Exercise. That is a tricky topic for me. I’d even say it’s a scary topic for me. I fooled people, including myself, into believing I was super ultra healthy and in shape. Exercise hurt my marriage, it made me an absent parent, it elevated my pride, it gave me reason to lie, it almost killed me. It became an addiction, an obsessive compulsion, a key element in appeasing ED and allowing him to maintain control.
Exercise was not always such a big part of my life. I started running the summer after my freshman year at Dordt with one of my friends. I ran for exercise, to keep off that freshman 15, for the social aspect. My very first “run”, I went from my house, a half mile to the railroad tracks, and then back to my house again. My legs felt like jelly, and I huffed and puffed keeping company with the ant moving the same speed next to me. But I got hooked. It was fun. Running was fun. Let me repeat that one more time.
Running was fun.
It was fun to see how far I could go – far being 3 miles, 4 miles, 45 minutes. That was a long run back then. My sophomore year in college five of us girls decided to see if we could make 6 miles. When we finished that run, I felt like I had stuck my flag in the moon. I was very proud of those six miles. Two months ago, ED would never have allowed me to only run six miles. That would have been a reason to feel guilty the rest of the day. The slippery slope of lies.
Exercise became my compulsion when ED flipped the “on” switch in me while living in Nicaragua. I mentioned way in the beginning that eating disorders are now thought to be genetic. Five percent of the population has the eating disorder gene, and when 5-10 pounds are lost, that gene kicks in and life is no longer “just for fun”. Whatever your ED becomes, that 5-10 pounds is enough to let him in the door to take over your life, waving his gun in your face to take you hostage. When I moved to Nicaragua, my running partner back home and I decided to train that year for a marathon the next summer when I came home. That, doubled with heightened awareness of the food I had to eat in Nicaragua, caused me to drop those 5, then 10, then 15 pounds. Click, ED turned on. Along with ED’s new control over food, exercise became my ED’s purge. I could eat as long as I had exercised. I could eat more if I exercised more. If I ate too much, I exercised more. And that definition of “more” kept increasing. I didn’t run with the other teachers that ran in the morning because they didn’t go far enough for me – the start of my isolation. Saturdays I called my “long run” days because training for a marathon gave me the excuse I needed to justify running for 2 hours. No one else was training for a marathon, so they didn’t know what “normal” training entailed except that I had to run far because a marathon is far.
I continued using that excuse for the next 15 years. And I think I believed my own excuse. People asked me what my training schedule was for my marathons, but I never had one. I didn’t have to “start” training 6 months before the marathon because I was always running far enough. A marathon was just a bump up from my normal mileage, but it was a great excuse for why I ran so much. Because not enough people know what it takes to train, no one could say I was training wrong. But step back to Nicaragua again. Soon that morning run wasn’t even enough. The other teachers, who didn’t have an ED dictating their actions, wanted to start doing an exercise video after school. I jumped all over that and realized that I could get an extra hour of calorie burning in each day. Even when the other teachers were too busy or too tired, I’d be the disciplined one doing that video religiously. I remember getting angry, truly angry, at my apartment roommate one afternoon because she was sick and lying on the couch watching TV when I came home from school so I couldn’t do the video. Me and Billie Blanks were tight by then, and I knew he’d chastise me from inside that VHS tape if I didn’t spend my hour with him that day. I was pissed because she was sick. I climbed from our balcony over to our friends’ balcony next door just so I could get into their locked apartment to use their TV. I broke into their place because ED wouldn’t shut up and I didn’t know not to listen.
