For nine years–from age 11 to age 20–I struggled with an eating disorder–a combination of anorexia and orthorexia. While I have been nervous to open up about this, I now feel strongly that the more open we are about our health struggles, the less likely they are to continue to do us harm. Indeed, eating disorders thrive in darkness and shame. By shining a light on my story, I aim to add my voice to a growing number of people, particularly athletes, who have shared their struggles with eating disorders in sport.
Warning that this content may be triggering, and if you are currently struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, I do not recommend reading further.
Until grade five, I had an excellent relationship with food. I loved all foods, had a hearty appetite, a massive sweet tooth, and didn’t know the definition of calories, carbohydrates, fat, or protein. I ran around a lot because I loved it, and I usually beat the boys in schoolyard running races. My mom always cooked healthy, balanced meals and desserts, and there was never any talk about dieting or weight in our house. I loved everything from pizza to pasta to chocolate cake. I think I was the envy of everyone in my elementary school classes given the delightful lunches my mom packed every day, which ran the gamut of everything from pita pizza to homemade muffins with nut butter and jam. All of this is to say that there was always plenty of food in our house, and while almost everything was homemade and prepared with natural ingredients, there was no distinction made by my parents between “good” and “bad” foods, and no foods were off-limits.
My attitude towards food took a turn towards the end of grade five. I had just started to participate more seriously in gymnastics, and some of the girls in my group had begun to scrutinize our bodies. I’ll never forget the moment when one of the girls in my group asked me how much I weighed. When I replied with my weight, she said, “That’s heavy.” I had never thought much about my weight up until that moment. And, I might add, I wasn’t close to being on the larger side for my height. I was at a healthy weight and had a muscular frame. My coach, bless his soul, was quick to interject that “muscle weighs more than fat, so the more muscular you are, the more you weigh.” But his interjection fell on my deaf ears. I had already internalized my teammate’s comment, and it was at this moment that I really started to notice my body. At the same time, another one of my teammates had taken to calling herself “fat,” even though I thought she was slimmer than me, and she told me that her doctor wanted her to eat no more than 200 calories at a time. I find this very hard to believe: no doctor in good conscience will tell a slim 12-year-old to restrict her caloric intake in such a way. And yet at the time, I internalized her newfound restrictive behaviours as well, and I decided that if one girl considered me “heavy” and another girl who was slimmer than me needed to lose weight, then of course I had to start losing weight, too.
Initially, I adopted a set of restrictive behaviours that seemed innocent enough: I stopped eating desserts, but I replaced that with a healthy evening snack. I stopped eating pizza, but I still ate bagels with tuna salad or hummus and cheese. I wouldn’t eat too much sugar, but I would still eat homemade apple muffins. Around this time, I also took a liking for distance running and soccer. My new restrictive diet and increased activity level allowed me to lose a few pounds and I remember being quite pleased with my appearance the summer before grade six.
Somehow, over the summer before grade six, my restrictive behaviours turned into a game. Weight loss is a slippery slope, and before I knew it, I had become addicted to seeing an ever lower number on the scale. Still, if anyone was concerned about my weight loss, they didn’t mention it. I think this is because my weight loss was not drastic, and it simply seemed as though I was “leaning out” due to my increased activity level. I joined a competitive gymnastics group in grade six, and I felt a lot of pressure to perform well. (This was completely perceived pressure on my part: I was not, by any means, at an elite level, and there was never body shaming on the part of the coaches at my club). Still, I wanted to prove to my peers and coach that I was serious about my performance, and in my young mind, seriousness about gymnastics meant being light and feather-like. Plus, I had already lost several pounds over the summer, and I felt that if I gained it back, it would seem as though I was out of control.
My response to what I perceived as increased pressure to perform was to restrict more and exercise more. I completely cut out desserts, and I ate a very limited number of foods at each meal. Because I was now away from home for some dinners throughout the week, due to gymnastics practice, I was able to hide my restriction from my family more easily. My parents did take notice about my restrictive habits, and encouraged me to eat more and relax more about exercise, but I am an extremely stubborn person. I had committed to looking a certain way, and there was no way that I was going to allow anyone to intervene.
