In a lot of ways, sports saved my life. It’s a little controversial, because a lot of folks with EDs are not allowed to exercise. Over-exercising is its own ED. But I couldn’t stop moving. I was lucky that I was able to transition from exercise to sports.
I’d been a ballet dancer used to hours of training and honestly, a lot of endorphins, too. Plus bulimia involves some serious endorphin hits – the secrecy, the food itself, the moment of victory after you’ve purged (before the horrible crash). It’s short lived, but addicting. Much more like drugs than the sustained high I get from sports.
After I quit ballet, I decided to go to college, which had until that point, not been my plan. I transferred out of professional school (only had to attend a few days a week) and returned to my regular high school. (”You look quite a bit plumper,” my French teacher said. (It’s no wonder that to this day I hate French)). For exercise, I went to the gym and ran around Prospect Park. No one knew I had an eating disorder – they just assumed that without 3 three ballet classes a day, I’d gained weight. I looked “healthy,” so no one stopped me from working out. But exercise still felt like a punishment, like I was doing it to fix something about myself that was bad. I was.
Then I went to college where there were co-ed bathrooms and roommates – I couldn’t purge. I felt healed. I joined an ED support group and pretended my sickness was in the past. But I also joined the varsity swim team. I had always been a good swimmer and a friend in my freshman English class encouraged me to go to tryouts. (I’m pretty certain it’s a no-cut sport, but still). I willingly put on the not-at-all-flattering racing suit, goggles, and cap and strutted out in front of a room full of accomplished swimmers, half of them men – juniors and seniors even. And I joined the team. Practice was every day from 4-6pm. Meets were on Saturdays mostly, but some Wednesdays, too.
I started in the slowest lane, but I loved the workouts. There’s lots of counting, which I wasn’t ready to give up. 1X500 free, 4X200 breast, 4X200 back, 4X200 fly. It was all on the dry-erase board so it was easy to follow along. And much healthier than my old calorie lists. My muscles rapidly grew – I’m a mesomorph, which was a detriment to my ballet career – big quads don’t look good in pink tights. But I wasn’t bothered when after only a few weeks of swim practice, the arms of my t-shirts were tight. I moved up to a faster lane. I remember distinctly thinking while I was underwater at practice, that my body was kind of awesome – so strong and capable, how it was amazing it could learn those strokes. That was a total about-face from when I was a dancer and hated every inch of that same body, even when I excelled. In the pool, I was a powerful mammal instead of a china doll – I loved that.
I gained ten pounds and I wasn’t derailed or devastated. I’d never seen as much food as they serve in the college cafeteria and I was always starving after practice. The whole team walked down from the pool to dinner together and sat together and ate together – that alone was an accomplishment – eating in public, eating with friends. While I was at school and on that team, I never once puked. (Back home for breaks, was a different story).
Meets were terrifying. Truly. I hated them. But the feeling afterwards was pure adrenaline: I’d done it. I’d climbed up onto those blocks and launched myself into the water. I started the 100 free relay, (Terrifying!) and I regularly placed 3rd in the 500 free.(20 lengths!) Even when Coach put me in the 200 fly for the 1 point – 1 point for 8 lengths of butterfly! – and I came in dead last with all my teammates cheering for me to finish, I was proud of myself. Proud that I got up early on Saturday and boarded the bus and stood shivering in the most unflattering uniform, proud that I was a hardworking, determined, amphibious girl.
That summer, I finally got up the nerve to ask for the help I knew I needed. I never purged again.
The next year I ran cross-country. Running was definitely more ED than swimming and I did lose weight, but I wasn’t purging and that was my main goal. Also, running in nature gave me a tremendous positive high. It was beautiful around my campus – that moved me. Ultimately running on a team was a bit of a trigger – the weight loss and the counting were too much. So I tried to run only with friends, to make it more social and fun, to keep myself in check without giving up darting through the woods or cresting a hill at sunset under a purple red sky.
After college, outdoor sports became a major part of my life. Windsufing and skiing (and later snowboarding) kept me sane. I loved being on a mountain, especially when snow was falling – it was so quiet and peaceful – like I’d floated into Narnia. I loved being on the ocean, too, cutting through mast-high swells, and riding waves. In nature, there are no mirrors or scales. There are sharks and rocks, but it turns out I’m strong, I can manage it. I used to be afraid of a cookie, but I could tackle the Pacific. When it gets scary, my brain hyper-focuses. Teetering on a cliff, there’s no time to count. Stuck on a reef in a five wave set – the only goal is to survive. There’s no time to over-think – that’s a tremendous relief. Eating disorders offer momentary breaks, but the price is self-loathing and shame (and a horrible electrolyte imbalance). After a session on a mountain, I’m left with an incredible feeling of accomplishment and wonder: How is it that I can ride snow? Never: how will I get down to 95 pounds?
Then there was doubles tennis, playing hard for someone other than myself – my partners. It isn’t exercise – it’s a game. I ran and lunged and hit a ball to score a point, which is totally different than running and lunging to get rid of some flab. Also, the few great partners I’ve had, remain dear friends. I wish I’d played a team sport as a child. It might have helped.
Of course, I can’t ski or snowboard that many days a year. (And as a mom, windsurfing in the Pacific is too dangerous – they need me not to drown) Instead I find a hike or even a nice walk. I don’t listen to music – I listen to nature – I unplug. I live in Southern California, so even a stroll down my block offers relief: the sunshine, the hummingbirds, the flowers everywhere. It helps. If I’m in New York, I head for the park. If there’s a beach or a mountain, I find it. I need to keep moving, but it’s drastically different to play games for pleasure than to punish myself with excessive exercise. I don’t want to Just Do it. That sounds like chore. I’m healthier when the goal is to have fun or to unwind or even to to win (or try anyway) a game, instead of trying to get fit or lose weight.
Memo: (written a day later)
Entry #3 doesn’t feel entirely honest now that a day has past. It’s all true, but so is the fact that I still exercise a lot. And I don’t always zen out. I try. And often achieve it, but once or twice a week, you can catch me in an exercise class. (Or using a yoga app or Pop Physique DVD in my house.) And I always find a way to fit in those hikes. I stopped playing tennis because it took too much time and then, once I’d stopped, I realized how much it hurt my body, which I have overused. I cut back on running because I can’t run responsibly. Right away I want to add miles and shorten my time. I start looking at my watch. Finally, my knees and my back took a stand and shut running down for good. There’s an app that counts the runs you ski in a day, your total vertical, your top speed. It’s really cool. But I started trying to outdo myself and worst of all, I stopped taking in the view. So I deleted it from my phone. Needless to say, I could never have a Fitbit.
Yes, sports changed the paradigm – I learned to embrace my strengths instead of battle my flaws – and that was huge. But I still have to be careful not to over-exercise and that is different. That’s leftover from my ED. I have to find a balance because there is still something in me that needs to move. When I go on vacation there’s almost always a sporty activity involved. I’ll go kayaking or paddle boarding – I’ll find something. I never go to a gym, but I do take the stairs. I wanted to clarify – I don’t not care about staying fit. I care. I’m no longer compulsive about it, but it takes work. And I don’t think I’ll ever sit still.
If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association toll free and confidentially at 1-800-931-2237 or go to nationaleatingdisorders.org/find-help-support for help.