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.

Dear Momma: Here’s what happened in 2018

Hi Momma.

I know we talk a lot, but I wanted to take some time to lay out everything that’s happened since the beginning of March. It’s been such a busy, heartbreaking, extraordinary time.

Most mornings I wake up and forget that you’re not here.

Sometimes you’ll have visited me in my dreams – your way of stopping by and saying hello. I get glimpses of your life in New York or you’ll tell me about the old classmates of yours that you’ve decided to haunt.

I see your smile and hear your laugh and I when I touch you, it’s real.

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Momma, I feel like I could pull you back into life.

Your magic, it burns brightly, everywhere.

You died on Thursday, March 8th. International Women’s Day.

I was holding your hand while Suzan Maclean held the other. I think that she, like me, doesn’t really believe in a world without you.

The day I flew back home, I took a lot of your clothes. I took your light blue jean jacket and your tight black pants. That striped heart sweater that you bought in Brooklyn and your gray crop-top turtleneck.

A few of your sweaters still smell like you. Sometimes I hold them and breathe deeply.

Because I wear your clothes every day, all of my friends are obsessed with your style.

Many of them also have your postcard pinned up in their offices. They tell me that you inspire them to take risks, to wear colour, to try something new.

Hearing this and writing this makes me cry.

In April I joined a gym to learn how to get strong. You would have laughed because when I went in for my assessment, I couldn’t even do one squat. But working slowly and intentionally with my trainer Jules I have developed a new-found respect and appreciation for my body.

And I am getting strong.

Last week I deadlifted ninety kilograms. That’s one hundred and ninety-eight pounds! I know you’re probably thinking, “I just got her to stop running marathons through the mountains, and now she’s doing this?”

But you know that it’s your spirit that drives me.

Thanks for that Momma.

I am sorry to say that I’m still not doing yoga but I do keep your beautiful bag in my office so that I see it every day. When I do start a regular practice, you will, of course, be the first to know.

I’ve started seeing a wonderful grief counsellor who has helped and continues to help me so much. I was seeing her every week and now go about once a month. I also have an amazing “grief community” here in New West, made up beautiful, strong and inspiring women.

You would love every one of them.

They are often who I call when I’m can’t drive because I’m crying too hard, or when I’m paralyzed by grief in some grocery breakfast aisle, or when just the thought of living in this world without you is too overwhelming for words.

Their love helps me.

So does that of my friends. And of Kate and Jessi. Marc.

They all hold me close when all of my pieces are breaking apart.

I cry almost every day.

I hope this doesn’t make you sad. Because I know that the only reason it hurts this much is because of the depth and the beauty of our love.

I think a lot about this when I run. There is a tree down at the river boardwalk here in New Westminster that I call “The Momma Tree”. It reminds me so much of you because of its vibrant colours and delicate leaves. Every time I run by it, I whisper a hello to you and high-five your branches.

Your magic, it burns brightly, everywhere.

This November I ran the Fall Classic 10k and placed ninth. It was one of the harder races I’ve run because I had just had gum surgery two weeks prior and couldn’t exercise at all in the lead up, because it might disturb my graft and slow my recovery.

Not to point fingers, but this gum recession is definitely genetic and it’s definitely from your side of the family.

At first I was so disappointed and I cried at the finish line. I’ve been chasing the elusive sub-40 time for so long and I felt so tired of trying and failing. But Marc held me and helped me.

I know you’ve always loved how delicate he is with me.

Here are some other things that have happened this year, so much with our strength and love:

  • In May, I attended my first New Westminster Community and Social Issues Council Committee meeting. That same month I also started working on my first municipal political campaign, helping my incredible friend Nadine Nakagawa get elected to city council.
  • In June, I presented at Pecha Kucha and spoke about you and grief and love and compassion. Marc and I celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary.
  • In July, I filmed my favourite story of the year at the Sharing Farm in Richmond. In total this year, I wrote over 70 stories for United Way and shot 15 videos.
  • In August, we welcomed beautiful Loic Stewart to the world, and I have loved every moment of being his aunty. I pour love into him. Just like you did with us.
  • In September, I joined the New Westminster Hospice Society’s board of directors. I was the first woman up Grouse Mountain for United Way’s Tech Grind, even though I couldn’t officially compete. (Yes Momma, I am that competitive.) I hosted a fun night of improv with a local feminist collective, MCed a wedding with twelve hours notice and managed to take another selfie with my mayor and council after presenting about United Way Day.
  • In October, I moderated the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce’s All Candidates Debate which was exhilarating and if there is just one thing I wish I could have had you there for, this was it. I started my Compassionate City Crew training with New West Hospice and hosted a very fun Halloween dinner party. You would have loved Marc’s and my costume – I was a lawyer and he was the devil, so we were The Devil’s Advocate.
  • In November, I took a stand against racism in my city, attended the annual civic dinner, completed my hospice training, moderated a panel on brand building and philanthropy, shared a story at The Flame about my absurd decision to get eyelash extensions and hiked around Whistler with Marc for our anniversary.
  • This month there are story performances and holiday get-togethers and both Kate and Jessi are making your gingerbread and I can’t stop crying whenever I sing along to the Barra MacNeils’ Christmas albums.