This is the point where I have to explain exercise in my life at its worst. This is also where people look at me like I’ve got an alien head growing out of my ear. At the worst point in my ED, if such a time exists, if I ran less than 2 hours a day, I restricted my food because I hadn’t burned enough calories. Besides my 2 1/2 hours of running in the morning, I did at least an hour work out video in the afternoon. Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels became my friends after my VHS TaeBo tape finally wore out and died. Then I found the workout called Insanity and really learned how to step up my calorie burn. Every afternoon I set aside all activities until I had my workout in. When my boys were little I’d get them distracted with toys so I could do my video. I’d get super annoyed if they would start crying or if they needed my attention. My heart hurts when I realize how ED made me ignore and get annoyed by my own boys. What mother feels that way about her own children? I spent hours canvasing town with our purple triple stroller. If I had any errand to do, ED made me feel guilty for even considering driving when I had two good legs that could get me there instead. ED never allowed me to miss an opportunity to burn calories. When I added up all the minutes of exercise each day, they had to equal at least 3 and a half hours. If it was less, overwhelming guilt and food restriction. If it was more, I was allowed to eat dessert after supper.
So so many rules. It was tiring.
I remember many times wishing I could just stop. I wanted to stop. But then ED would convince me that I’d feel better after I was done. And so I exercised. And afterwards I felt peace because, now I realize, that stopped ED’s constant abuse and nagging in my head for that one day, until it started again the next. ED had controlled me for that day and won. He never lost. Never. Not when I was sick or when I was injured. Not when my children didn’t want to ride in the stroller. Not when Benj came home early from work and “caught” me exercising. ED always won in exercise, even over Benj’s anger. I lied, hid my exercise, blew it off, blew Benj off.
Three years ago I had surgery and afterwards was laid up for about 3 months. I had to pull back on exercise. During this time I realized that instead of excessively exercising I could excessively restrict my food and lose more weight doing that than I ever did with exercise. When I dropped down to 93 pounds after that surgery, I couldn’t believe it. Exercise hadn’t done that; eating less had. It was a relief because that meant I didn’t have to exercise 3 1/2 hours a day. I cut out the workout video. I never did the workout videos again, but it didn’t take long after my full recovery for running to once again become a compulsive need. I may have lost weight by not eating nearly enough, but my ED still convinced me that running was essential to staying skinny.
Throughout all these years, my weight dropped drastically. I started out in Nicaragua at about 125 pounds. I came home after 4 years at about 110. And once I reached 100, I refused to ever let myself get over that. That was ED’s rule. My weight fluctuated mildly between 95 and 100. I could physically tell when I gained a pound without stepping on a scale. When I became too comfortable with food, then I would start to feel out of control, like I wasn’t being rigid enough with what I put in my mouth. Then I knew that I had to reach a point where my control would “click” back into place. This is before I knew ED had a name, before I knew that I had an ED. But I knew in my mind that if I could start restricting my calories again and exercise a little bit more, then I would drop those few pounds and feel back “in control”. ED always made it back on top. I don’t know how to explain this to people, but I knew when “I” was back in control, when food no longer had control over me, when I could look at my favorite foods and not want to eat them anymore. I felt that click of control snapping into place. Once it did, I could drop 5 pounds without a problem. Putting all of these things down in black and white is making me truly realize how life-threatening my eating disorder was. I asked Benj the other day if he had known in his gut that I was going to have to stay at Melrose. He knew. He saw my ED even though I didn’t and he knew. I stayed at Melrose for a reason. All my “healthy” habits turned on my body and brought me to the point of shutting my body down. I will never forget that moment the doctor told me my heart rate was at 40 beats per minute, that if it had been 39 they would have immediately put me in the hospital on machines to keep my heart from stopping. My exercise did not add years to my life. My exercise almost killed me.
So here I am. On the other side of Melrose. With knowledge of who my ED is and the control he can have over my life. And exercise is a major factor in his control over me. Yet exercise is good. Exercise keeps our bodies working strongly and efficiently, improves our attitude and perspective. Exercise gives our bodies tone and definition, a healthy outlook. So where does that leave me?
I want to be strong and healthy, but I am scared of exercise. I want to know I’m doing something active that’s good for my perspective, but I don’t want a desire to be healthy to blur with a compulsive need. I want strength and endurance, but I don’t want pride to dictate my reasons for exercise.
