Running on empty: eating disorders and women athletes

When I was in high school, I used to eat breakfast and then run up to the woods behind the Chan Centre at UBC. There, at the top of the stairs leading down to Tower Beach, I would force myself to throw up.

When I think back on these mornings, I can vividly remember the taste of half-digested Eggo waffles and the horrible sensation of my fingernails scratching the back of my throat.  I clearly see myself: knees bent, back hunched, my pony tail hanging over my face; I see how sometimes I would spit up into my hair.

I feel my heart racing, a mix of desperation and fear. How my chest would constrict and ache from the exertion of trying to purge what little food I had left in my stomach.

I remember how after I would run home.

In university, this routine changed. Instead of throwing up mid-run, I would binge and purge prior to leaving the house. In the quiet of an empty apartment, I would consume large quantities of ice cream, cereal, cake (if we had any), yogurt, and diet coke. Then, hunched over the toilet, I would puke. And cry.

Cry. And puke.

Then I would wash my face. Blow my nose, dry my tears, and check to see if any blood vessels had broken under my eyes and along the tops of my cheeks.

I would put on make-up before running. Smooth concealer over my skin and try to forget that the last thirty minutes had ever happened.

(Because every time was always The Last Time.)

Running after purging is scary.

Everything in my body would scream out that what I was doing was wrong. My legs were rubber, my head a haze; my digestive tract a battlefield.

The spastic lurch of my heart, as if it might actually punch its way out of my chest; as it might at any moment stop.

Break.

The long hours it would take for it to finally return to a normal, constant beat.

I am sharing all of this today because I am training for a marathon.

I am sharing all of this today because sometimes it is hard not to have an eating disorder.

(These two things are not mutually exclusive.)

Sometimes it is hard to be kind to myself.

Sometimes I run very long distances on little to no food, and then ignore recovery meals.

Sometimes it’s just really hard.

But sometimes it’s not.

And most of the time now when I run long distances, I am fueling my body correctly, and eating and drinking post-run, and also eating proper dinners, and breakfasts and all of these good things.

And while I want to love this, and jump up and down and proudly proclaim “I HAVE DONE IT!” – I can’t.

Because even though I am doing all of these good things, and so much of me is so happy to do all of these good things, there is still a small part of me that is telling me that they are bad, and therefore I am bad for doing them.

We don’t ever talk about athletes and eating disorders.

I think there are many reasons for this, and all of them come down to communication.

The first? We rarely ever talk about women athletes.

Sure, we’ll marvel at Serena’s domination, and yes, there’s always an Olympian du-jour when every two years or so our collective attention is briefly diverted to amateur athletics. But for the most part, our sports discourse is dominated by men. By the Lebrons and the Jeters and the Crosbys – by the men who are the untouchables of their leagues. And honestly, based on how progressive the conversations we have about these sports and their players are (hint: not progressive at all) and how slow their respective professional associations are in responding to the massive ills plaguing their leagues (molasses going uphill on a winter day), I am going to go ahead and assume it will be a cold day in hell when we broach the topic of eating disorders in the NFL.

Second, we rarely talk about eating disorders.

And I mean really talk.

Sure, we wax eloquent all of the time about how SO! MANY! women have problems with their bodies, and about how girls begin starving themselves as young as five. Every spring, a European fashion week will “pass legislation” (what does that even mean?) prohibiting models with BMIs under 18 from walking in their shows.

And of course THE MEDIA. The media, the media, the media.

We talk about the media all of the time: what an evil force it is in our daily lives. How it warps our social consciousness, perverts our expectations and demands the impossible of ourselves, our aesthetics and our desires.

And none of this is wrong.

But what really kills me is that none of these things actually says anything.

None of this really means anything.

It does not even begin to scratch the surface of what it’s like to live with an eating disorder. It does not articulate how devastating it is to be anorexic or bulimic, and it certainly does nothing about finding ways to help.

It pays lip service to a problem, but then just stops.

So that people listening can think, “Oh. That’s so sad.” And then just go on, living their lives.

Every time I hear things like, “In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa,” or “4% of women will have bulimia in their lifetime,” I just hear facts, unchangeable and constant. It’s like I am almost expecting the reporter to finish off by saying, “and that’s all I have to say about that.”

