When Alison suggested I write this particular blog post, I laughed.
My first thought: no one could possibly be less qualified to write about having a healthy relationship with eating than me. But after we talked about it, I agreed. I’ve struggled with my eating habits and thought processes around food for a very long time and in those struggles I’ve learned a lot. If nothing else, I’ve definitely read just about every article on the internet on about nutrition at least 3 times, so worst case scenario I could regurgitate some of that information and be done with it.
Then it came time to actually write the article, and I procrastinated. In fact, I put off writing this until the day before it was due. The topic brought up a lot of anxiety and fear that I’d hoped were behind me. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of sharing my disordered history, and more uncomfortable with the fact that I’d have to openly admit that I’m not healed yet. However, I have made progress that I’m really proud of. None of us are perfect and I think it’s important that every person who comes through the gym knows and feels that. So I’m going to share some of my history, some of the things I’ve done wrong (very wrong), and some of the things that have really helped repair my relationship with food and eating.
An unhealthy relationship with food can permeate your entire life. I understand. I wish that no one else had to deal with these issues, but I know for certain that many of you do. I really hope you can learn from some of my past mistakes and take the positive steps I’ll outline to heart.
How I got to this point
I’ll put this bluntly: I was diagnosed with non-purging Bulimia Nervosa in 2015. I’d been struggling with it for about 10 years at that point, but hit a breaking point that I couldn’t come back from alone.
My poor relationship with food started at a young age. I went through puberty early and was bigger than most of the other girls in my grade. I was super active with soccer, track, cheerleading (I know). I was usually on 4-5 different teams and at 1-2 practices every night. In response, my appetite knew no bounds. I could put away food, and I did. And at some point, a comment about my “thunder thighs” took root. I knew how I wanted to look: dainty and thin. Thunder thighs do not fit that image.
I remember my first diet: I was 12 and had a friend steal Weight Watchers materials from her mom so I could follow them. A pattern emerged pretty quickly: I’d follow that diet, eating as little as I could stand, and then one night I’d be so hungry I couldn’t sleep and I would eat EVERYTHING: a gallon of ice cream, and entire family size bag of chips, straight Cool Whip. If it was edible and readily available, it was going in my mouth. I’d wake up guilty the next day and did what I perceived to be the only logical response: I’d fast until I couldn’t anymore and try to burn off the extra calories by running extra miles.
Things progressively got worse through high school and college. There were ups and downs (in weight and mental health), but the pattern stayed: restriction, binge, fast and run.
I got into lifting when I was 22, in an unhealthy relationship, and needed something to help me feel strong and able. It worked: I got stronger, left that relationship, and found out I wasn’t too bad at lifting. Over the next few years, I got more and more serious and naturally decided it was time to dial in my nutrition. My goal body was a little different now: still thin, but muscular and lean. My binge/purge patterns were still there though, so I had to find a new way to compensate while still eating enough to get stronger.
I found a coach who specialized in concurrent endurance racing and powerlifting training, who also worked with a nutritionist. I thrive on order and planning, so I felt this was perfect for me. I knew if someone else was telling me how to eat and how to train, I wouldn’t let them down and I’d finally reach my goal body, and by extension, my goal life. I spent weeks justifying the reasoning to my boyfriend, who was rightly skeptical.
By all accounts, I did incredibly well on this system: I PRed my half marathon, my deadlift and bench progressed, and I successfully rehabbed a hip injury. Most importantly, my weight and body fat went WAY down. I went from around 142lbs to 122lbs in several months. I should have felt amazing, accomplished, disciplined. Instead, I somehow felt fat. I stopped going out socially because I couldn’t fit any restaurant foods into my diet, because then it wouldn’t be perfect. I couldn’t handle not being perfect.
Then it went off the rails on a family vacation. I was still slowly losing fat but eating a good amount: around 2600 calories per day. The problem came as soon as I let myself eat something “off-plan:” a single restaurant meal that included the most amazing flourless chocolate cake I’d ever had. I lost it after that. All of my binging behavior came back with a vengeance and I could not stop eating. It continued after coming home. I stopped going to work because I was so ashamed of myself. I was always somewhere between binging on thousands of calories at at time or fasting. I was eventually convinced me to seek help. This was one of the darkest times of my life.
Three years later, here I am, still lifting, up in weight, not healed, but substantially healthier. How?
Where I went wrong
If I could go back, I would change a lot of how I handled my disordered eating.
I would have talked about it and gotten help sooner.
