- Sara Mann
From Athlete to Anorexic.
I don’t know about all of you but I have been SO into watching the Winter Olympic Games! I feel like I’m staying up waaaay too late because I’m suddenly very invested in ice dancing, skiing and Shaun White. I’m amazed by these athletes. They have worked so hard to get to this place. All the training that had to have taken place and how much they have had to take care of their bodies in order to be able to achieve this level of competition is inspiring!
It has made me think of my own journey with sports and exercise and my body. I realized this past week that my blog so far has been a lot about my recovery. How hard recovery is, coping skills I use, how to fight my eating disorder, how my faith plays into my recovery, but I have spent very little time actually talking about my eating disorder, how it happened, what led to it, what it was like etc. So, in this blog I’m going to talk about how I went from being an athlete to being anorexic.
I want to take a moment to say that this blog might be triggering for those that are struggling with or are recovering from an eating disorder. I will be discussing exercise, excessive exercise, calories, restrictive dieting and sharing some eating disorder behaviors. If these things trigger you, I encourage you to take care of yourself and leave this blog for another day :)
I know many of my readers are curious as to how I became anorexic. The truth is, there are many reasons why I became anorexic. It is a combination of genetics, environment, culture, personality and life triggers. In this blog I am not going to cover all of those (that would be a novel haha), but I am going to share how exercise played a very large role in my demise into anorexia.
I was always an athlete. From as far back as I can remember I was on some sort of team, playing whatever sport, almost all year around. By the time I was in high school I was playing volleyball, elite travel softball and I was a cheerleader. I never really thought of myself as a person who “exercised” per se, I was just an athlete. We had practice or games every day or tournaments on the weekends. I was always moving my body. There was no specific “work out” that I was doing, I was simply participating in my sport and conditioning, training or practicing. I ate normal and fueled my body. When I was hungry I ate and I never remember worrying to much about what I was eating. My mom always made dinner at night and it was typically a meat, potato, veggie, well balanced meal. I enjoyed fast food like most teenagers and lived life pretty freely! My body pretty much stayed the same. Since I was always doing sports my body was always in shape, stayed the same weight and it was what it was. (I had MAJOR body image issues, but like I said, this disorder is multifaceted and we’ll save that for another day..)
Once high school was over I decided not to continue to play sports in college. I think this was surprising because I was playing at a very high level of softball so it was kind of assumed I would go on to play college ball like most of my travel teammates, but I decided it wasn’t for me. So off to college I went and without really realizing it, I went from doing some sort of exercise almost every single day, to doing nothing. I didn’t have the structure of being on a team or have team training. I no longer had a practice I needed to be at where we were “working out,” or an entire afternoon of a game or cheering all evening at a football game. I also didn’t have my mom making me well balanced dinners and packing me healthy lunches. I had a college food court, beer, parties and late night deliveries. So I went from being an athlete with a healthy diet, to basically no movement, partying and eating all the time and at all hours. (I hate this part of my life. If I could go back and change it I would. I hate talking about it and I carry a lot of shame from it, BUT, it’s part of my story, so I’m sharing it anyway…). This of course led to weight gain, the typical freshman 15+, and just overall an unhealthy lifestyle that continued for a couple of years.
To be honest, I realized I didn’t really know how to exercise on my own. I had never been one to go for runs or lift weights. I had always been a part of a team where we ran suicides or did conditioning and just plane playing the sport was my exercise. The idea of exercising without doing it for competition was foreign to me.
Fast forward a couple of years and I decided that it was time to get it together. My body was heavier then I knew it wanted to be, I was receiving lots of comments about how I needed to lose weight, I felt gross and I wanted to feel good again. Basically, I wanted to lose weight…. Since I knew nothing about how to eat intuitively and exercise to feel good in order to let my body naturally go back down to it’s happy place, I did what most people do (and to be honest, what I think is THE most dangerous thing I have done my entire life), I decided to go on a restrictive diet and start running.