Just know that I think about you every day. I miss you every day. I see you in a soft rose gold sunset. In the wind that blows the hair from my face. In my dark roots that always grow in no matter how often I dye my hair blond.

You’re the blood in my veins, the green in my eyes. My smile. My laugh. My long legs and cold hands.

Momma, I carry you close.

And I will never stop missing you.

I wrote you this letter even though I know you know all of this.

Because you’re in the sky.

Sea. Land.

Air.

Mommm. Momma. Momma.

You and your magic are everywhere.

2016: A year in review

So much already has been written about 2016. By almost every account, the year has been a raging dumpster fire – a hate-filled inferno consuming everything and everyone in its path.

And yes, a lot of really, really bad things happened this year.

But a lot of really good things happened too. And because life isn’t one giant binary, a lot of good and bad things happened all at once – sometimes at the exact same time.

My year has definitely been one of nuance. Sometimes black, sometimes white, but always very colourful.

Far and away, however, 2016 will be known as The Year That I Ran.

By my rough calculations, I ran around 3,000 kilometers in 2016. Much of this can be attributed to my marathon training and the fact that I ran every single day while living in Halifax. In fact, it has only been since falling ill over the past two weeks that I’ve actually slowed, and for the first time all year, ceased my endless striding.

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Besides my marathon (my 3:35 marathon!), I ran three trail races put on by MEC, and medaled in each. My first, a 15 KM trail race where I came third; my second, a 10 KM trail that wove its way along the old Musquodoboit railway where I came first; and my third, a 10 KM around Shubie Park in Dartmouth, saw me place second.

I take strange comfort in the asymmetry of it all and think of the many kilometers I will clock in 2017. Maybe I will finally clear a sub-40 minute 10 KM. And as Marc keeps patiently reminding me, maybe I will also join a running group.

For three months I lived in Halifax – a dream world where summer never ended and I wore sundresses and jean jackets every day. Where I rode my bike to the public library and read historical fiction and ate warm kale salad and peanut M&Ms by the handful.

I bought a pair of boots and I jumped on a plane and flew to Toronto where I stayed in a haunted hotel just so that I could see Christine and the Queens in concert. I sold raffle tickets at a Moosehead hockey game in benefit of the Canadian Breast Cancer society and watched Steve Patterson read from his memoire The Book of Letters I Didn’t Send.

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I slept poorly, save for the nights when I took lorazepam and my mind was forcefully quieted. I learned to hate the sounds of early morning bathwater.

In June, my mum and I travelled around the Baltic Sea, visiting Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Finland. Together, we bore witness to exquisite and individual beauty, etched in cobblestones and brick towers, public gardens and street cafes, war memorials, and palaces, and parliaments. Everywhere, a narrative of passion and purpose, and above all, perseverance. We marvelled, atop our rickety bicycles, at each living history, and we reached out so that we might touch and see, stopping at every street corner, so that that we might also breathe.

I also slept restlessly for most of the trip, and would nightly slip out into the quiet of our cabin’s deck, staring endlessly into the dim light of the longest dusk. And there too, I would breathe.

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This year I read too many books and watched too many TV shows. I quit my job and began a new one. I told a lot of jokes at the expense of rape culture and performed the most important stand-up set of my life in front of a sold-out crowd at the Rickshaw Theatre.

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I also told a lot of stories about periods and told one story about my mum at the North American premier of Listen to Your Mother Vancouver. On The Storytelling Show, I interviewed a lot of really cool women who are doing really cool things and who make me want to do cool things too.

Marc and I celebrated eight years of marriage on June 28th. Thirteen years together in August.

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I have no idea what next year will bring.

My heart wishes for adventure and love and laughter, with many good times with friends and family. Great runs, and a lot of time spent in the outdoors. Nights cuddled with Marc under heaps of blankets, eating olives and cheese, listening to Stuart McLean stories and reading aloud from our favourite books.

Warm summer days riding my bicycle. Bathing at the beach. Pulling weeds from our backyard and growing a small vegetable patch to call our own.

Maybe I will even write a short story or two.

I will try to breathe more. Sleep better.

And reach for the exquisite beauty in everything.

I cannot wait to do this again

Today was a very good day.

I woke at 6 AM to the easy strains of my cellphone’s alarm and the cool darkness of an early east coast autumn.

Rufus and Simon – my mum’s two ragdoll cats – skittered into my room, eager to investigate my pre-dawn activities. Simon jumped on the bed and looked at me, his amber eyes still. Rufus mewled, rubbing his head against my leg.

I had laid out my race gear the night before – shirt, shorts, socks, bra, all stacked neatly on the chair in my bedroom.  As I crept downstairs, I was careful to avoid the creakiest stair. I made it to the spare bathroom on tiptoe, where I brushed my teeth and washed my face. The last thing I wanted to do was wake my mum as I prepared for the day.

I am particular about my pre-race routine.

Clothing, face, hair, coffee, food, water.

It doesn’t matter how far or important the race – I find great comfort in this ritual.

Together with my cousin David – who was also running the race – I ate a bagel with peanut butter and watched as the rising sun softly kissed our backyard trees, leaving their leaves aglow in a golden green.

