Mariel Weber’s journey back to herself

An aspiring professional ballerina, Mariel Weber's childhood dreams turned into years of nightmares as she faced multiple hip surgeries and an unrelenting eating disorder. Now in recovery, she is thriving in ECC's surgical tech program.

Mariel+Weber%2C+former+ballerina+and+current+surgical+tech+student+at+Elgin+Community+College%2C+writes+about+%0Aher+journey+on+her+blog%2C+Living+Life+Recovered.
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Mariel Weber’s journey back to herself

Mariel Weber, former ballerina and current surgical tech student at Elgin Community College, writes about 
her journey on her blog, Living Life Recovered.

Mariel Weber, former ballerina and current surgical tech student at Elgin Community College, writes about her journey on her blog, Living Life Recovered.

Kristen Flojo

Mariel Weber, former ballerina and current surgical tech student at Elgin Community College, writes about her journey on her blog, Living Life Recovered.

Kristen Flojo

Kristen Flojo

Mariel Weber, former ballerina and current surgical tech student at Elgin Community College, writes about her journey on her blog, Living Life Recovered.

Shealeigh Voitl, Managing Editor

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Mariel Weber grew accustomed to making rigid plans as a kid, as perfect and as fragile as her balance on pointe shoes. Years later, Weber’s body would ache and creak and cry for her to rest and unwind out of fifth position. Still, she dreamt of the Paris Opera Ballet in the summertime and continued to twirl in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, like a porcelain dancer in an everlasting music box. Weber started dancing when she was eight years old and was immediately enamored.

“When I quit dancing, I had a lot of regrets,” Weber said. “I didn’t go to the school dances, I didn’t go to games, I didn’t go to prom, I didn’t have any friends because it was always ballet.”

Weber is tall, about 5’9”, with glossy brown hair that hangs just past her shoulders. She’s personable, warm and quietly self-assured. She ends many of her sentences with the phrase “it is what it is,” as though the universe looks out for her in ways she doesn’t always understand.

Weber was born with congenital hip dysplasia and, because of her rigorous dance schedule, her muscles and ligaments would routinely tear. After her second hip surgery in 2014  —  the same year she graduated from Larkin High School  —   this time on her right hip, she took six months to recover and attend physical therapy. During her second private lesson that same year after her operation, she heard her hip violently pop underneath her skin. Her team of doctors were convinced that Weber’s dream of becoming a professional dancer would be almost entirely impossible, and to her surprise, she secretly breathed a sigh of relief.

“My surgeon sent me home and left the decision to me,” Weber said. “He said, ‘If you really want to do ballet, we’re not going to fix this; it’s pointless. If you quit ballet, we can fix this, and hopefully, you’ll have a life where you can walk and your hips will be free of pain.’”

Weber felt as though this thing that she once loved so much, ballet, was betraying her. Her hip hurt constantly, and she had also developed a severe eating disorder and was disappearing before her loved ones’ eyes. Her mother, Lisa Weber, described seeing her for the first time under harsh stage lights during her sophomore year of high school in 2012.

“There were probably a billion warning signs that I didn’t see,” Lisa Weber said. “But it was during a rehearsal for the Youth America Grand Prix and her dad and I were sitting in the audience to watch and videotape her practice routine. And I saw her, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to die.’ It was that bad.”

Lisa Weber felt like the alarms in her head were louder, more noticeable, for other dancers, but they simply didn’t sound in the same way for her own child.

“I could walk into a ballet studio and watch some of the girls and say, ‘Hm, her mom better watch her,’” Lisa Weber said. “When it’s your own kid, your own daughter, you don’t see it.”

Lisa Weber didn’t understand how her daughter could be eating so much and still be rapidly losing weight. Weber had also become a vegan, so her mother assumed that the issue was purely dietary, that if she started eating meat and building muscle, she would be healthy again. Her parents decided to take her to a nutritionist not long after they promptly pulled her off the stage.