This behaviour continued for the rest of grade six. Unfortunately for my mental health, I placed first all around at every gymnastics competition that year. Therefore, in my mind, I was at the right weight for performance. I became obsessed with winning, and started to take my training more seriously than ever before. I was a stickler for conditioning sessions, making sure that I completed every single exercise, and I hated standing still at practice, believing that I needed to be moving the entire time for maximum calorie burn.
By the beginning of grade seven, I had dropped down to my lowest weight ever, and I looked incredibly sick. However, as anorexia took hold, my self image became more and more distorted. Although deep at my core, I understood how sick I was becoming, I felt utterly helpless to stop my compulsive exercise and extreme food restriction. Finally, the gymnastics coach intervened, and I was forced to step away from gymnastics to recover. Gradually, I returned to a healthy weight, but I did not feel at home in my body.
Anorexia would again rear its head in grade nine, when I joined cross country and, later, the track team. The compulsion to over-train and under-eat returned, only this time I was more skilled at concealing my behaviour from others. I performed well initially, but my body could only handle so much while in a state of starvation. It was not until I got a stress fracture from undernutrition at the end of grade nine that I was again forced to step away from the sport. I slowly began to eat more and exercise less, but I still didn’t feel good about myself.
I might also add that, like many people, high school wasn’t what I had expected it to be, and I hadn’t really found a crowd that I enjoyed being a part of. Even though I was lucky to live in a loving, stable home, other aspects of my life felt out of control, and I felt that if I could at least control my food intake, exercise, and appearance, everything else would feel that much easier to cope with.
That being said, I somehow managed to stay on a healthy path as far as food and exercise went for grade ten and most of grade eleven. However, as grade eleven came to a close, I decided that I would get myself back into tip-top shape. (I was already in good shape, but as a perfectionist, I believed that I could do better.) I completed the P90X fitness program, and then began training for my first half-marathon. Because I wasn’t eating enough to fuel my activity level, my weight plummeted considerably that summer. I completed the half-marathon in a time of 1 hour and 31 minutes, good enough for second place in my age group. I should have been elated, but I suffered a shin fracture during that race, and was hardly able to walk for weeks afterwards.
Because I wasn’t able to run, I restricted my food intake even more–erroneously believing that being injured meant that you should eat less. I believe that I lost several more pounds, and I felt terrible. I was cold all the time; I had severe stomach pains during the day and in the middle of the night; I was tired all the time; and my bones and joints constantly made cracking and popping sounds. Now, I probably should have sought help for yet another relapse of anorexia, but I instead pushed on, working harder than ever to achieve near-perfect marks, head up a club, and maintain an outward appearance of having it all together.
It was a guidance counsellor who intervened this time, but I did not feel at all comfortable opening up about my years-long struggle with anorexia with a near-stranger. I instead attempted to gloss things over and told her that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to succeed academically, and that I was stressed, hence the dramatic weight loss. (I had lost 35 pounds in the span of one year… how I didn’t think this was noticeable is beyond me now.) I promised that I would take it easier, and started to eat a little bit more. However, I also exercised more to compensate, so I remained extremely underweight and sickly. Right after grade twelve ended, I ran my fastest 10 km race ever in a time of 38 minutes and 45 seconds. Aside from being extremely underweight, I actually felt fine given that I was now eating more. However, I definitely did not look fine.
Things normalized somewhat once university started, but my weight remained precipitously low. At a time when you’re supposed to look vibrant and nourished, I looked tired and sick. All of my spare time was spent either working out or immersed in my studies. I didn’t make time for relationships or joy, and I was never in the present moment whenever I was socializing because I was constantly thinking about running or how I was going to burn off my last meal.
