This post was originally featured on Amelia’s blog Race Ipsa Loquitur here.
In March, after sustaining my fourth stress fracture in the past three years, I wrote that it was time to take a step back and re-evaluate – to stop “fighting the water.” I’ve fought like hell these past few years to try and keep myself healthy and running like I love to do. And while I was tired of fighting for many reasons, internally I knew I had one big fight left in me. Because there was one thing that I hadn’t tackled head on in a very long time: my eating disorder.
I’m not dense: I’ve known for a long time that I’m the living, walking example of RED-S (also known as “the female athlete triad.”) I’ve known that probably a huge reason that my bones keep breaking is because I have a 20-year history with anorexia. But I wanted to be that person that could right the ship on my own. I’d been in and out of treatment so many times in my life, I wasn’t ready to admit that, in my mid-30’s, I was STILL battling it. There’s an awful sense of shame in feeling helpless to fix things when you pride yourself on being self-sufficient and able to do hard things. There’s a paralysis that comes with the cognitive dissonance of KNOWING what you need to do, but continually falling short of that.
But the hardest things to fix are the things that we don’t want to admit to ourselves. And I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t do it on my own.
So in April, I took a leave of absence from work and headed to Seattle, where I’ve spent the last three months at Opal Food & Body Wisdom, an eating disorder treatment facility.
I resisted more intensive treatment for so long because this isn’t my first rodeo – I was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 16. It started with a month-long hospitalization over Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1999 and spanned the rest of high school and college, with stints in various levels of treatment including a stay in a residential facility immediately post-college.
As a result of being in and out of treatment and being very visibly physically ill, I spent the vast majority of my youth as “the sick girl.” It’s a chapter in my life I haven’t talked about publicly, because it was an identity I was eager to shed. After my stay in residential treatment post-college, the disorder seemed to quiet. Finding myself in a solid state of recovery, I promised myself I’d move on. So I stopped talking about it. I went to law school, became an attorney, and buried the disorder in my past.
When I started racing and gaining attention for my athletic accomplishments, I didn’t talk about it during interviews. I didn’t mention it during my rise to dominance in obstacle racing. I didn’t tell interviewers who asked me about my athletic background that the reason I didn’t play sports in college was because I was too sick and weak to even walk up stairs, let alone play sports. I didn’t mention that my friends and family spent those years worried if I’d wake up in the morning. I didn’t want to “dwell in the past,” I told myself. In my mind, it was a chapter of my life that had passed, and one that maaaaaaybe I would speak about when the time was “right,” but I could never figure out when that would be. I was racing strong, running strong, feeling strong, and, in my mind, I no longer identified with the disorder.
The reality is while I no longer defined my world around my eating disorder identity, for all of those years, I hadn’t let go of it fully. I hung on to disordered thoughts and eating habits. The only difference now was that I had sport to fixate on instead. And I was at the top of the obstacle racing world. I was a “normal” BMI, I was muscular, and I was winning every race, so it was easy to minimize my disordered relationship with food. It was easy to compartmentalize the thoughts and say “hush, I’ll deal with you later,” or to think that there actually wasn’t a problem because I was performing so well. It was ok to have a different diet or eating patterns because “I was an athlete.” It was ok to compare my body to other female athletes on the start line and to covet their abs, because that’s just “what women do.” It was acceptable to dehydrate myself and starve myself before cover shoots was part of the gig. As long as I was competing and winning, “just managing” with food didn’t seem like that big of deal. I was getting away with it. So clearly, there was no problem.
Until there was.
While I had been able to fool myself, the body doesn’t forget so easily. It doesn’t forget the years of starvation and malnourishment. It doesn’t forget the magnitude of damage done to your growing bones: damage so bad, that I was diagnosed with osteopenia at age 16.
I was a ticking time bomb, which exploded with my first stress fracture (the case of the femurs!) in 2016. At the time I could write off one stress fracture as a fluke – it happens to all athletes. But the string of bone stress injuries that ensued are not so easy to write off.
