There are a lot of words I could use to describe what recovering from an eating disorder looks like. Most of them would include explicit content not suitable for most audiences.
Eating disorders are very prevalent in the running community, but not often talked about. Sure, after someone has recovered, they occasionally blog about their success story, but I have found that many of the raw details have been left out.
When approached to write about this topic, I wanted to wait until I felt like I was fully recovered to tell my story. After some thinking, I determined it would be more beneficial to tell you what an eating disorder looks like right here, right now. I have made progress forward on the road to recovery, but “recovered” is a word I cannot yet use.
How It Started – Year 1
At the end of my sophomore year of college, I headed into summer deciding that restricting food would help me lose weight and run faster. A switch had flipped inside me. Being lighter could provide me with that extra edge I needed to be a better runner.
Aside from decreasing food intake, I increased my mileage. Counter intuitive when you think about it, but sadly, it worked.
I ran faster and got better. I made the all region cross country team. And then, I collapsed at nationals 200 meters from the finish line. I was told I needed to eat more.
I tried, but that only evolved my eating disorder into something else.
I ate the exact same thing, and same amounts of food every day. Recorded what I ate in a word document. Tried not to eat over my “limit” for the day. I even agreed to start counseling in order to satisfy the pressure of speculation that I had an eating disorder.
In spite of that , I had the best year of track ever, and may ever have. I was an All-American in the 10k, runner up in the 5k and 10k at the Big 12 Conference meet, and ran USA nationals, ending the season with a personal best.
Eating disorder or not, I was fast, and I was not about to change my habits that were working so well.
Living In Denial – Year 2
Coming off a stellar track season, I took a very small break from running and got right back into training. I had set high goals for the 2011 cross country season and 2012 track season. There was no time for recovery. I ate; I wasn’t anorexic. At least that’s what I told myself. Anorexics don’t eat at all, so I couldn’t be anorexic.
The cross country season went well, I finished with another All-American but I was starting to feel a little tired. I had put in a lot of miles and needed a little break.
After a “semi” break, I began training again until it was halted for a week due to a minor injury. Even still, I was able to come back from it and qualify for the 3k and the 5k indoor nationals.
After my 5k qualification, things began to spiral downwards… and at a very brisk pace. Long story short, I was dead last in the 5k at nationals that year. Embarrassed, I chose to DNS in the 3k the following day.
Things hurt, I couldn’t recover from anything, and the life was being sucked out of me. I hit the back of someone’s car because I was so preoccupied with what I should or shouldn’t have for dinner. I was constantly depressed, losing my friends, and lost any love I had for myself.
I missed qualifying for nationals outdoors, was 8 seconds off the Olympic Trials Qualifying “A” standard for the 10k, and I began to hate running.
Hating To Run – Year 3
This summer I took off a lot more time from running. My body wasn’t right. Everything kept getting injured and the running life had been sucked from me.
I continued going to therapy and saw a dietician, but didn’t really believe everything they said. Eating Disorders evolve, and that’s what mine did.
I ate a lot of vegetables and also woke up at 1am starving because I hadn’t eaten enough during the day. I couldn’t eat a piece of bread if my life depended on it. The thought would spiral me into heap of anxiety.
Every person struggling with an eating disorder has foods they feel are “bad.” For me, that was grains. There is no rhyme or reason why a person chooses certain foods to be bad, but they do nonetheless and it’s very hard to begin consuming them again.
This was my last year of college. A super senior you could say. I didn’t have any eligibility left so I trained and trained and trained. Consistently running 95+ miles a week and eating far less than what I should have been. It was a recipe for disaster.
And disaster is what happened next. From the end of December, until now, I have yet to put together over six months of consistent training. My last track seasons were filled with a stress fracture, loads of cross training, and a lot of self-disappointment. I was still able to sneak into the outdoor Division 1 national meet and run the 10k, but nowhere near the performance I had just two years prior.
I was not on top of the world anymore, and I hated myself. I was more concerned with how I looked in a jersey, than how my body felt. Push through it, lose weight, run faster, were still my mantras.
Pursuing The Dream? – Year 4
A college graduate. What next? Clearly running wasn’t going superbly, but I could still do it. That’s what people told me. I could pursue a career in professional running. So, that is exactly what I did.
Was my dream really to be an Olympic athlete? I am still not really sure. Did I believe I could be an Olympic athlete?
Did I think running was a way to prevent me from gaining too much weight?
I joined a professional running team, but was riddled with injury. I didn’t spend more than two months at a time running. My butt became best friends with a bike seat. I convinced myself to become an elliptical champion. I even joined a masters swim program to keep up fitness.
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 to run fast. I had something to prove, and I wanted to be the girl that defeated anorexia and ran better because of it.
Well, that didn’t happen. You can only push yourself for so long before you burnout. After my last stress fracture, which included fracturing the neck of my femur, I had no desire to jump back into running when I was cleared.
The running love had been sucked out of me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back.
Recovering… Year 5
I spent the majority of the past summer road biking, doing yoga, and dabbling in running. By the end of the summer I decided to give running another go. I had been consistently working with a dietician for over a year, and a therapist for over six months so I thought I was ready to jump back into it.
I was so far from where I wanted to be, I still really didn’t enjoy running (especially work outs), and I was extremely depressed. I finally made the decision to step away from the elite running world and focus on myself.
It has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
After almost 5 years of living my life a certain way, I have had a really hard time just being me. Quite honestly I don’t really know who I am. How strange is that?! I live with myself every day, yet I don’t know anything about myself. I had defined myself as a runner andrestrictor for so long that I lost myself along the way.
Running had become part of the eating disorder so I lost my love for that as well. Now all I am left with is me, myself, and I. What now?
On a day-to-day basis, I still think a lot more about food than the average individual. Every food has become so complex that it is hard to let a slice of bread just be a slice of bread. I often have to sit down and sort out my thoughts before I eat a meal.
Not only have I restricted for periods of time, but I have also had periods of binging because of such a food deficit. Binging is a scarier feeling because it is a complete loss of control. My eating disorder started as a way to gain control, but ironically it became out of control.
Some days are easy, and some days are hard. Sometimes I am really good about not using food as a coping mechanism for anxiety; sometimes I fail and forget to be gentle to myself.
The process of recovery is about pushing the eating disorder out of its’ comfort zone, but also being ok with messing up and recognizing you are only human.
We make mistakes.
As someone who has strove for perfection for so long, a mistake can be very hard to deal with. There is a quote I found that reminds me that perfection is an unrealistic expectation and can translate into all aspects of life. The quote by John Steinbeck goes “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
I am not perfect, and I never will be. I could work on letting that go. I am not recovered yet, and I know the road will be long. I have a great support team, and know that they always have my back. Without them, I wouldn’t have made the progress I have today.
I will recover, and I will write about that when I am finally there. But for now, I just want you to be aware of what an eating disorder can do to someone. If you are struggling with one, please get help, even if it is just talking to a friend about it. Please feel free to contact me as well. Although I am not recovered, I have hope I will be one day.
That one-day will be one of the most glorious days of my life.