Monday, August 1, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 37

Chapter 37 – Conclusion

“The universe never says no to your thought about yourself. It only grows it.” – Neale Donald Walsch

My first impression of Colleen Cannon when I met her years ago was “this woman is strong.” She radiated an aura of confidence and self-acceptance, and it was no surprise to find out she was a world-class triathlete. As an athlete, Colleen was lucky to have avoided an eating disorder. Years later, when I met her for an interview to discuss exactly how she achieved this, she still radiated the confidence of a world-class athlete.

“Through my career I learned that there’s no good or bad way to eat. I came from a sprinter’s background and had a brother on the football team, so bigger wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.” She says. “On the track, bigger meant stronger and we could go faster. We ate fried chicken after races and didn’t think twice about it.” Colleen’s coaches felt otherwise and pressured her to lose weight. At one point her track coach even cut her off from the Haagen Dazs store, warning the staff there not to serve his athlete. Although Colleen was far from fat, she was bigger than the average runner, yet she was able to hold the school record for the 1500-meter run in college, a standard that would last for nearly 20 years. “I wasn’t going to not eat, so I just ate the ice cream or whatever I wanted anyway and ran well despite what my coaches told me,” she says.

Like Lorraine Moller, Colleen looks at food not just as an energy source for the physical body but as something that connects us to the universe:

The way people eat has a lot to do with beliefs. Food is condensed God juice. I say God not in the religious sense, but however you want to interpret it. Food connects us to the divine. The sun grows the plants that feed the cows. It even helps grow the people who make the Twinkies!

For me, I have learned to go by how I feel. I learned a lot from Dr. Phil Maffetone, who educated me on the benefits of including fats in the diet. As I ate more of what my body needed and craved, I felt better and more connected, centered. Athletes are more prone to try various fad diets to see what will make them perform best, but it’s really more about being present when you eat.

When power bars first came out, a few of us were involved in an experiment where we ate a certain ratio of fats, carbohydrates and proteins and these power bars. After the third day, I felt flat and almost depressed. It was no fun. After eating the same bars for three days, it seemed like the bars had no life force in them. It felt good to return to regular eating again after the study.

Colleen mentioned that merely holding the food in a sacred place or blessing the food can help get that connection to the divine or to the higher self. If we are calm and fully present when we eat, the food is more likely to nourish us in the ways we want. “I ran a race once with another triathlete, and at a pre-race dinner, we were shocked to see all these skinny competitors eating apple wedges,” she recalls. “The two of us had big bowls of pasta in front of us, and for a moment I questioned whether I should be eating it. Then I said to my pasta, ‘Pasta, you’re gonna make me run so fast tomorrow,’ and I did!”

After a successful career as a professional triathlete, Colleen founded a camp called Women’s Quest, where women can learn to get in touch with their inner desires. Training techniques, mind-body-spirit connection exercises and other activities are provided to help individuals discover more about themselves. Colleen says, “The camp is a safe environment for people to find the heart’s desire and any obstacles in the way of achieving that heart’s desire. It seems like food always comes up as an issue for women, so it’s good that the people who run the camps are all different sizes and shapes. That way it shows that self acceptance doesn’t have to be based on a certain body type. We also look at all the ways to nourish the self, not just through food.”

I may not be the epitome of health, but I’m better than when I was anorexic. I keep searching and working to find answers that will lead to my body healing more fully and allow me to live a more comfortable life. Despite the long-term consequences my body has suffered as a result of being anorexic, I have once again found passion. I am able to throw myself into my writing, into my work and into just being human. I have wonderful relationships with the people around me. I am fully supported and able to set my illness aside and actually live in the world again. Each day I face the choice of whether to give in to old patters or try something new. The more I can trust the universe and allow for change, the more at ease I can become in my own body and my own ability to read it.

I still run. I'm no longer training on empty. Setting records and winning races are no longer on my mind, though I remember those days well. I run because my body, even with all that I put it through, has allowed me to return to a sport that I love. With countless injuries, many surgeries and years of illness behind me, I now run with the freedom of someone who has returned from the edge. Days off are not as much of a struggle as they once were, and I'm to the point where I can enjoy rest. The overly critical part of my brain is not as active, and this allows me to be kinder to myself. Anorexia once enveloped my mind. Food, my weight and running were all I thought about. Eventually, these things drifted to the background, but I was still unduly aware. Now my mind is less encumbered with these thoughts than it ever has been. It was a combination of time and work that got me to this place. I had to rediscover who I was and be okay with simply being me.