Look – I’m not dumb. As I threw my hands in the air and proclaimed “I’m doing everything right” to avoid injury, I struggled with the growing internal self-flagellation for knowing that I wasn’t doing EVERYTHING I could. I could do all the PT exercises, I could do the slow return to run progression, I could take supplements, I could spend thousands of dollars on all the fancy recovery tools, but I knew one thing deep in my heart: there is no substitute for plentiful food and nourishment in order to prevent injuries.
Logically, I knew all of this, but MAKING myself do it proved much harder. I spent the past year telling myself I’d make changes. I told myself that I’d rather be in a much larger body and competing healthy, than in a smaller body and be broken standing on the sidelines. That “looking the part” of an athlete doesn’t mean shit if you are too injured to even get to the start line. I knew these things. And at times, I thought I was succeeding in changing things.
But with the fourth stress fracture two weeks before Barkley this year, I hit bottom. With sport taken from me, I looked around at all the things that had propped up my “management” of the eating disorder, and realized my disorder was all I had left.
I had spent the past 20 years starving. Literally: not just physically, but emotionally. I was tired of fighting, and so fucking tired of being hungry.
When I called up my parents to tell them I was checking into treatment, I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions that came with this decision, this time with the motivation coming solely from myself. I’ve been able to do some REALLLY hard things in my life, so I felt a sense of shame that I couldn’t fix this on my own. I felt guilty for taking a leave of absence from work and forcing my co-workers to shoulder my workload. I felt guilty for telling my sponsors I was disappearing from racing and competing for awhile. I questioned whether I actually needed treatment given that (a) EVERYONE seems to have a fucked-up relationship with their food and body, and (b) I’d been “managing it” for so long.
The truth is that I’ve been “managing” a delusion: I’ve EXCELLED at white-knuckling my way through the world of eating disorders, and I probably could have done so for the rest of my life. But it would have been a miserable, hollow, existence. More than just sport, the disorder had taken a toll on every aspect of my life: my relationships, my ability to connect, and hell – even my ability to feel my feelings. I had a sense that there was more that could be had from life, and I needed to take a leap of faith to do it – one that required stepping out of my life for the short term in order to re-engage in it fully in the long term.
I went into treatment thinking that my main goal was to re-learn how to feed and nourish myself in order stem the constant bone injuries. While that was an important part, for sure, what I learned was that I really needed to give space to EVERYTHING ELSE other than the food. Engaging in the disorder had enabled me to tunnel vision my life to avoid dealing with other things that were bigger and scarier: fears over the loss of sport, the loss of relevancy, grief over past relationships, the need and want for connection to others but going about it in ways would never satisfy that need…the list goes on.
Sometimes what you get isn’t always what you thought you needed. And at Opal, I started learned everything beyond just how to feed myself. I learned how to re-establish trust with my hunger after 20 years of ignoring it, and how to re-establish trust with my body after 20 years of mistrusting it. I learned that I can connect to others without the veneer of accomplishments, achievements or admiration. I learned that it’s ok to want to compete and win as long as you have others means to fill you up when that doesn’t happen. I learned that it’s ok to be sad and grieve when I can’t engage in my sport how I’d like to, but that I can survive and thrive without it. And most importantly, I learned that it’s ok (and wonderful!) to feel my feelings.
While this post is about eating disorders, it’s also really not – it’s really about learning to live again. Because, as cliché as the saying is, eating disorders are never really about the food. But considering I have suffered from an eating disorder for over half of my life and considering I’m letting this out in the public now, I figured I might as well talk about a few things eating disorder-related that you will likely hear me speak and write about going forward:
There is no stereotypical eating disorder
I’m pausing to address this, because I know I know what you are all thinking: “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE POP-TARTS?” Shockingly, yes, even in the depths of my disorder, I ate the Pop-Tarts. And still do. My eating disorder doesn’t look like what many people would typically think of for a competitive athlete. As opposed to elimination of foods, my issues have always been eating “appropriate” amounts. I’ve been PETRIFIED of the feeling of fullness, and I couldn’t sit down to a full meal. I’ve spent the past twenty years of my life in a constant state of physical hunger and a constant mistrust of my body, which is an exhausting place to be (Note: this is particularly compounded by diet and wellness culture that has taught us to NOT trust our hunger cues, and to do whatever we can to not listen to them. Since when did having an appetite become a bad thing??)
