When I first got the offer to write a guest post for the blog Running in Silence, I was both excited and honored. There are so many topics I would like to address, but I feel I should break the post down into a limited number of points I believe will help others most. Since I have already shared my story in my book, Training on Empty, I decided to give only a brief history of my career as a runner. The reason why I feel this is necessary at all is to show not just what I have survived but how my past played a role in both the eating disorder and my recovery.
In exploring what led to my eating disorder, I discovered that, like many others, I used eating or not eating as a way to cope with uncomfortable situations and my feelings. I was a sensitive child and got overwhelmed easily. Given my tempestuous living situation with an alcoholic father and peers who constantly criticized, it's no wonder I had a hard time self regulating as a child.
At first I over ate, stuffing my hurt feeling down as far as they would go, but by the time I was 13, I started restricting, which brought about a false sense of control. I couldn't control what was going on around me, but I could force myself to eat a certain way, taking my attention away from the chaos in my life. In the early 80's, anorexia wasn't well understood, and it certainly wasn't discussed. I didn't even know there was a name for what I was experiencing until a few years after I started my extreme diet and exercise regimen.
Shortly after I started losing weight, I found running. It was an exercise I used primarily to keep myself thin, but I was also immediately successful when I entered races. Within a few years, I became one of the top mountain runners in the world, setting records on nearly every course I ran, including the grueling Pikes Peak Ascent. I also had tremendous success in road races and in varsity cross country races in high school, and I was only 16.
But my career was cut short due to my ever worsening disorder. I was plagued with illness and injury despite some outstanding showings in races. Eventually, before I hit my mid twenties, I was forced to give up running altogether. At one point, I was so weak, I could hardly stand on my own two feet.
Since numbers related to weight can be triggering, I won't mention them in this post. Instead I will say that during the throes of my illness, I was having seizures and headed for disaster. One night, I was rushed to the hospital with chest pain, and doctors predicted I had only hours to live. My health had gotten that bad. The main doctor in the ER told my family to prepare for my passing and stated that I probably wouldn't make it through the night.
But I did make it, and I went on to recover.
There is no secret formula or pill that will cure an eating disorder. Everyone must find his or her own way out of the illness. There are, however, key factors to address during recovery.
Unfortunately, a lack of food contributes to an increase in distorted thinking. Re-feeding and stabilizing the body is an essential part of recovery from anorexia, but it is only one aspect and can't be done in isolation. A person must be seen in a whole way. One must address the emotional, mental, physical and even spiritual bodies together.
Diane Israel, a former elite runner herself, makes it clear that there are four main points to consider in regaining health.
1. Reclaim the self/Identify the self.
2. Heal the family/Move away from the family (if healing can't occur)/Heal or address past trauma
3. Community support/community involvement
4. Give back/Charity/Service to others
I want to focus on number one, because for athletes, this step, while being probably the most important, can be the most difficult. It's bad enough that eating disorders cause us to lose ourselves, but for an athlete, finding your true identity can be complicated by the fact that athletes so easily define themselves through their sport. For me, I was so overly identified as an elite athlete, I didn't know how to exist without running. Worse, I felt tremendous guilt and undeserving when I didn't run.
Naturally, when I couldn't run, I lost myself completely in the eating disorder. I didn't know who I was apart from both the illness and the running. I was either Lize the runner or Lize the anorexic. At times, I was even Lize the anorexic runner, but I was never just Lize. I didn't even know who Lize really was anymore. In order to recover, though, I needed to find and reclaim myself, and that was not an easy task. Most of us are not taught that we are OK just as we are, and we are not taught how to truly know who we are. In this society, we are what we do instead.
So what does it mean to reclaim yourself? It means learning to appreciate who you are and your physical body apart from anything else. It means being comfortable and secure in your own skin and balancing all aspects of yourself.
This doesn't usually happen overnight. For me, I had to start with the basics. Rather than focus on what I was eating or how much I was running, I had to turn my attention inward and ask myself what my passions were. I needed to rediscover what I liked and disliked, what my beliefs were and what stirred my emotions. In doing this, I started to better understand how I could move away from the labels that had bound me for so many years. I had to fight the negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones too. My mantra became, "I am OK and everything will be OK," because I had so many fears and old beliefs that things would never be even close to OK, let alone good, especially if I couldn't run.
Take time to analyze your specific set of circumstances and explore activities that you were forced to give up due to the illness. Ask yourself how this disorder has served you and how you can replace the harmful behaviors with healthier coping strategies. Tackle new experiences and prepare yourself for change. Allow yourself to FEEL and know that strong emotions will pass.
Once you take a leap of faith and start on your recovery path, it's not so much that you can't turn back; it's more that you probably won't want to. You'll become too aware of the contrast between merely existing and actually living.
After 20 years of struggling, my life started to feel different. Over time, I was able to find joy again. I could run again without having to force myself to be at the top.
During this transition, I noticed a strong correlation between my thoughts and speech and how I was feeling. The more I switched my focus away from food, calories and miles run, the more I could allow myself to be in the moment, and this was a way for me to temporarily forget that I was anorexic. I aimed at avoiding triggering statements like, "I feel fat" and instead tried to uncover what this symptom meant. Was I tired, afraid or lonely? Did this translate into feeling uncomfortable? Digging for the cause of the symptom rather than focusing on the symptom itself was essential to my recovery.
Over time, the thoughts that were so oppressive started to abate and move to the background. Before long, I started to notice that those thoughts would completely disappear for short periods. Soon, the periods of time without the distorted thoughts stretched into longer and longer segments until I was more focused on living and less obsessed with what I was eating, how I was exercising or how my body looked.
There's a saying in AA that goes something like: First it gets easier, then it gets harder. After that it gets really hard. Then it gets easier again, and then you start to live.
This is exactly what happened for me. In the beginning, the thought of change brought some hope, so it got easier to leave old patterns that no longer serve me behind. Then I realized that a lot of emotion and feelings were coming up when I was no longer disassociating through the illness. After that, I had to move through the challenging emotions and address past traumas. This was the hard part. Fortunately, I started to get the hang of it, and before long, I noticed that I had suddenly become a participant in the world. The nightmare that was my life was in the past.
When people were concerned that my illness would come back, I was reassured that I now have the tools to stay one or even two steps ahead of it.
If I could give only one piece of advice to anyone struggling with an eating disorder, it would be to hold on to the belief that a full recovery is possible. You may not know what that looks like, but the more you can imagine how you want your life to be, the more you can strive to make it happen.
I want to thank Rachael Steil for her efforts in raising awareness and supporting other runners who battle eating-related issues. Knowing we are not alone is a comforting thought, and feeling supported can push us to make the changes we need.