From Sports to Inner Struggles, Former Marine Lieutenant is a Warrior Helping Others
She was an All-Star high school, college and professional softball player. As a young adult she was a fitness competition winner and model. She then became a Marine Lieutenant and platoon leader while deployed in Iraq. For Theresa Larson you’d think no obstacle would be too hard to conquer. But for this now doctor of physical therapy, the biggest battle wasn’t fought overseas, the real fight was an internal and painful struggle with bulimia. The stress of the military worsened the cycle of bingeing and purging and she eventually resigned to seek treatment for her eating disorder. Now a physical therapist for other “wounded warriors,” Larson wrote her memoir titled Warrior: True Strength Isn’t Always What It Looks Like to showcase her journey to wellness. – one which required bravery to ask for help, the ability to abandon the idea of “perfect,” and the importance of persistence and commitment. Risen sat down with the former marine to talk about being both strong and vulnerable, embracing one’s inner warrior, and the faith foundation of her family.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You were an athletic kid and excelled in softball as an All-American, then semi-pro, and pro in both the United States and Italy. How did sports help frame your worldview when it comes to discipline, strength and teamwork?
Theresa Larson: From a young age I was very driven. I grew up with two older brothers, we had a very competitive family. You were rewarded for winning games and excelling. I set my self-esteem off of winning and doing well, so I really couldn’t let myself fail. Being a softball player in high school, college, All-American, and playing professionally in Europe, it fed into that self-esteem and feeling good about myself. I enjoyed winning. I enjoyed competing. I was the center of the team. I ran the game. I developed a sense of responsibility from a young age, being a pitcher and being the center of attention. I learned early that relationships mattered a lot and that my presence in that team mattered; how I carried myself, how confident I was with my pitching and how confident I was on the mound, affected the confidence of the people on my team. I took on the responsibility of setting the demeanor of every game. It was like, “Okay, everyone is feeding off you so don’t mess up.” My dad had instilled in me the character traits of a confident woman – you are a leader, you set the example – the pressure to succeed was there as a child, but I took it to the extreme. I grew up in a military family, so discipline was just part of it. My dad was there every day saying, “You know that someone else is out there practicing so you better be out there too.”
RM: How did that help you transition to who you are today?
TL: Sports really did help me get prepared for future experiences. It gave me responsibility, competition, and [the ability to handle] pressure. The discipline in me, and the desire to make a difference, and to be the best carried with me. The only difference is that now I have a much more healthy perspective. I love what I am doing and I know, with time, this work ethic I have, like I had in softball, will pay off. I don’t beat myself up anymore if I fail, because failing is part of it. I have accepted that. I think as I matured I learned that’s part of what grows character, just like losing a game.
RM: Let’s talk about your time in the Marines. As a female lieutenant, what were your initial thoughts and emotions about joining the military? Were they confirmed or altered?
TL: I was an officer and I really enjoyed my position. I was able to work with a platoon of guys, and a couple of ladies, and really get my hands dirty. I ran a platoon of 54 Marines, and then in Iraq, I had more than 115 [personnel] on certain missions. As a leader, I really had the ability to make an impact on these people’s lives. As a woman, day one going into a platoon, your Marines look at you like, “You are a woman, what can you do?” Versus, “Oh cool, I got a new Lieutenant.” They don’t respect you from the start. I really had to prove myself to them in the first couple of months. Women only make up seven percent of the Marine Corps. I got along pretty well with most of my Marines and they respected me. But as a woman, you are judged just a little bit harsher. There are more eyes on you. If you mess up it is going to affect the reputation of all the women who come after you.
I did pray, but my prayers were not super focused, contemplative thought didn’t really happen for me until recently.
RM: When you talked about setting the tone on the softball field, is that the same as a Marine Lieutenant?
TL: It’s exactly the same thing. From day one when you get on the mound, you have to set a precedence for the game. You have to show that you are confident. It’s the same as lieutenant and that carried over into my training. I have always had the personality where people looked to me for guidance and advice. I think even when I was a bench warmer on my semi-professional team, people still looked to me for advice and guidance. I think that I always felt this responsibility to set an example for other women, to set an example as a confident capable woman. I think I got that from my dad.
RM: While you were overseeing your platoon in Iraq you were struggling internally with an eating disorder. How did this develop and what allowed you to be able to get in under control?
TL: It started when I was in college. I was doing fitness modeling, playing softball and I did this “Body-for-Life” program which gave me an avenue to make my body look a certain way. Food and exercise became an obsession for me. I could control what I ate and make my body look a certain way. It gave me a sense of control to be able to eat and exercise the “Body-for-Life” way – it was a sense of control I didn’t really have at home. It made me feel more in control and I started to obsess about it, kind of overdoing the exercise and overdoing the eating. There are free days when you can eat whatever you want. They were fun but uncomfortable; that behavior became a craving I had.
The pressure of playing softball and being the lead pitcher, school, the Marine Corps, I was doing a lot. Food and exercise was something that I could control. I couldn’t control winning games. I couldn’t control school. When I got to the Marine Corps, my coping mechanism was exercise and food, but when I got so busy, I couldn’t exercise as much, and my eating habits were horrible. I started to cope by purging, because I was feeling out of control and I needed to control something. I was feeling out of control with food and diet, as well as my job. Essentially that’s how it started; I started to throw-up. It festered into other areas of my life. It became the main coping mechanism that I had at home and when I was in Iraq.
