An Eating Disorder Doesn’t Look the Same for Everyone
Somewhere along the line, I became aware of trying to please others, keeping emotions in check, doing and saying the right thing, maintaining a smile on my face, and staying modest. These traits, along with a Type A, perfectionist personality and a tendency for anxiety, opened the door for my eating disorder to step in. This is the story of a journey with an eating disorder and finding a renewed love for running throughout the voyage.
Love of Sport
My love of sport began at an early age – I would try any sport – volleyball, soccer, softball, tennis, etc. Eventually, I would land on my two loves: basketball and running. This happened after following in my older sister’s footsteps.
She ran cross country and track! Okay, I’ll try those!
She played basketball! Okay, I’ll try that!
I was hooked. I loved being part of a team. I loved moving my body. I loved working hard. And, I loved that hard work paid off. And I was coachable and a good student of the game, no matter what sport it was.
Things began shifting towards the end of high school. I was tired. I was tired of being involved in everything, I was tired of trying to be the best at everything, and I was tired of trying to prove something to myself and other people. Then my world as I knew came crashing down when I tore my ACL at the end of my senior year basketball season. What was I going to do now?
Sports were my life. I was maybe even going to try out for basketball or cross country at the small college I was planning to attend the following year. So, here we have a people-pleasing perfectionist with a tendency for anxiety (unidentified to myself at the time), teetering on the brink of something, who just lost what was a major part of her world: sport. In comes the eating disorder big time. My ED (the eating disorder personified*) promised to save the day! I began controlling what I ate and restricting it in a major way. I withdrew from my friends. I stopped doing the things I liked to do. My grades began slipping. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but ED helped me not deal with the emotions I was feeling. It also brought me a sense of control after feeling like things were slipping between my fingers.
Signs Early On
Even before ED made its first official “debut” my senior year of high school, I had thoughts and behaviors that started much earlier than anyone realized. Looking back, I could see signs of ED wanting to creep into my life long before high school. He was a lurker. I can recall at a very young age being very happy with how food made me feel. I even recall a family member one time saying, “You seem to really enjoy food.” They did not mean this in a negative way; they were just making an observation.
I can remember, in early adolescence, eating and eating until I was beyond full. Like, I would get so uncomfortable; I didn’t know when to stop. Was my brain responding to food in a slightly different way than others do? Likely, yes. Researchers have identified specific neurobiological differences in the brains of people with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. These differences affect how we eat, as well as things like mood, anxiety, personality, and decision-making. Numbing from uncomfortable feelings would come later.
Early in puberty, when my body began changing, I didn’t like it. I would look in the mirror at my changing body, and negative thoughts would come flooding in (in comes the body image dissatisfaction that often accompanies eating disorders). My sister and best friend didn’t experience changes in their body like that, why am I? I remember experimenting with eating disorder symptoms prior to late high school, but it was only quick experiments, and the idea quickly dissipated.
Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of their gender or sex: 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. I had a wonderful childhood with very supportive parents and great friends. There were no traumatic events. I did not have a difficult upbringing. Often, I felt guilty for not having a reason to pinpoint for developing an eating disorder. It wasn’t until later in my therapy that I realized there is no one cause for eating disorders, and it involves a complex variety of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.
I can still recall comments made growing up regarding my body shape, and even others’ body shapes that I personalized. They were said in innocent fashions, but the fact that I remembered those comments throughout my entire life is indicative of my sensitive personality:
“You’re built like a sprinter, not a long-distance runner.”
“College runners come in all shapes and sizes.”
“Your sister is so thin.”
These were comments made so incredibly long ago, and yet I can still remember who said them to me and where I was at the time. I don’t mention this as a way to shame whoever made these comments; it’s more as an awareness. It is best to keep body comments to yourself. Any body comments.
Anxiety Comes Acreepin…
I would not learn until later in life that I was developing generalized anxiety, as well as mild obsessive-compulsiveness, throughout my adolescence before ED reared his ugly head in my life. It is extremely common for co-occurring issues to manifest with an eating disorder. I was a worrier as a child: I would project my worries onto my loved ones, including my sister. She used to say in a teasing manner, “I don’t need a second mother.”
My anxiety began manifesting itself in physical forms as well: pinching the skin on my arms and biting my nails. For those who also deal with nervous habits like these, you don’t even realize you are doing them at the time.
Although I experienced some obsessive-compulsive actions like checking the oven three or four times before leaving my apartment or counting house address numbers to see if they were divisible by three, it was more in the form of obsessive thoughts. I worried about what others thought of me, my low self-esteem charging ahead: Was I saying the right thing? Was I doing the right thing? Was I being too “bossy”? Was I getting good enough grades? Was I choosing the right major in college? Does this guy like me? Why won’t he call me back? Did she just look at me in a weird way? Does my boss like the work I’m doing?
Eating Disorder: Head On
I struggled with ED coming in and out of my life for close to 20 years: throughout my teens, 20s, and 30s. Some days, weeks, and even years were worse than others. I sought treatment after encouragement from loving family and friends. I got better. Then I’d have a setback. I would seek treatment again. Get better. And something would trigger me, and I would relapse again. I learned that setbacks are a part of the journey, but I also learned to celebrate each and every victory. Celebrate each and every hour of positive recovery. What might seem like a small win to some might be a major milestone to another.