I tried to hide my eating from everyone around me, which is a classic symptom of all binge eating disorders. I know that now. I was also really good at finding the other sick people around me in order to feel validated. I wish I would have put that pattern together when I was younger. Additionally, even after getting diagnosed, I opted out of some treatment options that probably would have really benefitted me. I can see now how seriously this disorder affected me, but in the moment I just talked it down. “This isn’t that bad, anorexics have it worse. Inpatient treatment is for teenage girls that are dying, not for 25 year olds that can’t stop eating.” That’s some bullshit. Those treatments are available for everyone for a reason (and there are lots of support groups aimed specifically at post-college age women and young professionals that I didn’t find until much later). Take advantage of them.
I always needed to be perfect.
This is probably the core of my issues, and I suspect the same goes for a lot of the people I see struggling around me. A lot of things came easy for me early in life: school, sports, friendships. I picked up a thinking pattern that goes like this: If I’m not immediately really good at something, it means I am incapable of doing that thing. This has affected me in every aspect of my life. Saddest example: I wanted to be an architect, but convinced myself that since math wasn’t immediately as easy as some of my other subjects, I just wasn’t cut out for it. I let my childhood dream die in an instant because of that black and white pattern of thinking.
I assumed that at some point, the work would be over I would be fixed.
Did you catch that up there? I’m still not healed. I recognize now that there will never be a time where I can just “relax” because I’m 100% recovered with no chance of relapse. That is not a thing. In my last blog I talked about self-care as that hard work and those hard decisions we have to make if we actually want to take care of ourselves. For me, this is it. I need therapy, I need journaling. I hate doing those things because they make me feel sick, but the truth is I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been (both physically and mentally) BECAUSE I do those things that are hard. I will always have to work at this and that is okay.
What I’m doing right (and you should do too)
So what’s changed in three years since getting the official diagnosis?
I finally got professional help.
You hire a professional to reach your fitness and health goals right? So why not hire a professional to reach your mental health goals? I’m on my fourth therapist now and she is a gem. It was hard finding a good fit and took about 2 years. It’s worth it. Half the time we don’t even talk about food, because half the time my disorder has absolutely nothing to do with food! The best part of therapy for me is the work we do on battling that black and white thinking I talked about above. Everyone that knows me well has heard me harp on about how therapy is useful for everyone, and I’m gonna spout that here too. You don’t need to have a diagnosed disorder to go to therapy. We all have faulty thinking patterns, and we all have the ability to retrain those patterns to be more helpful. A good therapist is key in making those changes.
I’m surrounded by people that support me without enabling me.
I mentioned above that I’ve always found other disordered people to make me feel more normal. I’m not doing that anymore. My family here at UF in particular have been a huge driving force in my recovery because they keep me accountable. When my therapist gives me homework, I know I can go to them for some additional motivation. Just like we remind Alison that she’s growing a tiny human right now, my coworkers need to remind me that yes, I do need to eat even if I’m not training that day.
When I was ready, I had to start going out of my comfort zone.
In the thick of it, my life was as follows: wake up at 3:30am, train from 4am to 6:30am, shower, work from 8:30am to 6pm or later, train again or go to class until 8 or 9pm, in bed by 9:30 or 10pm. There was no room for a social life, there was no room for real friendship, and there was certainly no room for food I didn’t make myself. After months of therapy, I was able to get used to eating out again. It was painful, there were a lot of tears, but I did it. Now I’m happy to say that I can eat foods that were even previously “danger foods” with some regularity. Do I sometimes lose it a little bit and binge? Yes I do. Like I said, it’s a work in progress. But those episodes are FAR less frequent, and my response to them has gone from some kind of fasting or over exercising to breathing techniques and mentally refocusing. My body is better for it because I’m not constantly breaking it down. I’m injured less and therefore a better athlete.
I got back in touch with how my body is feeling
A major theme of my disorder has been ignoring every hunger and fullness cue my body was sending me. At first I’d be ignoring my hunger until I got too desperate and then eating far beyond fullness, and then eating to a pre-set schedule no matter how hungry or not hungry I was. While I do still track most of what I eat and eat with a purpose, I spend a little more time trying to parse what my body is telling me. Example: last night after finishing my last meal I was still hungry. I ate half a Clif bar and then I was full, so I just didn’t eat the rest. I never leave food unfinished! This is the constant little progress I’m looking for.
I’m striving to let go of my “goal body”
Because really, that “goal body” has always been code for control. If I could just make my body look the way I wanted it to look, I could therefore make my life look the way I wanted it to look. Instead, I’m doing the hard things that actually affect my life. I left my old job that I hated to come to UF and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m keeping up with therapy despite it being hard and I’m consistently getting a little bit better. I’m not weighing myself as much and I spend a lot of time seeking out women on social media that are strong as shit but not fitness models as a reminder that I don’t have to be super tiny or super lean to be strong and capable. My goal body now is a body that can deadlift 400lbs (soon), that can run 10 miles, and that supports me in my non-fitness goals of being good to the people around me and helpful in every way that I can. And you know what, it’s succeeding. And I’m proud of myself for getting to a point where I can say that.