S1: E4 - Through the Lens of Recovery
Professionals in the fitness industry all have reasons that we gravitate towards the methods and messaging that we use about exercise and nutrition. For the most part we agree that different things work for different clients. Not because science isn’t real, but because humans aren’t robots, and therefore science isn’t the thing that matters most. You are a unique human being, with unique obstacles, strengths, and desires, and therefore emotion and understanding matter most.
I say this to tell you that working with a coach is partially a heart decision. We are in the people business - if a coach can connect with you, they can better motivate you. Connection takes a level of knowing. I want to know your story, but I think you should also know mine. This story, my story, matters because it influences my coaching methods and the content I share. It only matters to you because, if it resonates with you, it means I could be a helpful resource. And if it doesn’t, maybe there’s a different fit out there.
I’m sharing to give context, to provide a lens for anything else you come across from me. I’m writing because if this resonates with anyone, I know how powerful it could be. And I’m writing because transparency is the best way for me to stay in recovery.
In the spring of 2016, I googled “eating disorder therapist, portland oregon.” I typed the words into my work computer, my hand shaking as I scrolled the mouse down the page of results. The week prior, I had called my mom crying, trembling. I whispered something along the lines of “I think I really need help”- this was the first time I had even come close to admitting what I knew was happening with me.
It was a Monday morning when I google searched a therapist to help me get my eating back under control. That’s what I thought would happen; I thought I would work with someone to re-create the order in my life that somehow was slipping away. I would talk to this person and they would help me figure out how to cut out the sugar and the need to go after ‘unhealthy’ foods with such intensity. Little did I know, that’s not even close to what would happen. I remember the sun coming in through the window of my office, warm. As I clicked on a link, I flashed back to the weekend. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I could feel where they were still a little puffy from Saturday night’s purge. How had I gotten to a place where I was sitting with my head in a toilet, forcing a toothbrush down my throat until I threw up?
I would do it over, and over again, until there was nothing left. The first time I made that decision, I swore it would be the only time it ever happened, I wasn’t the girl that made herself throw up, I had more control than that. I kept that promise for a week, maybe two, and then it'd happen again. Every time I promised myself it would be the last time. But I kept justifying and regretting a binge and a purge. There was a gnawing, not a physical gnawing, but a spinning that was happening in my brain. Eating was the only time it was quiet for a second. And yet, I was supposed to stay small - small girls fit in and had some unspoken privilege in this world. I had finally achieved that label; I had to keep it.
I found two therapists, the first one I met with scared the shit out of me. The second was kind. When I admitted to making myself throw up sometimes and that I generally felt out of control when it came to food, she gently asked how often it happened. “Only a couple of times” I lied. But this isn’t the beginning of the story. This is the crux; there is much that lead me to this point, and much struggle after, along with a lot of growth.
Based on my intake, I didn’t fit the diagnosis for anorexia or bulimia, so I was filed under some kind of cyclical disorder - restrict, binge, purge, repeat.
I started restricting in college, it was almost an accident. I had mono during my senior year, and two weeks of no appetite had me down 10lbs in no time. I had already leaned out quite a bit due to the rigors of training in a Division I collegiate program, but that time of no appetite and slow metabolism after allowed me to achieve the flat stomach I saw in the media.
Let's pause here. There wasn't one thing that caused me to develop an eating disorder, there were many moments over a lot of time that lead down that road. I just remember that being a pivotal time.
I’d never admit I wanted to be thinner or that I wanted attention or praise for having a body that apparently was ideal for women in their 20’s; that felt vain. But I could see my hip bones - to a kid that grew up with cheeks and a belly that added to a lack of self confidence, this felt like a superpower - I did want people to notice my body - I wanted them to approve of it. I didn’t want to go back, and I believed if I started eating more again I would, I would go right back to where I was before, no hip bones to show.
So I kept restricting, and as my body got smaller I justified it needed even less food to ‘stay that size’ so I’d eat a little less. Before I knew it I was terrified of food, I was terrified of gaining weight back. Subconsciously, I knew something was off because I started to hide my behaviors. I’d lie about eating breakfast before a morning work meeting, I always had somewhere to be at lunch so I wouldn’t eat with co-workers (this made the lunch meetings I had to attend very difficult). I could never allow myself to order a burger, or anything with bread or pasta. But sometimes I wanted those things so badly I’d find empty garbage cans and search for leftovers someone had thrown away. I’d stay late at work to dig through the fridge for food that had been left for at least a few days, so if I picked at it I was fairly confident nobody would notice. Yep, I kept tabs on what was in the fridge so I could steal food I knew people had forgotten about. I’m not totally sure how I justified it, but I did…for years.
I’ve looked back at so many moments and wondered how I justified behavior that now seems outrageous, impossible even. The scale marked me as worthy or unworthy every morning, as long as that number wasn’t going up, nothing else mattered. I went from a healthy 145lb female to 112.5lb a rib-cage exposed, collarbones protruding ghost. I remember how elated I felt the day the scale read 112.5. I went to such great lengths to stay thin that I lost almost all true connection in my life. I still spoke to my parents, I had friends, but I couldn’t open up. I couldn’t be honest - if I admitted I felt like food (or lack thereof) had too much control in my life, I would be admitting that my behavior was wrong. I would have to work to change it. And 98% of me was convinced that I could live like this, that I had to live like this. The 2% part of me that was actually sane was shoved into a corner.
