Chapter 32 – The End Result
"The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise” – Alden Nowlan
The long-term effects of eating disorders are not pretty. Because of prolonged malnourishment, anorexics and bulimics are at risk for an inexhaustible list of related complications. I was fortunate in a way to have avoided becoming fully immersed in bulimia. During a few transitional phases of my life, I did binge and purge, but I was able to completely stop and I have not thrown up since 1998. Bulimia is a vicious illness that can cause esophageal damage, irritation or bleeding in the stomach lining, and erosion of the enamel on the teeth. I have known girls who have ruptured blood vessels in their eyes, passed out and developed ulcers. Other risks include dehydration, electrolyte and mineral imbalance, edema, fluid on the lungs, cancer of the esophagus or throat, high blood pressure and diabetes. Ketoacidosis, a condition in which acids build up in blood as a result of the body burning fat instead of sugar and carbohydrates to get energy, is also probable. In addition, it can lead to pancreatitis. Bulimia comes with a financial cost as well. At times, the craving to binge can cause those suffering from the disorder to spend huge amounts on food. When money runs out, some even resort to stealing. And to top it off, some bulimics report worsening bouts of acne during binge-purge cycles.
It’s a heartbreaking reality that anorexia is striking younger and younger victims today. It is not uncommon for children of eight or nine years old to be refusing food at dinner tables across the country. It’s exceptionally disturbing to know that these young kids are denying their bodies important nutrients at a critical growing phase in their lives. Although talking about anorexia has become more acceptable these days, this has not helped solve the problem, and the incidence of young children with anorexia has increased at such an alarming rate that treatment centers have had to add special units specifically for kids under the age of 12. Starvation at any age is a recipe for disaster, but denying the body food at a time when the body is growing can lead to permanent and irreversible damage and is more likely to lead to death.
In a world where high-powered superkids like Mary-Kate Olsen set the standard for hot pre-teen fashion, it’s all too easy for young children to follow the unhealthy Hollywood trend. However, society’s influence and insistence that it’s okay to be malnourished isn’t the only thing that leads a child to refuse food. There are many factors that contribute to any illness or addiction. In the case of anorexia, it was once thought the disease was entirely an emotional response to events outside the individual or the result of poor parenting. Many psychiatrists thought anorexia typically occurred just before puberty and that victims were afraid to grow up. It’s true that many people with addictions fear taking on adult responsibilities. The “Peter Pan syndrome” may play a small part in some cases of anorexia, but recently it has been discovered that there is a genetic predisposition which can lead to anorexia. Just like alcoholism, it’s a very complex illness and can have many triggers that may lead an individual to self-destruct. It’s true that many of the affected girls I knew had similar traits, such as being raped or abused in their pasts, but today similarities among sufferers of anorexia are becoming less apparent. Where once anorexia was thought to be a rich, white girl’s disease, it is now crossing the gender gap as well as knocking aside ethnic and economic barriers.
Despite all of my chronic pain and stiffness, I continued to run and work out up to three hours a day. On some level I was hoping for a late comeback, on another, I was using training as an excuse to feel okay about myself. I was aware this compulsiveness was also keeping me centered in some way. I still had a hard time allowing myself to eat normally if I didn’t work out. No matter how much I believed the body needs food at rest as well as when it’s at work, I experienced a tremendous amount of guilt on rest days. I have heard others with anorexia say that the illness is a way to say to the world, “I’m not okay.” Typically, anorexics display the traits of perfection. They are intelligent, hard working, successful, and loyal. Their frail outer appearance, however, is a reflection of their inner turmoil. They hold an underlying core belief they are ugly and worthless, not even deserving enough to take up space in the world. Although at this point in my life, I appeared to be recovering, I was continuing to bump up against these very issues. With the full intention of getting back into racing shape, I looked into hiring a local coach. I had several friends helping me with certain aspects of my training, but I was looking for someone who could deal with the emotional runner that I was; someone who could handle what had pushed most other people out of my life.
When I called Bobby, I knew immediately I had found the right coach. We met to discuss my goals and past training. I didn’t hide anything and told him I was extremely fearful of running and my own traumatic past. I still had periods where I would cry on runs, feeling overwhelmed and helpless against the demons in my head. I was still struggling with counting calories and obsessive-compulsive habits, but Bobby offered me some hope. We agreed to work together on a running program. In addition, I was lucky enough to find a chiropractor who was able to help ease some the stiffness and pain I was experiencing enough so I could run more normally again.
Running with Bobby brought some of the joy back into my training. It was obvious that I was very traumatized, not only by my own starvation but also by the lack of unconditional love and support from many people in my past. It took someone who was not attached to how fast I ran to make me see that. Bobby gave me unconditional support no matter how I performed and, as a result, I started running a bit faster again. Long gone were the days of running 5k's at 5:30 pace, but 6:45 wasn’t so bad given what I had been through. I understood this, but deep down I still deemed my slippage into mediocrity unacceptable. I was completely unsatisfied in my races and felt hindered and limited by my own body. Never before had I struggled on such a physical level with running. It felt as if I were a rusty car falling apart or a racehorse with a broken leg, limping to the finish line. I naturally had vivid memories of the runner I'd been in high school and couldn’t accept where I now was in comparison. Never did I imagine I could let go of running, so I held on and struggled through workouts and even easy runs, my body filled with pain and my mind brimming with disappointment.