Many do not realize how serious eating disorders can be: they have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. My treatment was always spent in outpatient therapy, sometimes intensive outpatient (IOP), and sometimes just a monthly check-in appointment. The tricky thing about eating disorders is it does not always show up and look the way some think it should. I was not always underweight. In fact, many of my most unhealthy times were at higher weights. I am so happy to see more awareness being brought to this fact, but there is still a lot we have to do in terms of education, even in the medical field.
I am a work in progress, but what I cherish about being in my late 30s is finally understanding who I am and being comfortable in my own skin. To this day, I have a hard time saying that I am recovered because I know that I will always have to stay cognizant of that old ED voice in my head trying to creep back in, especially when I’m vulnerable. I continue to work on what made me vulnerable to an eating disorder in the first place. It is important to remember that ED provided something to me at one time. It was not healthy, but it clearly showed up for a reason. I was not sure how to handle emotions or feelings, so when they would come up, I found a solution to not having to deal with them: my eating disorder. It took me years to recognize my sensitivity as a human being. And, more importantly, my sensitivity is not a negative trait. In fact, it is an amazing human trait. I may be a little more anxious, but I’d rather live with anxiety and sympathy than not.
And I am constantly listening – life transitions provide a great space for ED to creep back in. Eating disorder recovery is hard. It is really hard. It is opening up yourself in ways you never thought you could or never thought you wanted to. It is about learning to sit in the “icky”, those moments that are uncomfortable when uneasy feelings and emotions come up. Even though it is hard, it is completely worth it. Having a life free from an eating disorder is so much more than what an eating disorder appears to bring to you. I absolutely love this quote: “The truest, most beautiful life never promises to be an easy one,” Glennon Doyle, Untamed.
Finding Running… Again.
During the years that ED was most prevalent in my life, I still ran off and on, but I lost the love of it. I even trained for a few marathons while using eating disorder symptoms. I tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon twice while using eating disorder symptoms. I used to cringe (after-the-fact) at the thought of what I was putting my body through and asking of it; I experienced one stress fracture in my ankle and countless other lower leg injuries that definitely can be attributed to my lack of self-care, and even worse, self-harm that I was doing to my body.
I was at war with my body for so long that I could not truly appreciate running. Now I am thankful that I found a renewed love for this sport that has given me so much more than it has taken. My renewed love came after I became a parent, especially a parent of a child with acute medical needs in his early stages of life. It brought me a new kind of joy: time to reflect and pray and time to sort through my thoughts and feelings…but at the same time, it also revived that feisty, competitive girl inside me, especially come race day. Running and moving my body provide an outlet for my anxiety, which was a vulnerability that helped open the door to my eating disorder. I did finally reach my BQ post-baby. I was able to run the Boston Marathon, although virtually, while being 8 weeks pregnant with our second child! I look forward to the day when I can run in the Boston Marathon in-person.
Running constantly provides metaphors in life. A marathon training cycle is so reflective of the cycles we go throughout life, whether it’s relationship or friendship cycles, career cycles, or eating disorder recovery cycles: some days are easy, some are hard, then when you get to your end goal – whatever that might be – a job promotion, an addition to your family, a move across country, a PR – you realize, wait, it wasn’t about getting to this exact point, it was about the journey all along.
Secrets Revealed… for Real
An eating disorder thrives on secrecy, manipulation, mind games, negative self-talk, and isolation. During the times I was seeking professional treatment and doing the things that I needed to do to recover, I still could not fully open up about what I was dealing with to loved ones. Not really. I would open up just enough so they knew I was working to get better, but it was superficial. I was still embarrassed, even ashamed. Being that vulnerable to my loved ones was harder than being vulnerable to strangers.
Running has provided a safe space for me to open up about ED with friends. What you share on the run with friends can be so sacred, it’s truly amazing. There’s no better way to get close to someone than to spend a few hours sweating out some miles with them. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, but I know that by opening up, I am stronger in my recovery. I am not a medical doctor, scientist, or professional researcher, but I am an expert in my own experience, which I am only now truly embracing. The idea that sharing my story might help just one other person is motivation enough for me to stop worrying about what others think and truly get real. Which led me to sharing my story with the Still I Run community. To be this vulnerable to such a wide audience was truly scary for me. If you are dealing with an eating disorder, please know that there is help out there. You do not need to go about this alone. I have been there. So many of us have. Have faith. Have hope. It will get better.
*In the book, Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer, she describes her eating disorder as a unique personality separate from her own. This technique was extremely helpful for me as well. I would highly recommend this book.
Hello! My name is Carie, and I’m a 38-year-old wife and mother to a busy two-year-old and expecting our second child in April. I have my own consulting business working in the community and economic development. Additionally, I am also a sister, daughter, and friend. I am a Minnesota native but live in northern Michigan with my family. I enjoy exploring the outdoors, waterskiing, cross country skiing, and, obviously, running! My son and I have put many miles on the jogging stroller together. I qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2019 and ran it virtually fall of 2020 while 8 weeks pregnant. I look forward to being able to run it in person someday soon! My weekly mileage has dropped quite a bit while being pregnant, but I plan to continue running as long as I can into my pregnancy and also use this time to work on some strength training I’ve been neglecting.