Last week, I shared an interview I had back in January with Certified Eating Disorder Specialist, Gabrielle Tuscher, regarding exercise addiction. The interview itself, and pulling together the article brought up some things for me I wanted to share with my readers today.
The objective here isn’t to label myself as an exercise addict. Nor to claim I have suffered in the same way as those who have battled against this obsession. The objective is simply to share how awareness of the different threads of my illness and coinciding illnesses are essential in protecting myself from relapse and knowing when to ask for help.
Whether you are in recovery from an eating disorder, or another mental illness, or you have concerns about your own relationship with food, weight or exercise; I hope reading this article will give you pause for reflection and questioning and ultimately the courage to say YOUR truth.
The past is a great teacher
By the time I hit double digits in age, I had started to take note of my body and weight. Watching my mother and her gang of weight-watching-mates doing Jane Fonda on towels in our living room, I picked up some moves that Jane claimed would tone and trim your body.
Before long, my daily routine was glittered with little stretches and dance moves. I became a wiggly worm of constant movement. While brushing my teeth, I would march on the spot. While showering, I would perform glute crunches. I had ‘ants in my pants’ so to speak. I wouldn’t sit still.
My entire day was choreographed with little actions that kept me moving. Step tap, step wash, crunch, rinse, repeat.
Where it may sound cute for a child to dance her way through her day, it is important to note that this became an obsession for me pretty quickly. And real obsessions aren’t fun.
What I did in front of people was the tip of the iceberg compared to the constant movement I did when alone. As I said, even showering involved stretches. I took far longer in the bathroom than others and retreated to my room often in order to do a mini workout.
I had begun setting daily targets for different movements, including crunches using the ab cruncher in my room. My mind was pre-occupied with doing more and more movement. And then my food intake became dependent on what I did physically. My day involved constant calculation of calories in and calories out. It felt exhausting and lonely and I felt trapped.
A lot of what I was doing couldn’t be seen from the outside so I assumed it wasn’t a problem. I read about girls in magazines whose behavior had been questioned by parents and who had interventions to stop them in their tracks. No-one commented on my behaviors and my weight loss was slow and unpredictable. I felt a failure because no-one noticed.
Just because something isn’t noticeable to others, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t become a problem that needs discussing.
Looking back, I can easily tick off many of the red-flags Gabrielle mentioned in last weeks article:
- I was pre-occupied with exercise. I used to think about what I could do at school, at home, at friends houses. I used to sneak to the bathroom at school and my friends house for a sneaky stretch or march on the spot. I can still remember standing in the toilet cubicle at school doing side stretches with my feet positioned so as to look like I was going to the toilet.
- When I couldn’t escape from view or exercise in front of others I would become anxious or angry. Visitors weren’t welcome unannounced anymore. I was ok to take small breaks but couldn’t sit still for long.
- I exercised alone in my room. And didn’t really want others to see.
- I exercised to tone, to change my body, to compensate for food eaten. My eating became linked to my exercise.
- I would become anxious if I couldn’t exercise. Days without the self-prescribed amount of movement were days I would compensate in other ways.
My story diverts from purging my intake via exercise to purging with self-induced vomiting pretty quickly. I chose a different purging tool. For years after, my relationship with exercise was not in question. It was easy for me to believe that my relationship with exercise was healthy, because it took a back seat to other purging tools. But a good look at my past, shows just how vulnerable I was.
Why didn’t I continue with the exercise obsession? For many reasons. But primarily because I just got more comfortable using vomiting as my primary purging tool.
The shocking dangers of over-exercising
I never attributed the consequences of my eating disorder with exercise. Simply because it didn’t feature as a behavior of choice when things really got bad. I will admit that I was in some part naïve about what would have happened had I gone down this path instead of more traditional bulimia.
I always figured exercising may have been less damaging than purging. It is more socially acceptable after all, and everyone seems a bit obsessed these days, don’t they. Learning more about the consequences of over-excercising has really opened my eyes. The potential for heart problems, loss of menstruation, brittle bones, organ failure, anxiety, exhaustion, stress fractures, social isolation and depression. Nope, this isn’t a better prospect than any other addiction or behavior.
In her book ‘Diary of an Exercise Addict’ – Peach Friedman (now an spokesperson for the National Eating Disorder Association) talks the lasting effects even in recovery.
‘The long-term physical effects of exercise addiction can be devastating. In my own case, my joints have never fully recovered. I have more pain than my fifty-something-year-old mother; and some seasons I spend hours a week with ice on my knees or my shoulder. Even with moderate exercise, my body periodically revolts.Peach Friedman – Diary of an Exercise Addict
Dealing with all the threads of an eating disorder
Looking back at my early teens has made me realize that my illness isn’t defined by what purging tool I chose. My eating disorder, at it’s core, was an outward manifestation of deep rooted unhappiness and confusion about who I was as a person. An attempt to control my body so as to have control over something that could give me an identity of some sort. I can still switch so easily from one behavior to another as a coping mechanism for inner discomfort I experience and could get trapped in another thread of my illness so quickly if I am not careful.
Last year, I came out in an article, about my battle with exercise since I ditched the purging and restricting. In the article I compare my battle with my various addictions as playing ‘whack-a-mole’. Recovery is teaching me to stop aimlessly whacking these moles one by one and tiring myself out. In recovery, I am learning to walk away from the game in search of more fulfilling activities in life.
For me, I am finding fulfillment by getting to know myself more and more. I am listening to my body, my emotions, my beliefs and challenging them. I have an identity outside of my disorder that doesn’t involve my size or shape or the amount of energy I use. Or, at least the beginnings of this identity. It is early doors.
To keep myself safe on my journey, I am still monitoring my relationship with exercise, and testing the waters with days off to challenge myself when I feel I may be taking it too seriously. The way I see it right now. I have an opportunity to learn more about myself. Whenever I feel like I NEED to exercise, or if I catch myself stretching in a bathroom cubicle in secret, I will know that something is up and that I need to address the cause. I may need to talk it through with my therapist. I may need to write out my feelings to explore what is really going on. Or perhaps I need to just pause, and stop for a while and see what it is that I really feel.
Another fu@k!ng learning opportunity
In my treatment center, one counsellor used the acronym ‘AFLO’ a lot. It stood for ‘Another Fu@k!ng Learning Opportunity’. These bridges I am crossing in recovery are indeed learning opportunities. I now look for the red flags and pay attention. I don’t need to cause myself alarm and throw in the towel. I can simply pay attention, identify the opportunity to learn something and then continue to grow.
Exercise, but just not too much!
To re-iterate what Gabrielle said last week and what has been said by many doctors and mental health professionals and even ex-exercise addicts. Exercise and movement is beneficial for your overall wellbeing and health. FACT. There are so many physical and mental benefits and there is an epidemic of people getting too little exercise in our world today. However, along with this comes the myth that more is always better. When in fact moderation is the key to healthy exercise regime.
I love my body. I am grateful for it’s strength and flexibility and for my energy. I want to use it while it still functions. But, I want to treat it well and rest it well and ultimately have fun while doing it.
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