No exercise, I was told on that first day in treatment.
Are you shitting me? I said out loud. My legs were shaking. I remember this because I was told to stop shaking my legs for fear I was trying to “burn calories” in my seat.
We do light stretches, my case manager said, smiling, as though she was handing me a golden nugget.
Rolling my eyes, I protested. Exercise is a huge part of my life.
I’m aware, she said, glancing at my chart in her hand. We have to strip you of your negative habits, she explained. And then we’ll build them back as you progress.
Logical, I thought begrudgingly. But still bullshit. I pestered a bit more, but ultimately I knew I wasn’t going to win the war.
THE “E” WORD
What comes to mind when you hear that word?
Do you feel anxious, maybe because you wish you could be doing it right now? Do you feel guilty, maybe because you know you’re pushing your body beyond the extreme as a way to burn calories? Do you have a pit in your stomach because you use exercise as a form of self-punishment? Do you feel obligated in order to earn the right to consume food?
Your gut reaction to that word says a lot about your relationship with it.
There will come a point in your recovery where you’ll be given the “all clear” by your doctor to begin physical activity or exercise. But the real question is: should you?
ED is a stealthy bastard. And one of the things he’s best at is morphing your eating disorder.
RUNNING FROM MY PROBLEMS
Eating disorders are very prevalent in the running community, but not often talked about.
When I first began to run in April of 2014, I hated it. In fact, it was not a love affair that started from the beginning, but something I did because I wanted to be a runner. I had childhood asthma. I never ran in high school; in fact, I couldn’t even run a mile in gym class. I wanted to be one of those people who can run miles and miles and miles.
And I did. I ran my first marathon a little over a year later.
I truly loved running, and I had fun doing it. I couldn’t function a day without my sneakers hitting the pavement. It was my escape from the tribulations of everyday life, my way of survival through grueling stress and overactive emotions. All I had to do was tie my laces, shut off my brain, and go. For miles and miles and miles.
It wasn’t until my post-marathon injury that I realized why running was vital.
HOW IT STARTED
Eating disorders are neurological manifestations, with biological, psychological, temperamental, social, cultural, and interpersonal factors.
My treatment team described my triggers as a matchbook. All of the elements were lined up — my genetics, my personality, my childhood — and it took one event, one experience to light the match that started the fire.
A traumatic event in February of 2015 started my smoke.
I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to have an eating disorder. It doesn’t work that way. But I have memories that come in flashes during the months following, memories of vomiting, restricting, binging…falling…sinking… it was misdirected self-punishment.
And then I found running.
LIVING IN DENIAL
I loved the runner’s high, the rush of endorphins that pulsed through my body after a run. It kept me coming back for more, lacing up shoes day after day.
But I went from wanting a runner’s high to needing it, and then from needing it to not having it all, and the result nearly killed me.
Blistered feet, salt-stained skin, and aching muscles were my coping mechanism. Running helped mask my depression, but after my injury, everything fell apart. Iliotibial band syndrome was nothing compared to the storm that came my way.
What started as hobby turned into a method of control. Runners live by the mantra that “our minds give up before our bodies do.” For me, that meant I could train myself to shut off my mind and push through the physical grit. It was the only way to shut down the voice of my inner demon, and runner’s high was the perfect surge of happiness.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
I still remember the panic when I realized I couldn’t run anymore. The horror when my first thought was, “I am going to gain a million pounds.” I realized marathon training made me feel better about eating.
I will never forget sitting on a bench at Goodale Park in Columbus with a frequent marathoner who told me, “When I need to drop a few pounds before a race, I stop eating peanut butter.” I was confused. Why would he need to drop a few pounds before a race? “Oh, the lighter you are, the faster you run,” he said.
A switch had flipped. Being lighter could provide me with an extra edge that I wanted and needed to become a better runner. In addition to decreasing my food intake, I increased my mileage. Counter intuitive, but I ran faster and got better. Eating disorder or not, I was getting compliments on my appearance like never before, and I was not about to change my habits that were working so well.
“Omg Laurie, you’re so skinny! I’m so jealous. What’s your secret?”