I wasn’t an athlete anymore. But I had a career, a boyfriend, and I was skinny. And for a long time I convinced myself that was enough; not only was it enough, I believed the success I experienced post-college was due to being thin. But when I moved to Portland, that 2% of me was screaming that something was wrong. Somewhere in me, I knew I was missing out on life - thank god I listened to that 2% for half a second, or the disease might have won.
In 2015 I moved to Portland. I broke up with my boyfriend that still lived back east, and not long after, I felt like I really started to spiral. I think that relationship gave me a false sense of security. I was building a career, I had a relationship (FINALLY) - one I thought was solid - marriage, kids, white picket fence - material. Until my 2% spoke. Looking back I realize it wasn’t the relationship that was wrong - it was me, I had been pretending for a long time. I couldn’t keep pretending and stay connected in a relationship that held values of honesty, vulnerability, and trust.
The purge cycle I described above began late that year and continued into the early part of 2016, when I felt so lost and alone that I googled for help before I felt like I could confide in someone I knew. I stopped purging soon after I began therapy, but the restrict/binge cycle continued to be a dominant pattern in my life for a long time. My therapist described it as one of those spirals that you used to draw on your school papers when you were supposed to be listening in class. The hypnotic kind that starts really tight at a center and slowly unwinds itself to the edge of the paper. One continuous line, winding in on it self - or unwinding, loosening. Unlearning my habits around food and body was going to be like unwinding from the center of that circle - the cycle was still going to happen, but it would slowly loosen. Weekly patterns would begin to happen every two weeks, and then maybe once a month until hopefully, I found balance.
Well, it took me a hell of a long time to find balance. I experienced the unwinding of the circle. But layered on top of that, I experienced a whole bunch of scribbling that looked like the masterpiece of a two year old. I had stopped purging in my stereotypical head-in-the-toilet sense. But I started running a lot. When I told my therapist I wanted to train for a marathon (I left out the part about having already started training) she gently told me it probably wasn’t a good idea right now. I reluctantly gave it up, but I kept my exercise volume fairly high. I can say that it was too much now because I couldn’t maintain it at the level of food I usually allowed myself to intake. Occasionally, I would binge and barely move for a few days out of shame.
When I ‘graduated’ from therapy, I had developed enough skills to get by, but I don’t think I really addressed underlying issues around why I needed so much control over body (and therefore my exercise, my schedule, my sleep, everything). I never addressed feeling really lost, having shame around it, or not trusting that it was safe to feel. Binging was an over exaggerated form of emotional eating, I still wasn’t comfortable feeling anything at an intense level - sadness felt like I was drowning and any excitement felt like anxiety. Food was a distraction. I started to work on sitting with emotion, I was deemed okay enough to keep doing that work on my own… so I tried to for awhile, and then I got tired of the work.
I told myself I was good enough, I needed a break, I had done a LOT of work. And it was true, I had come a long way. I went shopping for bigger clothes (which doesn’t seem dramatic, but trust me it was), I was more engaged in relationships, I felt passion and outrage and calm - I felt, I wasn’t numb. But I still had a lot of work to do.
I spent the next few years questioning what a healthy relationship with food and exercise looked like for me. I LOVED identifying as an athlete. I loved pushing limits to see what my body could do, and I decided all of that was healthy - it’s a big part of what makes me who I am and I don’t have to loose that identity. But a part of me also wanted to stay small. I learned that I could run around mountains. My feet could actually carry me all the way around 'effing mountains and that was incredible. But I also knew that every training run earned me a burrito the size of my face that I would have a hard time justifying had I not logged those miles. What was my balance between loving running and knowing that it burns a lot of calories so I could eat whatever I wanted? Could I actually find that balance?
For the most part, I have. I still check in with myself often. I still ask if my motivations for the activities I participate in and the training regimen I commit to are healthy. I have accountability in place with humans I love that know how to ask hard questions. I know my red flags, and people in my life know them too. I try to normalize talking about unkind thoughts towards my body so they don’t have a quiet place to grow. I try to believe that I can be (and am) both a deep, insightful person and a person that likes to enjoy how my body looks and feel confident in my appearance, and that it’s okay for me to put time and effort into that.
I learned that the fastest way to isolation and unhealthy habits is by hiding behaviors. I learned that shame can only exist in silence. And I remind myself that I am, and always will be, a work in progress. The journey of discovering myself can continue until the day I die, if I let it.
Again, I share this to give you context and to let you in on how I’ve built my philosophy as a coach; which is that connection with your mind,
body, movement, and community is a great recipe for success. And for my own recovery, again, connection. This journey is about learning yourself. Learning your limits and how and when to push them safely. Deciding where you want to dig in deeper, and where you want to let go of control. Deciding how you want to grow. You already have all of the answers for yourself, you just have to know how to listen.