Running through it: The story of my eating disorder

In act II, scene i of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the character Quintus Ligarius turns to Brutus and says, “Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.”

I love this quote.

I love this quote because it is an excellent description of my life.

I have been running since the moment I started to walk. Growing up, I would careen about our neighbourhood, setting up races between myself and other kids, flying until I was winded, and only resting until I was ready for more.

It was like a tiny little flame had been lit inside of me, and the more I ran, the brighter it shone.

The summer after grade five was when things really began to kick off. I was pretty obsessed with Donovan Bailey and his amazing gold medal run at the 1996 Olympic Games. I would race around my house whispering, “9.84, 9.84.”

I begged my parents to let me join a local track team. They did. And I continued to fly.

Two years later, half way through grade seven, I grew eight inches and something happened. I didn’t recognize, didn’t understand my new body. At a sleepover one night with my friends, we all weighed ourselves, and I was horrified to see how much heavier I was then them all. I didn’t matter that I was almost a foot taller, I hated it.

I hated being heavy, because to me, heavy meant bad. Ugly. Wrong.

That week, I threw out my lunch for the first time. I started going to bed with ropes and scarves tied tightly around my waist, thinking it would stop me from gaining weight while I slept.

And then two years after that, at a family dinner, I forced two fingers down my throat and made myself throw up. I felt like my eyeballs and my heart were going to explode.

I did it again.

I threw up again, and again, and again.

And I didn’t know how to reconcile my running – my running that made me feel strong and unstoppable – with my now constant need to control and dominate my body.

I didn’t know how to stop. Didn’t know if I wanted to stop.

So instead, I hid. From my friends, my family, teammates, coaches, and eventually boyfriends and employers. And I took my running and did everything I could to marry it to my eating disorder

Tame it, mold it. Innovate it to something that could help me exert that control.

When I was in high school, I used to eat and then run, stopping midway to force myself to throw up.

In university, I would binge and purge first. Then I would wash my face. Blow my nose, dry my tears, and smooth concealer over all of the blood vessels that I had broken under my eyes and along the tops of my cheeks.

Running after purging is scary.

Everything in my body would scream out that what I was doing was wrong. My legs 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 if it might stop, at any moment.

Break.

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

And I did all of this for fourteen years.

But try as I might, I could never fully extinguish that childhood flame. Every so often I could feel it flicker, warming me, from a deep part inside of me. It was a light in the darkness that helped me believe it wouldn’t always be like this.

And it helped me start talking.

To my partner. My family. A counsellor that I trusted, after meeting many that I did not.

The thing that you need to know about eating disorders, is just how insidious they are. Even when I wasn’t restricting food, or throwing up, I was thinking all of the time: how much have I ate? Have I gained weight? Do people think that I’ve gained weight? How well can I feel my hipbones? Are my clavicle more prominent than they were yesterday?

And I would run, and run, and run – through parks, up mountains, across cities on little to no food, and then I would see how long I could last post-run before I needed to eat.

I signed up for 10kms, half marathons, and marathons and would train without water or food.

Two years ago I met a friend running a MEC trail race. We began training with each other on the weekends and he began encouraging me to look at ultramarathons. I had done everything else, so why not try a new challenge?

The Tenderfoot Boogie was a fifty-five kilometer race from Squamish to Whistler, along highways, through fields and up mountains. A feat that would likely require 6 hours of running and 6 months months of training.

Training that included learning how to properly fuel my body – pre, post and inter-race.

“You’re going to have to eat while you run,” my friend told me.

And here’s the part of the story that I want to tell you that this happened. That training for this race made everything simple and easy for me. But it didn’t. I trained exactly the same as I ever had. I may have drank and ate marginally more, but never enough to properly fuel my body for training runs that would regularly take me from my house in New Westminster, right to the tip of UBC.

