I live along the LA Marathon route and love running. When family members and friends asked if I’d considered running the marathon, I told them sure, I’d thought about it, but didn’t think I had the time to train.
That wasn’t the whole truth. I was nervous that setting a fitness goal as ambitious as a marathon would trigger my old eating disorder.
From ages sixteen through twenty-two, I struggled with anorexia, compulsive over-exercising, and bulimia, roughly in that order. This was such a big part of my life that when someone mentions college, my mind immediately flashes to images of disordered eating: microwaving a giant bowl of sweet potatoes and ketchup for dinner in my lonely apartment, eating three pieces of cake at a graduation party and desperately searching for a place on campus where I could purge, lacing up my running shoes not because I wanted to but because my brain told me I had to.
My preoccupation with food and exercise were so all-consuming that I feel like my other memories from these six years are gray, faded. I was too busy with my compulsions to pay attention to the rest of my life.
As you can imagine, this sucked. I have no words to describe the suckiness. Have you seen that commercial for anti-anxiety medication where the woman is followed around by a little black cloud?
It was like that, except I was inside the cloud.
Books and movies portray eating disorders as all about control—striving for it, maintaining it, losing it, a cycle of willpower and excess. Yes, that’s true, but to me, the struggle for control wasn’t the worst part of eating disorders. It’s the time I lost. They took up so much time and energy. You’re never away from them: it’s like a parasite takes over your brain and convinces you that it is you and this life is normal.
When I opened up about my problems with bulimia and over-exercising to my then-boyfriend (now husband), he said, very matter-of-factly, “You should never do that again.” And he helped me find a remarkable therapist, and supported me while I essentially sobered up from my disordered eating.
First came the recovery period, where I was as into being in recovery as I’d been involved in the disorder itself. I contemplated getting a recovery tattoo. I read lots of books about eating disorders, recovery, etc. I started writing a book about it.
And then… I sort of forgot about it.
I’d started developing a palate again and discovered I hated foods I’d regularly eaten because they were on my ‘safe’ list (red onions are disgusting, FYI). That led to interest in cooking, and soon my kitchen was filled with things like coconut milk, flavored oil, dark chocolate with cayenne, and basically every kind of sauce, oil, vinegar, and spice I could get my hands on. I thought about food when I was cooking and eating it, and thought about lots of other things during the rest of my day.
Meanwhile, I came back to running and re-discovered the joy of running fast, the moments when I felt like I was inside a video game, hurtling through pathways and over obstacles. I did yoga and hiked and took spinning class with my best friend. Or I skipped the gym and slept in instead.
I was free. It was awesome.
I stopped talking or thinking about eating disorders because they’re boring and I had other stuff going on. When old friends asked if I was still doing okay, it felt like such an irrelevant question—like someone asking if I was still sad about a high school breakup. I was no longer in recovery. I had too much else to do.
As a sidenote—especially for anyone reading this who has disordered eating issues—I weigh less now than when I was restricting, binging & over-exercising. I treat my body with respect, and that means when it wants chocolate (which is every night, by the way), it gets some fucking chocolate.
I’m not tempted to binge, because I know that I can have anything I want without guilt, at any time. When I’m hungry, I eat. I eat the food that sounds good to me at the moment, so I’m satisfied and happy. Then I move on with my life and can think about other things.
This post-recovery me was still scared my disordered eating would return. It was like the killer in a horror franchise. Is it dead? Or is it waiting for me to trigger some switch, say some combination of words that’ll bring the monster back from the netherworld, throw me back into the cloud?
And that is why I’ve been scared to train for and run the LA Marathon.
Running a marathon is a big commitment. You need to follow a training program, eat in a specific way, push yourself physically. When I made the decision to run the 2014 marathon and started training, I was all too aware of the similarities between training and my past disordered eating. I was writing numbers on a calendar (but miles, not calories), working out nearly every day, and paying more attention to nutrition, although my changes were mostly about increasing complex carbohydrates so I could power through long-mileage runs.
How would a recovering alcoholic feel if they needed to re-enact their ritual of coming home, putting ice in a glass, pouring liquid in the glass and sitting in a specific armchair to drink it? Doesn’t matter if it’s iced tea—would the pattern alone cause a relapse?
Even as I felt myself getting stronger and more confident in myself as a runner, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering if the monster was waiting, about to attack. Do you really need to eat that chocolate? It might say. You’re running so much. Think of the weight you could lose if you just… cut… a few… calories…
But the monster never arrived.
Last Saturday, I did the longest training run of my beginner marathon program. It didn’t go smoothly.
I was supposed to do 20 miles, but my MapMyRun app lead me into a gated Beverly Hills community, from which I was promptly ejected by security. I had to backtrack about two miles, and then ran up Coldwater Canyon to reconnect to the route I’d carefully planned.
When I looked back at MapMyRun, I realized sticking with the route at this point would result in a thirty mile run—way too much for a beginner. Around this time I realized I’d forgotten to wear my FitBit tracker and hadn’t brought money to buy a second Gatorade when mine ran out. My run was not working out the way it was supposed to. For a moment, I felt frustrated. I felt out-of-control.
And suddenly, as I crested Mulholland and looked down at the city sparkling below me, everything made sense.
This run was supposed to remind me to let go.
So I did. I coasted down through Coldwater Canyon park, filling my bottle at a water fountain along the trail. I enjoyed the adventure of running through unfamiliar neighborhoods and discovering new parts of the city – my favorite part of my marathon training. And as I wound my way back toward my apartment and realized I would come in right around 22 miles, I felt strong, happy, and calm.
The monster was not running behind me, or hanging out somewhere in the back of my brain, ready to pounce.
The monster is dead.
I’ll run my first marathon on March 9 and am hopeful that I’ll be able to finish. For me, running is meditative, and the long hours I’ve put into my training have given me a lot of time to reflect and dream. Although the six years I spent in the fog of disordered eating certainly influenced the person I’ve become, it no longer defines me.
I’m a wife, an arts manager, and a runner who likes to cook.
I am not “in recovery” from an eating disorder.
I just don’t have time for that.
I wrote this blog post to contribute to the Purple Project: Eating Disorder Awareness Month. You can learn more about the project, eating disorders and recovery at Where I Stand.