Note: parts of this piece appear in this story at The Art of Survival.
With Eating Disorder Awareness week coming up from February 28-March 3, I wanted to share a pretty personal story with my experiences as a person that lives with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia.
A very common phrase I utter is some variation on, "I'm gonna have to run a lot if I eat this." Sometimes it can refer to a large meal with lots of sodium, a dessert, some fast food, or a massive brunch.
I run so that I don't feel guilty about eating. Anything. Almost any time I eat, my brain tells me, "you need to run now. You need to burn off whatever you just dumped into your body. You need to go now. Leave. Run! NOW!"
That sort of internal narrative can be pretty frustrating to live with on a daily basis. This has been my reality for the last eight years or so, when I really started to develop a distorted vision of my body, a condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
Essentially, I don't view my body the others may view my body. I am hypercritical of every perceived curve, roll, stretch mark, even if they aren't really there. My mind often exaggerates these aspects of my body, and it makes me overcompensate by running. Or by under-eating, fasting, or harming myself when I don't feel good about my body.
My history with fasting is long, and certainly connected to how I was medicated as a child. It fucked me up. I was (and still am) a typical case of ADHD. Always running around, lots of energy, mind going a mile-a-minute, and lots of projects to keep me busy. Being medicated gave me a weird relationship with food—I hated it. I was scrawny until college, when I realized that food was great! So I started to eat a lot. And I began to gain weight for the first time in my life.
Slowly, I began to notice that I wasn’t really taking care of myself—I wasn’t eating food that was necessarily “good” for me. It was a lot of meat, fast food (Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr.), sugar (candy, soda), and sunflower seeds (which are just drenched in salt). I tried to balance a lot of my crappy eating habits with running. I ran a lot. I was able to consistently run about 35 miles/week, with an average long run of 10 miles.
I have a love/hate relationship with running.
I don’t actually like running that much.
But the endorphins I get from running have always helped with my depression and anxiety—some of which is caused by my eating habits.
Thus, I’ve also used running to make up for the way I ate.
Which also means I have used guilt to motivate myself to run.
And that sucks.
However, my early complicated relationship with running doesn’t mean I changed the way I ate in college. The complicated relationship led to me hating how stubborn I was being with food. I would do all of this running—great exercise, wonderful for my heart and mind—but ultimately, I wasn’t returning the love to myself. It sucked. I wasn’t losing weight; I wasn’t necessarily “fit.” I was just going through motions of somewhat self-destructive behaviors, and the running became how I masked my insecurities.
One day, I had just come returned from a run, and a very good friend of mine said, “with all the running you do, I figured you would be in much better shape.” One of the worst things I could’ve ever heard. It sent me directly to food. And I ate a lot.
Those words have echoed in my brain.
During college, it got to the point where I would start fasting intermittently—sometimes for a day here and there, sometimes for multiple days, often for a week at a time. Fasting does have some benefits—restarting your system, flushing out crap from your body. But I wasn’t doing it for necessarily the best reasons.
I did it because I genuinely thought I was fat. And it hurt a lot.
It hurt my body, and it hurt my mind.
I know I’ve never been “fat,” but my anxiety about my body kept convincing my brain otherwise. It was an endless cycle of comparing myself to my other male friends, not feeling “fit” enough, not feeling JACKED enough. I’ve never really been a huge person, or one to pack on muscle, but I kept convincing myself that I was a complete mess.
I know much of this critique is due to a severe concern for my health, but it's also very much influenced by the way I interact with other men. Growing up in a hypermasculine society has been pretty detrimental to my mental health—constantly being in locker rooms with muscular dudes checking themselves out in the mirror. Me, wondering why muscles won’t appear on my body, resenting them as they flex and brag about their delts or tris or whatever muscle group they were working on that day. While I repress the urge to yell in their bro faces for being more attractive, stronger, and cooler than me.
Only within the last few years have I figured out what’s been going on with my brain and body—it’s all about insecurity.
I am, and perhaps, always have been pretty insecure about my body. Either I felt I was too skinny (especially when medicated, and during high school), or I was “too fat.” Again, my brain had a wonderful way of tricking me into believing both were the end of the world. I don’t feel there are many times where I’ve held a “comfort” weight. But I know where it is, and finding that level has been a constant struggle for me.
These insecurities have led me to unnecessarily project onto others—friends, colleagues, my partners. When I don’t feel comfortable about my body, I find myself being hypercritical and judgmental of those around me. And I think/say terrible things that I know are only my own projections of issues that I feel about myself. Hell, I say them to myself all the time as well.
Emotional self-harm is still self-harm.
The only true way I’ve found to cope with my body image issues, outside of running, is to get tattooed. I have many tattoos—a full sleeve, and another in progress. But I consciously and unconsciously use these tattoos to give me SOMETHING to appreciate about my body. It sucks that it needs to be tattoos, but there aren't many days when I feel good about my body
And on the days I do feel good about myself, my confidence is untouchable. And when I look in the mirror, I think to myself, “I’m a badass.” The tattoos help me feel that. The tattoos help me feel anything. Even the action of being tattooed is enjoyable to me. The pain, the reality of it all, the experience—it’s all to capture a moment in my life and to add something new to my imperfect canvas.
A year ago today, I weighed the most I have ever weighed—after a year-long job search, months of depression, soda, sugar, and anger led me away from taking care of myself as I should have been.
Today, I eat much better. I pay attention to virtually everything I put into my body. Now that I am a health educator, I have really doubled-down on my wellness. I haven’t eaten meat in over four years, I’ve cut caffeine almost completely from my diet, I avoid unnecessary processed sugars—fruits are always gonna be my jam. I’m even back down to my goal “comfort” weight, and I feel great.
Yet, recently while visiting home, another friend of mine uttered virtually the exact same words that stung me a few years ago—with all the running you do, I figured you would be in much better shape. It sucked because I know I am doing great right now.
So I chose to not care this time and I didn’t dive into food.
I am the healthiest I have ever been, and I still don’t really like running (even though I’m marathon training again), but I do it to keep myself sane. I use running as motivation to keep myself on the right path of mental and emotional wellness, as well as physical. Granted, I still find myself justifying the things I eat with how much I will need to run, but at least I am giving some sort of consideration to how what I put into my body these days.
I’m not sure I will ever conquer this disorder, but I have plans to start seeing a therapist about it and I cannot wait to see how and if it helps me. So here goes nothing!
For UMass Boston students: Finally, with this story, I also want to make a plug for a fantastic talk that my office will host on March 1 in Campus Center 2545 at 1pm. At this talk, we will be bringing in Dr. Ebrahimi from the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center to discuss how to recognize when you or a friend may be struggling with an eating disorder and how to support them. See you there!