So, in 2008, I started a diet that cut out all carbs, sugar, alcohol, dairy (sounds like Whole 30 right? Funnily enough it actually was a different one…they are all the same, just different names.) and I started running. I chose running because I didn’t really know how to go to a gym and I didn’t have the money to join any classes, so running seemed like my best option. Let me tell you, it worked. The weight just melted off. I got SO many compliments. The failure that I felt like because of what happened in college was forgotten because so many people were telling me how great I looked and how I must have it together now because I’m getting in shape and I’m losing the weight. And THAT my friends is pretty much the first few ingredients of a recipe for an eating disorder disaster. Restrictive diet, exercise, immediate weight loss, positive reinforcement. Throw in some genetics, a bad relationship or traumatic event and off we go. This all seemed to be working great...until it didn't.
First of all, these diets are not sustainable. In order to KEEP losing weight you have to continue to cut out more and more and more. Why? The body adapts. Remember my last blog? Our bodies are smart! So before I knew it, I was eating less and less and less and exercising more and more and more, in order to continue to lose weight. I’m not going to concentrate on the diet side of things in this blog, but it was important for me to include a little of what was going on while I was exercising to lose weight.
So, here I am running and losing weight. The problem is that the running went from something that I hoped would help me lose those couple pounds that I had gained in college, to completely taking over my life. Exercise became something that I solely did to lose weight and fulfill my identity. Not for enjoyment. Not to be healthy. Not to move my body. To lose weight. Period.
The obsession with losing weight grew. Pretty much the only positive reinforcement I ever received at this point was about my body and looks. It was also my escape from a lot of horrible things that were going on in my life. Things that at the time I had no ability to deal with healthily. So, I had to maintain the perfect body and continue to lose weight, because, well, what else did I have? It seemed like the worse things got, the worse my ED got and at this point in my life thing had started to unravel badly. In hind site it was almost like I was trying to wither away because I couldn't deal with the pain of my circumstances. Rather then feel any emotion I would numb myself by pounding pavement and keeping my mind preoccupied with calorie counting and my diet/exercise plan. (All of this was of course was done subconsciously. I had no idea I was dealing with things this way. I had convinced myself I was just super healthy and loved to run!)
My relationship with exercise became more volatile and controlling. If I ate something. I HAD to burn it off. I counted every calorie that entered my body and every calorie that exited my body. I got a watch that would count absolutely everything I did and a heart rate monitor that I would wear 24/7 around my chest so that my calorie burn would be even more accurate. This way, I could be 100% sure of how much I was burning while I exercised. Exercise was used as punishment. If I dare ate a “bad” food that wasn’t on my diet, I HAD to go for a run and work it off. If we were going to have Thanksgiving dinner I was only allowed to eat it if I went for at least a 5 mile run first. If I chewed a freaking piece of gum I would walk up and down the stairs five times to make sure the calories from it were immediately burnt off.
My eating disorder grew and my exercise got worse. It now wasn’t enough to burn off what I ate, I had to burn off even MORE just to be safe. So I went from running 3-6 miles a day to doing that and then ALSO going to the gym for another hour to weight lift and do more cardio.
My exercise regiment and my eating disorder completely controlled my life. If I were going to go on a trip to Europe and I had to catch a flight, I would be up early to make SURE I got my run in, or I would do an extra hour of exercise the day before. On these European vacations, I ran or worked out almost every day I was there. Writing this breaks my heart. I don’t even have words to describe what it is like to remember the prison I was in. I went to Italy and ordered pasta for myself only once, ONCE! I will never forget how much I beat myself up for ordering that pasta and how much I exercised the next day to eliminate it from my body. Exercise was something that I almost felt I had no choice about. I would even have the flu and still get up and make sure I went out and walked and exercised.
Whats crazy is I still hated my body. No matter the compliments, the weight loss, the muscle I felt, I never loved myself. There was always something to fix. Always something I didn’t like. I never felt good in a bathing suit, even if I was the most fit in the group at the beach. I never felt beautiful or thin enough no matter how many people told me I was exactly those things. I was after something that this diet/exercise/control lifestyle was never going to give me, but I still chased it none the less.