Surviving something like an eating disorder naturally brings up big questions such as “why am I here?” or “who am I?” At times I am still searching for answers to questions about life. Coming so close to dying and then recovering to experience life in a new way is something I may never understand. My hope is that I can provide some inspiration to others and maybe even prevent people from having to go through what I did. I believe that as with any illness, the sooner the problem is dealt with, the better the chances of a full recovery. With so many people inflicted with some sort of eating disorder, it’s essential for those of us who have survived to come forward, whether we still have days we struggle with it or not. I sincerely believe that the more an example of good health is held up and admired, the more others will follow suit and toss out the disturbing notion that a sickly anorexic model is to be adored. If I look to those who have truly been an inspiration to me, I would have to admit that their inspiration had nothing to do with their body size or what they ate. No, heroes and heroines are not made by a certain diet; they are made by having a compassionate, loving nature and a strong confident character. Through all my struggles with food, weight and body image, I keep the concept of these heroes in my mind and strive every day to become more like one of these brave souls.

ANAD national Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders; (847) 831-3438,
National Anorexia & Bulimia Association (NABA); (402) 371-0722;; (866)-575-8179. Connects people with the appropriate treatment centers.

Geneen Roth:
How to Break Free from Compulsive Eating
Feeding the Hungry Heart
When Food is Love
Peggy Claude-Pierre:
The Secret Language of Eating Disorders
Linda Rector Page, N.D., Ph.D.
Healthy Healing

Web sites:

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When I initially began this book, I wanted to provide inspiration to others and show that eating disorders can be overcome. During my illness, I looked not only to those who had recovered, but to those who had avoided an eating disorder altogether, for these people showed great courage and strength in allowing their true potential to emerge under the many pressures that this society inflicts. A special thanks to some of the amazing people who have encouraged and inspired me to be well, and for their take on anorexia and its cure:

Heather Clewett-Jacowski
Founder of Inkavisions in Sedona, Arizona (, Heather was trained by Dr. Alberto Villoldo, founder of The Four Winds Society and author of Shaman, Healer, Sage. She has also traveled with and been trained by the Q’ero high in the Peruvian Andes. The Q’ero are the last remaining Inka Shaman elders skilled in the ancient healing methods of the Inka and pre-Inka. Their techniques involve working on illness and emotional wounds before any symptoms manifest in the physical body.

Bobby McGee
Bobby McGee is a full-time endurance coach who owns Bobby McGee Endurance Sports, a Colorado-based sports company. He has coached numerous Olympians in distance running and triathlon. He works with both elite athletes and the average weekend warrior. He is also involved with coaching education, lectures, has written numerous articles and has published numerous books, including Magical Running; A Unique Path to Running Fulfillment, a book that deals with the mental aspects of running; and Running Sports Essentials, a manual that covers supplementary exercises for runners. He can be reached through his Web site,

Diane Israel, M.A.
Diane was a very successful professional triathlete and runner. She won many triathlon races around the world, including the bronze medal at the Macabea Games, and is best known for being the 1984 Colorado mountain-running champion. After retiring from professional competition, she pursued her academic goals to become a psychotherapist. She produced the film Beauty Mark (, which addresses body image and the disconnect between mind and body. Diane is on the faculty at Naropa University, teaching graduate courses in transpersonal psychology. She is also the owner of Gyrotonic® Boulder, and guides people in physical, mental, and spiritual integration. She provides amazingly strong support and cameraderie for participants in body image, nutrition and rekindling life’s passions and direction. Most of all, Diane is a kindred spirit on the path of whole-life health and balance.

Lorraine Moller
Lorraine is a four-time Olympian, a three-time world champion, an Olympic bronze medalist, and the winner of sixteen major international marathons, including the Boston marathon. She holds the distinction of being the only woman to have run each of the first four  Olympic women’s marathons. Her twenty-eight years as an international athlete are unprecedented in distance running, and she credits her success to her unique and creative approach to competition, training, and learning to play with space and time. In 1993, Lorraine was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. She captured her amazingly full life in her 2007 autobiography, On the Wings of Mercury.
Along with her running achievements, Lorraine was a forerunner for equality in women’s athletics, and an activist for professionalism in distance running. Since retiring from competitive sport in 1996, this long-time Boulder resident has continued her travels as the vice president of Hearts of Gold, a charitable organization that raises money through running events in Japan, Cambodia and Mongolia. On the home front, Lorraine coaches Olympic hopefuls, teaches remote viewing, writes for various fitness publications, and does the occasional sports television commentary. Forever a student of the spirit-mind-body connection, Lorraine is a keen student of alchemy and mythology.

