I have read so many articles written by people, mainly women, in the fitness industry who have suffered from eating disorders. The story always goes, “I wanted to get lean, look good, be fit… abused food… binged and starved… banned carbs… cardio… cardio… more cardio… no energy and training suffered… became depressed and withdrawn…” And then suddenly! “I got into lifting/crossfit/bodyweight training and I ate to perform! I added carbs back into my diet! I ate more and trained less! Look at me now I am RIPPED and I squat two times bodyweight!” And every one applauds. Not that I am trying to belittle anyone who has had this experience or written about it. I just don’t think it’s that simple.
No one ever talks about relapse. No one ever admits that after they “recover” they suddenly find themselves spiralling back towards being so out of control in a desperate attempt to gain control. It can creep back ever so slowly. You feel a bit stressed. You start feeling unhappy in yourself, unhappy with yourself. Training isn’t giving you that same high. Maybe your nutrition is off? So you cut down on quantity or you reduce carbohydrates or lower fat. Next step, start separating foods back into good and bad. Safe and unsafe. If you only eat certain foods, specific amounts, then training will be better, you will look better and you can stay in control. Eating less is giving you more… You are back in the red. You are back being ruled by your head and unable to listen to your body. You develop rituals, and rely on these to feel in control and keep your stress levels low. But you are stressed all the time because keeping your food perfect is exhausting. All of a sudden you realise your relationships are breaking down. The worst part is you don’t even care.
I have Bulimia. I have recovered. And then relapsed. I got better again. Then relapsed. Recovered. Relapsed. Relapse. My biggest fear is being overweight. Even though I’ve never actually been overweight. That’s how it started. It was purely body image. I couldn’t starve myself so I taught myself how to be sick. As things began to get more severe and my eating disorder progressed it became emotional. A response to stress, anxiety, feeling unhappy, feeling worthless and a form of self harm. It’s been part of my life since I was 17. There have been periods of time when I’ve been severely underweight, completely disassociated from anything going on around me. But the one thing that I feel makes Bulimia so awful is that most of the time it’s completely invisible. It isn’t always about weight loss and body image. The behaviours are a result of emotional triggers. So you can eat a normal diet, and still binge and throw up. And no one knows. You learn tricks to keep it hidden erasing all evidence that it ever happened. I have spent the whole of 2013 and 2014 trying to keep it a secret from everyone. Because I am struggling but I let people think I am strong.
When I was in California last year, I got my diet clean and gave up caffeine. I had a lot of support with this. I figured I was done with the eating disorder, that I was finally able to let it go. But I under-ate and I lost weight, which was probably one of the worst things that could have happened. Because when I got home I immediately went back into the mindset of “now I’ve lost weight I must not gain it back”. So I started monitoring my food obsessively. I started to eat less, and so I had less energy, was more hungry, and thought about food more. I was back in the real world having to deal with life and I couldn’t keep it up. I started being sick again. So one more time I failed in being able to get better.
Until last year I didn’t realise just how ingrained these behaviours are in me. Put me back in the environment where things escalated and I revert back to old habits. I was responding to bad feelings with bad thoughts and acting it out. I was experiencing a psychological and physical addiction to it. It was the one thing I could use to completely shut myself off from everything going on around me. In those moments I felt like someone else, and the voice that begged me not to do it me not to do it becomes muted. I was always fully present in these moments.
So what are some of the consequences of 8 years of an eating disorder? I’ve damaged my jaw from constantly forcing my hand in my mouth, I’ve scraped skin off the back of my hands with my teeth, I’ve weakened my oesophagus, the back of my throat is scarred from all the acid, I’ve ruptured the blood vessels around my eyes, made my nose bleed, thrown up blood, caused insomnia due to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, erratic moods, lost my periods, and really it’s a miracle that I still have all my teeth considering how regularly they were rinsed with stomach acid. This is the real reason why my digestive system is so damaged and why my metabolism isn’t functioning the way it should be. And that’s the irony. The very thing I want is the thing I’ve been stopping myself from having. My health.
At the time a big part of me didn’t care that this was happening because I could still do handstands, ridiculous stretches and other movements. I could post pictures on Facebook showing people how strong I was and how skilled I was, doing it for completely the wrong reasons. I didn’t post a photograph from a few hours later, crouched over a toilet with my hand pushed down the back of my throat, vomit dribbling down my arm, with a comment saying “Look how good I am at throwing up!” You always want to portray the best version of yourself to other people. Show the best parts of yourself. This is the most disgusting, humiliating part of me and it makes me a hypocrite to try and advise people on their own health.
I’d become so used to these feelings and behaviours that I stopped trying to stop. I figured my eating disorder would always be there and I would always hate my body. Then I moved to another country thinking that would fix my life. Well apparently that never works and I just bought all my issues over with me. But I stopped being sick. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion of what I was doing to my body. Maybe it was because I was no longer in the same environment. Or maybe I finally allowed myself to hand over some control. Whatever the reasons, I stopped. I was sick the day before I flew out to Japan. I had no idea when I stepped off the plane that I’d left it behind in England.
What I did bring with me was a damaged digestive system, a metabolism that didn’t work properly, a shoulder and wrist injury, broken down muscles and a pretty tired mind. It’s not an exaggeration that I had to start from scratch with my training 6 months ago. I had become so weak. But this is the first time in my life where the desire to be able to perform certain skills and to be able to move my body well is greater than wanting to look a certain way. This is the first time my health is being put first. The more I eat and the less I monitor what I eat, the more my body is changing and adapting positively to training and the stronger I am getting. Strength is all relative and maybe I am not strong compared to a lot of people but I feel strong. That’s something that I haven’t experienced in years. And it’s not the single arm lever or the bent arm stand or touching my feet to my head that has changed the way I see myself, it’s a change in how I feel about myself.
When it comes to recovery I don’t think that training is the answer. I don’t think the “right” diet is the answer either. I think anyone’s experience with an eating disorder is incredibly individual and personal. To really simplify it, it’s based on how you feel about yourself. Freeing yourself from something you have such a strong dependancy on is a slow and complicated process. So for some people lifting a ton of weight is enough to lift self esteem, enough to break their habits and change their belief system. For other people it takes a lot more than that. For some people nothing is ever enough to change things.
I guess my one fear is that there is always a chance it could come back. Always a chance I will get ill again. It’s taken so much to get this far away from being sick, but it only takes making myself sick once for it to start all over again. That’s the part no one wants to admit. For now it’s not part of my life and I have to remember despite the fear, it’s my choice to keep it that way.
I don’t want to fake my health anymore.
Letting go, I am finally seeing things from a different perspective.