“You know, you think of someone being anorexic as not eating, but she was shoveling in food all the time,” Lisa Weber said. “But none of it was helping because she was working out seven days a week. Even though we saw her eating, it was useless. She was starving herself.”

Weber knew exactly what her parents and the dietitian wanted to hear, so she studied hard and came prepared for each appointment.

“I played the game,” Weber said. “I did the eating disorder screening, and I just didn’t want to admit that I had one. I was in such denial. I didn’t want my parents to know that I had one, so I just played it cool, like, ‘Oh no, I think it’s just because I’m so active.’”

Weber started to understand how easily she’d be able to fool those around her into thinking that she was getting better.

“I’d wear ankle weights during my weigh-ins, so they thought that I was gaining weight that I needed,” Weber said. “I would drink tons of water, because on the body fat reader, water counts as fat, so if I chugged a bottle of water, my body fat percent would go up.”

The truth was that Weber became very used to hiding this part of herself. She quickly learned how to fall under everyone’s radar.

“I would wear turtleneck leotards and baggy warm-ups to and from dance and school,” Weber said. “My parents never saw the full effect until the [Youth America Grand Prix].”

Weber no longer felt as though her life was her own; she belonged to ballet, all that the sport had inflicted on her body and her increasingly serious illness.

“It felt like I was so deep into ballet, mixed in with my eating disorder and my hips and it was becoming really miserable,” Weber said. “So, I was like, ‘Oh, this is my out almost.’ A little part of me was excited.”

Weber went to her dance classes every day and every night, and instead of being convinced by her peers and instructors that she was hurting herself, she was praised for her supposed will power.

“The director of the studio would tell people, ‘Oh, well, you need to lose weight to look like Mariel,’” Weber said. “So, there was a lot of confusion, and I felt as though I was doing something wrong, but then the other part of me was getting reinforced, like I was doing something so right that everyone needed to be like me.”

Weber started to notice a similar pattern of dangerous relationships with food in her classmates and peers.

“Everyone definitely had disordered eating, like what I had when I was younger,” Weber said. “There was sporadic eating, a lot of self-consciousness, skipping meals, cutting out foods — just really messed up eating patterns.”

Weber could remember feeling this way about her body as early as the fourth grade. She’d spend too much time at the mirror, and she’d measure her waist; she would go on diets and deliberately miss breakfast and lunch. But now, as a teenager, things were only getting worse, and Weber’s daily level of anxiety was nearly debilitating.

“I got to the point where I was, like, afraid of food,” Weber said. “So, when people brought birthday cupcakes into the studio, people would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so fat, I can’t believe I’m eating this,’ but they would still eat it. I couldn’t even touch it. I felt like someone brought in spiders to eat. I would freak out. I couldn’t even touch the frosting, because, in my mind, that was going to make me fat.”

Meanwhile, Weber’s family was falling for her careful facade. They believed that her health was improving, but they saw a gradual difference in her feelings toward dance. Still, Lisa Weber remembers vividly when ballet was simply an escape for her daughter.

“In the beginning, I think she enjoyed it and loved it and wanted to do it,” Weber said. “As time went on, I think it became almost a burden maybe because I think she may have thought that she wanted to quit but felt like we invested so much money into it that she couldn’t.”

That was true. During those days that followed her injury, when Weber began to contemplate abandoning dance, she was overwhelmed with guilt.

“Everyone loves to say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe your parents forced you to do ballet that much,’ which was never the case,” Weber said. “They begged me to go to college, to have a backup plan, but they had also sunk so much money into ballet. My tutu alone that I had, only one of them, was $3000.”

There were other people close to her that she was also extremely afraid of letting down.

“The coach that I was really close with, Vilma, poured her heart and soul into me,” Weber said. “She gave me lessons on breaks. I would go to the city, and there was a studio there that her husband worked at that she’d give me private [lessons] in.”

Vilma Machin fiercely believed in Weber and her soaring potential. Weber couldn’t imagine parting ways with her and all that they’d built together.

“We were super close. She supported me through so much,” Weber said. “And I felt like she saw something in me, and I had to, like, prove to her that what she saw was there and that all of her hard work was going to pay off in me.”

