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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Deciding to Heal

February 22-28th is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Please check it out at http://nedawareness.org/.

This is something that is extremely difficult to talk about, and—in fact—I’m writing things here that I’m fairly certain even my husband will be finding out for the first time. I composed this a while ago and have, on multiple occasions, allowed my mouse to intermittently hover over the “publish” button before ultimately deciding that I wasn't ready. But I’m not sure if I’ll ever really be “ready,” and, given what this week honors, I can’t think of a better time to just put it out there.

Note: I am totally aware that eating disorders exist among both men and women, but for the sake of conciseness in this post, I’ll be using feminine pronouns, mostly because I’m speaking from my own experience, and that makes the most sense to me.

So here goes: I suffered from an eating disorder through much of high school and nearly all of college. I’m not talking about a trendy, misguided, “I’d-look-so-hot-with-a-thigh-gap” whim, I mean a full-blown, can’t-function-like-a-regular-human-being eating disorder. A true eating disorder (ED) is not a fad. It’s not something to make light of with “thinspo” and “pro-ana” posts on social media sites. It’s not something you joke about among friends with glib remarks like, “Oh, I’m rockin’ a bikini at the beach tomorrow, so I guess I won’t be eating today.” It is an all-consuming, life-threatening disease. It's the kind of thing that makes you forget who you are, where you are, why you are. The kind of thing that rouses you in the middle of the night and compels your barely functioning body to shuffle through your dorm hallways, stopping at the nearest communal trash can to scavenge for food. Because your mind and body are no longer on the same team, and your mind has finally yielded to your body's survival instincts. Because you know that if you keep any food in your own room, you’ll end up eating it. And you aren't allowed to eat. 

It's the kind of thing that starves you until you're forced to consume your own identity for sustenance. The kind of thing that leaves you weak and emaciated, that strips you of your ability to runthe one thing your body could do that made you feel strong, alive, and in control. The kind of thing that dictates how you spend every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and leaves you unable to even stand on your own two feet, let alone run on them. 

It's the kind of thing that isolates you from friends and family, because you forgo any social function that will involve food. The kind of thing that leaves you scraping the bottom of your piggy bank for gas money, because you spend your entire summer working out instead of getting a job. Scratch that: Working out is your job, and you do it for eight to ten hours a day. The payment you receive is another rib showing, or your clavicle protruding perhaps another millimeter. 

It's the kind of thing you look back on, years later, with one of your beautiful, vibrant children bouncing up and down on your non-skeletal thighs, and think, My God, the things I could have missed.

A lot of times, you hear that an eating disorder isn't about eating. It’s about control. It’s about finding the one aspect in your life that you can control, when everything else seems to have spiraled out of it. That’s part of the reason it’s so difficult for an eating disorder victim to open up about her condition: She has to admit that she’s lost charge of her own life—ironic, considering a pathological need to be self-sufficient is often what prompts the unhealthy behavior in the first place. I think this obsession with control is difficult for people to understand when they’re not going through it themselves. Without divulging too much detail, I will say that I had a lot of anxieties, and traumas that I hadn't worked through, and all of those suppressed emotions eventually manifested themselves in the power-game known as an eating disorder. I wanted to feel empty, physically and emotionally, so that’s what I strove for. I wanted to disappear instead of confront my emotions, so I slowly wasted away. Eating disorders are not about looking good in a bikini. They are not about vanity. If so, you wouldn't see most eating disorder victims dressed in baggy sweats, hair pulled back, face often pale and void of even a single swipe of makeup. If it was about having a “good body,” they’d want to show off their “accomplishments” to the rest of the world. Instead they hide.

I hid. I hid for a long time. At times, I still hide. Not in the manipulative, secretive ways that I used to, but I hide from the past, and the emotions that it brings up. I don’t want to write my entire story on here, partly because—to be honest—I don’t think I’m ready to relive all of it quite yet. There is a lot of guilt that comes with recovering from an eating disorder, as you wake from the fog of starvation and realize just how much you've hurt the people around you. It’s the kind of thing that can never be completely eradicated from your conscience, no matter how much you apologize, sort of like some of the destructive mindsets of the disorder itself. For years, I wouldn't even admit that I had a problem, in part because I honestly didn't think I did. That’s what an ED does to you. It warps your sense of reality. It convinces you that the things you’re doing are normal, and that no one else understands that. Suffice it to say, I hit my worst point my sophomore year of college, dropping well below the “unhealthy” BMI range, and using my protruding shoulder blades to shrug off the concerns of all the counselors, coaches, and PEOPLE WHO LOVED ME that were trying to help.

