Let's Talk Exercise
While I've given thought to writing about the exercise component of my anorexia many times, it was not until I read Carrie Arnold's post about exercise addiction that I felt ready to broach this subject.
Let me begin by saying: please read her article. It is honest and concise and will certainly help to bring order and understanding to what you are about to read.
It’s uncomfortable to say this, but the ten factors presented as playing into an exercise addition have been my ten commandments for years. I have been obsessive and secretive about exercise for a decade now. As an eleven or twelve year-old - you know, one of those sixth graders who has just been lectured on the dangers of eating disorders by a health teacher who has no idea what she’s talking about - I started to worry about myself. I sat in my room at night, or on the bathroom floor or in the basement when I was home alone and I did sit ups. I didn’t give it a second thought until this health teacher placed blame squarely upon the shoulders of those who chose to develop eating disorders (as if its something you go to the store and buy). Now I was guilty; when in reality I was developing a potentially life-threatening disorder, I knew as early as sixth grade that the acceptable response was to keep it under wraps. While education about eating disorders is crucial the educator must first be educated. To add guilt to the psyche of a blossoming anorexic is to unceremoniously throw her out of the frying pan and into the fire.
A very important piece of my own story finally makes sense. I can say with certainty that this all began in fifth or sixth grade - the beginning of middle school - a time when girls are typically interested in forming new friendships. Well, I’ve never had lots of friends - now I realize, I didn’t need friends, no, I needed then very badly, but I couldn’t have friends - I had ED. He is controlling and abusive and consuming. Since I first learned there was a name for obsessing over food and exercise ED made sure that no one came between he and I. For 10 years ED has made sure I arrange my life around isolation and irrational fears.
I wish I saw this sooner. I wish we didn’t blindly accept exercise as a healthy choice. I wish we didn’t celebrate athletes above great thinkers, chefs, artists and writers. I wish I had been brave enough to ask for help when this all began.
My exercise habits have waxed and waned over the years. I partook in organized athletics on and off - swim team and tennis mainly - each sport brought about an uptick in what I now recognize as “Ed thoughts.” Yet, I didn’t consider myself an athlete until quite recently - anyone who has ever seen me play tennis knows that while I may be quick, I begin my weak little serves with a legitimate plie in first position. Seriously, I turn out from my hips and demi plie...it’s like barre work with a racquet, or an insult to the sport itself. I felt that athletics were the one arena in which I failed, and I needed to be perfect. So I took up running and accidentally fell in love with it.
Here’s where this becomes a very sticky wicket. It’s one thing to force your self to do sit ups or drag yourself to swim practice for a season, but if you hate it enough you’ll quit eventually...or at least I will. But what happens when you find yourself rapidly improving and therefore willing to dedicate more and more time and energy and subsequently calories to your sport? It becomes your identity. It adds another number to your list of obsessions - ACT score, weight, miles run, calories burned.
I’m doing better now, for the most part, though. Here’s the realization that allows me to just occasionally put exercise into perspective: At the same time as your adding miles and shaving off seconds, your muscles are changing. ED says you exercise to be skinny. Skinny is irrelevant if you really want to succeed in your sport. I have massive thighs - thighs that can run 40 miles in a week and then change modes to support me in fondues or developes. These thighs are my tools. Tools that will only work if I meet them half - if I provide them with the nutrients they need to perform and the rest need to repair themselves.
At the end of the day, what I have to say about obsessive exercise is this: it is just as much a problem as malnutrition, but as Carrie’s post suggests it is simply a more socially acceptable problem. For me, it takes a lot of guts to call it quits after half an hour of exercise (which used to be a lot); more guts, perhaps, than it requires to convince myself to eat one more bite of peanut butter. The thoughts that lead me to run those extra few miles are so habitual that I don’t always realize they’re there. It takes a lot of meta-cognition, dedication and self-awareness to make any progress on this front - but there’s hope. One day I may be able to take a day off without doing, or at least contemplating, thousands of jumping jacks. One day I may be happy spending this time drinking coffee with friends. Yes, ED, friends - not you, but real, living breathing, loving friends.