There was this part of her that felt as though she just wasn’t done yet, and she needed to stick it out, at least a little longer, to prove to herself and, especially to her parents, that it wasn’t all for nothing.

“I always felt like I owed them, to prove to them that all of the money that they were pouring in was going to pay off one day,” Weber said. “I felt so much guilt that it almost went to waste, like it’s not part of me anymore.”

But her mother knew that somehow, it would always be a part of her, no matter how removed or detached from ballet she was forced to become. After all, she saw how much her daughter loved dance once. That was unforgettable. Lisa Weber, too, was always hypnotized by ballet, even from the time she was a little girl.

“I wanted to do ballet when I was younger, but I wasn’t graceful or tall or flexible like [Mariel], so I never got to even try it,” Lisa Weber said. “So, when Mariel started, it was exciting for me, because she did love it and she excelled at it.”

But slowly, when she started to see the harm that ballet was doing to her young daughter, she became disenchanted.

“My opinion of ballet has kind of changed,” Lisa Weber said. “I still love it, I think it’s beautiful, but you have to have a very strong sense self-worth to not let it eat you alive.”

While considering that third, and at that point, they hoped, final surgery, Weber began to think of her other options outside of dance. She had dormant ambitions, buried deep beneath the surface of the ballerina identity that she felt so inextricably linked to. Weber was fascinated by medicine and the inner-workings of operating rooms. As a child, she’d play a game she called “Mystery Medical Disease” with her American Girl dolls, meticulously solving what ailed her plastic patients.

“I had always wanted to be a doctor deep down,” Weber said. “I think there were a lot of times when I was doing ballet, and I was like, ‘I could just go to college and go to medical school and do this other dream that isn’t so abusive to my body.’”

She relays this idea procedurally, so clear and precise as if this is the way her life was always meant to go. Weber is currently a surgical tech student at Elgin Community College. She originally started taking classes at ECC in the summer of 2014, after she graduated high school, as a way to stay busy after her unexpected injury. Although thoroughly dedicated to her new path, Weber still muses about becoming a doctor frequently. Medical school is not only an alternative route but a distinct possibility. Dr. Luis Martinez, Weber’s former anatomy and physiology professor at ECC, agrees.

“There is nothing wrong with being a surgical tech,” Martinez said. “But I think she could go much farther than that. I don’t want any of my colleagues from the surgical tech program telling me, ‘Why are you saying that?’ But I think she has what it takes.”

Martinez believes that Weber’s instinctive ability to identify and empathize with others is what will allow her to thrive in whatever profession she eventually decides to pursue.

“She is a dedicated student and a team player definitely,” Martinez said. “But there is also that other part that is needed, which is that human part, that, nowadays, is kind of absent sometimes when you go to see a doctor. She has that ability to connect with people.”

So, Weber decided to receive her third hip surgery based wholly on the unknown in the spring of 2015. She was exhausted and in pain, and she longed to know what else was in store for her. This meant that she would have to forfeit her ballet career entirely, an idea that she felt relatively comfortable with prior to entering the operating room, but that was about to change.

“After I pulled that plug and had that surgery, I woke up and was kind of regretful,” Weber said. “I didn’t put much thought into it. Initially, giving up those plans was super easy, but for, like, two years after, it was just a disaster. Trying to navigate this new plan and going through all of that grief was really hard.”

Weber became sicker and sicker after she went under the knife for the third time.

“It was my last year [at ECC], around Christmas time, and the holidays are always hard because of the holiday food and stuff,” Weber said. “I was switching from anorexia to bulimia.”

Even though Weber was working closely with a dietitian to overcome some of the fear and anxiety that she consistently had surrounding food, Weber’s body had reached a point of total starvation, so she became completely ravenous for food.

“I would binge eat, and that was the worst feeling in the world,” Weber said. “I would go to the gym and exercise for, like, three hours on the elliptical, running, anything to burn off the calories. So, that would happen three times a week, then it started happening four times a week, then five, then multiple times a day.”