RM: I think a lot of individuals, especially women, struggle with the idea of being “perfect.” What advice can you give when it comes to this illusive concept?
TL: I think just flat out admitting to yourself that there is no such thing as perfect. It is humanly impossible to be perfect. I think one has to look at themselves and say, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” The idea of perfection, the stem of it comes from issues of feeling like you need to look a certain way, or act a certain way, or by holding yourself to a standard that seems impossible. The idea of achieving perfection can be good in some ways, but it can also be very obsessive and self-defeating. People often compare themselves to others and they seek approval from others. It actually stems off of shame for yourself and lack of self-love. It’s like you are seeking approval from others because you don’t love yourself enough. You want to be like someone else, so it is really taking the time to say I am going to abandon this idea, and choosing to love myself where I am and with the struggle of where I am going.
Sharing your story with someone you love, and trust, is a huge part of healing and being vulnerable.
RM: You write about your time in the military and your eating disorder in your memoir Warrior. Why did you decide now was a good time to share your story, and how did writing the book help your healing process?
TL: It has been a long process to get where I am and I’m in a place where I am ready to share. I started working with these wounded warriors a few years ago and they wanted to hear my story. The people that I have shared my story with feel like it is unbelievable in a way. I just feel like the more I share it, the more people will realize this stuff happens and learn better ways to cope and take care of themselves. There is a stigma behind mental illness. I am okay with talking about that. I’m in a place where I am caring less about what people think. I am realizing that vulnerability is extremely powerful. The military needs to change their ways with how they deal with mental illness and so does society.
RM: What has the reaction been from Marines about your story? Has anyone from your former platoon contacted you after reading your book?
TL: They were appreciative of it. They really enjoyed working with me, which was awesome. A lot of them have commented, “Wow you were sick and we didn’t even know it and you still kicked our [butts]!” One Marine commented on my book saying, “This was needed. Thank you, and now I understand what was going on with you and I hope that I can help somebody who struggled like you did.” So that was really cool.
RM: In your book, you also talk about your parents. Your mom passed away from cancer when you were just ten years old and your father became a priest. How did that affect you and your personal view of faith?
TL: My dad becoming a priest was pretty cool. I was really supportive of him. My mom was a nun before he met her and then when he met her she was leaving the nunnery and of course she didn’t’ go back, because she married him and now I am here! I grew up Catholic and the fact that he became a Catholic priest didn’t surprise me, it actually helped improve my faith. Going to church reminded me of my dad. Even though he was a priest in Pennsylvania, anywhere I went to church it would remind me of him. I was really close with my dad. I always wanted to do something that reminded me of him. Just taking that one hour a week to serve God, and worship God, was the least I could do to show thanks and gratitude. My dad taught me the act of praying, the act of contemplative thought. I did pray, but my prayers were not super focused, contemplative thought didn’t really happen for me until recently. When I was in Iraq deciding to come home, I really had to sit down and say, “Theresa what do you want? You can only get through this with God’s help.” Because of my faith, I was determined not to let myself go down the rabbit hole of taking my own life. I knew it would hurt everyone around me and be a selfish act. My mom was a completely faith-filled woman and before she passed she would say, “Theresa, life is so unfair. God didn’t do this to me, this is just life. You have to go on with your life. If anything bad happens – because bad things will happen – you’ve got to move on and live your life.” That’s why when I was at my rock bottom leaving Iraq, I was determined to figure it out.
RM: Now you coach and teach fitness courses to special warfare and wounded warriors’ groups. Why are recovery options to those injured so important to you?
TL: I know that most of them like to train and be competitive and be in a competitive environment. Rehab really isn’t that exciting. I wanted to provide an environment where it is a normal gym environment, where they are being pushed, and they sweat together, and they stress out together, and they are supported. It is more exciting for them and makes them happy, plus it’s neurologically better for their healing than keeping them in a rehab setting and modifying everything. It’s way more motivating. A woman who has stage four adrenal cancer says, “This helps me more than going to a psychologist. I enjoy it.” One man who has a missing limb from a blast in Afghanistan told me how thankful he is to be able to squat again, because in physical therapy they didn’t teach him that. Jokingly, “Learning how to squat with a barbell is way more exciting then learning how to squat to the toilet!” [Laughter]
RM: Speaking of the wounded warriors sharing their stories, you have started the #warriorstrong movement to give people the courage to share their stories. Why do you think it is so important for people to share their stories?
TL: Stories heal. By me sharing my story, sharing my vulnerability, and showing people that I am a human being and human beings struggle, and that I can pick myself back up and heal, it lets people know that they aren’t alone. It is part of the human condition, but it also gives people the courage knowing they are not alone to speak up and talk about it. Sharing your story with someone you love, and trust, is a huge part of healing and being vulnerable. I think it makes the universe less huge. It makes you feel not alone. Also, talking about it neurologically helps someone heal, especially if they can talk about in a way that helps others.
RM: What advice can you share with our readers about embracing their “inner warrior”?
TL: I think the way you are going to embrace your inner warrior is to admit that you are good enough the way you are. Asking for help is a sign of strength. Share. Surround yourself with good people. Write out your goals and dreams. I’m proud of the fact that I am willing to learn, ask for help, be open-minded, and I’m learning how to slow down in my life, which makes me more courageous. On the other side of shame, is growth potential. On the other side of fear, is courage. I gain courage every time I share my story. Embrace who you are and love who you are, for a lot of people not knowing who you are is an epidemic.