Colleen Cannon
Colleen founded Women’s Quest ( after a highly successful career as a professional triathlete. In her racing days, she was the World Triathlon Champion in 1984, and National Triathlon Champion in 1988 and 1990. She also was a multiple U.S. National Team member. Her passions, besides chocolate and being in nature, are liberating and empowering women through movement and balance, and targeting their true hearts’ desire. Colleen continues to evolve adventures for Women’s Quest, delighting in ways to enchant women with the experiences that coax happiness grown from joyful physical experiences.

Kevin Beck
Kevin Beck is a senior writer for Running Times Magazine, the editor of the training book Run Strong, and the author of a wide variety of health- and fitness-related articles. Active in the running community for over a quarter of a century, he has staged exercise clinics for the Boy Scouts of America, coached high-school cross-country and track teams, and given pre-race marathon talks. He also coaches a cadre of marathoners, several of whom have reached the U.S. Olympic Trials standard. With a best time of 2 hours, 24 minutes himself, he was one of the top Americans at the 2001 Boston Marathon. In 2004, Kevin placed second in the USATF 50K National Road Championship. Also a freelance editor, Kevin is a passionate wordsmith and is in the process of writing a novel. For more information, visit him online at

Chardin Bersto, M.A.
Chardin has an M.A. in Psychology from Sonoma State University and a B.A. from CSU-Chico, with a double major in Psychology and Religious Studies and an emphasis in Eastern Religions. He has practiced Somatics since 1979, and has studied Chinese Medicine, Acupressure, Shiatsu, Applied Kinesiology, Postural Integration, Rolfing, Polarity Therapy, Cranio-Sacral and Visceral Manipulation, Mayan Organ Manipulation, Chi Ni San (an organ Manipulation style from Chinese Medicine), and Yoga, since 1974. He has been teaching for 10 years. A student of human anatomy since childhood, Chardin studied nursing and was a Physician’s Assistant in the Navy.

Julie Threlkeld
Julie Threlkeld is a freelance writer, editor and editorial content strategist. She is also a late blooming road racer and an avid follower of the sport's past and present. She is honored to have been able to make a modest contribution to the editing of this memoir. She blogs at

Jennifer St. Germain-Cole
Jennifer offers a wide variety of services for writers, including editing, manuscript restructuring and proofreading. Her Web site, Writer’s Plus, is at

Additional Acknowledgements:
Special thanks to Janine, Bobby, my family, Annie, Heather, Diane, Lorraine, Dave, Julie, Kevin, Jennifer, Colleen, Nathan, Debbie, Myra, Sharon, Patty, Lori, Laura, Katie, Peg, Janet, James, Geoff, Rocky, Joan, Liza, Britta, Marci, Trystin, Tracy, Clint, Le’a, Sara, Sarah S., Sarah G., Kate, Katrina, Josh, David and Judy, Mark, Brian, Katie, Dr Stanly, Dr Terry, Dr Shackleton, Chardin, Eric, Dr. Robert Jelinek, Scott, my friends, fellow pirates, other doctors, and anyone else out there struggling in this world.

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Training on Empty: Chapter 36

Chapter 36 – How Lucky I Am

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know that just to be alive is a grand thing.” – Agatha Christie

The study of eating disorders is a relatively new field, so there are varying statistics on recovery rates. There is a general consensus that left untreated, 20 percent of those with an eating disorder will die from it. It has been suggested that only 20 to 25 percent fully recover, with somewhere between 20 to 30 percent left to continue to struggle with eating issues. Another 10 to 20 percent do not improve, even with treatment, and live marginal lives consumed with daily struggles around food, body image and weight.

As with any addiction, the first step in recovery is to admit that there is a problem. Often, family members become so tired from trying to save the affected individual that they must at some point retreat and protect themselves. This does not mean family members no longer love or support the individual, only that they have come to the conclusion that anyone with anorexia has to want to get well for himself or herself before help can be provided. Recovery takes a long-term commitment; some promise that no matter how bad things get, health is the ultimate goal. It is impossible for someone on the outside to force recovery. However, because anorexia is a life-threatening illness, it is essential to provide options for anyone suffering from this disorder. Interventions and suggestions should not be discounted. It’s impossible to know whether taking action or giving advice will resonate with an anorexic, but it’s important to keep trying. It was Dick Van Dyke who once said that with his alcoholism, 100 people gave him the same piece of advice, but he wasn't ready to hear it until the 101st person said it. In other words, timing is everything when it comes to recovery, just as it was for me when my sister finally told me how my eating disorder had affected her and that I needed to take responsibility for my own recovery. I wasn't ready to change before that. In severe cases of anorexia, a hospital setting may be most appropriate, simply so that the patient can be carefully watched on a 24-hour-a-day basis.