Where is that balance? People saw me as healthy, saw my weight as an effect of running and being in shape, but have you seen other marathoners? They come in all shapes and sizes, and truly, most of them are not skin and bones. My team at Melrose told me there is absolutely no reason why exercise, even running, can’t be a part of my life. But the nutrition has to match the exercise. Running can’t be a control factor in my calorie intake. My body does not have to be ultra thin because I’m a marathoner. If I’m training right, then I should NOT be a skinny runner. I should be a healthy runner. Balance is there; it’s a matter of finding it back. My tallies are teaching me how to eat again. And now I need to step away from fear and find my way back to the right way to exercise.
Running is not the answer though. I cannot run yet. I know this. Running would open the door wide and say, “Hey, ED, come on back; I’ve missed you.” I can’t run. Yet. My friend invited me to join her at Snap Fitness. Three of us got memberships together. I am learning exercise in all the ways it never was for me since Dordt. Exercise is social. It is strength. It is mindfulness, balance, and flexibility. And yes, it is cardio. The greatest blessing in my fight against exercise’s control was to join Snap with my friends. I was scared of exercise, but now I have accountability. ED wants isolation, God wants accountability in relationships. ED wants rigidity in routine. God wants variety in different layers. At Snap we don’t do the same exercise every time. We don’t stay on one machine the whole time. We don’t work one area of fitness for an hour. Fitness has layers; it is not only running. This I am learning.
But ED is there. I hear him. My worst days happen when I allow ED through a crack in the door. ED whispers in my ear – just a little farther, do one more machine, work harder than her, you’re slacking. I let him whisper in my head. I let comparison rear it’s head, I get depressed by how far my “fitness” has gone backwards in the past two months. But I wasn’t fit before; I was dying. Praise God that in this social arena, I don’t have to fight ED alone. I know ED thrives in isolation. But now I have friends who don’t quietly sit back and allow ED and me to converse while I pound the treadmill. I can’t isolate with Melissa on one side and Rachel on the other while we talk and laugh and encourage each other. Yesterday I went swimming with Benj for the first time. Benj is a powerhouse swimmer – years of swim team made him a graceful, talented swimmer. I have always wanted to be able to go to the pool with him in the mornings for lap swim, but kids and ED have never allowed that to happen. But for the first time, I exercised with my husband. I don’t think he even realizes how much that means to me. The man who saw the ugliness of my exercise I am now able to swim next to. Swimming with my best friend is the best kind of social exercise I could have.
I still get scared of exercise. ED’s voice is there. I second guess my reasons for wanting exercise. I worry that I won’t be able to roll over when my alarm goes off some morning and say, No, not today. I am afraid that I will slide backwards without realizing it is happening. I get scared that 5 extra minutes one day will turn into 10 extra minutes the next. But fear can’t run my life. My therapist told me. I told me. That is why I publish my ED to the world. Education for me and everyone around me builds my firewall and my safety net. I can’t fight ED alone. No isolation; accountability in relationships. Life is not about fear; it is about freedom from fear by the One who saved me. I don’t know when running will become a part of my life again. I don’t even know if I want to run marathons again. Maybe I only ran marathons as an excuse to let ED control. But maybe I really love to run. Maybe. I think I do. Because I remember my first run. I remember running with my friend that summer. I remember that first 6 miler and my flag on the moon.
I remember that running was fun.
Before ED, running was fun. Those memories are real. Before compulsion and ugly, running was fun. When I’m ready, I will try it again. And I will see if that joy is still there. But now, running doesn’t dictate my joy. I have joy in other ways. Joy isn’t in the calories burned or the flags planted. Joy is in the power of a Savior who gives balance. He is my equilibrium and I will allow him to put the weights on each side of my scale that will keep me in perfect balance with him. When running has a place in my balance, then I know he will put it back on my scale. I trust him. I trust my joy to Him who balances me.