During the weigh-ins, her dietitian and her parents were encouraged by Weber’s seemingly positive progress, but they were none the wiser as to how she was pulling it off.

“I felt so hopeless that I told my parents that I needed help,” Weber said. “My mom was like, ‘You’re fine, I see you eating, you’re finally eating in front of us.’”

Weber became so terrified and so lost with the weight of the world on her frail shoulders.

“I stopped going to see my dietitian; I got discharged, so no one was listening,” Weber said. “I got so desperate that I finally started making myself throw up, which was the moment when I was like, ‘Okay, this is an eating disorder.’”

Weber felt like the characterizations of some of the other behaviors that she was exhibiting had been up for debate in her eyes; she believed she wasn’t truly sick until now.

“Everything else was a bit blurry, like restriction, binge eating,” Weber said. “I felt like those things could be explained away. It was vague. To me it was.”

Weber’s family didn’t recognize when the purging began. Her doctor said that they wouldn’t be able to operate on her hip again unless she gained a substantial amount of weight, that her bones were soft and the procedure would simply be too dangerous. Reluctantly, Weber did what was asked of her, but new problems swiftly emerged.

“She put the weight on for the surgery,” Lisa Weber said. “But unbeknownst to us, that’s how the purging started. I would find bowls under my sink; she was hiding it from me.”

Lisa Weber noticed this drastic shift in her daughter. She was morphing into someone that nobody knew or could get along with very easily.

“Her personality changed a lot,” Lisa Weber said. “She got very angry, verbally aggressive; she kind of pushed everyone away. The house was kind of a nightmare to be in.”

Weber realized she was all but drowning, quickly being pulled underwater by the vicious grip of her eating disorder. She decided to fully come clean to her aunt, who was visiting from Las Vegas, around Christmas in 2016.

“She was, like, my advocate, and she told my dad,” Weber said. “Then, my mom and my dad, we all rallied. That was when I was like, ‘Okay, I have an eating disorder, not just, like, health problems or food sensitivities.’ That was when it really became known to everyone that I was, like, really sick.”

After Weber had finished her mandatory outpatient work and was recovering from her fifth hip surgery in January of 2017, her biggest one yet – a total reconstruction – Weber started a blog that she triumphantly called Living Life Recovered. She felt like sharing her story helped her make sense of all that she was thinking and feeling pre- and post-recovery, and she hoped that it would do the same for those reading.

“I don’t know, I just felt like if I helped one person, then it’d be worth it to be,” Weber said. “The blog was a way of lining everything up, so I’m at peace with it; I can understand it and I can put in the past.”

Lisa Weber doesn’t make a habit out of reading her daughter’s blog, although she knows the world of good the page, as well as diligent therapy, has done for her continued recovery.

“It’s very hard for me to read, knowing that those thoughts still flutter through her head,” Lisa Weber said. “But her aunt reads it, and I get filled in enough with the blog.”

There are parts of Weber’s story that are still too difficult and too fresh for her mother to relive.

“It’s hard for me because, through the whole thing, I was always the mean one,” Lisa Weber said. “I didn’t trust her. And I didn’t want to trust her, because I knew she needed me not to trust her to make sure she was safe.”

At that time, Weber had recently started working at Machin’s new studio, Alma Dance school, after she stopped dancing. She thought that it would be a way to stay connected to this thing that she once loved so much without hurting herself any further.

“My parents were so supportive, so that guilt went away pretty fast,” Weber said. “But Vilma and me, we don’t talk anymore. I taught for her and when I got sick, I had to quit, and she hasn’t talked to me since, so I feel like that’s still something that gets to me. I was close to her, I looked up to her and I relied on her and for that to just die — that was really hard.”

Weber wanted so desperately to be able to keep teaching at least until classes ended, but she physically couldn’t. She had to quit to save her own life.

“Vilma kept begging me to wait until summer,” Weber said. “And I wanted to wait until the summer, but my doctor was like, ‘We’re gonna court order you into the hospital if you don’t quit.’ So, for me, it was like, I had to do it. I had to.”

