Trigger warning: This post contains a discussion of eating disorders, both my personal experience and a dialogue on the existence of eating disorders in the wider endurance community. In an effort to be 100% honest and transparent, and after much debate, I have decided to include details usually excluded from eating disorder discussion, including specific tactics I have used to manipulate my body and eating, and numbers (calories eaten, pounds lost, etc.). Please consider whether this post may be upsetting to you or others before reading or sharing.
Focused. Single-minded. Type-A. Obsessive.
Fixated on a goal. Determined to find and push limits.
I’ve been described in all of these ways. Pursuing athletic success is a natural course for such a mind. It’s an outlet for this intensity, a way to put it to work for me.
Such intensity, though often praised among high-achievers, can be just as destructive as it is constructive if not intentionally directed toward something healthy. Channeled in the wrong way, focus, fixation, and obsession can lead to devastation.
That’s what happened with me and my eating disorder.
Writing this post took longer than usual. The writing process began last fall when a friend sent me this article by Outside Magazine about the link between endurance sports and eating disorders. It was not a new idea to me. Of the twenty years that I’ve identified as an endurance athlete, (I don’t think I knew what that meant before the age of five), eating disorders have been on my radar for ten of them. My personal experience and the struggles I witnessed in my family members, friends and teammates made disordered eating a regular, familiar part of my reality.
The friend who sent me the article (which I highly recommend) was one of my roommates the winter of 2016 when I worked at Alta Ski Resort. Those of you who have read about my Athletic Identity Crisis know that that winter was one of the toughest of my life. Terribly lonely, recently graduated, totally lost in an unfamiliar world, I fell back on an old tactic I had used in the past: when everything else feels out of control, control my eating. Restrict.
That winter was a perfect storm: my mental and external circumstances coincided to create a dangerous situation. Due to my food allergies, I found it hard to eat with my coworkers at the restaurant in the hotel where we worked. My job as a server kept me on my feet and active all morning and evening, and I spent my non-working hours skiing. The small kitchenette in our apartment was insufficient for preparing good food for myself, and I was living at the top of a canyon without a car, which meant trips to the grocery store were logistically challenging. In my four months at Alta, I lost 25 pounds through excessive exercise and restricting calories, making the episode the second-worst in my ten years of struggling with disordered eating.
Many who struggle with disordered eating have good phases and bad phases. As I learned while at Alta, my eating disorder surfaces when both internal and external circumstances put me at risk. Personally, I don’t know if I will ever truly be without my eating disorder. That’s one of the tragedies of the illness: though I may look healthy, act healthy, and even feel healthy, I’m not truly healthy. And a relapse, big or small, could be just around the corner.
The link between endurance sports and eating disorders is multifaceted. Certainly, the mental characteristics that make endurance athletes successful also lend themselves to rigid pursuit of caloric perfection. Additionally, weight management and body composition are important factors in performance, and weight can seem like an easy factor to control compared with the other rigors of high level athletics. Furthermore, an obsession with “healthy” eating looks normal from the outside. It can be easy for athletes to not recognize their own symptoms, especially if they avoid behaviors that fall clearly into the category of “Eating Disorder.”
That was my experience. I suffered for nearly four years before finally giving my condition a name. For three years I cycled annually between states of overeating and undereating, gaining and loosing five to ten pounds over the course of six months or so. I did it all through manipulating calorie intake, and I didn’t think too much of it, except when I experienced the periods of self-hatred as I gained weight.
The change came during my freshman year of college. I went to school a mere three pounds heavier than I wanted to be. I gained another ten over the course of the fall and winter. In the spring, I “made up for it,” losing 33 pounds in three months through restricting calories and exercising. I was elated. I passed out twice due to low blood pressure, suffered stabbing pains in my chest and arms, lost hair, and was constantly cold. When the weight loss tapered off, I blamed myself, doubling down on my efforts to restrict, to exercise more. When I remained unable to lose more weight, I began, in despair, to binge.
It was after one of these binges that, disgusted with myself, I slipped away from the ski team party out the back door into the rain and made myself throw up. Purging has been an irregular part of my life ever since.
But there was no denying it anymore. As much as I could persuade myself that “healthy eating” and “being lean” were key to my athletic success, sticking my finger down my throat behind the dumpster in the rain on Homecoming night was not part of my healthy athletic identity.