Once the decision to get well has been made, there are many physical and emotional hurdles to clear. Anti-depressants, either synthetic or all-natural (e.g., SAM-e, TravaCor, or St John’s wort) can take the edge off the depression and anxiety that often accompany an eating disorder. Unfortunately, there are many physical symptoms with which to contend once regular eating is resumed. Digestive enzymes, pancreatin and hydrochloric acid can ease bloating, gas, and that uncomfortable full feeling while helping the body absorb more nutrients. With severe malnourishment, intravenous vitamin drips can be most beneficial. A good multivitamin and mineral tablet – especially one that contains an adequate amount of zinc, a mineral that has been shown to improve the symptoms of anorexia – is crucial when adequate daily nutrients are missing from the diet. Ultimately the body is resilient and is able to repair itself when given the chance. Healing is possible. With proper nutrients and an improved mental outlook, the healing process can occur more quickly.

Lorraine Moller and Colleen Cannon, two former world-class athletes, have an approach to eating and health that goes beyond using food merely as fuel. Their thoughts on the topic are truly inspirational.

Lorraine was able to convey what I consider to be crucial to recovery: the evolution of the self. She says, “The truth of who you are is wonderful. It seems we are often struggling to make our inner reality match our outer world. Everywhere we’re caught up on this idea that we’re not okay.”

I sat for a moment and thought how often my fear and lack of self respect allowed me to be taken advantage of by others. In addition, I thought about how undeserving of praise, money, and of course food I often felt. My inner reality of being not okay enough to deserve the good in life was certainly being reflected in my posture, look and overall physique. Lorraine goes into detail about this:

We tend to limit ourselves in the world by labeling ourselves, and freedom comes only when we move away from these labels. . In discovering the core of who we are, not defined by outer appearance, others or outdated internal belief systems, we open up to a world of possibilities. The more emotionally invested we are in our weight, the more we move away from performance. You have to ask yourself, “how far will I go to reach my goal?” If you are unable to move forward and are stuck in your identity, it can be miserable, but this is a sign that resolution is needed. It’s time to integrate a larger perspective and fulfill your potential as a creative loving being. Whenever we come up against something that’s not working in our lives, we need to figure out in which way we’re not loving ourselves. We need to be continually reinventing ourselves and move from one experience to the next. If everything in life is suggesting a change, and, instead, stagnation is achieved, it can lead to heartache, sorrow and pain.

In terms of my own performance, it did suffer. Had I not been so caught up in being thin, it's possible I could have focused more on how to improve my running. It's as if I was too thin to consistently do well and too hungry to focus on the things that mattered, yet too afraid to change. I had competing goals, and being thin eventually won over being an outstanding athlete. I often wonder how much I used my eating disorder as an excuse to not do well. It was obvious that I was too weak to run well in the long term, but somehow it was important to me at the time to know that I was thin, as if that's any kind of measure of success. It's not. If anything, it showed how out of balance my life had become. My focus of doing something exceptionally well had shifted to a focus on weight. If I had allowed myself to eat outside the strict rules I had set for myself, there's a good chance that my running career would have been much longer and might have flourished rather than fizzled.

When it comes to therapy, Lorraine suggests that this can be helpful, but only in that therapy and other modalities of healing lead to a better understanding of the self. What’s more important to recognize is how self-imposed limitations are keeping the spirit from full expression:

The spirit keeps wanting expression. As we learn and grow, our world needs to expand accordingly to encompass more, and it should be more wonderful. It’s the same with training. If you train right, you should be getting better and faster and having more fun. The body is a vehicle for the spirit’s expression. [If spirit isn't a term that resonates, one can think of it simply as moving on when it's time, regardless of any spiritual beliefs] We don’t want to get stuck in one archetype. We want to be able to express ourselves in many ways throughout life.

As Jackson Pollock once said, "It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something is being said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement." For those of us who can no longer run to make a statement, we must find other means of expression.
Before my interview with Lorraine came to a close, she mentioned some ideas to help with the recovery process. The concept is based on how core beliefs can be changed:

Thoughts always follow beliefs, but you always have your creative genius which comes in like divine inspiration and can put in a crack in your belief system. This is where you have the first step. Something that changes your thoughts and makes you realize that maybe there is another way. We have thoughts, which is basically an internal process, and words that are an expression following thoughts. Words are one step farther into reality than thoughts. Then we have action based on these thoughts that is actually putting ourselves out into the world, going even farther into reality, so if our actions are based on thoughts and ultimately on our beliefs, we can work backward by deliberately using action to send the feedback system a new message. This action, even if it’s scary, will reinforce a new belief. Words can be used as well to create a new pathway to a new belief system. A good exercise is to look in the mirror and see the beauty in you. Say out loud ‘I look beautiful’ even if thoughts come up that are contrary. Eventually the statement can become part of a new reality for you.