I kept up with demanding training for long distance races and maintained an outward appearance of having it together academically and in my personal life. In 2013, I ran my second half-marathon, this time in 1 hour and 26 minutes. It’s hard to look back at the photos from that race, as I truly look anorexic. I was in denial, though, and I was most happy with the result.
Then, in 2014, I had the opportunity to move to Victoria, British Columbia, and I ran the half-marathon that October a minute faster (1 hour and 25 minutes). Yet again, I suffered a stress fracture during that race–this time in my pelvis–and I must say that I have never been in more physical pain in my entire life. I was unable to walk, much less run. Any transfer of weight from one leg to another sent shooting pain straight through my groin and pelvis.
The body can only take so much, and in hindsight, I am quite grateful for this injury. It gave me the wake-up call that I so desperately needed. Here I was at nearly 20 years old, and my body felt as fragile as somebody four times my age. Something just clicked, and I realized that if I kept up like this, I wouldn’t be able to live a good life. I wouldn’t find a loving partner if I wasn’t content with who I was. I wouldn’t be able to have kids if my hormones remained suppressed and my body wasn’t receiving the nourishment that it needed. I wouldn’t succeed in school or in a career if I held myself to such a high standard of perfection at any cost.
the road to recovery
I’m not going to attempt to gloss over the fact that recovering from anorexia was one of the messiest and most challenging things that I have ever committed to. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t hate the way that my body was changing. I had become so used to being underweight that I didn’t know what my natural body size was. I didn’t just have “bad body” days–I had bad body weeks, and even months. Not being able to run was pure torture for me: the one thing that had given me an escape and a sense of control was no longer available to me.
But, I persevered, knowing deep down that if I didn’t recover then, I would never be able to move forward with my life. In the fall of 2015, I was a very different person, physically and emotionally, than I was in the fall of 2014. I enrolled in a holistic nutrition certificate program at Pacific Rim College, and became fascinated by the healing power of food–not from a rigid and restrictive perspective, but from a place of awe and appreciation. I felt that I had finally found my calling, and felt like myself for the first time in years.
A short time later, I stumbled upon some fantastic food and healing resources by The Full Helping, The Real Life RD, Imma Eat That, and Christy Harrison. I became a big proponent of an intuitive eating, all foods fit approach to eating and health. I began to find peace with food and my body. Thanks to the work of these and other intelligent women, balance and health returned to my life. I began running again, not for speed or performance, but for enjoyment.
By the beginning of 2018, I was once again living in Ottawa, and I finally felt mentally well enough to train for a half-marathon again. I told myself that this time around, I was running for pure enjoyment, not for a personal best. For the first time in my life, I made it through a training cycle without falling into old patterns of restriction and overtraining, and finished in a time of 1 hour and 37 minutes: twelve minutes slower than my personal best, but still a respectable time, and the best part was that I wasn’t hobbling away with a stress fracture!
Buoyed by this result, I registered for a marathon, again determined to get through a training cycle without getting injured or sick. I was careful to eat lots, train properly, and not fall back into old patterns. Again, this commitment paid off, as I completed the marathon in a Boston-qualifying time of 3 hours and 25 minutes.
five years recovered, and…
I am now in a place of body neutrality. I don’t love my body. I don’t dislike my body. My body just is, like any other body. I make sure to honour and respect it by nourishing it with lots of whole veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, but I never say no to a slice of chocolate cake. I make sure to give it the rest that it needs. I make every effort to tune in and listen: when my body is asking for rest, I heed its call.
I would be lying if I said that I never have a negative thought about my appearance. The difference now is that I recognize it as water under the bridge. I allow negative body thoughts to pass, just like any other thought that might arise in my mind. It’s impossible not to have a negative thought about your body, but it is important to be in a place of body neutrality.
I am beyond grateful to be in a place now where food brings me joy rather than fear, and where I no longer feel the urge to exert control over my exercise and food choices. Recovery is definitely worth it.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please talk to somebody you feel comfortable confiding in. This might be a friend, a coach, a family member, or a therapist. You can also reach out for help at the National Eating Disorders Association.