Eating disorders are relatively common and disordered eating and distorted relationship with food and weight, even more so. It can especially be a problem among athletes and those in the fitness industry. Runner's World recently published an article highlighting the issue. You often hear stores of warning that end in tragedy. On occasion you may hear a story of hope: someone who has beat the eating disorder. But rarely do you hear a story of how someone not only beat an eating disorder but now lives a balanced and healthy life despite their past. That's the story I want to share. But before I share that story, you need to hear about the struggle:
I was originally diagnosed with anorexia in 2001 at age 18, but I'd been restricting my caloric since age 14. Though I had been made fun of in middle school for being overweight, at the heart of my insecurity was the feeling that I wasn't good enough. I thought by losing weight and becoming "the thin girl" I'd somehow gain the acceptance that would finally make me "good enough." Anorexia landed me in the hospital and then in intensive outpatient care. It was during my recovery from anorexia, when I finally gave myself permission to eat that I began to purge. I couldn't starve myself: people would notice, but behind a closed door I could rid myself of what I ate.
|June 2001 on my 19th birthday.|
I used every means possible to purge: throwing up, laxatives and excessive exercise. Running, which had once been something that I enjoyed for the freedom and peace it brought me, became an obligation, a way to eliminate excess calories. I was held captive by the fear of gaining weight, but I couldn't control the compulsion to binge. It ruled my life. It wasn't until I recognized this fear as a lie and realized that the lie was driving an addiction, that I was able to begin recovery.
I've been completely free from bulimia for a little over three years now. And the story that I am more interested in sharing isn't the battle itself, it is life after the battle. Because although I AM free, freedom doesn’t mean perfection. I am still conscious of my weight and what I eat, and lies about my worth still creep into my mind. Freedom doesn’t erase all the root causes of my addiction, but it does mean they no longer have a hold on me. The story I'm interested in telling is how I deal with those root causes on daily basis when they rear their ugly head and how I find balance and live a healthy life despite my past.
Achieving Balance with Food:
- Recognize that there is no “bad” food. I had to stop making lists in my head of food that was “good” and that I was allowed to have and food that was “bad” and that I wasn’t allowed to have. I started to give myself permission to eat things I previously had labeled “bad” like all fat (nuts, avocado, oils, butter etc.), pizza, ice cream, brownies and fried foods. Giving myself permission meant that I gradually incorporated these foods into my diet, not every meal, but on occasion; knowing that my goal was to find balance.
- Learn to eat intuitively. Giving myself the freedom and permission to eat all foods was the first step in learning to eat intuitively: meaning that I would eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full. It took a while for me to learn my own body’s cues. But with time I began to follow what it was telling me. I began to fuel it properly. There were (and still are) occasions where I overeat. It was important for me to recognize that these are normal and not let guilt force me to “punish” myself for overeating: meaning I wouldn’t let myself feel like I had to exercise to burn off the excess calories. Another way I eat intuitively is that I honor my cravings, maybe not every single time, but if I want a certain food I eat it. I’ve found that satisfying cravings prevents the impulse to binge later on.
- Stop recording my food. When I was in the thick of of my struggle with anorexia and bulimia I obsessively recorded my food in a little notebook. I kept track of every calorie. I knew if I wanted to find balance I had to stop. So I did. I know that many people use food tracking apps or write down what they eat and for some this is an important tool that Registered Dietitians often prescribe to clients. Even though it can be a tool it is NOT part of intuitive eating and its important to recognize when it stops being a tool and starts becoming a distracting obsession.