Having tried this exercise, I can say that it's not one that's as easy as it sounds. All the years of telling myself I was ugly got in the way of seeing any of the beauty in me.

I asked Lorraine why it’s so common for us to put limitations on ourselves. Her feelings:

Limitations are part of the soul’s journey. They can be taught by parents or the people around us or they can be self imposed, but since we are in this reality to learn about love, we can’t learn about love without first knowing what love isn’t. We need to move away from the model of the body as a machine and look at it more as an energetic unit. As we move toward this model, it’s important to also look at food not as compartments of calories, fat and carbohydrates and instead look at food as something that nourishes us. Ask what the life force behind the food is. For example, a piece of cake baked by a loving grandmother will have a whole different energetic feel to it than a piece of cake that has been sitting on the shelf that’s filled with preservatives and artificial ingredients. The one baked by the loving grandmother is sure to have a much higher life energy around it. If I look at beliefs around food, my body will get a very different message based on what I put in my mouth than the message sent when someone else eats the same thing. It’s all how we view it and our beliefs around it.”

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Training on Empty: Chapter 35

Chapter 35 – A Holistic Approach

“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to
find it.” – Tori Amos

When things were terrible with my illness, and I was wading through the muck and the mire, I searched for the proverbial magic pill that would cure me. Of course, there was none to be found, but it didn't stop me from wanting to find something that would cure me from this illness that had me in its icy grip. If someone had told me that rubbing a garlic clove on my nose would fix me, I probably would have tried it. I was desperate. While I didn't find true magic, I did find many alternative approaches to healing that captured my interest and seemed to work for many people. If these modalities of healing didn't help me directly, the process of trying something new taught me to keep searching for what would work for me. I believe that everyone is capable of finding the right combination of remedies, therapies and inner peace that will lead to a better and happier life.

When one takes a look at less traditional forms of healing, it’s important to note that the focus is not on the symptom itself but more on the energetic balance of the being in general. Symptoms provide a clue as to what is going on deeper in the body or mind. According to Chardin Bersto, M.A., in the case of, for example, five-element healing,“we’re looking at a new way of coming to the human form from an energetic perspective as opposed to physical.” His somatics method “integrates the contemporary thinking of Quantum and Unified Field Theories with spirituality. Thus you will learn to see yourself and others as having many choices within a wide field of possibilities.”  His work frees the individual from the physical manifestations of old thoughts and limiting beliefs by balancing the five elements: earth, water, metal, fire and wood.

The foundation of the work is the pulse. According to Daniel Redwood, DC, acupuncturists take a similar approach and look at the whole person. A treatment plan is devised on an individual basis, taking into account not only overt symptoms, but also the patient’s constitutional makeup and the factors that weaken and strengthen them. Diagnosis includes a subtle reading of the wrist pulses, which indicate the flow or blockage of qi (the Chinese word meaning “vital energy”) that flows through the body’s acupuncture meridians, or pathways.

The way Chardin looks at something like illness or injury is very different from the way a physical therapist or a standard medical doctor does. The latter focus on the symptoms only and treatment of those symptoms. Chardin points out, “Particular restrictions occur in our body as the result of how we come in contact with the world. In the process of a person’s life, in osteopathy one may refer to the ‘key lesion’ or original injury that can go back as far as in utero. The work that I do treats the span of the person’s life.” He adds that “Stress translates into mal adaptation of an organ or meridian. Even stress from the mother can translate to trauma to the fetus.” In general, one should be able to heal readily from either physical or emotional trauma, but if there are blockages, that healing may be diminished. Stressors that cause blockages can be as big as a car accident or as subtle as a child getting his feelings hurt.

Though there are now medications available that diminish the effect of post-traumatic stress, Chardin states, “In Chinese medicine, pharmaceuticals create deficiencies in the body. Medications tend to weaken other parts of the body. In terms of rehabilitation of the being, it doesn’t work. Carl Jung always felt that tension is the seed of change, so to get rid of tension doesn’t serve the person’s soul.”

