Growing up I was overweight and out of shape. I liked food, but I also used food to cope with negative emotions. The worse I felt about myself the more I ate, and the more I ate the worse I felt about myself. I didn’t like to exercise either. My family wasn’t very sporty, so it wasn’t a part of our daily life. I tried various sports, but nothing clicked for me. I didn’t feel comfortable in my body and every sport I tried, I just felt awkward and uncoordinated. In elementary school, I was always the last kid to get picked for teams during P.E. and was even made to feel bad for not being fast enough or able to catch a ball.
Fast forward to my senior year of high school. I went through a break up with a boyfriend, which at the time seemed like a big deal. There was an overall sense of anxiety and unhappiness with my life and I decided to make a change and lose weight. I started by making healthier food choices and the pounds started coming off. I began to feel better about myself, but what really encouraged me were the comments from other people about my weight loss. The more people complimented me the harder I worked at losing weight. But something else in my brain clicked because for the first time I truly felt in control over something.
I knew if I wanted to keep making progress I had to add exercise in. I started going to the gym and realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I kept it simple with lots of cardio and some classes. The weight continued to come off and I attributed it to the exercise. Just as I was afraid of eating too many calories or fattening food, I was afraid to miss one day of exercise. I was afraid I would gain the weight back if I didn’t go to the gym. If I missed a day at the gym I did a double the following day. My whole day centered around what I ate and how much I exercised. Exercise became more of a punishment rather than something that made me happy. At the time I thought I was gratified because in my mind I was eating better, exercising more and I was the thinnest I’d ever been. It made me feel in control.
When Control Took Over
I went away to college in another state where I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have the comfort of my family and friends. My daily schedule was different and the consistency I had had with my eating and workouts was no more. I did my best to maintain my eating and exercise plan, but it was tough. I also needed to figure out how to fit in at my new school with new friends. By the end of freshman year, I had gained some weight, which only emboldened me to become more diligent in my eating and workouts that summer. I became more obsessed with exercise and would sometimes workout three hours a day not because I enjoyed it, but because I felt I had to. Exercise became something I made myself do every day and I counted each calorie burned on the treadmill or bike. Exercising became a required non-negotiable part of my day.
During my second year of college, my obsession with food and exercise ramped up. It was like this beast inside telling me I was fat, ugly and unworthy if I ate too much or didn’t exercise enough. The problem was that I really enjoyed food, which made exercise even more imperative in my life. I would drive to the gym and spend hours doing cardio and lifting weights, instead of joining my friends at dinner and socializing afterward.
A Change in My Habits
In hindsight, I realize I was also struggling with some anxiety and being around a lot of people. If they were commenting about what I was or wasn’t eating it increased my anxiety levels. I used exercise to cope with my feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, but it also gave me a sense of control and accomplishment. That summer was one of the best I’d ever had. It was the first time I lived on my own (with a good friend), had a job, a great boyfriend and I was close to my friends and family, yet my obsession with what I ate and how much I exercised was full force.
I found a way to maneuver my disordered eating and exercise behavior around my social life. It was a constant juggle, but I made it work. It was now a big part of my life and I honored it like I would a best friend, because that’s what it was to me. It was the friend I could always count on to help me feel in control and safe. There was a part of me that enjoyed exercising (possibly the endorphin high), but it was definitely more of a “have-to-do” rather than I “want-to-do” type of thing.
In my third year of college, two big things happened that altered my life and changed the trajectory of my eating and exercise obsession. I was heartbroken when my boyfriend broke up with me and a few months later I went to study abroad in England. Whereas the first breakup was the beginning of my spiral, this breakup was the beginning of the end. In England, I lived with a wonderful family that encouraged healthy living and eating habits. I didn’t have the same resources to eat and exercise the way I had back home. I wanted to immerse myself in a different country and culture and I had to find my inner strength to handle all the tough emotions from the breakup. When I came back to the United States I decided to get help for my disordered eating and exercise addiction. I created a team – a therapist, nurse practitioner, and nutritionist – and with their help and a lot of hard work I tackled the tough emotions, the negative talk in my head and the behaviors I used to cope with them.
Twenty-five years later I have a much better relationship with food and I’m able to listen and respond to what my body wants. I don’t exercise to punish myself, but instead, it’s something that makes me feel good. Now I have channeled all my life experiences and hard work into my current career. With my Master’s Degree in Social Work, I worked with individuals with eating disorders and drug and alcohol addiction. I am currently working as a Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer. I hope to instill in others the importance of exercising because it feels good, rather than a punishment for what they ate the night before or over a holiday. About eight years ago, I discovered running and with that a whole new community of positive and encouraging people. Running, especially with my dog, gets me outside in the fresh air, gives me alone time with my thoughts, and reminds me what a strong individual I have become.