And if we’ve resigned ourselves to this reality, then what really is the point in talking about the specifics and particulars of the diseases? Why go through all of the trouble of making people uncomfortable?

Unfortunately, the immense shame and stigma shouldered by many individuals who have eating disorders only adds to the silence.

I am only now capable of talking freely about my struggles because I no longer have the energy to hide from them. I also hope that by being transparent about my experience, others too will feel comfortable doing the same. The more we speak honestly and openly, the less the stigma, and the deeper the understanding by the wider populace.

Unfortunately, getting to this place is very hard.

For years I did everything I could to keep my anorexia and bulimia a secret and hide it from friends and family. I know a lot of it had to do with my perfectionism and my anxiety, but my fear was also born out of the fact that I didn’t think anyone would be able to help.

I didn’t think anyone would be able to understand.

And this was not unfounded. Because eating disorders are so misunderstood and so little talked about, you get really enlightened people who immediately dismiss you and your attempts at articulating what it’s like to live with one, who say things like “just eat a sandwich!” or “but you’re skinny already” or “I don’t understand how you can live like that.”

Which, amazingly enough, doesn’t help.

It just makes the whole situation one huge negative feedback loop.

Finally, I think we have such a hard time talking about eating disorders and athletes is because of our weird inability to divorce the idea of exercise from weight loss.

Which really narrows our scope when it comes to how we look and talk about both exercise, and us the people who are doing the exercising.

Because if we’re not lifting weights to get strong, or running to train for a race, what are we doing?

Are we doing something bad?

Probably not.

Society tells us no. Society tells us that the more weight we are losing, the better.

But only if we are exercising? (And eating our Special K?)

For me, I find this way of looking at things to be really detrimental.

Because when we think like this, that exercise = weight loss, we are again dismissing two really important things: one that moving our bodies can be exactly just that. An activity – void of anything and everything else.

And if that is not the case, why are we celebrating, and how are we celebrating, and are we actually judging and why are we judging?

When and how do we decide that exercise for weight-loss is unhealthy vs. otherwise?

And are we so afraid of that otherwise, that we just bury our heads in the sand and find ourselves inadvertently cheering on eating disorders?

(Eating disorders disguised as exercise = weight loss.)

I don’t know.

All I know is that this is complicated stuff.

I that I truly believe that it just comes down to how badly we need better communication around this issue and how we need it fast.

We need real information, and we need real stories.

I would personally love to hear from women athletes, period. But I would also love to hear from ones who have had eating disorders, so that I can hear how they cope when they are training.

I want to know what they do when they find themselves needing to eat more because they are running more, and lifting more, and what they do to be okay with this. I am interested in knowing how they marry social expectations over what they should look like, or their own internal body image struggles, with their desire to dominate.

Their passion to win.

Because going through things alone is really hard.

No one ever talks about it.

So I’m here. Talking.

Because it’s so hard.

 

Not all of me

“And then it struck Oleg that Shulubin was not delirious, that he’d recognized him and was reminding him of their last conversation before the operation. He had said, “Sometimes I feel quite distinctly that what is inside me is not all of me. There’s something else, sublime, quite indestructible, some tiny fragment of this universal spirit. Don’t you feel that?”

– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward

I read the majority of this book last week as I lay on the blindingly hot sands of Oahu’s Waikiki beach.

I feel almost ill at ease admitting this fact. As if my enjoyment of the book should be muted, having loved it in a land so starkly foreign from the places birthed in its pages.

But like so many great works, all it did was awake a thirst.

A desire.

To feel.

To need, and be needed.

To kiss that sublime.

And be.

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Tickling your fantasy

I used to be an incredible literature snob.

Until about the age of twenty-one, I would only read real books.

“Oh me?” I would snottily opine. I’m a real Dostoevsky, Dickens, Austen, and Grass kind of girl.”

I could never understand why my boyfriend – my brilliant, cerebral and completely badass boyfriend (who now happens to be my brilliant, cerebral and completely badass husband) – read so many graphic novels, and books with picture of trolls, and dwarfs, and dragons adorning their covers.

How could he be interested in such stuff?

And despite his best efforts, for the first three years of our courtship I staunchly refused to crack one open.

