I’ve read a lot of testimonies of runners who have overcome eating disorders and have felt compelled to tell my own. But for years I’ve been afraid. Coming out with my story would mean that I would have to admit it to myself first, and I haven’t been ready for that. But, this past year has been a struggle for me, and I’m overcoming it by being real with myself. I’ve admitted to and changed a lot so far in regards to mental illness, I suppose it’s only fitting to tell the rest of my story.
I got through high school with a lot of issues, but I was okay in my own skin and had a great relationship with food. I wasn’t like those other girls that dieted, and then starved, and then wound up in the hospital. I was smarter and healthier than that. I was making good choices. I was in control of things. But, then I got to college. I had trouble with school, with relationships, with running, with money. I felt like I was being sucked into a depression vortex and that the whole world was a bully, sticking it’s giant leg out to trip me every chance it got. I was twenty years old and spinning wildly out of control. When I became depressed or stressed, I wouldn’t eat. When I was busy scrambling to get a paper written, I wouldn’t eat. When I was rushing from practice to one of three jobs then back again to class, I wouldn’t eat. I started playing with my food. I discovered hunger and I liked it.
Being hungry seems like an odd sensation to like, but I loved it. The gnawing at my insides, the queasiness, and dizziness were almost like a drug. I stopped eating to be hungry. But I didn’t view it as an eating disorder. I was doing it on purpose, contentiously not eating. And I wasn’t concerned about my weight since I didn’t have a scale in the dorms. I didn’t care what I looked like — I looked fine. What I cared about was the control. I got to control the way I felt, and I got to control the hunger. I would go to the dining hall and eat a meal for breakfast, then take a couple of bagels with me. And then I wouldn’t go back. As the day went on I would get hungry and think about those bagels with peanut butter or cream cheese in my backpack, but I wouldn’t eat them. I’d carry them all day, wanting them, but not eating them. I’d think about how they’d smell and taste, how’d they feel in my mouth, and then force myself to not imagine them at all. I grew giddy at the thought of power — I could eat them and end the hunger or I could continue on, building an even greater hunger. I would set them on my desk while doing homework to stare back at me; to scream back silently at my growling stomach and not eat them. I’d be dizzy, fatigued, and nauseously hungry by the time I went to bed. Some nights I’d eat the bagels, but most nights I just threw them away.
I viewed it as a mind trick, training my body and mind to be stronger. It was all about will-power! I eventually grew used to the hunger, grew to look forward to it. To me this wasn’t an eating disorder because I wasn’t concerned about my body and I still very much liked food. In social settings I was fine with eating a meal. I was okay with people seeing me eat, going to restaurants, dinners with my family, that sort of thing. In fact I’d often boast about just how much food I could eat! I didn’t binge on anything and I never threw up. Besides, wasn’t anorexia something pretty popular girls got suckered into to stay pretty and popular? That wasn’t me. I was in control of it. It was a choice. It was a game.
Of course, I didn’t do well. I slowed way down and got injured repeatedly. I eventually quit the track team. I was so fatigued I’d often oversleep and either miss a class or the bus in to work. My grades suffered. I failed a class and had to retake it. I was moody and constantly fought with my boyfriend. I refused to admit I had a problem and I refused to blame the food, because it wasn’t about food. It was about a deep, dark, depression and a strong need to be in control of something. I couldn’t control so many other factors in my life, but this one thing I could.
I barely made it out of college alive. It took a lot of effort, but I made the Dean’s List several semesters before graduating. I had a relationship, a place to live, a car. I had a college degree and a job at a newspaper; I was now an adult. I was older, but not better. I didn’t outgrow my issues. So for almost two more years I kept it a secret. I never told anyone that I craved feeling hungry. If I told anyone they would say I had issues…and then I’d have to face them. Instead, I kept it a secret, coming up with excuses to skip meals, telling myself that I was in control.
As you can guess, I was not in control. It took meeting my (now) husband and getting pregnant to really accept that what I had been doing was really bad. I was 92 pounds. I was sick all the time and I had kidney problems. I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was a huge mess that was about to become a mom and I had to clean myself up. Most importantly, I had to relinquish control. I had to rely on my loved ones to help me out, and I had to trust that they would love me back. I had to start setting realistic goals for myself and allowing myself pride when I reached them. I look at my children now and I shudder at what I was…what I could have been. I fear that they will inherit my type A personality and suffer for it. I fear that they’ll somehow catch my mental illness. Even now my mind circles ’round food as a means of gathering my thoughts and reigning in control of my disjointed life. While I haven’t purposely withheld food in 8 years, I’ve certainly thought about it. I weigh myself often and write down my meals to remind myself to stay healthy. Focusing on things that spark joy and give me a sense of accomplishment have certainly helped. Marathons are my drug now. My kids are my cure. And I’m okay with admitting that I need help. I take Paxil. I can take charge without hurting myself.