“I’m a runner.”
Read as: I run off everything I eat.
Read as: Food makes me feel guilty.
Read as: Thank you for fueling my eating disorder.
As I flip through my journal entries during that time, I wrote a lot about not understanding “what was wrong with me,” not understanding “why these feelings have come back,” and why I felt “so… so… paralyzed, like I’m on auto-pilot, like a deformed creature, unblinking, pale-skinned, and slow.”
Looking at this now, as someone in recovery, it’s obvious. Eating disorders are a way coping with emotional distress and underlying issues. That’s one of the many reasons recovery is SO damn hard. When you take away the coping method, what are you left with? All of the pain, suffering, and emotional distress you spent all your energy and time avoiding.
I couldn’t run, so I stopped eating. I couldn’t control the my life, so I controlled the number on the scale. I didn’t want to think about my trauma, so I spent every millisecond thinking about food, numbers, and starving. I couldn’t handle my feelings of guilt and shame, so I stopped handling anything at all. When your life is devoted to becoming The Smallest Person on the Planet, there isn’t much time to worry about other responsibilities.
So how did I do it? How did I break the chains that kept me in bondage to olympian-caliber workouts and marathon runs day after day after day?
I listened to my treatment team and…. I GAVE IT UP COLD TURKEY. No running. No gym. No lengthy walks. No fitness classes. No exercise. NONE.
Had I never fully given up exercise, I truly do not think I would be where I am today. I had a seriously unhealthy relationship with my body that would never had mended if I had continued to rigorously exercise throughout my recovery. I had damaged my body for so long, I needed to allow it time to repair and relax. I also needed to learn that it is okay to not exercise. I needed to heal my mind and to learn that there is more to life.
I wanted to fully free myself, so I let myself just live. I ate foods that were previously “off-limits.” I relaxed. I trusted my treatment team and let them do their work.
I want to say that this was my happy ending, but not yet.
I felt like a whale. I thought I’d have to be carted out with a forklift. I felt like I had failed myself. I hated myself. I hated my “fat” body and for “letting myself go” and for “ruining myself.”
“I never would have gone through recovery if I knew I’d end up fat!!!” I screamed.
So, after eight months of no exercise, and without telling anyone, I turned to running. Ah, secrecy… ED thrives off secrecy.
But it wasn’t the same. In fact, I hated every second of it. I couldn’t shut my brain off, and I realized, I had nothing to tune out. I didn’t want to run anymore, and I couldn’t understand why.
Did I miss running? Yes, but mostly because I thought running was what prevented me from gaining weight. Running was not running anymore. It was this monster pressuring me to keep my body a certain way. I had something to prove, and I wanted to be the girl that defeated anorexia and ran better because of it.
But, that didn’t happen. You can only push yourself for so long before you burn out.
I worked with my therapist and a trainer and I said goodbye to cardio and hello to strength training.
Many months later, I’m more confident than ever, and NOT because of my body size. Of course, weight lifting is no cure for an eating disorder, but lifting gave me a way of seeing that my body could be something other than a passive object to be looked at… something that could be capable and skillful, rather than just an object of my criticism.
It shifted my mindset. Lifting weights feels positive because I am gaining muscle and strength. I am not focused on burning calories or losing weight. I don’t see “calories burned” like I do on an exercise machine or on my run tracker. I just train my body, sweat, smile, and go home. I push myself, but not too hard. I work out, but not too much. I eat when I’m hungry, and I never skip my square of dark chocolate after dinner.
That balance isn’t something I woke up one day and found. It took hard work, but it was hard work that I was willing to do. I had a goal of loving myself, a goal to find a balance, a goal to build healthy habits instead of turning to ED and I work every day to get better and get closer to those goals.
Relapse is something I fear. I do not want to go down that dark, lonely path again, so I am very careful with what I do. I have adopted a spirit of gentleness with myself. I ask, “What is the best way I can love myself right now? before making decisions.
The key to finding balance is being brutally honest with yourself and your intentions. Physical movement shouldn’t make you feel worn out and depleted; instead, it can be fun and enjoyable and make you feel good.