And there were plenty of them. But when I was at my worst, I was irrational. I truly believed that the people around me were overreacting. Recovery wasn't something that anybody could force on me; it was something I had to reach for myself. And I know it’s a clichĂ©, but sometimes you truly do have to hit “rock bottom” before you can climb your way to the top. It's brutal, but the gratifying thing about it is that once you reach the summit, you can stand firmly on the knowledge that you have the tools, strength, and willpower to pull yourself out of the dark.

When my ED started to become visibly noticeable to others during sophomore year of college, I had no choice but to start seeing doctors and counselors, at least if I hoped to remain at school and be a part of the cross-country team (incredible ladies who, even at my absolute worst, stuck by my side; I can't imagine being surrounded by a stronger group of women). So I went through the motions. Counselors. Weekly weigh-ins* (see Note, at end of post). I said what I thought they wanted to hear, nodded at the “coping mechanisms” they suggested, and told them I knew I had a problem, all the while anxiously glancing at the clock and calculating how much time I had left before the campus gym closed. I did have one counselor who eventually helped guide me down the road of recovery. However, I had to be the one to build that road first, and, in order to do so, I needed building materials. The first one I stumbled across was fear.

There was a gym I worked out at regularly that had this tiny little cardio room in the basement, where I felt I could work out for hours, away from the prying eyes of people who might recognize me. I was there late one Friday night, trying to fit in my daily requirement of exercise before heading back to my dorm room, eating a 100-calorie-snack-bag of fat-free popcorn and a couple packets of Splenda, and passing out for the night. I don’t know what was different about that night, but at some point, I looked around that secluded little room and realized just how alone I was. While probably almost every other college kid was out spending her Friday night with friends, I was slogging along on an elliptical in a deserted basement. All of a sudden, I felt a pain in my chest. It may have been real, it may have been imagined. It may have been a panic attack or something in my heart metaphorically breaking over how pathetic I was. And I thought, Oh my gosh, I am going to die. This is how I’m going to die. Alone in a basement. And they won’t find me until they close for the night. Because no one else is here. Because no one else is this pitiful. I hadn't just isolated myself in the gym. I had ISOLATED MYSELF. PERIOD. So I stopped mid-elliptical-stride, got in my car, and drove home to my mom. I wasn't ready to tell her what had happenedabout my fear, my terrifying epiphanybut I took solace in the fact that I was under the same roof as someone who loved me unconditionally. Sometimes, the best thing you can be for someone with an ED is simply there.

My recovery was gradual. I didn't just go from 10 hours of exercising a day to none. It was seriously like weaning a drug addict: I had to go slowly, or the withdrawal would become too much and kick me right back to where I started. I began paying attention at my counseling sessions and integrating the tools the counselor gave me to deal with my anxiety. I opened up about issues in my past that I hadn't even realized were feeding my ED (poor choice of words). I slowly realized that it was okay to embrace all of the love and support that people who cared about me had been throwing my way.

This post isn't for the people living with eating disorders, although I would be beyond thrilled if it does manage to help a fellow victim. This is for their loved onesthe people who feel helpless, neglected, terrified. I can’t imagine what it’s like to watch someone you love slowly, miserably kill herself, and not be able to do anything about it. And I pray I never have to. I want to tell you not to give up, and not to feel like you’re failing. I had the best support team imaginable in my corner—my best friend (my mom), my remarkably persistent and compassionate cross-country coach, my at-the-time fiancĂ© (now husband), and countless teammates and family members—but all of the support in the world didn't matter until I was ready to make a change. And once I took that step, I welcomed all of it.  But that first step had to be mine.  No crutches. Some of the strongest roots of an eating disorder are the needs to be independent and to take ownership of your body; it only makes sense that growing out of one necessitates the same. At least in my experience. You can't always move the roots, but you can feed them a different way of thinking, so that they grow into something beautiful instead of a parasitic weed. 

So please be patient.  Of course keep trying to break through—how could you not?—but don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, like you’re not helping. Because you are. You are helping by being there. By caring. By loving. You are a safety net. Hang in there, because one day that person you love will jump—or be pushed—toward recovery, and she’ll need you around to catch her.

And to those of you who were there to catch me (you know who you are): Thank you. Everything I am, everything I have, I owe to you. In the ultimate Trust Fall, the loving web of your interlaced hands lifted me back up to safety.

I was lucky. I didn't suffer any permanent damage from my ED, except for a brief period of anemia that sidelined me for part of my junior cross-country season. My friends and family didn't give up on me, even when I pushed them away. I managed to keep my grades up, didn't have to drop out of school, and—miraculously—never ended up in the hospital. But I very well could have, and I thank God every day for blessing me with the opportunity to build the life I have now.