With anorexia, instead of seeing a treatment plan that is the same for all patients, Chardin cautions: “Anorexia is a system-dynamic challenge. Some perception occurred in the course of the person’s life that led them into using behaviors around their eating, and also the idea of self-concept plays into this. If you take one hundred people with anorexia, you will get a different reading on each one. The key lesion becomes the center of a particular tensional constellation in the body, because we’re dealing with a body that stands in gravity. If you have a weakness in one part of the body, another has to take over and a pattern develops.” The result is pain or tension in that part of the body, which can be traced back to and is also a symptom of the key lesion.

The development of self is a core issue in healing. Chardin explains, “As children we are innocent. Children have an energetic relationship to the world that is completely permeable. They experience the world in an energetic manner more than adults. They can pick up on things that are happening in the family system. When it comes to healing, the family can actually be seen as an entire working system.” Chardin asks, “What is that symptom or, if you look at the family as an entire system, what is the individual with the illness trying to accomplish within the whole system?”

Chardin’s work includes “balancing of the pulses in order to repolarize the spaces in the body that have been held in tension. A pulse is in direct contact with the connective tissue matrix field and tells me by its weakness or strength or overabundance where the problems in the body live.” It is a very subtle practice in which twenty-nine different qualities of the pulse are detected. It is known to be very similar to the Ayurvedic practice of pulse-reading.

When looking at diet and nutrition, Chardin continues to stick to the five elements and balancing these elements with appropriate foods that correlate to each. In this way, food is considered energetically, not nutritionally. The focus is on how food can help balance any imbalance in the body through color, flavor and even temperature. If your attitude about eating is tied up in a past event and that behavior no longer serves you, you must consider what you can choose differently that will nurture who you are.

As we grow and develop, stages of our lives correlate with the different elements as well. You may notice that many people approaching their forties and fifties become more at ease with themselves. According to Chinese medicine, this stage of life correlates to the earth element, settling in to who you are.

Similar to the ancient Chinese method of healing with the five elements is the Shamanic approach to healing. According to Heather Clewett-Jachowski, founder of Inkavisions in Sedona, Arizona: “In the Inka tradition, we are in a sacred relationship with the wisdom of Ayni. Ayni means balance. As caretakers of the Earth, Shamans must walk the path of Ayni. Only this commitment will allow the Shaman to assist others in bringing their lives into balance.

“Shamans will not collude with you about the disorder that is eating you, or the truck that hit you on the way to work, or the jaguar that ate you at the watering hole. Regardless of the story, Shamans will ask you, how is it that your life is out of balance – out of Ayni – and how can I help?

“In these interesting times, we each have chosen a difficult birthing process for our souls’ evolution. The secret that has been kept from us, and that we have agreed to keep even from ourselves, is that we are Spiritual beings. We always have been; we always will be; it has always been this way. This creates the knowing that we are responsible for the human experiences we each choose along our paths. As we remember that we are Spiritual beings choosing human experiences, we become the wisdom-keepers we’ve been waiting for. As we bring our lives individually and collectively into balance – into Ayni – we dream awake a healed world into being.”

No matter what approach one takes to getting well, it’s crucial to view the individual as more than her illness or injury. A more holistic view is essential, especially with anorexia, which includes obvious physical as well as emotional issues. In nearly all modalities of treatment, healing occurs by bringing that which is out of balance back into balance. What’s important to know is that the body in balance can heal itself.

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Training on Empty: Chapter 34 (Possible TW)

Possible trigger warning with mention of numbers.

Chapter 34 – Recovery

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” – Marianne Williamson

I may come across as dark and brooding, but deep down I’m an optimist. I had to be given what I went through. No matter how bad off I was, I tried to imagine a brighter future. Even when I was 80 pounds and could hardly stand on my own, I kept the belief that full recovery from anorexia was possible. Knowing that there were women who had achieved this helped me keep that belief alive. It helped keep me alive, period. The women who had recovered were some of the strongest women I knew. I hardly considered myself among these brave souls. On the contrary, I thought them in a league far beyond my capabilities, yet even today with a body that’s somewhat ravaged by years of self-destruction, I have hope.

