I am in recovery from almost every eating disorder known to humanity, including exercise addiction. I have a tough relationship to fitness. While it sounds appealing—sounds healthy—sounds sexy, even, the truth is…
Therefore, to be honest, I’m afraid to even visit this website.
When it comes to fitness, I have to be very careful about the content and language I absorb to protect my strong-yet-fragile recovery. Perhaps you are also in recovery. Perhaps this can help protect you.
In elementary school, I was small. I was a “peanut.” In 5th grade, I began running cross country. I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. I also could have taken or left it. It meant nothing more to me than what it was. It wasn’t something I thought about when I wasn’t doing it. It wasn’t something I “jonesed” for. It was just something I did, occasionally, and that I enjoyed.
In 6th grade, I developed an eating disorder – binge eating disorder, with a strong, secret desire for anorexia, which would eventually manifest. I started to feel insecure about my body. I started gaining weight; eating more, running less. In 8th grade, I stopped running cross country, and naturally my weight went up.
Meanwhile, I’d fallen in love with musical theatre, which meant I had to start taking dance classes. Wearing leotards was horrible, but not as horrible as I was at dancing. I hadn’t danced since I was 4. I was drastically behind all the “theatre kids” who’d grown up dancing, and I sucked. My self-confidence, already low, quickly plummeted.
I got cut from almost every show I auditioned for. I had it in my head that, since I hadn’t pursued musical theatre in my early childhood, I had no right to pursue it now. That it was “too late” for me – which, at 14 years old, it simply false. At 20 years old, it’s simply false.
Because I felt unworthy, I refused to smile during any dance class or any audition. Why allow myself to have fun? Why try? Why do my best? I was here for one reason and one reason only: to be rejected.
I felt like a lost cause. And I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that my friends and family thought I was some “star,” when I wasn’t. If only you could see me in my classes, I’d think. You’d be surprised. You’d know what a failure I am. But apparently, they didn’t.
By sophomore year, I was chubby.
I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage and shame and they manifested as excess fat on my body. I wanted that fat to disappear – not because it was ugly, but because it wasn’t me. The body I occupied was not my own.
I asked my mom to get a treadmill. I begged her for probably a year. I wanted to be one of those champion athletes who worked out every day, no matter what. I wanted to have a gym routine. I wanted to be a role model, an icon. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to stop binge eating. I wanted to stop being the girl who always stuffed her face.
Finally, at the end of my sophomore year, my family went on a spree: 4 young puppies and a brand-new treadmill. We put the treadmill in my room. I used it once or twice for two minutes, and that was hard. I had hoped to use it effortlessly. I had hoped to use it daily. I had hoped to watch the pounds fall off. I had told my mom, “it will pay for itself.” I felt guilty that I “could not perform.”
As the summer progressed, I kept trying to befriend it. I set a goal – 10 minutes of jogging per day – and surprisingly, I stuck to it. I continued to binge on food, but at least I was running, and running daily that was a start. Those 10 minutes allowed me to love myself. At least, somewhat. I depended on those ten minutes. Those ten mandatory minutes.
That August, I spent 2 weeks at a pre-college program without treadmill access. So, I simulated a ten-minute treadmill workout, jogging for 10 minutes in place in my dorm room. When I returned to New Orleans, I resumed my 10-minute routine, this time on the treadmill, and began making what I called “wonder smoothies,” daily, for breakfast. Those smoothies deserve their own article, and they’ll get one, someday.
Every night before I went to bed, I’d plan when to work out the next day, and every morning when I woke up, it was the first thing I thought of. If the treadmill became hard to access, or if I hadn’t had my workout yet, I’d be touchy, agitated, bristly, and hard to talk to. I was like an alcoholic, but rather than needing a drink, I needed the treadmill.
Get a drink in his hand, and he’ll be fine.
Get her on the treadmill, and she’ll be fine. She’ll calm down. She’ll be nice.
As I said, the treadmill was a gateway drug. It was toxic for my obsessive thinking. It was covered with buttons. Covered with numbers. Mile, speed, time, incline, calories—these were my kryptonite. I became obsessed with milestones.
When I hit 10 minutes, I would look at the calorie mark. If I saw something “uneven” like 176, I had to keep going till the next checkpoint: 200. When I hit 200 calories, I looked at the mile count. If I saw something “incomplete” like 1.85, I had to keep going till the next checkpoint: 2.0. When I hit two miles, I looked at the time. If I saw something “skimpy” like 13:47, I had to keep going till the next checkpoint: 15 minutes.
