Trigger warning: This post contains content relating to body image, obsessive exercise, and eating disorders
Here’s a typical conversation I have with myself on a daily bases:
Me: “I’m hungry… what time is it? Oh yay, it’s lunch time!”
Other Me: “Hold up there smart stuff. It’s physically impossible for you to eat lunch until you’ve walked down and then back up all 15 flights of stairs in the office building.”
M: “No… that doesn’t sound right. I mean, I’m pretty sure that my physical ability to eat isn’t hinging on how often I walk up and down stairs. Also, I already went running once today.”
OM: “Oh yeah? Prove me wrong. Sit down and eat your lunch without doing the stairs.”
M:”Fine! But I’m going to go run the stairs because I feel like it, not because I ‘can’t eat‘ until I do it.”
This conversation started happening on a regular bases by accident. A couple of weeks after starting my new job, the elevator that went up to our floor was out of service, so I took the stairs up 15 flights. After doing it once I was like, “Hey, that wasn’t so time consuming that I can’t just start taking the stairs all the time.” I decided it would be fun to challenge myself to take the stairs up at least once a day. I started realizing I might have developed a minor obsession when we had a long weekend and I decided to take the stairs multiple times the first day back to make up for the days I was out of the office. Five months after taking the stairs the first time, it’s grown into a full-on tick. I’m well familiar with these types of obsessive exercise habits and know I’m particularly prone towards developing them. For me, this is just part of life “post-eating disorder.”
I’m a pretty motivated runner and have been for the entirety of my adult life. Over the years, when discussing my love of running with friends who aren’t as enamored with it, I’ll often hear the statement: “I wish I was as motivated as you with running.” While I know they mean well with this statement, in my head I’m thinking: “No, no you don’t.” Not because I don’t think running is a good thing to enjoy, (it can be a great way to stay healthy and manage stress, and I think running is just overall fantastic) but because the drive that keeps me so motivated is often coming from that same voice that tries to tell me I need to run up and down the office stairs every day. While I do genuinely enjoy how I feel while running and find running to be the best way to manage stress, those aren’t the aspects of running that keep me hitting the pavement day after day. My motivation to run has always been and probably always will be tangled up with my issues surrounding my body image and food, and that is something that can be difficult (to explain to people who haven’t experienced these type of body issues and to balance while staying health).
Young Gretchen around the age she started thinking she was “big” despite being a totally healthy size.
Let’s unpack that statement for a minute, starting with the first part: My motivation with running has always been tangled up with my body image issues and food. The first time I put on a pair of running shoes and the Old Navy pajama shorts I use to run in, it wasn’t so I could go clear my head from studying or because I was thinking of signing up for that charity 5K. I’d been battling depression (before I fully understood or recognized the signs), was experiencing another flare up with my body dysmorphia (something I’d been battling to some degree since puberty but also didn’t fully understand yet), and I felt a sudden need to physically run away from a growing feeling of panic I was experiencing anytime I got dressed. My life would never be the same. Anxiety about my body has been my normal statues since I was a little kid and I had a sudden realization one day that I was bigger than my best friend (not bigger as in chunky, but just physically bigger—I was taller and just a little older and proportionally larger). Though I felt uncomfortable about this, it didn’t start to actually manifest into much until junior high, when the combination of an already hyperawareness of my size with a changing body type and bullying started to fog my perception of what I actually looked like. As an adult looking back, I won’t say the bullying was a direct cause, but it certainly was a contributing factor to being unhappy with my overall situation. By the time I was 19, I discovered that running was the absolute best weapon I had for shutting up the mean girl voice that developed inside my head, whose sole purpose seemed to be making me feel ugly. Running helped calmed the anxiety. I was hooked. I started running more often, and then for longer distances, and then before long a daily run was just my norm. Me on autopilot.
I waver between being an enthusiastic runner or an obsessive runner a lot, with these swings being directly connected to how much stress I’m experiencing or flare ups with my body image issues. This leads me to the reason I put “post-eating disorder” in quotes and the second part of my statement: My motivation with running will always be tangled up with my body image issues and food. I am post-eating disorder in the since that I am keeping my exercise within a healthy limit, I eat three meals most every day, I am no longer in treatment, and my therapist has decided I reached a place in life where I can decided when I do or do not need to come in (I’ve been in this “post” status for many years now). I use the designation of “post” because it makes the people around me feel better about it. But anyone who is familiar with body dysmorphia and eating issues can tell you that it’s not something that truly *poof* goes away. It’s always there, sometimes quietly, sometime feeling very loud. Post-eating disorder life is not one where you eliminate issues, but one in which you learn to deal with your issues better and develop a healthier relationship with food and your body (comparatively to what it was before). I’m still actually fairly restrictive /limited with my eating compared to all my friends. I’m still using food and exercise as a way to feel in control of my life. For example, I’ll joke that I only eat one hamburger a year, but it’s not really a joke (all other burger consumption in the calendar year must be a veggie patty and somehow that rigidness allows me to feel okay about completely unconnected things going on in my life). I keep my weird eating rigidity mostly to myself because when you discuss such things with people who aren’t familiar with eating disorders, they tend to stop believing you’re actually OK and “post disorder”. It can be a difficult thing to relate to. But I know with confidence, partially because I’ve discussed it with my therapist, that despite all the my relationship with food is “health.”
The same with exercise. Yes, my relationship with sport will be forever a little complicated. I’m prone to developing obsessive fitness-related ticks like walking up 15 flights of stairs before allowing myself to eat lunch and the severity of my body image issues are directly linked to how often I run (things don’t go so well if I take more than two days off at a time). I don’t expect those things to go away but I also don’t think it’s a matter of great concern (while this post is dealing with my relationship with sport post-eating disorder, in the future I’ll expand on what it was like when I was at my worse). I’ve learned to recognize the difference between mildly concerning exercise behavior and most certainly concerning habits. And while there are plenty of times I wish my motivation was coming out of a pure place of love for the sport, my complicated motivation doesn’t prevent me from honestly loving running (or dance, or boxing, or yoga), nor any of the other health benefits from running—cardio fitness and stress management.