“Sorry,” I would say. “I’m just not into that stuff.”

“You really have no idea what you’re talking about,” he’d say. “But I’ll wear you down eventually.”

And wear me down he did.

My first “non-book” (oh how wrong was I!), was V for Vendetta by Alan Moore which blew my brain harder than anything that had come before it (and I seriously thought I could ever again undergo anything as soul-shaking as the time I first read Devils and Crime and Punishment.) Next came the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman which I inhaled in about a day and a half, and then Watchmen, and Preacher, and about every other comic series on which I could get my hands.

It took me a little longer still to get into “fantasy” and “science fiction” (oh how I now loathe our need to classify so much brilliant literature as such!), but I finally caved and picked up A Clash of Kings a few months after my twenty-second birthday.

And once again, I underwent a kind of mind-exploding madness.

How could George R. R. Martin write so seamlessly and brilliantly from one character to the next? How could he be so heartless and beautiful all at once? WHY WERE ALL OF THESE PEOPLE SO AWFUL?

After burning through the entire Ice and Fire series (in what was then it’s most current incarnation) it was GAME. ON. The floodgates were opened, and it was nothing but a steady, raucous and ever more passionate ride filled with Bradbury, and Asimov, and Heinlein, and Tolkein, and Guy Gavriel, Scott Card, and Neal Stevenson, and Susanna Clarke, and so many more (and more and more and more!)

And then, ladies and gentlemen, Marc introduced me to one of the most brilliant, gut-busting, world-creating satirists English literature has ever known.

He brought me the world of Terry Pratchett.

This man made me laugh, cry, think, pace, question, believe, and most of all read.

My goodness did I love to get lost in his worlds and read!

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To this day, I always know when Marc is (re-)reading a Pratchett book because of the sonorous laughs that all but explode out of him.

He’ll then read the offending passage aloud and we’ll both cry-laugh together. More often than not, we’ll just end up reading entire sections of the book to one another.

These truly are some of my most treasured literary memories.

And so when I found out last Thursday that Mr. Pratchett had died (via Guardian update from my mobile phone) I immediately phoned Marc to tell him the news.

I couldn’t even finish my sentence before collapsing into my tears. I sobbed straight into the receiver, my whole body wracked by a terrible, melancholy palsy.

And then, in the most Pratchett-ian of fashions, I was immediately catapulted back to laughter.

Marc, speaking slowly into the receiver, said, “This – this makes me really, really sad babe. But – unfortunately I have to go. The arborists are here.”

Because, of course, we were having the dead cherry tree removed from our backyard, and yes, at 8:13am on a Thursday morning, the arborists had arrived to facilitate that removal.

I immediately burst out laughing, even though my tears kept streaming steadily down my face.

I cried for the better part of the entire day, and I really don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of such a brilliant, kind, compassionate, passionate, and life-changing man.

But I know that I, like the world, am so much better off for opening my mind, heart, and soul to his beautiful works, and the zany, madcap brilliance of Ankh-Morpork.

And like Marc before me, I’ll continue to encourage people to read his works.

So that they too might laugh. And cry.

But really mostly laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

These women. These women.

A very happy International Women’s Day to everyone!

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This year’s UN Theme is: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!

I encourage all of you – everyone reading at home, as well as those on transit (or in-transit!); everyone hunkered down, or waking up; everyone navigating this amazingly complicated conundrum of a world we call home – to picture all of the brilliant, powerful, and brave women in your lives.

How have they impacted the world? How have they changed your life?

How do they impact? What do they change?

What makes them extraordinary?

And how do you picture an empowered humanity? What can we all do to ensure that these visions are no longer just visions, but reality?

Here are some of the brilliant, beautiful, and brave women in my life.

My amazing mum Donna, who, as an arbitrator for the federal government, wrote and oversaw many ground breaking decisions in the early 1990s on pay equity and discriminatory labour practices across Canada.

My sisters: Jessi – newly minted red seal chef, business owner, and new mum-extraordinaire; Kate Woznow – dedicated activist, non-profit director, and triathlete.

My sister in-law Mel, who is so very incredibly strong (both on the inside and outside) and who is unflinching in her belief that we can all make impacting strides to better our world.

