A couple posts ago, I made reference to the fact that I had been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and then sort of lightly skimmed over the details. In this post, I plan to address some of the issues surrounding that eating disorder as well as my tendency to exercise somewhat obsessively in the greater context of body image issues, and eating disorders and exercise more generally. Most of my posts are pretty personal, but this one will likely be more so. If this is the sort of thing that makes you uncomfortable or that you think you probably shouldn’t read for whatever reason (if, for instance, you think it may trigger your own disordered thoughts about eating), then please skip this one. With that said, let’s get down to brass tacks.
It may come as no great surprise to those of you who know me and/or those of you who are regular readers that I have struggled for a long time to eat and exercise in a balanced manner. Although I have never been significantly overweight, for most of my life I have carried around some extra pounds and hated myself for it. I have had a contentious relationship with both food and my body for as long as I can remember, and since middle school I have dieted and exercised in an attempt to get the “perfect body”. I have always felt that my body has kept me from being liked, being popular, being happy. In middle school, high school, and college, I would occasionally go through short periods of restriction in an attempt to get my weight down. Mostly, though, I ate when I was stressed, depressed, or just having a tough time with something. This led me to hate food and my body even more.
As I grew into adulthood, I think on the surface things appeared to have gotten easier. I run regularly and do yoga pretty regularly as well. Most people who know me would describe me as very healthy. I’m a vegetarian and am even referred to as “crunchy” sometimes because of my healthful (yes, I’ll go there), clean manner of eating. Below the surface, though, I think I just found ways to make my disordered thoughts socially acceptable: intense training for athletic events, a vegetarian (and arguably more restrictive) diet, etc. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this–that is to say, what’s socially acceptable and what’s not–and it seems like when it comes to women and their bodies (and probably men and their bodies too, I’m just not qualified to really say), there are fine lines all over the place and those lines are dangerous, and yet all too easy, to cross.
Since September, I’ve lost about 25 pounds. At first this was unintentional; my work situation was stressful and difficult and caused me to lose my appetite but after I began losing weight, I became addicted to the feeling of control I had, control I felt I’d lost in other areas of my life. By the time November rolled around, my depression and eating had gotten so bad that I was hospitalized through the ER. I stayed in the hospital for three weeks before being released to what seemed like it would be a good after care program, but which turned out to be less intense than what I needed. This led to another hospitalization in December. In between the two, my eating habits continued to decline although for a while they improved slightly. I also started running pretty intensely again, and, occasionally, attempting to purge after feeling like I had eaten too much (this, for most people, probably would have been a reasonable amount, especially considering how much I’d restricted during the rest of the day).
At this point, I’m in an intensive day treatment program and trying to address both my depression and my eating disorder. It’s not easy to do, especially (and I know how cliché this is) simply living in our culture and being surrounded by images of women whose bodies we are all supposed to emulate, while maintaining our health. My running (about 30 miles a week) is considered excessive and my eating is inadequate. When I am in a group of women or at any meal, I have a hard time concentrating on the moment, instead worrying about how I measure up to everyone else–I’m not as pretty, not as thin, my thighs are thicker, I’m eating more, I’m eating faster, I’m eating something that is less healthy, etc. My running and eating habits have become so ingrained and addictive that it’s hard to imagine cutting back (on the running) and/or changing in any way. The thought is, simply put, hugely distressing. Meanwhile, the urge to purge is present after every meal. I rarely respond to it, but just trying to ignore it is one of the harder things I do on a daily basis.
If I had lost this weight at a different speed, if I were training for a marathon, if I were actively on a diet, if I had been at this weight longer and had gotten to it by different means, chances are my behavior wouldn’t raise any red flags. In fact, it only raises red flags to the people who are closest to me and those who treat me. Other people envy my dedication to running, my restraint in eating. It’s both disturbing and frustrating. Disturbing because other women admire my fucked up behaviors, but who can blame them? We learn to admire these sorts of things at a very young age, and as I mentioned before, there are all kinds of ways to make these behaviors appear acceptable and normal. Frustrating because I want the people who do notice to just dismiss my exercising and restricted eating as nothing more than the behaviors of a person who is health conscious.
I don’t want exercising or restriction taken away from me, which is one of the scariest things about this entire ordeal. At the same time, I do want to get better. This is a situation full of contradictions and it is often difficult to tell what’s best, how to avoid increasing distress and anxiety, and how to minimize destructive behaviors. Going through all this has changed my life in a profound way. When I run, I now question my own motivation, knowing that a run to feel good and get some exercise in is acceptable, but a run to shed a couple pounds isn’t (and how tricky, because deep down don’t we all exercise to control our weight, at least to a certain extent?); I can no longer read food blogs because of the way I feel about my own food intake versus that of others; meal times are fraught and full of conflict, both external and internal.
Every day is a challenge, but every day is also an opportunity to heal. In time, I hope that the fine lines will become less blurred and more focused; however, I know this won’t happen overnight and it won’t be easy. In the meantime, I guess, all I can do is be honest about my own struggles, and hope for support from those who are able to give it. Eventually, I hope I can get better at tuning out society’s images and messages regarding what my body should look like; I hope I can stop comparing myself to every other woman who crosses my path; I hope I can find a way to balance eating, exercising, and living a healthy life. I’m sure that some day all those things will come to pass.