That episode lasted a total of 8 months, and I spent twice that long recovering from the physical effects, which included a period of weight gain followed by eventual stabilization. I put myself at risk for less noticeable dangers too: low bone-density, damage to my heart and other organs, disruption of normal hormone regulation, reduced fertility, and damage to my esophagus and teeth from repeated vomiting, not to mention the link between eating disorders and other mental health concerns, including depression (or in my case, cycles of mania and depression), obsessive/compulsive behavior, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide, to name a few. Disordered eating can also take many forms other than the restricting, over-exercising, and occasional binging I engage in. All that is to say what we already know: eating disorders are incredibly dangerous.
Tragically, disordered eating also impacted my love for and commitment to my sport. This is another very common side effect of eating disorders on athletes. At its essence, training and racing is body manipulation too, and much as we might judge ourselves as athletes for reaching or failing to reach training and performance goals, too often we end up judging ourselves by the same criteria when it comes to eating and body composition. The irony is that as we seek to strengthen ourselves and increase control over our bodies, we actually weaken ourselves physically and mentally.
Weight loss can be addictive. It’s not uncommon to experience unsustainable jumps in performance following a period of rapid weight loss (though I can promise you from repeated experience that these gains are temporary, and are followed by a collapse much more extreme than the benefit ever was). In my experience, when I begin restricting I go through a phase where I feel like I’m in total control of everything. It’s the best feeling in the world. But gradually it gives way to the realization that My Friend ED (short for eating disorder), as I’ve come to think of it, actually has control of every single aspect of my life. Nothing matters but the voice of ED, nothing makes me happy. Getting on the scale becomes the highlight of my day, but it doesn’t provide a sense of achievement. The best I can hope for standing naked and vulnerable on the scale is affirmation that I’m still doing the “right” thing; I’m still losing weight. At worst the scale provides evidence that I am an unworthy person, a failure.
As I discovered when I experienced my Athletic Identity Crisis, for many athletes, our sport can become our entire identity. ED can do the same. And when the two are intertwined, we stand to lose our health, our mental well-being, our sport, our identity, and everything that once brought us joy. If that sounds dramatic, good. It is. Disordered eating is a serious problem with dramatic and wide-reaching consequences. The voice of ED is sneaky and can begin to assert influence so subtly, and that makes it frightening; Only in looking back do I recognize my first symptoms of ED; I had no idea what was happening at the time, and therefor no way to help myself. But once in its clutches, an eating disorder is hard to escape from.
There’s no denying that this has been a heavier post than those I typically write. I want to paint a realistic picture of eating disorders and assure anyone struggling that you are not alone. I don’t want to make unrealistic promises or portray an optimism that I don’t always feel.
I do want to share my vision for managing my eating disorder going forward, and share a couple small things that might help others who are struggling or watching someone else struggle.
Firstly, “recovery” is not a linear process, nor does it fit one definition. Everyone must set their own meaning for recovery. For me, it means I can have a preference for my body composition and how my body looks without judging my self-worth based on it. This has been my recovery goal for years. I have periods where I feel and act on it, but I have times when it feels impossible. On the road to recovery, remember that if you take a few steps back you haven’t blown it. You can always start moving forward again.
Second, those of us susceptible to ED’s influence are likely extreme in other ways too. For athletes, “extreme” is part of what we do. I strongly believe that this is not a flaw. We can harness this energy, but only if we continually ask ourselves if we are channeling it in a healthy way.
Third, it’s important to recognize that our social surroundings may support or promote disordered eating. Sports teams can be serious breeding grounds for ED, as athletes normalize their eating behaviors, hide their struggles, and maintain their silence. One honest voice speaking up can break long-standing silence and suffering, so if you are on a team that struggles collectively with body image, weight manipulation, and disordered eating, consider speaking to someone in your community you trust about how to turn the trend around. You never know how many others you might be helping.
Lastly, if you are watching someone else struggle, be aware that everyone responds differently to offers of help. For some, it can be very triggering to have a well-meaning friend speak specifically about ED symptoms. For this reason, I recommend avoiding comments regarding someone’s weight or eating habits if possible. I personally respond best to concern expressed about my well-being in general, and offers to talk if I wish. Specific comments about my weight loss or lack of eating often motivate me to restrict further. This is an incredibly tough line to walk, especially because disordered eating is so dangerous. If someone you care about is in immediate danger, my best advice is to follow your gut. That may mean confronting them directly; it may mean enlisting the help of a professional. In the past, friends have expressed their concerns to my parents when they couldn’t get through to me. Just as eating disorders take many forms, so does help and support.
Today, June 2nd, is World Eating Disorder Awareness Day. In March, many of us also recognized National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Below I would like to re-share the Instagram post I shared that week: