Where Do Compulsive Exercise and Disordered Eating Lead?
The sky is an opaque blue. Twenty-somethings roll along peacefully in the skate-park behind me. My sister and I are chewing apples on a log watching the waves that look sparkly and inviting; ripe for mermaid inhabitation.
If you took a snapshot of the surroundings, they could pass for some tropical coastline. Alas, this staycation remains firmly moored in the sunny waters of West Vancouver.
My sister finishes her apple and gleefully runs down the sand, hurling her core into the ocean. I remain fixed to my spot, tensely watching her, considering my options. I could follow suit with my apple core and hurl it into the aqua abyss or stay put, tuck the finished fruit into my coat pocket and benignly toss it in a bush walking back to the car.
Whether the apple core should go into the ocean or a bush may seem like a trivial issue to some but, when my sister comes running up the beach and my first thought is, “That would be a great bit of cardio,” I know the stakes are much higher.
Once you’ve walked down the compulsive exercise eating disorder road, and hiked up “Recovery Trail” your relationship with exercise and eating will never be the same. And I’m not just talking about CrossFit type exercise or fad diet type eating either. I’m talking about everything. Taking the stairs versus taking the escalator. Taking two cookies instead of one. Each of these decisions means diddly squat to most but they could mean the difference between slipping into relapse and staying with recovery for someone else. It all boils down to the inner workings of the individual.
Some behaviors are clearly disordered. Actions like binging, purging, not eating for days on end, exercising despite doctors’ warnings all fall in that category. Other seemingly innocent activities can be just as disordered, they simply aren’t picked up by the untrained eye.
There was a point in my eating disorder where I was vehemently opposed to creamed soup. If the liquid was opaque, or possibly contained cheese, I would not go near it. So, I would shuffle through the University cafeteria, lifting up metal lids till I found a soup that looked like it contained an adequate amount of water and slowly consume that till the pang of the void in my stomach was a little less palpable.
Engaging in my soup-specific behavior was like punching my recovery in the jugular. However, to your average lactose intolerant Joe or your soup du jour connoisseur Jane, choosing a watery broth over a creamy one wouldn’t have long-lasting impacts.
I would always stand on the bus. For anyone else this might be a way to stretch their legs after a day at the office, to make room for other people, perhaps to practice the little-known sport of bus surfing. Whatever. But for me, my perpetual upright position was like lifting the lid of Pandora’s box. I stood without exception; even if I was the only passenger, or my bones ached, the alternative of sitting was akin to sticking my fingers in an open flame. Think of the consequences! If I sat I’d have to make up for my momentary lapse into weakness by running up and down a set of stairs 10…11..12 times! If I sat once, I’d be more likely to sit again and have to endure additional punishment! It was unthinkable. Eventually, I took to making my way to the rear doors of the bus, and used the area to perform a “wall sit” exercise. Just to be safe.
How do you pick apart what’s right and what’s wrong? How do you tease through the layers of “it can’t hurt,” “other people do it,” and “just once more” before you get to an adequate answer to a difficult dilemma. How do I go about making my very own personal “right call”? Before choosing cheeseless soup becomes a major problem? Before every bus ride brings you closer to your terminus station?
It starts with identifying whether the behavior on trial has what I call an “obsessive energy” around it.
How I classify a behavior as “obsessive” depends on the amount of cognitive energy expended. If a simple decision to take the stairs feels more like critical chess move rather than something automatic like stretching, it gets to wear the shiny silver badge of “bad Idea.” If I’m taking the bus home and I catch myself visualizing, and agonizing over the hill I could walk up on the way, I refrain. If I’m considering ordering a salad and I feel as if I’m about to break out in a passionate mis-quotation of Shakespeare “to do or not to do?!” I close the scene and order a sandwich.
Of course, it wasn’t always so easy. I understood basic concepts of obsessive energy. I felt an intense anxiety, ruminated my days away, and suffered ceaselessly from cognitive commands. I had seen that following through with these impulses didn’t stop them but instead caused them to undergo mitosis. More stairs needed to be walked up, fewer carbs needed to be eaten. Or the obsessive energy would find its way into behaviors that used to be completely harmless. Suddenly mundane tasks like doing laundry, taking out the trash, walking to class all become charged with rigid, dictatorial overtones, making my world more dysphoric and unpleasant.
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Despite understanding the principles, putting them into practice was impossible without support. I think of mental illness as a gradual eclipse of the sun. When my eating disorder was just creeping in I could peek out behind it and marvel at its absurdity; but in the darkest parts of my disorder, my own self was completely eclipsed. I could not ask for help when I was being smothered by a force so powerful I was nearing total darkness. In times like this I needed to trust the people who still believed in the sun.
My recovery was tricky, because it began when I was 18; on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood. My parents attempted to nurture me back to health via Family Based Treatment, the go-to method for treating teenagers. It was a crucial start but any progress was short-lived. I had bought into the idea that my family was responsible for saving me from myself.
I remember doing burpees down in the basement. A “burpee” is a cardio move guaranteed to induce moans when announced aloud in a room full of fitness fanatics. You start in a push up position, then stand up and jump, swinging your arms in the air. You then land on your feet and hop into a push up position again. The push up its self is optional, so for me that meant I had to do it. On that particular night, my mind had been screaming at me for hours to find somewhere hidden, and complete this cursed rite of burpees. Sullenly, I made my way down the steps. I stood on the carpet and started at the swirling polyester design, mouth hanging open. Then I began. I was down there for over an hour. The rules in my mind were simple, keep doing burpees until you’re called for dinner. While I was jumping up and down, sweat hitting the tassels, I kept waiting for someone to hear me and end it early; for my sister or brother to walk down the stairs and exclaim: “Emily—what are you doing?” But no one ever came. I was in misery, demonstrating to myself how alone I was in this challenge.
A few weeks later, I was admitted to an inpatient program in a hospital. My mum walked me in. The nurse was explaining how some patients come here to get better and how some just come for a while, then return to their own habits. My mum turned and asked me: “Which one are you?” I proudly responded: “I don’t have to tell you. That’s for me to know.” That night, in my hospital bed, I abided by ward rules and stopped exercising, cold turkey. I still needed help to recover. I just needed the right help. By separating myself from my people who were emotionally clinging to my recovery and turning to the ones who had a comfortable distance, I was declaring my independence and putting the onus of recovery on myself, with dedicated professional support.
When I was beginning my recovery journey the process of reversing my obsessive choices was excruciating. Though I quit the burpees and more obvious forms of exercise, subtler forms disordered behaviors began creeping in around the edges. I took walks that were questionably long and suspiciously timed. I exclusively snacked on vegetables to satisfy myself between meals. I defaulted on green tea at the coffee shop and stood up to work when I’d rather have sat. Each day I faced a maze of micro-choices. For each action, I had to practice identifying it as obsessive by monitoring my thoughts and feelings:
“Should I do it? I need to do it at least once today. Will I even have the chance to do it? If I don’t do it will I regret it?” I felt like I must do the obsessive activity, and therefore wanted to even though, deep down, I’d rather not.
Then I had to summon my strength and do something else.
Additional challenges arose from my obsessive abstinence. If I was strong enough to withhold from doing five spontaneous jumping jacks in the bathroom, I felt pressure to add more to the next impulse that came along.
With each safe decision I made, I was able to shake the obsessive energy from my life.
When I was in the early stages of my eating disorder recovery, a lot more behaviors fell into the obsessive category then they do now. Things like getting out of the car to stretch or fidgeting in my chair were mandatory in my mind. Now, I can do them if I choose, or not without it affecting my mental health either way. And when I feel the occasional crest of a compulsion rushing up my shoulders, I’m able to brush it off, no problem, with no self-imposed penalty.
It wasn’t easy, but it got easier. When I was ready to throw caution to the wind, tie my shoes and go out for a jog, I paused and called for help.
When I crumbled and did go for a jog, I confessed to the nearest support person near me and tried again.
I built strength gradually and steadily, looking forward to the day when I could step outside with no fear in my heart and I found, the more I erred on the side of caution, the more I sat through the discomfort and emerged victorious, the sooner that day came.
That day, on the beach with my sister, I stayed put on the log. My sister returned, we got up, walked on and I threw my apple core in a bush. I don’t regret a thing.