Truthfully, I ran that race on sheer grit. Across fields, down valleys, through fields and up mountains – literally, kilometers forty to forty-eight were straight uphill – on nothing but jellybeans and a some peanut butter.

At kilometer forty-nine I wept into my husband’s arms, horrified that I still had six more kilometers to go. As he gently encouraged me, whispering how well I was doing and how far I had come, I stumbled over to the food table. I picked up a chunk of fried potato, dunked it into a vat of salt, and shoved it into my mouth.

It was the greatest thing I have ever tasted.

And I ate another. And another. And about twelve others, washing them all down with a can of coke.

Eating that food brought me to life. I ran those last six kilometers in thirty-six minutes. It was the first time that I properly understood what it felt like to give your body what it needs, in order for it to do something you want to do. And every time I think about going out for a run without eating, I think of that moment. I remember.

And I’ve realized that I had it wrong all along. I couldn’t innovate my running into being an agent of my eating disorder, because it was the antidote, all along. And I’m proud to say that I haven’t thrown up since that race.

I choose recovery every day.

I know will always struggle with my impossible. But I will always run so that I can strive with it too.

An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

Live Out There Exclusive: Escape your campus: UBC Edition

Even though I currently find myself running away from my sins and sorrows out here on Canada’s east coast, I recently penned an article for Live Out There about all of my favourite west coast running and hiking haunts – in particular the ones I loved as a UBC undergraduate and Masters student.

On a gorgeous fall day, you really can’t beat the Pacific Northwest (although Nova Scotia really is giving it a run for its money, what with is absurdly warm weather and complete dearth of rain).

And while I don’t miss being back in class, I do miss the delirious high of just having completed the Grouse Grind, and the splendour of Lindeman Lake’s aquamarine waters. Which is why I hope to give you all inspiration to get outside – student, or graduate, or both!

School is back in session. You’re sitting in class, staring at the clock, day-dreaming of summer adventures. Stop day-dreaming, we have good news: being back in class doesn’t mean you have to stop exploring!

Here are four different ways that you can escape UBC campus – no matter how much (or little) time you have to spare.

Read on here.

Live Out There Exclusive: “Let’s talk about healthy eating”

A few weeks ago I wrote about the struggles I have as an athlete who has lived with eating disorders and who is still trying to navigate the very hard world of disordered eating.

In an attempt to keep up a discussion around this grey area that doesn’t get a lot of daily dialogue, I wrote the following post on Live Out There.

I feel like everywhere I turn people are talking about healthy eating – they post pictures of their gorgeous meals on Instagram, they blog about their latest culinary adventures, and every other inch of media space (television, film, radio, print, etc.) is telling me that I should simultaneously lose weight, bulk up, and eat kale.

And as someone who takes her athleticism very seriously, I am always trying to make healthier choices when it comes to my daily eating and snacking habits – especially when I am spending 8+ hours a day at the office. But as a young woman who has also struggled for many years with disordered eating and body image issues, I am also sensitive to how much of a minefield this area is – for me, and for many, many others.

Read on for some of the things that I find helpful, as I navigate these important but treacherous waters.

Live Out There Exclusive: “Hiking on the Sunshine Coast”

I love the Sunshine Coast.

It is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and inherently centering places I have ever been, and I am lucky enough to have very generous parents-in-law who let Marc and I spend time up at their beautiful cabin in this area of B.C.

Even better? The hiking is amazing. Over at Live Out There, I have waxed long and eloquent about how much I love this (literal) neck of the woods.

The Sunshine Coast is one of the best places to hike in British Columbia. From Sechelt to Powell River, the possibilities for exploring the outdoors are many and varied. I first ventured up this way thirteen years ago with my now husband for our first weekend getaway. Some of my favourite things I remember about those three days were the fantastic hikes we did whilst there.

The best part about this area is that there is something for everyone: easy trails for the beginner hiker, mid-length routes for the more advanced, and multi-day overnights for the truly adventurous.

Read on for more!