Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Recently, someone asked me to summarize my manuscript and discuss what caused my eating disorder, how I feel these things could be prevented in athletes and why eating disorders are so common in runners. Below is my response:

My manuscript deals with my life, but it also deals a great deal with the complex factors that contribute to an eating disorder. There's a genetic component, but it takes sort of the perfect storm of outside factors combined with internal wiring to actually cause an eating disorder to manifest. Often, I come back to what Diane Israel says about how people respond to stress. For those prone to eating disorders, when faced with overwhelming stress, the inability to self-regulate can lead to addictive behaviors. 

I'm not sure how detailed to get, but in my own case, I can say that I was definitely depressed as a kid. I think there is a tendency for those who end up having eating issues to have some kind of general imbalance, either depression, anxiety or some other brain chemistry problem. It's a bit like alcoholism in that many alcoholics are ultimately trying to self-medicate. With an eating disorder, there's definitely an aspect of control, and in my childhood, growing up with an alcoholic father left me feeling like I didn't have much control in life. Food was something I found I could manipulate, whether I was eating too much to try to feel comfort or not eating enough in an attempt to focus on that instead of my surroundings and feelings. When I ate less, I ended up feeling more powerful, but studies show that starving also affects brain chemistry. Unconsciously, I was probably trying to sort out my depression. Consciously, I was trying to exert control. Much of this had to do with two bad experiences I had in which I was taken advantage of sexually by men when I was a teen. That can be a common theme in those of us with eating issues, unfortunately. 

Along came running, the perfect sport to disguise and perpetuate my illness. Wow. I felt so in control and powerful, though I wasn't fueling my body the way it needed to be fueled. I had tremendous success right out of the gate, and I struggled hard with getting in over my head. I had such strict "rules" around how I ran, what and how much I ate and everything was so regimented. I had a hard time running easy and always wanted to push the edges, discounting what my coaches said. Runners are a different breed. It has been suggested that the brain chemistry of a long distance runner and that of an anorexic are similar. One has to be a little on the nutty side to run well, though going too far over the edge obviously won't lead to success. Those who can find balance in the sport are generally the ones who have both success and longevity. 

As far as coaching, I don't think my high school coach handled things well with me, but he also didn't know how to handle these matters. Eating disorders weren't talked about then, and few people knew what anorexia was. That said, my coach always let me manipulate the situation. If he weighed me and I was 95lbs instead of 98lbs, I would tell him that it was just that day that I hadn't eaten enough, and I would make promises to eat more. He didn't really fight me on it, because I was running so well. It wasn't until I got to college in Utah under a really great coach that I was held accountable. This coach would not let me train with the team if I was under 100lbs, and he stuck to that rule. I couldn't talk him into letting me run if I didn't make sure I was healthy first, and the end result was that I had an incredible season, running some of my best races ever, despite coming off an injury over the summer. His philosophy of heath first over running worked, and he had his women's team in the top three at nationals in cross-country time and time again. These women were solid runners. 

Unfortunately, I didn't stay with this great coach. It was when I came back to CU that I started really losing my footing and getting lost in my illness. I had one OK year running, but it was my red-shirt year. As my body grew tired and I started getting sick from not eating enough and over-training, my race results were affected. More to the point, I could feel that my head was no longer into running like it had been before. I started to lose who I was. I had thrown all my eggs in one basket, and that basket was breaking. I no longer knew who I was. By the time I graduated, I was tired...of everything. I sort of stopped living and just existed for a spell. I lost weight, didn't really run and became very sick, to the point of having seizures and fearing for my life. Doctors didn't think I would make it though the night at one point. While I was basically waiting to die, I started to realize the effect I was having on others. My family and friends were hurt, angry and frustrated with me. I had robbed them of a relationship with me, because I was so consumed with my illness. 

Eventually, I had a moment of clarity when I saw myself as I was for the first time ever, and I was shocked to see how skinny 80lbs or less really is on my frame. I hadn't been able to see that before, but I got a rare glimpse that forced me to take a leap into the unknown and attempt to get myself out of the large black hole I had slipped into over the years. 

What I think helped me the most was finding myself again. I had to rediscover who I was- not Lize the runner, but Lize the person. I had to ask, "What do I like? What are my passions? What are other things I like to do? What do I think?" So much of my life had been about controlling my food and running that I forgot that I used to like to draw and read and watch movies. I had to find new things I enjoyed and had to learn to be in the world, but mostly I had to learn to be OK in that world. I was so hard on myself and felt so insecure. I felt judged and looked down on, but, over time, I learned to accept myself. Eventually, I realized that all those judgments I thought were coming from others were actually coming from within, at least most of them were. Any outside of myself I had to learn to address or dodge. I had to learn that what counted was my opinion of myself. 

In the end, it is such a complex issue. Diane often talks about traits that many people with eating disorders have- things like being overly sensitive, emotional, withdrawn, intelligent and other things that one wouldn't always associate with an eating disorder. I will say it again, because it is such an important aspect of recovery and understanding about the illness: Diane feels that when we lose the ability to self-regulate in the face of trauma (and trauma can be any kind of perceived hurt or actual hurt, even feeling neglected or put down) we turn to addiction. The more chaos in our lives, the more we attempt to find control in maybe not so healthy ways. The way out of all of this is to address the underlying issues. What is that core wound? We can heal through self-awareness and self-love. Another big part of healing is service. All addicts need a way to give back, connect and be with others in order to move forward in a healthier way. 

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