I suggest the same to you.
Some days will be easy, and some days will be hard. The process of recovery is about pushing the eating disorder out of it’s comfort zone, while also being OK with messing up and being human.
We make mistakes. As someone who strived for perfection for so long, a mistake can be very hard to deal with. There is a quote in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden that says…
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
Something about this quote speaks to me so much –– this idea that goodness and perfection are not the same thing and that actually striving for perfection can inhibit us from feeling goodness and from feeling joy and from having the peace of mind that I personally associate with goodness and feeling good.
Let go of old beliefs. Many of us who have had an eating disorder associate exercise with weight loss and control. Scratch everything you thought you knew about exercise and open your mind to building a new relationship with it. Whenever you mind goes to calories or time frames associated with ED, gently ask it to “let go.”
Be curious. Find balance with exercise by inviting curiosity in and trying new activities that are fun. You may be so used to associating exercise with “have to’s” and “should’s” that you don’t know what activities you truly find enjoyable. Be willing to try new things.
Get support. Meet with, at the very least, an eating disorder specialist before hitting the gym to determine whether you’re in a good place mentally. Also smart: getting a physical to ensure you’re at a healthy and appropriate weight.
Figure out the food. Exercising means burning more calories, which means you need to eat more to ensure you stay at a healthy weight. But tracking your meals or counting calories, even if it’s just to figure out how much more you need to eat, can be triggering. It can become too compulsive. I suggest working with a registered dietitian to develop a plan.
Start slow. Yoga and other similar grounding, stabilizing forms of exercise are probably best, especially when you’re first getting back into a fitness routine. Group workouts are also better than solo sports. But eventually with the right prep and team of support, it’s possible to do almost anything safely.
Limit yourself. Find balance with exercise by stopping when your body says it’s tired. If you are not used to exercising, practice mindful walking out in nature. You should never be exercising for more than 45 minutes to an hour at a time. It’s important to use your wise mind and set a time limit. ED can very easily trick you into “just 10 more minutes” or “just one more mile.”
Watch for these red flags. Feeling guilty if you miss a workout. Becoming overly rigid about your gym plans (like refusing to skip if it’s raining or you’re not feeling well). Modifying your diet based on your exercise (“I didn’t work out today, so I can’t eat X”). Comparing your body to other people’s. Exercising for longer and longer periods of time, and rationalizing it away. Frequent injuries like pulled muscles or stress fractures. These are all signs that you need to step back and meet with your therapist—your gym habit is getting out of control.
Avoid using technology to track. It’s too easy for people to become highly preoccupied and obsessed with food, weight, steps, and calories with these devices. The use of food tracking apps is what catapulted my eating disorder to the next level. It gave me an easy way to self-destruct under the guise of becoming healthier. One of the symptoms of anorexia nervosa is an obsession with exactly what these apps provide: the impulse to track every calorie that goes into, and out of, your own body. After a while, it helped me memorize the calories on everything, and encouraged me to cut out entire food groups from my diet. These apps made me dissociate from my body, causing me to look at myself as an element to control. My ED loved this, as eating disorders are all about turning away from the voice of your own body, and proving your own self-control by listening other voices instead.
Avoid the scale. Scales lie. They don’t really give you your true weight, so why torture yourself? They don’t reflect hormonal changes like water retention or irregular bowel movements, and we all know that muscle weighs more than fat. Disempowering the scale is an act of courage and liberation.
Enjoy movement again.
- What movement did you enjoy as a child?
- Did you enjoy being out in nature or in classes with others?
- Did you enjoy biking in the neighborhood with friends?
- Do you find pleasure in exercise?
- Can you make it a social event?
And, if you are still struggling with an eating disorder or are early on in your recovery, consult with your treatment team.
ED used to sit on a couch right in the center of my mind, but now, he’s locked outside of the house.
All I can do is confront the issue – accept that ED can unlock the door – but know that by waking up and choosing recovery, I will remain victorious.
Just because I’ve got some ashes doesn’t mean I didn’t put out the fire.