I have found some odd similarities in the phases of recovery in talking to others who have gone through an eating disorder. The majority of the people who have had anorexia, for example, had a fixation on eating frozen yogurt. It seems a strange irony that with such severe restrictions on food, we would all include frozen yogurt in our limited diets. Of course, not all anorexics consume frozen yogurt, but it’s interesting to note that many do. Frozen yogurt can be consumed slowly and is filling and satisfying. In an odd sense, it’s the perfect diet food because it’s low in fat and can be consumed in small amounts while still providing oral satisfaction and satiety. In addition, a great number of people who were in the very beginning stages of recovery develop a weakness for cereal, especially granola. One woman I know had severe cravings for bagels, but the majority of the individuals I met preferred cereal. In fact, most of us actually binged on it at one time or another. It could be that cereal provides a wide variety of soothing textures and much-needed carbohydrates, but there seems to be an emotional response to cereal as well. It’s a food associated with childhood, for example – one that often conjures up images of Saturday mornings watching cartoons on TV. Cereal tends to have crunch appeal too, which is not only satisfying but can also help reduce tension. Unfortunately, the damage to the body that results from anorexia is unpredictable, and each body responds differently to the harsh conditions of starvation. Therefore, no recovery can be a carbon copy of another, and healing becomes a unique experience.

In many ways, anorexia is a blatant example of a vicious cycle. The more the body is deprived of nutrients, the more it shuts down and the more distorted the person’s thinking becomes. The digestive system in particular is affected when one is under extreme stress and starvation conditions. As the body ages, levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes naturally decrease. This occurs more rapidly under stress. In the case of anorexia, it’s almost assured to happen rather quickly. The decrease in natural digestive juices leads to an inability to properly digest and absorb nutrients. This disruption can leave one feeling bloated and full, and can actually further starve the body of essential nutrients. In addition, there are neurons in the gastrointestinal tract that help transmit a wide variety of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Serotonin, in addition to having an effect on mood, also affects movement in the intestine. Damage to the neurons in the intestines can be caused by a variety of stressors, including parasites or pinworms, and can lead to a disruption of the transmission of neurotransmitters. It is assumed that improper nutrition can damage all cells in the body, including these neurons, decreasing the transmission of “feel-good” chemicals throughout. So even when normal eating resumes, it’s no guarantee that the body will come around and heal itself completely.

When I was in my late thirties, I was diagnosed with anemia, leaky-gut syndrome – a condition that affects the lining of the bowl – and several food allergies. My body is completely wrecked from years of overtraining and starvation. I have had so many stress fractures I have lost count: at least five in my feet, several in my pelvis, one in my heel – the list goes on. I have shortened tendons, stiff muscles, muscle shutdown and chronic back, leg, foot and hip pain. My digestive system is a mess, I fatigue easily, and my immune system is as delicate as a rare orchid in a windstorm. All of this sounds terrible, yet I’m happier now than I have ever been in the past. It may sound impossible to have so many problems and be happy, but considering where I once was, it’s true. I can't stress enough that my worst days now are far better than my best days when I was sick. Any pain or trauma in my life now pales in comparison to the darkness of anorexia. No matter how bad things get, I truly believe it will never be as bad as what I went through. I know it’s impossible to avoid pain and loss altogether, but I am more capable of moving through the hard times and better able to face uncomfortable feelings now. In addition, I feel that my health is returning. With continued efforts to eat well and manage moderate exercise, it’s highly likely that in time, my body will reach equilibrium.

In the meantime, I contemplate how this illness has served me. What was the payoff in staying sick versus getting well? The more I recover, the more responsibility I’m forced to take. As I see it, my anorexia helped me survive. It was a way for me to cope with events I felt were beyond my control. In order for true health to emerge, it’s important for me to find new coping mechanisms, ones that will better serve me in this lifetime. I must find the self-esteem and courage to speak out and stand up for myself rather than use harsh self-abusive methods to get messages across.

These days I’m haunted less by calorie-counting and compulsive exercise, and have relaxed the reins a bit. I no longer starve myself, and I don’t work out when I’m sick or overly tired. I have also cut back on exercise to a more reasonable amount of time per day. If I look at recovery and illness as a U, where the top of one side represents where I was before the anorexia started and the bottom of the U represents my lowest point, I would say I have climbed up from the bottom of the U, but have not yet reached the top of the opposite side. I can, however, see the top, or at least know that the top does exist. In addition, life has become more enjoyable as I let go of something that no longer serves me.

Most of the girls I know who have suffered through an eating disorder are in a boat similar to mine, somewhere between normal and anorexic. I have heard that most normal people have occasional body-image issues and struggles with food. I had a dream that if I could take a real leap of faith and land in infinite wisdom, I could learn to love my body, my mind and myself. Once, when I was running with a friend, we discussed how powerful the mind is. I told my friend I knew someone who stated that when one puts a heartfelt thought out to the universe, it becomes manifest. We came to the conclusion that if somebody truly believes something, it could and should come true. If this theory is applied to eating habits, it’s interesting to look at what our core beliefs around food are, how deserving we feel we are, and what our thought patterns are regarding what we put in our mouths. It’s not so much “you are what you eat” but “you are what you think about what you eat.” I’m not advocating that everyone go on a chocolate-truffle rampage, or that simply by thinking that consuming all of that chocolate is healthy the body will respond accordingly, but perhaps this theory is not so far-fetched. At least it offers some much-needed relief from the guilt that many of us experience when we don’t eat the most balanced of diets.

