t so kind to my fiance when he first started to pursue me. When my eating disorder was at its worst, I didn’t have the energy to be kind or considerate to others, and even though I knew that I was being mean, I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was my body and that I was unhappy with how it looked. This poem is about that time in my life. I was struggling with my emotions and my behavior towards others, and I was angry and confused that I was struggling, but because of the eating disorder and my lack of energy, there was nothing I could do about it.”
“When I was going through my eating disorder, I always felt like it wasn’t taken seriously because I wasn’t sick enough or making a big enough deal out of it. The phrase, ‘loss equated to acceptance’ reflected my belief at the time – if I get sicker and if I lose more weight, people will start to notice me. But what I found was that, as my disorder progressed and I got sicker, instead of people noticing that I was sick, they started to praise me. Society has a warped image of what “healthy” looks like, so instead of being alarmed by the weight loss or recognizing that I was in pain, they told me that I looked “good” and they applauded me for my figure. The attention that I got – especially the attention my slimmer body got from men – was harmful, but it was new and unusual and I liked it.”
“This poem stemmed from my desire during my disorder to get back to the pant size that I wore when I was younger. I was slim and petite in middle school, but when I went to college and continued to advance down the path of womanhood, my body started to change. I grew self-conscious of how much I was eating because of my pant size and was constantly limiting how much I ate to try and get back to that middle school physique. Even now, post-treatment and deep into my recovery, I find myself focusing on that number. If I try on jeans and notice that my normal size is now too big, I congratulate myself like it’s some tremendous victory. Remembering to acknowledge and accept that starvation is the sin, not my pant size, is going to be an ongoing battle.”
“I wrote this poem during a time when women were speaking up all over the world about the trauma they had suffered at the hands of sexual assault and abuse. What stood out to me during this movement wasn’t the number of women that were speaking up, but the number of women that were being called a liar. After my own experience with sexual assault, I was more scared of being called a liar by my friends than of the trauma itself.”
“When my trauma and disorder were finally out in the open, my friends and loved ones were constantly asking me how they could help or if I needed anything. But I knew that this wasn’t something that anyone could help me with – this fight was mine and mine alone. I thought the shovel was an appropriate symbolism for what I knew I ultimately needed to do because of how deeply I had buried my trauma and my pain within myself.”
“I wrote this one during a coping exercise while I was in treatment. I was angry. We had just finished talking about the culture around dieting and what it does to those who do it to the extreme. This poem summarizes the conclusion that we came to – dieting is a socially acceptable form of suicide. We cry and mourn when someone takes their own life, but we congratulate and applaud people who drastically alter the shape of their body through a harmful diet routine. What people don’t realize is that oftentimes the people who suffer from eating disorders aren’t struggling with body image issues, they’re struggling with pain and control issues. Obsessing over their physique and food intake is a way that they can feel like they’re still in control, when in so many other parts of their life they’re not.”
“One of our assignments during treatment was to write a poem that started off bad and ended good. I decided to write mine about what I wanted to accomplish by the time I recover, and I had read some poems by other poets that, when read backwards, had a different meaning than when read forwards, and I felt like that was a very fitting style for this assignment. Of all the poems in Breakthrough, this is the one that has gotten the most attention. People have reached out to me saying that the words have been a source of encouragement for them in their own lives, and how powerful it felt to read something negative and have the message turn into something positive when they read it backwards.”
“I wrote this poem on a day in my life that is both dark and light. The dark – my dietitian told me that if I didn’t change my eating habits and my lifestyle, I wouldn’t be able to have children. The light – I decided to do something about it because I didn’t want to be known as the woman that couldn’t have kids because she had abused her body beyond repair. We did a lot of exposure therapy during treatment – I would sit naked in front of a mirror and just look at myself, and I would always find things that I didn’t like. For this poem, I chose to take those things that I didn’t like and find ways that I could use them to support the children I one day wanted to have. I found ways to turn those parts of me that I hated into parts that I could respect and appreciate for what they were.”
Q: Are there any poems, other than the ones that we’ve already talked about, that stand out as either your favorites or the most meaningful to you?
“This poem is about how I used my eating disorder to help me “heal” from the sexual assault I had experienced. I thought that if I could somehow shed my excess skin, fat, and muscle I could erase my trauma and leave it behind, only in reality the eating disorder was doing more harm than good.”
“This is my life story with diet issues. At the beginning, I’m young and fiery and full of energy, but that part of me was snuffed out by my obsession with my physique. It talks about how my sexual assault made me feel less and like an object, and those feelings only fueled the eating disorder. This poem talks about the birth of my trauma, and that makes it fitting that this is one of the first poems I ever wrote.”
“Turning the tides of war in the battle against my trauma. Redemption. Finding a new devotion that is completely separate from my diet choices and my body. This poem is about finding the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Q: There is some beautiful artwork throughout Breakthrough. Where did they come from?
A: I partnered with my friend, the amazingly talented artist, Brenda Muldoon to create the artwork for the book. At first I was unsure about if I wanted any art in the book because I didn’t want it to detract from the poems and the message I wanted my words to deliver. So, we started with the cover – a hand reaching upwards that’s been dragged down by another hand. The hand that’s reaching up is me in my purest and healthiest form. The hand that’s doing the dragging is my eating disorder and the trauma from my sexual assault. I absolutely loved the work she had done for the cover, and it convinced me to consider a few other pieces to scatter throughout the book.