I’m still healing. I don’t think you ever really stop. When I eat in front of people, I sometimes feel like they’re scrutinizing my plate, trying to determine if I’m eating “enough.” I can get self-conscious ordering at a restaurant for fear that the waiter or waitress is judging my choices. At family gatherings, I sometimes feel like people are pushing seconds on me. Maybe they are. Or maybe I’m just paranoid because of past experiences. Occasionally, I snap irrationally at my husband when he offers to watch our kids so I can sit down, relax, and eat lunch, because a part of me is still conditioned to the idea that everyone I know is constantly trying to make me eat. I still have a lot of the old ED feelings, but I've learned to deal with them. We can’t control how we feel, but we can control how we react to those feelings. And I've learned that isolating yourself is counterproductive to healing. I don’t want to be alone.

I’m writing this not only to bring awareness to the issue and to support people who know someone with an ED, but also to repave my own road to recovery. I’m sure anyone who knew me when I was at my worst would tell you that I had an ED, but I wouldn't have. Public acknowledgement is a big step. I’d like this post to be the proverbial nail in the coffin that my ED is resting in, and I’d like to bury it for good. I apologize if it seems at all disjointed, as I had to compose it in pieces, much like the manner in which I had to put myself back together during my recovery. I needed to take moments to pause, reflect, and cry. But that’s okay. Tears can be healing, and we can’t truly move on from the past until we acknowledge it.

And now? I intend to just keep moving forward, bringing the people I love most along for the ride:

After completing my first post-baby marathon, one day before the boys turned 9 months.

Post half-marathon PR. My greatest cheerleaders, and my reason to keep going.

Post Snickers Marathon <3 Candy bars don't scare me anymore. 

After the Army Shadow Ten Miler in Fort Hood.
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*A Note on Numbers: Please, do not enforce or encourage “mandatory weigh-ins.” I can tell you from experience that this is one of the most counterproductive things you can do for someone with an eating disorder. When I suffered from mine, everything was a numbers game. How many hours could I work out in a day? How few calories could I survive on? How low could I get the scale to read?  Getting below 100, then 95, then 90; it never stops. When I was forced to undergo “weekly weigh-ins,” I responded in one of two ways: I upped my workout regimen and restricted my intake further so I wouldn't be freaked out by any rise on the scale; or, I got so nervous that a low number would result in further treatment or a hospitalization (my worst fear, because then I wouldn't be allowed to work out) that I dealt with the anxiety the only way I knew how—exercise. So you can see that both reactions led to the same response: digging myself deeper into my eating disorder. To this day, I don’t look at the scale when I have to step on it at the doctor’s office. I don’t know how much I weigh, and I don’t want to know. I tell myself it’s because I don’t care, but I think it’s really because I don’t want to care. Putting a recovered (or recovering) eating disorder patient on a scale is like handing a shot glass to an alcoholic. Unless absolutely critical, I think weigh-ins are a bad idea. If they absolutely have to happen, I recommend they be done blind.



8 comments:

  1. Great insightful post :) love ya buddy!

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    1. Thanks, buddy. It was a tough, but important, one to write. Love ya, too!

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  2. This is extremely well-written. Thank you for sharing your struggles.

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  3. I just stumbled upon this while on another blog. Thank you for this post. I'm also a recovered anorexic/bulimic and really think that by sharing our stories, we can help others. I agree with you about the blind weigh ins. I completely understand the necessity for weigh-ins, but can't believe you were forced to know your weight. That's horrible. I hope you continue on your path in recovery!

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    1. Thank you so much. It's always so encouraging to hear from other individuals (runners, especially!) who have dealt with similar issues. It's a tricky balance with running, as I'm sure you know, because there is a fine line between healthy competition/dedication and acceptance.

      Thank you for reading. I'm off to check out your blog! Keep running (and recovering), lady! <3

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  4. I know that it took a lot of courage to write that, but you did a great job. Sometimes, I wonder if I suffer from an eating disorder, but not starving myself and working out. I am considered obese. When I get stressed, I just keeping eating. I eat candy, cookies, chips, basically all unhealthy stuff.

    Margaretta Cloutier @ Aspire Wellness Center

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    1. Thank you. It was difficult to write, but also freeing, if that makes sense. I'm sorry you feel like you're struggling. I went through a period of binge eating myself, and I remember waking up so bloated and uncomfortable. I almost felt hungover.

      If you think you may need help working through your emotions and eating habits, please don't hesitate to seek help. Whether it be from a friend or professional. No one deserves to live under the shadow of an ED.

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