Eating disorders come in all sizes, and health comes in all sizes
At Opal, I was surrounded by amazing people of all shapes and sizes, all struggling with disordered relationships with food. I connected with fellow clients who had similar restrictive behaviors as myself, but whose bodies looked entirely different. Opal follows the principles of “Health at Every Size” and intuitive eating (caveat: not early in one’s recovery, but as the ultimate goal). I’ll admit that I initially resisted both concepts, but over my time there, I learned to confront my own internalized oppression and judgments around food, weight, and body size. I finally understood that body size is not as simple as the “calories in, calories out” model diet culture has told us our entire lives. Someone isn’t in a larger body because they “lack willpower” or they are lazy. Fatness is not a simple “choice.” Fat shaming and fat phobia are real. Weight stigma and thin privilege (which I have, and benefit from) are real. I’ve become passionate about fighting weight stigma and speaking out about thin privilege and fat phobia because, regardless of what size of body you are in in, it hurts us all (I’m briefly touching on these here, but these concepts deserve a much more robust piece for a future date).
While I have faith I’ll get there, I’m not recovered
I want to believe in full recovery – in a life completely free of any eating disordered thoughts. There are many stories that tell me this is possible. I’m currently in the stage where I have the thoughts – I note the thoughts without judgment – but I don’t act on them. Oover time, the thoughts are getting quieter, but I know it’s not a quick fix. I’ve spent 20 years dealing with them – full recovery doesn’t happen in a few months. And while my time at Opal has ended, I’m well-aware that my journey has only just begun.
So why talk about this now? It’s a question I’ve asked myself, and one I’ve weighed heavily before writing about this. I could have easily stayed silent about what I’ve been doing the past few months. There’s value in protecting my recovery from the greater masses, as the peanut gallery can sometimes be exceptionally harsh.
But when I balance the factors, I’m confident this is stand I’m ready to take. For so long, I’ve prided myself on sharing my vulnerability in talking about injury and sport. But it’s been a selective vulnerability, and hiding my disorder has left me in a paralyzing state of cognitive dissonance, which has affected how I’ve been able to engage with the world. It’s led me to even feel MORE disconnected when I share selectively and don’t address the elephant that has been crowding my room for many years.
I’m aware that I’ve held judgments around the idea of “sharing my story.” I’m aware that phrase makes me cringe, as I’ve previously thought sharing could be construed as attention-seeking. And the last thing I’ve ever wanted was sympathy, or to proclaim that I’m somehow different. I’m not different: my story is ALL too common.
Thankfully, many brave women and men, both in and out of the athletic world, have stepped up to speak about their struggles (a special shout out to Hannah Fields, who unknowingly influenced me to seek treatment at Opal after she bravely spoke about her disorder last year). But the vast majority of these voices speak about their eating disorder struggles in the past – once they have “beaten it”, or once they have recovered.
No one likes to talk about it when they are face down in the arena.
While I’m not quite face down in the arena anymore, I am slowly picking myself up and dusting myself off. And I think it’s important that we have these conversations at all stages of the fight. Disorder and shame thrive in the darkness and silence, so I’m thrusting my disorder and shame into the light where it has no place left to hide.
I have a lot of unknowns going forwards: the unknown of where my body size is going to land when continue to nourish it well, the unknown of how people will relate to or receive this, and, the scariest thing to face – the unknown of whether I’ve damaged by body so badly from so many years of starvation that, even with proper nourishment, I may still not be able to stem the bone injuries. But, for the first time in many years, I feel wholly aligned: my head, my heart, and my soul. And that, to me, is freedom.
For those of you out there who have paved the path and gave me the hope and courage to tackle recovery again, thank you. For those of you out there currently struggling and wondering if there is more to life, I see you. I wondered the same thing. I believe it now. And I’m holding space for you.
So this is me: flawed, disordered, and dealing with a mental illness for the past 20 years. I’m not ashamed anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. And, most importantly, I’m not starving anymore.
Instead, I’m full of hope.