Her mother, Valerie, valiant and fearless feminist whose work continues to support and inspire academics the world over.

My formidable mother in-law Cheryl, who in light of the discrimination she faced as a teenager after her family immigrated to Vancouver from India in the 1960’s is now one of the greatest champions of multiculturalism I have ever met, and who in 1973 co-founded the The Door Is Open – a drop in centre on the Downtown Eastside, that is still open today at its present location at 255 Dunlevy Avenue, in the heart of East Vancouver.

I would be remiss not to touch on my great aunt in-law, Flo Curle, who was the first of my husband’s family to immigrate from India in the early sixties. A single woman, she moved to Vancouver and sponsored every single member of her family’s residency to Canada.

My sisters in-law Veronica and Vanessa: two women passionately dedicated to our environment and education, as well as the high-seas (Veronica) and circus silks (Vanessa).

My step-mother Susan, who as a conscientious and exasperated American does what she can to move her birth county in positive direction.

To my amazing colleagues at Big Sisters, who fight tooth and nail every day to ensure that young women all across the Lower Mainland have the opportunity to be matched with a life-changing friend and mentor.

My own Little Sister Melissa, with whom I have been matched for almost seven years. This young women has grown into a confident, excited, hard-working young women, who takes the world by storm each and every day.

To my outstanding, heart-bursting friends who transform and deconstruct; who build, breathe, and believe in a better today and even better tomorrow.

And finally, to all of you reading. To every woman who wakes up every day and makes change, kicks butt, loves herself, loves others, smiles brightly, laughs loudly, dances madly, cries freely, jumps blindly, catches discretely – for all who are unapologetically her, and her, and her.

This is for you.

She creates. She is a creator of worlds.

One of my best friends in the entire world just published her first book.

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It’s called Pedal.

And all of you should read it.

Because it is brilliant.

Today I sat down and read it in one sitting.

By the time I got to the last ten pages my heart was racing, and my face was flushed.

Upon turning the last page, I could no longer keep in my hot, fat tears – my heart swelling with unbridled happiness, with fierce incredulity, and overwhelming awe.

I first met Chelsea Rooney nine years ago in the fall of 2005 when were both admitted to UBC’s creative writing undergraduate program.

Right away I recognized her to be the most talented writer in our class. I’ll never forget reading her first short story in our fiction seminar. To say that I was blown away is a major understatement. I was so fascinated and moved by her writing that I read the entirety of her first workshopped story over the phone to my mother.

Her mastery of the written word left me galvanized and inspired. She made me want to produce magic of my own.

Besides (or perhaps because of) the beauty and depth of her prose, I was also enthralled with her as a person.

A couple of years my senior, she just seemed so epically cool.

I remember her showing up to class one day with one of the Styrofoam coffee cups from The Deli – a take-out eatery in the basement of the university’s student union building that offered a seemingly arbitrary cornucopia of pseudo-healthy options for the student on the run. Always one to buck the trends, my most frequent purchases at this establishment were hot chocolate and giant chocolate chip cookies.

I had just assumed that she too (along with everyone else in the world) would be drinking Deli hot chocolate. When she laughed gently and corrected me, stating that that she was, in fact, drinking coffee, I quaked.

Of course she would be drinking coffee. She was way too cool to drink hot chocolate.

She also wore long maxi skirts, and mid-drift baring tank tops, and eschewed bras, and make-up, and every time I looked at her I just thought, “I want to be just like her.”

While friends, we never really formally cemented our friendship until we both stayed on at UBC after completing our undergraduate degrees. She, as an MFA candidate in the writing program, and myself as  a political science MA.

We’d eat nachos and drink diet coke every Wednesday afternoon at the campus’ newly erected, and over-priced Irish bar.

We would sit in a corner table and laugh and laugh until our stomachs felt they might rip in two.

Five years on, we still do this.

Both laugh and eat nachos.

Only now we walk more.

And I drink coffee.

If I could tell you one thing (other than to purchase her book) it is that Chelsea has the most beautifully expressive eyes.

They reflect and refract the infinite wisdom and wonder that shape a magnificent human being.

I often find myself getting lost in their splendour, these wise, limpid pools of possibility.

And wonder what story will surface next.

CandV