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.

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.

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.

 

Some food for thought

Once upon a time I was scared of food.

Not all food, but most kinds.

Anything that I did eat had to be rationalized and picked apart, and most often times, thrown up.

Food was stressful.

Food was guilt.

Food was not fun.

These days, food is (for the most part) none of these things.

Food is a friend, not a foe. It is a tool that helps me lead a healthy, happy life – one that allows me to run like the wind, and tell funny jokes, and make mad-cap films with my map-cap husband.

And not those kind of films, you dirty jerks.

But the busier my life gets, the harder it can be to keep a level head (let alone any semblance of a regular eating schedule) so it’s imperative that I remain extra vigilant, lest I find myself (inadvertently) slipping into oh-so destructive, and oh-so familiar eating habits.

Of late I have had to really catch myself, and take a step back (or ten) just to make sure that I take better care of my health.

So this is why, I present to you the following photos, which I will title – FOOD I HAVE EATEN – as a reminder of why I need to continue to focus on this part of my life, and the brilliance and joy it has, and will continue to bring me.

Veggie burger.

I made this last Wednesday evening. I had just arrived home from work, rain-soaked, and wind-swept, shivering, and starving.

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Everything in my being was telling me to flop down on the couch with a box of wheat thins and a giant mug of hot chocolate and just call it an evening.

Instead, I took a long, hot shower (the kind that sufficiently fogs up the entire top floor of our place), and crawled into my pajamas, before setting up shop in the kitchen.

With my favourite radio program playing in the background (As it Happens), I chopped onions, and fried mushrooms, sliced cheese, and grilled a patty.

I even roasted some yam fries.

M was working late so I turned on the fireplace, curled up on the couch with little miss Nymeria, and watched some Portlandia, while chomping down on this delicious piece of soy heaven.

I posted this photo, because in the past, I would never have taken the time to make myself something, let alone a meal that was both nutritious and delicious. Plus, sometimes putting something together – even as simple as a burger, makes me feel like a four Michelin star chef.

Or Ratatouille.

Brunch it.

My brilliant and beautiful friend Emily of the fabulous Well Fed, Flat Broke, invited me over to her house last Saturday for a “reunion” brunch of sorts.

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Myself and all her guests went through UBC’s undergraduate Creative Writing program (nearly five years ago!!!) and it was so lovely to have the chance to catch-up and find out what has been going on in everybody’s lives since our last seminar together.

As we chatted, we munched on all the mouthwatering dishes Emily had prepared (truth be told, there was less chatting the more we munched) including a caramelized onion torte, tandoori cauliflower (my two favourites), roasted squash, and potato salad. Not to mention homemade kiwi sorbet.

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In truth, it was a perfectly decadent and divine way to start a weekend (and laid back, thank goodness, as I had been out until 1:30am after my stand-up gig the night before.)

I posted this photo because for many years eating in front of others gave me tremendous anxiety. Everything was calculated, down to the very smallest bite. I wanted to cultivate an image of myself as “a skinny girl” who still “ate a lot”. Now, I can interact with all the smart, sweet people in my life, and still enjoy their exquisite food. I am able to let what I am eating take a back seat to what’s really important – spending time with these wonderful friends.

Birthday cupcake.

My sister in-law’s fiancée’s daughter recently turned six. Being the utterly incredible soon-to-be step mum that she is, V took it upon herself to not only make pretty much the most amazing birthday cake I have ever seen, but also a batch of outrageously delicious cupcakes.

Hanging out with them last weekend, I was lucky enough to sample some of these wares.

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Believe me when I say it was a dessert experience and a half.

(Seriously, V should think about moonlighting as a baker. I WOULD BE HER #1 PATRON.)

I posted this photo because just eating a cupcake and not letting it tear me apart is not yet something I take for granted. I used to drive myself crazy rationalizing desserts (all food really, but sweets were the worst.)

Did I exercise that day? How much else had I eaten? Could I throw it up if needed?

The fact that I can eat a cupcake and be at peace with this fact, may sound silly, but it means more to me than I can really say.

So that’s it. Food I have eaten.

A series I hope will continue to run, for much time yet.