Lisa Weber doesn’t harbor any resentment or blame for the way that Machin decided to distance herself but is still sad that her daughter felt so slighted.

“I was never angry at Vilma,” Lisa Weber said. “I think Vilma was hurt when [Mariel] had to quit dancing and quit teaching, because Vilma was in a place, when she opened her new studio, where she was under an extreme amount of pressure and anxiety to get students and keep the studio running and count on people, and Mariel had to walk away from her for her own mental health.”

Attempts to reach Machin to comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Weber was hospitalized for bulimia shortly thereafter and underwent her sixth hip surgery in July of 2017, which required her to sit on the sidelines for another several months. On a whim, while recovering from her reconstruction, she applied to Pepperdine University, her dream school in Malibu, Calif., which she attributes now to wishful thinking. Months later, she found out that she had been accepted, which seemed to only surprise her, and she was ready to finally begin anew. Lisa Weber described her fear and anxiety as she and her husband drove away from their daughter’s new dorm in sunny California for the first time in August of 2017. She wondered and worried if her daughter was moving away too soon, but she tried to remain cautiously optimistic.

“She kind of had gotten herself to a point where she was kind of engaging more with the family and getting a little happier and making the effort and doing the therapy,” Lisa Weber said. “Her aunt wasn’t too far away [from Pepperdine], and it was beautiful and I was kind of hoping that California air would help her have the mindset of moving forward.”

Lisa Weber only wanted the best for her daughter and hoped she would find her footing in an environment that she felt genuinely excited about.

“We didn’t ever have that conversation, ‘Should you go?’” Lisa Weber said. “Maybe the last week before school, I noticed the anxiety kicking in, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is she going to be able to do this?’ But I didn’t want to stop her from moving forward, so I just moved forward with her.

“When she stopped dancing, I felt like her only identity was gone, like she didn’t know who she was,” Weber said. “Everybody in this whole family knew; she was the family’s little ballerina for 10 years. She was trying to find a new identity, and I didn’t want her to stop her from trying. I just let her go.”

After a fleeting semester at Pepperdine University, Weber was forced again to return home and promptly begin another bout of treatment.

“I think the first time I relapsed, I looked at it as a failure,” Weber said. “I was discharged from treatment, I had my hip surgery, and three months later, I relapsed. And I denied it, because I was like, ‘This is insane. I was in the hospital for a year; how could I have relapsed?’ So, I ignored it and went to school in California and got so sick, I came home six weeks later.”

However, now Weber has learned to focus on the fact that she has gotten back up instead of ever falling down in the first place.

“Each recovery I’ve had has been different, and so, each time I’m in treatment, I cover X, Y and Z,” Weber said. “And then, figuring that out gets me to a certain point until A, B and C show up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t cover that in treatment last time.’ Each relapse shows what didn’t get worked on when I was in treatment the last time.”

For now, Weber has vowed to stop making plans. She wants to be kind to herself and gentle and patient with her dreams. She insists that there’s no need to rush. “Don’t plan,” she writes in her blog. “Make options.” In April of 2018, she had her seventh surgery on her hip, then in December 2018, her eighth.

Weber attended Illinois State University for a year, then decided to return to ECC for the program that she’s currently enrolled in now. 

“If you ask her, she’ll tell you that she’s still struggling,” Lisa Weber said. “But I don’t think that she can see the outsider’s view of her now. She is confident, she can stand up for herself, she’s less afraid to take chances.”

Lisa Weber isn’t fully sure what will come next for her daughter; she kind of believes that her daughter will never be done discovering herself.

“I see her becoming more comfortable in her own skin, which is wonderful,” Lisa Weber said. “So, I’m glad for that and I hope that continues, but I think that she’s just going to meander because Mariel is just this evolving enigma.”

Lisa Weber is just gratified to see her daughter finally prioritizing her own joy.

“Her compass is leading her in an area, and we’ll see where it ends up,” Lisa Weber said. “As long as she’s happy, that’s really all I want.”