When mum woke she joined us, and we sat and joked about all-natural nut butters.

Before we left, she took this great photo of Dave and I:

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As we drove out to the Musquodoboit Trailway, we listened to the CBC and shared with each other our favourite programs and hosts. We’re both big fans of As It Happens, This Is That, The Current and Day Six.

When we arrived, we picked up Dave’s race bib at the registration desk. Although the start line was splashed with sunshine, a tricky wind immediately cut through any lingering warmth we had carried with us from Dave’s truck.

For half an hour we joked and laughed and sipped water and used the porta-potties for the last time.

When the starting gun sounded, my feet were halfway numb.

I am always afraid of going out to fast. Time and again my need for speed has proven to be my Achilles’ heel, but today I decided to go for it.

And I’m glad that I did.

I ran a personal best of 41:03. I was the first woman and sixth overall.

I love running.

I love running purely and truly, and have written at length about this love.

But I also love to see others learn to love to run.

I love to see someone cross the finish line for the first time. See them marvel at their strength. Their resilience.

Revel in the depth of their heart.

In a brief moment, they are unrivaled amazement and awe.

Today was Dave’s first race, and he was extraordinary. When he first signed up he made a goal of finishing in less than one hour. He smashed that, completing the course in 58:18.

He told me prior to the start that he didn’t intend on doing any more races. This was pure bucket-list.

Less than one hour later?

I believe his words were something along the lines of, “I cannot wait to do that again.”

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Before heading home to Halifax, we stopped at Martinique Beach.

Today, this stretch of the eastern shore seemed to burn extra bright.

A horizon of the sweetest blue, speckled with fat clouds. The brilliant sun.

White sand. Dunes that danced.

A fall air that burned our lungs and stung our cheeks.

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And in that moment, I forgot everything: I forgot uncertainty and fear. I forgot that life can be unfairly underpinned by sickness and a suffocating sense of helplessness.

I forgot distance and longing.

I felt the sun.

And I thought: I cannot wait to do this again.

Just sit there and sweat it out

The east coast is humid as hell. The minute you walk outside, you are beset by a sticky, smoky, mug.

The coolness of our house is misleading. I am always sure that I am going to be cold during the first few minutes of my morning run. But that is nothing but a clever ruse on behalf of Nova Scotia Heating and the fact that we live in a very, very old home.

What I wouldn’t give for even a minute of respite from the oppressive exhalation that greets me as I turn to lock the front door. The world feels like an unwanted whisper from a strange man on a strange train.

Suddenly everything is too hot. Too close.

And my discomfort is palpable.

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But it never stops me from running. If anything, it just makes me faster.

I have the mistaken belief that the quicker I run, the more wind resistance I might generate on my flushed and sweat-steamed face.

And while I have yet to see any rewards for my efforts, I keep trying.

Other than three days flattened by a brutal flu, I have run almost every day since coming to Nova Scotia.

I race about the different neighbourhoods of my adopted home. My favourite routes take me to Point Pleasant Park and up to the Citadel. I careen along the South End’s tree-dappled streets, dodging new students moving into their bachelor apartments and soccer moms walking their huskies and duck toller retrievers. I ignore the workers re-paving the road outside of the old military barracks, and sprint past the tourists taking photos of the clock tower.

I have always had a tendency to make up stories about the different people that I encounter on my daily adventures, and since moving to Halifax my internal narrative has delved to new depths.

That man on the corner? Oh, he’s waiting for his man on the inside. But where’s the drop? Where’s the microfilm? Is it up that tree? Or has it been stashed around the corner, behind the fire hydrant? And is that even a real arm brace? Or is it a cleverly disguised weapon?

By the time that I’ve figured out his entire backstory (he’s on his way to meet an ex-CIA operative who he has been trying to get out of the game but who keeps getting dragged back in because of that one shady incident in Dubai twelve years ago), I am half way home.

But not before I espy the woman who just returned from reuniting with her estranged brother whom everyone thought had died in that tragic ocean kayaking accident. It just turned out that he owed money to a man from Havana and had to disappear for a couple of years. She was afraid to tell him that she had sold all of his belongings to put herself through a two-year pottery course, but he was just happy to see her. She told him that she would help him out with the money she makes from her artisan salt shaker business.

Or something to that effect.

The more I make up stories about the people I see, the more it astounds me that anyone can really purport to know anything about anyone.

I am currently reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s doomed expedition in search of the legendary, and always elusive Northwest Passage. It is engrossing and horrifying and I find myself completely sucked in by Simmons’ reimagining of what it was like to be a crew member of the HMS Erebus or Terror.

Talking to Marc the other night, I exclaimed, “My God, Franklin was so dumb. I cannot believe what a loser he was.”

To which Marc very kindly reminded me that I was in fact reading a work of fiction, and we would be hard pressed to really know what anyone was like on that expedition, what with everyone having frozen to death in the barren wasteland of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

I quickly acquiesced that he was right.

But I remained rankled. It just seems too true to let it go.

So I’ll just keep making up my own stories.

As I sweat through the mug.

Every day.

Every, every day.