I want to post about my experience with exercise in recovery. Up until 2 years ago I thought it was possible to recover from an eating disorder and still work out. Maybe that is true with some people, but that has definitely not been my story. Exercise has been a part of my entire life. I was a gymnast competitively and then switched over to competitive jump rope. I have trained endless hours for National and World competitions since I was twelve. There was a very fine line between just training hard like any athlete and over exercising as an eating disorder behavior. I knew it was becoming more of the latter when my overall health and performance began deteriorating. Working out became something I had to do and there was no joy in it. As I began recovery I couldn’t quite let go of this part of me or even acknowledge that a problem actually existed. I was competitive and at an elite level you have to continue training. That was just life. At that time I was never asked by my treatment team to cut back on training and in hindsight I wish they would have. There was a lot of denial on my part at the time so I don’t blame anyone, it is just frustrating looking back and realizing that no one considered it a problem because I wasn’t at a dangerously low weight. My mindset shifted as the eating disorder grew. A part of me still always wanted to win, but a larger part was determined on seeing how far I could push myself. I wanted to manipulate the number on the scale. I wanted to escape all the anxieties of life and control would I could.
My mindset has been completely turned around over these past two years. Luckily I had no choice in the matter. A major back surgery tends to sideline people for a while. I was absolutely terrified during this time. Not being able to work out for months seemed absolutely unacceptable. I had been working out with pain for months. And what if I wouldn’t ever get back to the level of intensity that I wanted after a surgery like this? Most doctors thought I should wait to have the surgery until I was older and told me to slow down even though I was in considerable pain. Thank goodness I talked to several doctors and formed an educated opinion. And thank goodness my surgeon believed in my ability to get back to jumping and a very active life. I could write a whole post about spinal fusion and recovery in itself because I have found a lot of misinformation out there along my journey. Not to skip to the end of the story or anything but trust me I am completely healed and am at a higher level of fitness than I have been at in years.
That surgery was a blessing in disguise. It is the greatest thing to ever have happen to me. I was forced to face myself and sit with myself and all my feelings. Not run away from them to the gym. I didn’t realize that working out was one of the last hurdles to conquer to really living out full recovery from the eating disorder. Over those months of strictly nothing but monitored rehabilitation I started peeling back all those layers of what exercise truly meant in my life. What I found was a very unhealthy relationship to it. My identity was completely interwoven within it and I didn’t know who I was outside of the disorder and exercise. How did I define myself without being an athlete? I was quite lost for those few months. Right after my surgery I realized that relapse was imminent if I didn’t find a new treatment team. I was in a state of half recovered at the time, doing things on my own, but mentally I was a wreck. So I sought out a center and found a therapist who specialized in both eating disorders and sports psychology. Hallelujah! Another blessing. I am a pretty private person so people don’t necessarily realize the effort that I have put into my recovery since that surgery. I assume most people thought I was pretty much recovered by that time and it was just frustrating to talk about. I was flustered because I knew that life could be better than only half-assing recovery day after day. I refused to believe that I would always have disordered thoughts the rest of my life.
All the work the past two years has truly transformed my life. There were many factors in ending up where I am today, but completely abstaining from exercise was the answer for me. It established in my head that my relationship with working out was very unhealthy and it also made me think about who I was apart from my identity as a competitive athlete. I have also been privileged to work in groups specific to exercise dependence with other competitive athletes with eating disorders. I learned more in those six weeks than I ever have in ten years of other recovery work. I rebuilt from the ground up my relationship to the gym. I was out of the gym for nearly eight months and when I returned I did at a snails pace. Today I work out intensely because I want to and because I am able to fuel my body properly and really listen when it needs rest. I love how strong and confident I feel in the gym and that confidence is overflowing into the rest of my life. My training doesn’t just revolve around jumping. I run, bike, hike, crossfit, yoga, etc. I am enjoying new things. I consider training again for competition because it gets me excited and I have this whole new outlook on it. I no longer feel the need to work out because I think I should or because I really need to work out so I can have that glass of wine at dinner. I have had to be very careful integrating numbers back into workouts but I feel nothing but joy now and freedom. Numbers used to dictate all workouts, now they are simply a measure to assess strength and ability. I am stronger after that surgery both physically and mentally because I took the time to do the work. I am absolutely in awe of what my body does for me on a daily basis and know now how to take care of it. I wouldn’t have discovered this amount of pure happiness if I wasn’t forced to sit down and deal with it completely away from the gym. It makes me realize now how sick I actually was and how I was harming myself. I have never felt better in my life and I wonder what I can accomplish when I actually take care of myself.