[My next writing project is a book about my childhood, running, and stepping into and out of an eating disorder. What follows is a short excerpt. More to come ❤. Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
The story of my eating disorder is not especially unique. I began “dieting” when I was young— the earliest I can remember engaging in disordered behaviors is around age 10. I would write lists of things I could and could not do or eat that would look something like this: no sweets, no bread, do 10 pushups before bed; weigh myself daily; don't eat too late; don't eat too much; if you eat too much, workout; lose 10 pounds by August, etc.
Eventually, this behavior spiraled into more egregious stuff, like denying myself food for entire days, constantly weighing myself or checking my stomach in the mirror obsessively. I began cutting entire food groups from my diet until the only “safe foods” were raw vegetables, beans, and fruits. Once I was plopped in the cutthroat world of Division 1 athletics, I doubled down my efforts, purging when I thought I ate too much and binging out of control when my body finally rebelled for all the starving I’d put it through. I learned to isolate myself just enough so friends wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing up my strange behaviors. I learned to drink coffee and power through homework assignments, exhausted and depleted by the time I’d turn them in. I learned to smile and laugh and make small talk so nobody could see (or so I thought) the demons swirling around in my body and brain.
By the time I reached my tipping point, my body was broken. I suffered a hip injury that took me away from running for months. My mind was broken, too. Instead of focusing on rehabbing my hip, I doubled down on my eating disorder, feeling my body shrink and flatten. I loved that feeling. My clothes became loose and my obsession with the number on the scale each morning intensified. I was a walking shell of a human, and the deep, ferocious pain I endured was hidden from the rest of the world. Many people silently suffer, and you, yes you, reading this, never know how badly someone may be hurting. What pain they endure. When I set out to tell my story, I thought my eating disorder would color most of the pages. It won’t though, because I am more than my eating disorder. We are all more than meets the eye and have so much to offer each other, if we open ourselves up to whatever is being offered.
Eating disorders have two effects on those they hurt: they kill us, or they make us stronger. Many of life’s biggest challenges do just that—kill us (either literally or metaphorically) or make us stronger. Those are the only two choices we have. We can either thicken our skin, bite the bullet, and decide that life matters more than anything else; decide that whatever it is we want most is worth fighting for. Realize that nobody can decide for us. Stop looking for answers where answers don’t live—in other people, on the internet, in the pages of books written by somebody else. Often, the answers to our deepest questions lie in us and only in us. It was up to me to uncover my will to live, my desire to have real control over my life, not just the illusion of control my eating disorder granted me.
Mental illnesses are tricky because they can’t be seen. Usually, they are difficult to control or resolve. They are not like broken limbs that require a few months of casting and strengthening to heal. Our brains believe what we tell them, which is why the messages we give ourselves matter, and also why doing hard things matters.
I learned the value of doing hard things when I was young, when I was swimming through a world that didn't inherently value hard things. Why get up early and run in pouring rain when I didn't need too, when there is a chance of sun later, when there was no one telling me o run, or any tangible reward for doing so? The answer is that if I did get up early, before everyone else was awake, and put in the time and effort to do something hard, I felt proud. I felt more confident. And I proved to myself, over and over, that I can in fact do hard things. Pushing the limits of the self is something great people do. If you don’t want or care to be great, you may never push your limits.
My eating disorder was twisted because it gave me the chance to push my limits while I was sick. How long can I go without eating? How far can I run, how fast, before my body collapses and my muscles begin to fail? How many hours can I hold off until I eat this orange or drink my coffee? How many hours can I sleep through the hunger pains?
I used to idolize Ernest Hemingway. He was brilliant. A stand out. A drunk. Haunted. Beautiful. And now, alive in the collective imagination of readers who never saw his dark moments but bask in his written successes. Hemingway once said, “write hard and clear about what hurts.” And I try to do just that. Write hard and clear about my own, specific pains. Give a voice to them. Air them out in the hopes that they will dissipate on the wind. But the pains are not often specific. The pains are just a byproduct of life that can’t be buried in a landmine or burned or drowned. Life is painful. Nearly everything we do or love can cause us pain, and that realization holds me by the throat. Suffocates me a bit.
The cruel, unstated truth of my eating disorder is that it stole my desire to live. To be joyful. To nourish and take care of myself. As I grew from adolescent to young adult I was thrust into a world that illuminated another truth we all must learn at some time—that we must take care of ourselves. My emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, financial needs needed to be met by me and only me. My eating disorder helped me cope with the stress of newfound self-reliance while simultaneously rendering me weak.
Our bodies aren’t meant to be weak. As I slowly starved myself, I watched my body shrink as if I were separate from it. As if my body were a ghost, and the real me was floating far above it, watching it with a mixture of curiosity and satisfaction. I loved how tiny I felt, how I could feel the sharpness of each rib bone, the decreasing number of the scale each morning. I loved how loose my clothing fit, how my breasts disappeared. How my collarbone jutted. How the mother of one of my classmates ran into my mother and I in the paper goods aisle of the local Walmart and exclaimed, “You’re so tiny! Tell me your secrets.”
My secrets, I wanted to tell her, involved not eating for days only to binge and purge out of shame. My secret was social isolation, so nobody could see how I starved. My secret was my self-discipline. My ability to push myself farther than I’d ever pushed myself before. This mentality worked in racing and in starving. Just another mile. Just a little faster. Just another hour. Just a little less.