Emphasis on had to. I had to. There was something in my brain, something bigger than me, that was telling me I had to. I could not live, or be remotely satisfied with myself, if I did not.
This was disease. This was addiction.
This was addiction normalized.
I attended two schools part-time: a co-ed private school in a suburb of New Orleans and a public, audition-only art school downtown by the Mississippi River. I would leave School #1 at 12:15 and drive 30 minutes to the other.
As my eating disorder progressed, I began leaving School #1 earlier and earlier, often during lunch time, to stop at home and use the treadmill before going to School #2, where I participated in dance classes with heavy conditioning. Then I would come home and do it again—the treadmill, that is. My dance teacher and mentor voiced concern for me pretty quickly. I even found texts on my mother’s phone between the two of them— messages such as, “she really does not need to be exercising outside of her dance classes,” and, “I’d throw that treadmill out the window if I were you.” I was pissed. I was an addict. I would not be caught. I would not be stopped.
My mother describes the following incident, which had occurred one month earlier, as the “moment she knew” something was wrong. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday, October 27th, 2015. My half birthday. Because I had two siblings, car access was an issue. After months of financial deliberation, my parents decided to invest in a third vehicle so I could take myself to and from school. On Tuesday, October 27th, I drove home early, between schools. It was 11:45 AM. My parents were not expecting me home in the middle of the day. As I got out of the car in front of my house, I saw my father turn around the corner in a brand-new car.
He waved at me from the window, grinning. I dashed into the house, ran up the stairs, and leapt onto the treadmill. I had to reach the treadmill before he trapped me. I had no time for a brand-new car. I had to get my workout in. My mother came up the stairs. “Bella,” she said, beaming with excitement, “Come down and see.”
“GET OUT OF HERE!” I shouted. My time read 7 minutes.
“Bella, get off the treadmill.”
“Get off the treadmill.”
I would not.
By the time I had finished my workout, it was time for me to go to School #2. I could not be late. I ran out of the house, leapt into my father’s car— the one I was used to driving—and sped away to school. I’d longed for that car for months. But now that I was in my eating disorder, I couldn’t care less. The following day—Wednesday, October 28th, 2015—I found myself in Modern Dance Class at School #2. The phone rang in the middle of class. The teacher answered it. “Bella,” she said, “They want you in the front office.”
I went downstairs, looking bony in my black leotard. It was my program supervisor and my dance teacher—the one who had been engaging with my mom. They pulled me into a conference room. “Your mom called,” they said. “She is very concerned. And so are we. Do you know what we’re talking about?” I stared back at them. I don’t remember if I said yes or no.
“Your health,” my supervisor finished for me, lips quivering as he began to cry. “Your health.”
When I pulled up to my house that evening, in the brand-new black Honda Civic I’d decided to call Charlie (male), my mom got into the passenger seat. She’d been waiting for me.
“I love you, Baby,” she said. “But I talked to your teachers. They want you in counseling tomorrow.” In November of 2015, a few weeks later—mere days before Thanksgiving—I began seeing a therapist. A man. I hated him. He was harsh. Brutal. Blunt. Certain he knew best. And about certain things, he probably did.
“Don’t you want to be a woman?” he once asked. “Right now, you’re not a woman. You’re a child.”
This was in regards to my pre-pubescent body. Here’s another exchange:
“You have a disease. I’m worried about you dying.”
“What are you talking about? What disease?” I asked.
“Anorexia,” he replied.
“I have anorexia?”
“Who diagnosed it?”
I was shocked. I was devastated to receive a diagnosis. I thought a diagnosis made things official. Truth is, diagnosis is arbitrary. You either have it or you don’t—the disease, that is. You don’t need someone to tell you that.
After my second session, he forbade me from using the treadmill. It was awful. The withdrawals, oh, the withdrawals. I burst into my supervisor’s office at school and sobbed about how much I was craving it, missing it, dying without it. I tried, so hard, to obey and keep my promise, but one day I couldn’t take it anymore.
I walked into my parents’ room where the treadmill now lived. Nobody was home. Shaking with guilt and conflict, I stepped on, heart racing. I looked down and—the key was gone. The motherfucking key was gone. Those goddam, motherfuckers. Those motherfucking bastards. My mother had hidden the key. I broke down. I sobbed and sobbed. I wanted to die, my life was over. I’d been robbed of my vice, my control.
This, of course, was highly necessary. But it didn’t matter.
Of course, I had my two legs, and I had my iPhone with a timer, so I simulated a treadmill, and I ran in place for 10 minutes whenever I needed a “fix.”