What I have noticed for myself in the last few years is that while I continue to dance with my illness, we have longer periods apart. At times, I become so immersed in a moment that I forget to be anorexic. This shows me that there is the potential to string more and more of these moments together. Living in the moment is not easy for someone who has spent years planning every meal, every workout and every second of every day, but every time I am able to live in the moment I know I’m doing the right thing for myself.

Oddly enough, I am happier with my body and more accepting of it now than when I was at my sickest. At 80 pounds, I constantly felt fat. Today, I sometimes forget my body. It has taken some time to learn to be kinder to myself, but I have had many people giving me support along the way. I once had to cut somebody out of my life for being too insensitive about my issues. It has taken a long time for me to be able to hear “you look good” or “you look healthy” or “you look great” and not feel fat. However, before I reached this point in the beginning stages of recovery, an acquaintance who had not seen me in several months met me for coffee. He said, “Wow, you look so…” and gestured with his hands as if he were feeling the weight of a large melon. I shook my head and immediately said, “Don’t even go there.” But he continued. “So meaty!” he concluded, smiling. Rather than throw my glass of water in his face like I wanted, I calmly said, “I can’t believe you could say that to someone who had anorexia for nearly 20 years. That was so not the right thing to say.”

Somehow I was polite as we finished our coffee, but I couldn’t let it go. I fretted about my eating for three days and convinced myself I was indeed fat. It saddened me to know that I could give someone this kind of power and not trust myself to even know whether or not I was at a reasonable weight. In the end, I came to the conclusion that my weight was fine for me. The next time I saw this guy, I told him I didn’t want any contact with him. It was a hard and somewhat drastic move, yes, but at the time it was what I needed to do. I couldn't risk a slide back into my illness. I wasn't strong enough at the time to be unaffected by comments like this. Eventually, I did forgive him, but at the time I knew it was unhealthy for me to be in his company. He seemed completely unable to understand how his comment had hurt me, and it seemed likely that he would spit out more hurtful comments again.

Sometimes, when people ask how I recovered as much as I have, I don’t really have an answer. I wish I could tell others who are suffering from this illness that you do x, y and z and then you are well. Unfortunately, anorexia is a very complex illness. I honestly don’t think that hospitals, doctors or therapists have all the answers. All these avenues can lead to a greater understanding of the disease, but it’s rare that any of them provide the cure. One thing that bothers me the most about a hospital setting is it doesn’t in any way prepare the individual to deal with life outside. Relapses in anorexia are more common than not. However, those who want to get well are far less likely to relapse. One has to want to get well and want it extremely badly before any change is likely to hold. Finding the courage to even express the desire to get well can be overwhelming from the perspective of an anorexic who feels helplessly trapped. Recognizing that the path to recovery is not easy, but can lead to a much better life, eases the tension of taking that first step, be it calling a counselor, admitting to a loved one or contacting a treatment center.  

I wish I had the backbone and merit to wear one of those, “I Beat Anorexia” T-shirts with conviction. However, I feel that I allow my illness to lurk around in the shadows too much for me to believe in my heart that I am completely recovered. Learning to trust innate wisdom is the ultimate goal of anyone struggling to be healthy. A forgiving nature toward the self is essential for recovery. When first learning to eat better and let go of the harsh thinking patters of anorexia, I often had to ask myself if I would treat someone else this way. If the answer was no, I knew I was being too strict with myself. Strangely, it is often easier to treat others well. Treating myself with that same compassion and understanding has been difficult. Finding the strength to continue to make healthier choices can sometimes be fatiguing, but it has definitely made me a stronger, more sympathetic person. Maybe one day I will be proud enough to sport a t-shirt that lets people know I conquered my illness. Until then, I’m content to just be alive, all things considered.

I know full recovery is possible. I have seen it. There are women out there who lead full lives, no longer haunted by the anorexia demons that once ruled their existence. But the road to recovery is not easy. If I had known how hard it would be, I might not have made the essential first leap of faith that I did. On the other hand, now that I’m in a much better place, there’s no way I would ever, ever go back.

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