Where I was once a confident racer, bold and a real risk-taker, I had become limited and timid and very afraid. My stride had completely changed, as if to verify my fears of continually being let down. Gone were the fierce steps carrying a heartfelt “I’ll show you” message. Instead, my feet were landing timidly, searching for the ground below as if it might just fall away, a definite “don’t hurt me” statement. It was during another injury, oddly enough, where I found some of my lost fierceness. Rather than drop me as an athlete when I developed a stress fracture in my foot, Bobby supported me and offered to give me bike workouts in replacement. With no worries about my performance and nobody watching, I was able to push some limits and get my heart rate up to racing levels. At times I rode with reckless abandon and it felt good to find some of the fire inside me that had been missing for so long.
Unfortunately, the stress fracture took a long time to heal. After two weeks of doing my best to stay off it, I went to a podiatrist in Longmont, Colorado to see if a cast might help the bone heal. The podiatrist insisted that I didn’t have a stress fracture. My coach, physical trainer and I all felt otherwise. I had even been to a bone specialist who said he felt sure it was a stress fracture as well. After a bit of arguing, the podiatrist took and x-ray which did not show any cracks in my bones. I knew from past experience that stress fractures don’t usually show up on an x-ray until they have started to heal, sometimes up to three or four weeks later, but this guy was convinced that I had a neuroma. He felt there was inflammation in my foot, so he gave me a shot of cortisone and told me I could run in three days. Two days later, my foot made an odd popping noise, and I collapsed to the floor in excruciating pain.
The podiatrist said he had no idea what was wrong. He suggested wrapping my foot in a soft cast or casting my entire leg from my knee to my toe in hard plaster. I knew there had to be another option, so after several days of limping around, my foot throbbing with intense pain, I went for a second opinion. “You have a stress fracture,” the second podiatrist said, immediately putting me in a removable walking cast. An x-ray confirmed this. The fracture took another six weeks to heal, but my left foot would never be the same again. I've had two surgeries to clean up the osteoarthritis in my joints that were badly damaged after the cortisone caused my tendons to atrophy severely. To this day, my foot still rolls out and I have a slight limp.
In spite of the fact I was dealing with yet another injury, I noticed that something was different. It’s hard to say what exactly changed in my life. Perhaps it was the unconditional acceptance from others that I was starting to feel or feeding myself the nutrients that by body craved. It happened gradually, but what I noticed was that despair no longer ruled my life. Before long I started to emerge as a new person. The changes were subtle at first, but I was laughing more and feeling more at ease in my body, calmer in my mind. I was even getting out and being social again. I often wondered if I was really the same little fat girl I was as a child, the standout runner I was in high school, or the scared woman who nearly died. Then it struck me that maybe I had left these all behind and become someone entirely new. For the first time in my life I felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief. I was beginning to show myself compassion and kindness instead of brutality and hatred. I realized that I was, in fact, the same person inside whether I was eighty pounds or one hundred and ten pounds, but I had grown and learned, expanded beyond my illness. In addition, I found that one hundred and ten pounds, give or take, allowed me to be more involved in the world. Somewhere inside me is the core of who I am. It doesn't change with outer appearance. Reclaiming this inner core has helped tremendously with recovery. It was important for me to rediscover likes, dislikes, passions and any opinions I had that I’d put aside to be an anorexic girl. As a child, I was unable to self-regulate under the tremendous stress of my home life. Anorexia was the addiction I chose to help me cope with my surroundings and anything beyond my control.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I began to rediscover my voice. I had just started to volunteer at a local radio station when I realized that I had something to say. I had an opinion about what music I like and disliked, and there were issues that interested me. While I had been quiet and shut-down for years, it seemed, I suddenly felt the urge to jump into debates and heated conversations. It amazed me that all of the years I spent focusing on weight and food had pushed me so far away from myself as well as others. It was time to reclaim myself, and that meant finding out who I am. I was ready to be heard, and I was finally ready to be alive. There was a feeling of safety being behind the mike without anyone looking at me. I was comfortable getting in touch with my wilder side, and it was fun. I didn't feel judged in any way.
Going through puberty is not easy. It’s even more difficult as an adult. At age 33 I had gone nearly 20 years without a period. From the time I was 14, I didn’t have a cycle. I did take hormones for a very brief time that were incredibly hard on my body and that induced one period when I was in college, but I quickly stopped when the PMS symptoms got to be too much. I experienced severe bloating, cramping and terrible headaches. In my early thirties when my first period did come, it was harsh. I could feel my body changing and noticed symptoms of PMS for months before the actual period came. I felt awkward and uncomfortable as my breast size increased and my body adjusted to the new level of hormones. With anorexia, hormone levels decrease, especially estrogen and testosterone. This was clearly a sign that my body, at least in one aspect, was becoming healthier. One day, I thought I had the flu. I was forced to stay in bed for two days. At that time I got my period. I thought it was a coincidence that I had the flu, but the next month there I was in bed again with the flu. It turned out that my body was having such a hard time adjusting to becoming a woman that I was thrown into fits of fevers and aches and other flu-like symptoms with every cycle. Over the course of a year, the periods started to become more regular and less traumatic.
Through all these changes and the growth I experienced, Bobby was supportive. When my foot healed and I was back to running, I entered a cycle of continual set-backs. Bobby didn’t flinch; he stuck with me and offered an enormous amount of emotional support. It soon became apparent that my body was not reacting in a normal way to training. I was experiencing random muscle shutdown and chronic fatigue, and unrelenting stiffness lingered in my body. I was back on the trail of seeking out healers and therapists at a time when I felt all these issues should have resolved themselves. My body felt broken. I was tired, stressed and weak, and over the course of the next two years, it only got worse. The one thing that kept me going was hope. I was convinced there was a solution to my health problems, and I was determined to find it.
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