- Have specific goals. Even though I gave myself freedom to eat what I wanted I knew there would be occasions where I would want to lose weight. Specifically after giving birth to my daughter. This was the most difficult area to find balance, because to some degree I felt like even the desire to lose weight might force me down the slippery slope back into bulimia. I was scared. But I knew that it was another area where balance was necessary. During pregnancy you gain a significant amount of weight, necessary for a healthy child and birth, yet it is unhealthy to keep that weight after your child is born. After a period of several months of adjusting to life with a newborn I started to make an effort to lose the baby weight. I had a specific, reasonable goal (one that wasn’t oriented around fear) and started to work towards it. I added structure to my diet (though it was not rigid) and started to incorporate exercise into my daily routine. And because I was not longer engaged in a vicious binge/purge cycle, the weight came off much more easily than I expected. There was no need for extremes, because my body was naturally finding a new balance. Last year, when I was running and racing competitively my diet also had more structure. I new that if I wanted to preform well I needed to cut out some of the less beneficial foods (pizza, chips etc) and focus on eating foods that would optimally fuel my body (lean meats, complex carbohydrates etc.). Again, I had a specific goal, added structure but stayed away from rigidity and extremes.
- Check your motives. If exercise, specifically running, was going to be a part of my life after bulimia, I had to get back to my original motives. Fear of becoming fat, fear of what other people thought of me and obsession with my weight and appearance had become the primary drivers of my activity. It sucked the fun out of running and made it an obligation, rather than an enjoyable activity like it had once been. So I had to get back to that original motivation: loving running for the freedom I felt, for the possibility of achieving great things and for the realization that out on the road I felt good enough–I didn’t have to strive to prove anything I could just be me. I say that I run for the road ahead, the unknown and the possibility of greatness. It sums up the feeling I get from running. I fell in love with running all over again after beating bulimia because it became something I did for love, not out of fear.
Big Lake Half Marathon in 2010. My first "big" race after beating bulimia.
- Determine what is extreme. This could be considered different for everyone. A marathon to some may seem extreme, but to others is something they do on a regular basis throughout the year. I love running and I love the learning process of training for and racing a marathon. I love the challenge of the distance and the uncertainty you face on race day, wondering how your training will pan out, whether or not you’ll be able to pace yourself properly and if you’ll have that extra kick at the end to finish sprinting. For me a marathon is not extreme. But it is important that I recognize cues from my body and rest when its telling me I need rest. Almost like intuitive eating I have to run intuitively.
- Find a place for it.Training for marathons takes time. Lots of time. It is important to find balance with family, work, friends and other responsibilities. I don’t want to become obsessed with running, I know I have the personality of an addict, I could easily replace one addiction with another. It is important that I have perspective. It is important that I structure my life so that my running serves me instead of me serving my running. When my running serves me it is enjoyable, it is a stress relief, it is the alone time that I need to re-charge. When I serve my running, it takes over my thinking, it feels more like an obligation and it takes me away from my family. One of the ways I create balance is by running early in the morning before my husband and daughter are awake (although that is becoming more of a challenge) or if my husband is home I run during my daughter’s nap time. And if I need to take a day off because it gets in the way of family, then I do it.
Goofing around with my husband, Mark and daughter, Sophia. Summer 2011.
- Have a specific goal. To achieve balance with my running I set specific goals that allow me to cycle through periods of intense training and rest periods. That way I give my body the break that it needs and don’t let running take over my life. Yes I am a runner, but that is not the only thing that I am and it certainly is not the most important thing that I am. So I set specific goals, such as a spring marathon and early fall marathon and then spend the late fall and early winter resting before the next training cycle begins. If I have a specific goal, work towards it, have the opportunity to achieve it then I’m less likely to get caught up in letting fear and obsession drive my motivation to run.
For each step forward there were a few steps back. I constantly remind myself that I am looking for balance and not perfection, it is the key to giving myself permission to make mistakes along the way. Balance is all about living deliberately: deciding what you value and what adds value to your life and eliminating the things that don’t.
How do you find balance in your daily life? What tips can you offer to others? Are there areas where you struggle to find balance?
Sarah Canney is a former high school English teacher turned blogger and freelance writer. When she's not pushing her daughter in a stroller she's racing and has run six marathons, countless 5K's, 10Ks and "whole bunch" of Half Marathons. She and her husband live in New Hampshire and have a two-and-a-half year old daughter and are expecting a baby boy in September.
Follow her on her blog at www.RunFarGirl.com and on Twitter @SarahCanney.
Thanks again Sarah for sharing your inspiring story.
Love and growth,
Carissa & Kyle