How did I come out of that deep, dark hole? Long story, one including several years of ongoing treatment, both outpatient and inpatient. (During in-patient, we’d get written up for what they called “excessive movement.”) But I am simultaneously proud, humbled, and grateful to say I don’t live that way now. I am in recovery, actively healing my relationship with food and movement one day at a time.
That doesn’t mean I don’t exercise. I do. But I don’t relate to it in the same way. I used to think recovery meant no exercise at all whatsoever, which for a time it did, but today, my body needs movement, and my work is to meet this need healthfully.
I used to run to escape. To get high, to distract, to punish, to compensate, to numb. I used to run with an agenda. I used to run to work out my problems. Today, I work out my problems by sitting still. The answers come silence. It is only after I have written and meditated that I am able to surrender to a movement practice.
When I tend to my worries before I move, I am able to be fully present in the movement, rather than caught up in my thoughts. Movement, for me, is like taking a shower – an energetic shower. After processing my thoughts and feelings, I move, and that movement moves stale energy along.
The terms “exercise” and “workout” trigger negative connotations for me. At this point in time, it serves me best to use the word movement. “Exercise” evokes rigor, regiment, regime. Something I have to do. Something that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Something that has specific instructions. A specific routine.
Movement, on the other hand, begins where it begins and ends when it ends. It is the body’s stream of consciousness, improvisation. Exercise is pre-determined. Movement is free.
To exercise is to control my body. To move is to let my body guide me, to let my body do what it wants. To move is to show up and see what happens, without setting a timer or anticipating how I will feel at the end.
Let me compare this to writing. When I plan in advance what I am going to write, I can’t get into a flow. I’m writing from ego. I’m controlling. But when I show up to my journal with no agenda and let my consciousness flow, I feel surrender. That’s what movement is to me: stream-of-consciousness of the body. Exercise, on the other hand, is transcription. I don’t run anymore. I don’t feel safe doing so yet. I’m not sure if I ever will – though I won’t rule the option out.
I do walk, though. And I dance. And I occasionally practice yoga. At one point, I participated in a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. (I eventually withdrew from the training, because as a Caucasian woman, I felt I was colonizing the practice. The experience is relevant to this article, though.) Before committing to the program, I feared the physical rigor. I feared I would abuse the program and use yoga as an excuse to relapse. I feared I would awaken a high-functioning version of my eating disorder – a sneaky, orthorexic version – one disguised as health and wellness.
“Orthorexia is the term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. Orthorexia sufferers often display signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders that frequently co-occur with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders” (Timberline Knolls).
Orthorexia is scary because you often appear healthy. You appear to be doing everything right. You get props for it. Props for your motivation, your fitness, your commitment to routine, your attention to your health. As someone with anorexia and orthorexia in my profile, I must constantly check my motives before I engage in any kind of movement activity. I have to know when to stop.
I feared that yoga would trigger my orthorexia and my exercise addiction, because it has before. Its physical effects make it easy to manipulate and abuse. But, insofar as I, in all of my whiteness, experienced it, yoga is a practice of radical acceptance. To practice yoga is to accept the body you already have and let it change on its own, if it wants to, rather than actively try to change your body yourself.
If you use it to manipulate your body, then you’re not practicing yoga. It might look like yoga and feel like yoga, but it’s not yoga. I know what it feels like to sit in a posture as a yogi, and I know how it feels to sit in a posture as an addict. There’s a subtle yet stark mental shift. My erstwhile yoga teacher training gave me the chance to tune into this shift.
Here’s the ultimate change in my relationship with exercise. Pre-recovery, I moved to change myself. Today, I move to feel where I am. I understand that it’s okay to be where I am. Back then, I yearned to be a better dancer than I was. Today, I celebrate the dancer that I am.
Today, I don’t run a rat race. In fact, I don’t run any race. Why would I want to? Why would I want to rush through life, robbing myself of the chance to feel?
Today, if I’m in the middle of a movement routine, and something important comes up, I can pause. For instance, while doing a yoga practice in my room last summer, a friend showed up at my house crisis. I paused and let her in and listened. Today, I stop and smell the roses. Or the rosemary. Or the dog shit. Or the Christmas tree in Washington Square Park, which tends to stay lit till late January. I stop and experience my surroundings. I stop and experience my body.
Movement and stillness are symbiotic. We need them both to survive and thrive. We need movement to drive us forward, but we need stillness to stop and reflect on how far we’ve come. We need stillness to ask ourselves where it is we want to go. We are three-dimensional beings. We activity and we need rest. We need them both in balance. I don’t control the speed at which I move anymore. I let life take care of that. My job is to show up and enjoy the ride.