Diet Coke thinks I’m extraordinary? Well isn’t that refreshing!

I saw this advertisement last Friday whilst out on my lunch break:

My immediate reaction?

I think I can in a can? Or I think I’m fat in a can?

I SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING THERE COKE.

Now, full disclosure: I drink diet Coke. I drink diet Pepsi, or Pepsi Max or Coke Zero, or whatever other aspartame-infused sodas you care to name. And as any of you who have been reading this blog for a while now, I have no qualms at all about admitting this fact.

My drinking patterns are sporadic – I’ll go for a couple of months without a sip, and then start drinking two to three cans a day without so much as blinking an eyelash. These habits are something I’m cognizant of, but not something of which I lend much weight.

Apologies to any Colorado Avalanche fans out there, but in the words of Todd Bertuzzi*: it is what it is.

(*Now I’m no fan of Mr. T. Bert by any stretch of the imagination – or as I like to call him: Hobo with a Slapshot – he’s just the first thing that pops into my mind whenever I think of that turn of phrase.)

However, to get back to diet Coke and my relationship with this product- the fact remains the same: this penchant I have for these drinks is one of the last remaining holdovers from the years I spent as an anorexic and bulimic.

And because of this, I have a hard time disassociating these drinks from a very painful, very unhealthy part in my life.

Now I know there are tons of men and women who live all across the globe, who lead perfectly healthy lives (or within the parameters of “healthy” – as goodness knows the definition of this term seems to be malleable as heck) who may drink a diet Coke every now and then.

Who knows, maybe there are individuals out there who shot-gun the stuff all the live long day that have zero food/body hang-ups (not to mention faulty brain wiring – like those cats who eat chalk and pillow stuffing), but I would be hard pressed to believe it.

However, of this I’m sure: people ingest things for a whole myriad of reasons, and it would be naive, and rather asinine on my part to assume that because I a.) had an eating disorder and b.) drank these drinks during this time in my life that c.) all people who drink diet pop have eating disorders.

That would be a gross misinterpretation of the Pythagorean Theorum. And a logical fallacy. And just plain silly.

However, it would also be silly of me to ignore the fact that I live in a society that is majorly messed up when it comes to diet, body perception, and self-esteem – indeed, every time I seem to open an newspaper (HAH! Like that ever happens – excuse me, I meant to say: every time I surf on over to the NYT or Globe and Mail or Jezebel.com) I am told again and again about how obsese/anorexic/sendentary/over exercised/stressed out/insecure we are as North Americans, and how we need to fix it using ABC without having to give up XYZ.

It’s madness.

Just the other day I read about a new study released by Emery University in Atlanta Georgia that found that the number of U.S. children who drink sugar-free beverages has doubled in the past decade and that one-quarter of the adult Americans surveyed said they’d had a diet drink in the past day.

And reading this, I cannot help but question what role diet Coke (and by proxy its marketing stratagems and campaigns) plays within our omnipresent constant shame/constant gratification Franken-culture.

Sure, diet Coke isn’t exactly Airstrip One’s Victory Gin, but it’s not small potatoes either. And as such, when I see this ad, I don’t see personal empowerment in a can, I see this:

Have your Coke friend! But statistics tell me that you’re probably fat – or in some way aesthetically unappealing (or at the very least you THINK you’re not good enough!) so don’t have a real Coke (those are only for Olympic athletes and Mark Ronson) – have a diet Coke instead! But it’s totally your decision to drink it – and totally not ours, and certainly not a reaction to cultural norms! YOU’RE taking charge, YOU know what you want! Just one sip and you can take on the world, calorie-free!

(But first, go to the gym, because you totes need to work out first.)

Okay, so this may be a bit over-dramatic and a bit too sardonic – my m.o. might be to approach this dialogue with a heavy hand (heavy tongue?) but I can’t help it.

My experience colours my perception, and this is my honest interpretation.

And for that I will not apologize.

What about you folks? What kind of reaction does this sort of advertisement evoke on your end of things? Do you drink diet pop? Why or why not?

In the mean time I’m going back to my I KNOW I can in a bag:

NOM.