The amount of anxiety and self loathing that comes with this type of exercise and abuse towards my body was astronomical. I lived in constant anxiety. Counting and counting and counting my calories. Scheduling my entire days and weeks and vacations around when I could run or work out. How happy I was depended on if I worked out that day or not. The feeling of absolute failure if I didn’t hit a calorie burn or missed a work out. The feeling that I was literally NOT o.k. if I ate a bad food without working it off. The stress was unbearable, but yet I had absolutely no control over it. Most of my self worth was wrapped up in my exercise and I was doing all this while intaking very very little food.
I did this for seven years. I’ve only shared a few examples of how this impacted my life, seven years of it was extremely damaging.
I’m sure you can imagine how BRUTAL this was on my body. I ignored a lot of problems. I ran through pain. I had migraines almost daily. My joints hurt. My back hurt, and we aren’t even talking about my weight and other health issues. I didn’t care. I kept going because I was being healthy right? Not eating carbs, sugar, dairy, and exercising is healthy! (sarcasm) By 2015 I started to have some issues that I couldn’t ignore. There were a few things that started happening that I distinctly remember. The first is, I was on vacation with my family and a bunch of us wanted to go for a beach run. I’m a runner! I exercise every day! I wanted to burn off all my calories! This was for me! But when I ran with my siblings I couldn’t do it. Like I literally couldn’t keep up. I was out of breath. I felt tired. I kept having to stop because I felt weak and exhausted. At the time I blamed it on the heat, but I knew in my gut something wasn’t right. I came home from that vacation and I also started to realize that every time I walked up my stairs I would almost black out when I got to the top. It was like a wave of fainting would happen each time. That scared me a bit. I noticed that I could no longer run more then a quarter of a mile without having to stop because my heart would have sudden sharp pains and my heart monitor would say my heart rate was crazy high. I also, over the past year had gained a good amount of weight, but it made no sense considering I was exercising more then ever and still eating way way less then I was burning off. (Again, proof that over time, these diets are dangerous and they DON'T WORK.)
I don’t know how, it must have been by God’s saving grace, that I decided, in my right mind, to go to a doctor. I typically skip over talking about this doctors appointment and keep it as vague as possible, but for the sake of the blog I’ll go into a little more detail. I had to fill out a very long questionnaire. I was careful not to write anything about my eating disorder. (At this point I wanted help, but heck, I wasn’t going to do anything crazy like change!). My doctor walked in, looked at me, looked at my answers and literally said to me, “You have a problem, and you need to seek immediate help.” Sh@#….
After a lot of tests I was told I had severe nutrition deficiencies, I have osteopenia (beginning stages of osteoporosis), I have damaged many major organs, and worst of all my heart was having a hard time, possibly enlarging from the excessive exercise and lack of nutrition and if I continued down this road my doctor expected me to have a heart attack at any moment which could/would possibly end in my death. I walked out of that doctors office with orders for more tests, orders to enter treatment for an eating disorder, orders to immediately stop all exercise and with a diagnosis of atypical anorexia and bulimia non-purging.
(Many of you might be wondering what exactly atypical anorexia and bulimia non-purging are, so let me clear it up for you as simply as possible. Atypical anorexia is basically that you have all the signs/symptoms of anorexia except you aren’t under a BMI of 18. So you could be eating nothing, be a BMI of 20 and they will call you an atypical anorexic instead of an anorexic. This is another blog for another time because this literally will keep people sick and from receiving care because they don’t believe they are actually anorexic because they haven't hit a low enough weight….it REALLY makes me mad. For me, I had been a lower BMI then 18 at one point, but like I have said, my body started to gain weight while eating nothing, because it is fearfully and wonderfully made, and was trying to store anything I gave it to keep me alive! Bulimia non-purging is basically being bulimic but not through vomiting. So in my case, I was bulimic non-purging because I purged all of my food through excessive exercise. Many people don’t know about these different sub-groups of eating disorders. They only know anorexic, bulimic, binge eating. Sadly, they don’t all fit into those three little boxes and many people are out there suffering and don't even know it.)
