Father and daughter walk into the restaurant a half-hour early. Flowers await at their table: white tulips with red roses, delivered with pride by a local shop owner who cut the price when she heard their story.
Bruce Stout rented a flaming orange Camaro for this night. His daughter Taylor is 5 feet 10, always the biggest girl in her class, in the middle of the back row of pictures. For too long, she felt defined by her stature. But things are better now.
She finally seems to have her strength and vibrancy back. Mom and Dad see joy again in those green eyes.
Her older sister helped pick out the dress for tonight. Taylor describes it as “dainty.” Lace on the straps. She feels very pretty. Confident. Strong.
Taylor is a senior at Olathe South High, and prom is tonight. Most of her friends are out in big groups. Rented limos. Pictures in the backyard. The whole bit. Taylor saw some prom-goers out on the Plaza earlier, and for a second that stunk. But only for a second.
She and her father had made these plans more than a month ago. No boy asked Taylor to prom, but Bruce and his wife, Toni, wanted their daughter to have a special night anyway. So they rented the car and planned a manicure for Taylor. They made the dinner reservation, ordered the flowers and even set aside some money to take her shopping.
After all of that, a boy had wanted to take Taylor to prom. A good boy, too, a friend of Taylor’s. She’d have gone with him if he’d asked earlier, but not now, not after making plans with her dad.
Walking up to the table, Taylor sees a card with the flowers. Bruce takes a deep breath as she reads it.
For a very special girl. I love you. Love, Dad.
They start off with crab tater tots. Taylor orders the stuffed shrimp with veggies, then thinks better of it. French fries.
Her father smiles. She’s turning 18 this month, and in the fall, she’ll play tennis at Fort Hays State.
She’s come so far.
Across Kansas City and around the country, a fresh class of teenagers is entering the adult world on the heels of high school graduations.
Many of them have battled demons along the way, and some, like Taylor Stout, have used sports to help cope. Hers is just one story of many, but it’s worth remembering this month. It’s a story that might help someone. That’s Taylor’s hope, anyway.
For years, Taylor has fought depression and an eating disorder that are so entwined they are hard to untangle. Her demons fed first on Taylor’s denials (I don’t have a problem) and then delusions ( this eating disorder is my friend
Her battle has included some horrific lows, including three suicide attempts, and treatment by professionals. At one point she spent eight days in Children’s Mercy Hospital.
She’s also made new friends, some of whom she met during treatment.
“There’s hope,” Taylor says. “I’m not dependent on what other people think of me anymore. That’s probably what I’m most proud of: my individuality.”
The worst moment came four years ago, on the Fourth of July. Taylor looked out the window of her hospital room and saw the fireworks. Out there, people celebrated. They laughed. They ate.
Taylor could only watch from her hospital bed. Her heart rate was in the 30s, low enough that EMTs would’ve used electric paddles on her if she’d been in a car accident. Doctors would let her out of bed only twice a day, and only then to walk down the hallway and back.
For so long, Taylor had heard jokes about her size. Too many boys she liked didn’t like her back. One of her tennis coaches said fitness intimidated the opponent, but Taylor didn’t want to be the bigger player. So she stopped eating.
When she did eat, she didn’t take a bite more than she had to. And often she made herself throw up afterward.
She thought this was normal. She didn’t think of it as an eating disorder; she thought of it as glamorous.Models have eating issues, right?
She came to think of hers as a friend. When she lost more weight, she heard only more compliments.
You look great. You’re so pretty. Have you ever thought of modeling?
But by the time Independence Day rolled around, though, things had changed. Her sister had become suspicious, then certain, and Taylor knew she had to tell her parents. They either hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought it possible that their daughter was fighting a mental illness.
Even though weight was falling off, Taylor was still playing a lot of tennis. She was getting pretty good, too. She was working out, practicing every day. To Taylor’s parents, the weight loss had made sense.
Taylor had even begun to rationalize her eating disorder as a sort of training aid. If she lost weight, she reasoned, she’d be faster. Quicker. Better.
To the outside world, she was the same. She had conversations. Smiled. Did normal things. But inside, she wasn’t thinking clearly. She was foggy. Her brain was warped. She researched suicides online and somehow read them to be almost romantic.
When the doctors finally ran some tests, they immediately put her in the hospital. And they told her she couldn’t play tennis anymore.
“Mom,” she said then, “I know why I’m here now.”
Taylor is sitting in a coffee shop telling her story. She’s wearing a summer dress she picked out on that anti-prom shopping trip with her dad. She sits up in her chair. She is energetic. Open. Earnest.
“My eating disorder had been my friend,” she says. “When they told me I couldn’t play tennis, I got this burning hatred for it. That turned everything for me. You start to see that (an eating disorder) separates you from the world.”
Recovery is a bitch.
Taylor Stout doesn’t use that word, but that’s what it is. This is an important point for her to make, because there was a time when she thought emerging from what her parents called “hell on earth” would be easy.
But that’s not how it goes. There are meetings. Tears. Guilt. Doubt. And fear. Lots of fear. There is shame and embarrassment and judgment, too.
Today, Taylor says she is recovering, not recover ed
. This is another important distinction for her, both factually and spiritually.
The last six months have been particularly encouraging. She accepted a scholarship to play tennis in college, fulfilling a lifelong dream, and she couldn’t have done that in the throes of her eating disorder.
In fact, she doesn’t think she could’ve kicked the eating disorder without chasing this dream. Last Christmas was the first she could remember being “in the moment,” not preoccupied with counting calories or what people thought of her body.
But recovery is never a straight line. In March, she broke a rule. She told her parents she was doing one thing, but, really, she was doing something else. She felt, in her own words, “shameful.” So she cut herself.
She volunteers at a local church, in the nursery, and when a little girl noticed the scar, Taylor wasn’t sure what to say.
“I was in a war,” she told the girl.
Taylor graduated from group therapy this week. She now speaks to local groups, including around 500 women at a church. One of the things she has learned is that a lapse doesn’t have to be are
lapse. She tries to take a grander perspective of things.
To herself, she asks:Do you want your daughter asking about those scars someday?
To others, she says:Do you want to remember standing on the scale all the time, or having fun with your friends?
Taylor finds special inspiration in helping others now. Part of that is for her own good, in that it aids her own recovery.
She has started leaving Post-it notes in random places. “Stay positive,” on the bathroom mirror at a restaurant. “Love your body,” on the tag of a pair of jeans at the store.
She calls this her “army of hope,” and has even created an Instagram account for it.
Taylor has a friend at school. She can see a bit of herself in this friend.
The insecurity. The fog. The patterns.
Every day after lunch, her friend went to the same bathroom at the same time. Maybe Taylor was the only one who noticed.
One day, Taylor saw it happening again and caught up with her.
“Mind if I come in?” she asked.
Her friend mumbled a bit. Looked around. Hesitated. Tried to think of a reason to say no.
The two friends went in the bathroom. Taylor waited. She didn’t say anything. Then they walked out together.
“You know,” her friend said, “that was really helpful.”