You would think that after this diagnosis I saw the light, entered treatment, stopped exercising and my life became sunshine and rainbows! Nope. I had/have SEVEN YEARS of damage to undo and heal from. Not only does my body have to heal from that sort of starvation and beating, but cognitively I have to completely reassess how I view my body, diet, exercise, health and myself. Eating disorders are VERY VERY VERY strong and they do NOT go down without a fight. I also have to do this in a diet OBSESSED culture, where counting calories, diet talk and cutting out food groups is now the new “healthy” thing to do. (I am slapping my hands right now so I don’t go off on a tangent of how unhealthy and dangerous it actually is….) When I was first ordered to stop exercising I refused. I was so afraid of gaining weight and losing control that I literally could not do it. I was afraid of having a heart attack though, so instead of running for miles and going to the gym, I walked for hours and hours. Literally I would put on my jacket and go for a three to four hour walk around my neighborhood just to hit my calorie burn but keep my heart rate low. It took many many months of intense therapy, prayer and work with a dietician for me to agree to stop exercising completely, throw away my heart rate monitor and watch, remove the scale from my home and stop counting calories in order to start the process of true recovery.
This was VERY scary. It meant SURE weight gain. It meant giving up my main coping mechanism. It meant giving up my identity as a runner and someone who was in shape and ultra “healthy." It meant giving up the one thing that I ever felt I really got complimented on. It meant basically going against the grain of our culture. It meant I was a failure in the one thing I thought I was good at. It was incredibly painful and difficult.
I was sedentary for about a year and a half in order to allow my body to start to heal. I say start to because it currently is still healing! I was told it would take my body at least three years to recover from what I had done to it. Also, when I say sedentary I literally mean no exercise. My team was even weary about me going for walks with my dog. They were very strict about how far my walks could be, how many times per week etc. The weight gain did in fact happen. It came on fast and a LOT. That was probably one of the worst parts about the whole thing. Watching myself gain and gain and gain, while still eating just enough and knowing I cannot and will not exercise it off. Instead, I have to just let my body do it's thing, trust the process of healing from an eating disorder and work on how the heck did I let my worth get wrapped up in this? How did this happen?
So what now?! Can I ever exercise again? Am I still sedentary? How do I feel about the gym? What do I do with all this weight if I can’t exercise it off or go on a diet? Am I ok with how my body looks right now? How do I eat if I don’t count calories? Am I stuck just being over weight now? I decided I’m going to tackle all that stuff in next weeks blog! (maybe the next couple if it gets too long!) I’ll talk about what it was like being sedentary, how I renewed my mind about exercise and how I am learning to exercise again in a more positive and compassionate way towards my body along with an anti-diet and anti-calorie counting mentality!
I want to thank everyone for their support! Writing this specific blog was very difficult for me. It is hard to share the deepest parts of my eating disorder with people, (and to be honest, I even held back a lot!) but my thought is, maybe there is someone out there reading this that is in the same exercise trap. Maybe someone is killing themselves like I was over calorie counting and overcome with the anxiety of having to burn off everything they eat. Maybe their worth is in how fit they are and how they look and they are punishing themselves in the gym to maintain a body that they can’t even look in the mirror and love. Maybe they have convinced themselves they are being healthy, but deep down they are starving and dying to have a slice of pizza without having to run it off. Maybe they want to lose a few pounds and are considering a restrictive diet and excessive exercise to get the job done. I am hear to tell you, this is not the way to live. If I can come out of this, so can you. I promise you, it can be done! I no longer count my calories and I am no longer a slave to exercise or fad diets. It is possible to be free from this and I am living proof of it!
Until next week....
- Sara -