Let’s all give a hardy welcome to the fantastic Charlotte Hilton Anderson, bloggess (that’s blogger and goddess combined, in case my stellar word creating abilities are not so… stellar) and author of the blog-made-book, The Great Fitness Experiment! Charlotte has been a total inspiration to me as I delved into the world of social media and blogging. She’s not only a devoted mother, enthusiastic fitness expert, and brilliant writer (seriously, if you suffer from urinary incontinence, watch out), but she’s also someone who’s been there. While it’s not the focus of the book, Charlotte talks extensively and in poignant detail about suffering from compulsive over-exercise, which for her developed into an eating disorder.
In today’s guest post, Charlotte shares with us her journey through this disorder. Please be advised that some of the details of this post may be triggering for those struggling with eating and exercise issues. Got it? Once you’ve read the post, make sure to enter the giveaway for a free copy of Charlotte’s book!
It wasn’t the runs in the dark in the middle of winter at 4 a.m and again at 10 p.m. It wasn’t leaving my son’s hospital bed to go do a high-intensity interval class instead of showering for the first time in three days or sleep. It wasn’t when I fainted after running a marathon followed by an hour of kickboxing – can’t miss a workout! – without drinking or eating anything and then being carried down the gym stairs by a friend who tried to make me drink a Vitamin Water which I refused because it had 50 calories. It wasn’t even when my heart started doing this weird sick jumping in my chest and I briefly wondered if I was going to die on the floor in front of my young children.
No, the thing that made me finally take a break from exercising was when I gained ten pounds in one month because all my over-training (fancy codeword for compulsive over-exercise) had suppressed my thyroid. Those 10 pounds completely unhinged me. That is how deeply ill I was.
I know how it began. Right after my third child was born, still reeling from the trauma of the protracted court case against the ex-boyfriend who had sexually assaulted me (and many others), I was looking for a way to heal myself. All of my guilt, pain, self-doubt, fear and anger found a focus in my goal of “losing the baby weight.” To tell you the truth I didn’t gain much during the pregnancy- I was too depressed and anxious to eat – but I still had a few lingering pounds and thighs that I hated and a tummy that looked like an uncooked bagel. So I took up exercise. Exercise can be a fantastic way to deal with emotional stuff but when you’re using it to run away from (literally!) rather than work through your problems, you will never be able to run fast enough or far enough to fix yourself.
Unchained from rational thought, the exercise took on a life of its own, slowly growing until after my 4th baby was born I was totally addicted to it. Exercise became my #1 priority. Everything else in my day was organized around my workouts. I never rested, never took days off. I was always trying to sneak in more exercise by doing everything from endless fidgeting to refusing to sit down to making myself do push-ups every time I had to get up with a baby in the night. In addition I was also heavily restricting my food. I became a vegetarian and then a vegan and then a vegan who didn’t do grains or soy until I finally ended up with a safe list of 5 foods and that was it. I remember people telling me then how skinny I was – some with concern, others with envy – but I didn’t see it. I still thought I looked fat. Moreover, I didn’t really care anymore. Fat, thin, whatever – all I wanted was my next high.
If I wasn’t exercising I was consumed with anxiety about my next workout (Would the baby get sick and make me miss the gym? What if the car doesn’t start? What if they cancel my class? What if my husband doesn’t get home on time?). Anxiety that would get so intense I’d be shaking, heart racing. The only way to calm myself was to workout. And I’d feel really awesome as long as I was exercising – it was the only time of day I felt good about myself – but no sooner had the sweat had dried but the whole cycle started over again. It was all I thought about.
So when did I finally realize I had a problem with exercising too much? People ask me a lot of questions about my very public battle with exercise addiction – I blogged through the whole saga – but this is one I still don’t have an answer for. The thing is, I never did know. It took my family stepping in – my sister saying she’s worried about me, my friends forcing me to leave the gym, my readers e-mailing me their concern, my doctor threatening me with death, my husband literally taking away my keys and my shoes so that I couldn’t leave to exercise. It took them lovingly but firmly telling me that I needed to get treatment for my eating disorder. Even then I told my therapist I was fine. I refused to talk to the nutritionist beyond the initial required visit because I didn’t think my disorder had anything to do with food. Turns out, I learned later, no eating disorder is really about the food.
After nearly a year of treatment and the worst of it being two years in the past, I can finally see it for the pernicious disease that it was. There is a certain inherent denial that is part of every eating disorder but I think that compulsive over-exercise is unique in that the denial is sanctioned by society. Anorexics are often told to their face that they’re too skinny and overly thin models and actresses are dissected all over the internet, even while they are perversely praised and idolized. Bulimics with their overabundance of bodily fluids are gross-out spectacles or punchlines. Binge eaters are either woefully ignored or publicly taunted. (All of which are completely unkind and inhumane ways to treat eating disorder sufferers.) But over exercising ends up being the eating disorder everyone wishes they had.
“I wish I had your discipline!” “You’re so strong!” and even “You’re an inspiration!” People often mistook my manic exercise for passion – and don’t get me wrong, I am definitely passionate about fitness! – but my punishing 2-a-day workouts, sometimes adding up to 6 or more hours per day, were based off of one thing: fear. And that’s the main difference between an athlete and an exercise addict: the former exercises out of love for her sport while the latter exercises for fear of what happens if she doesn’t.
I’m not going to lie to you – I’m not perfectly recovered, there are many days I still walk that line between obsession and passion and those voices of never being enough still scream in my head more often than I’d like but now I have a system set up to check me. I build in breaks and rest periods into my Experiment schedules. I also seek feedback from my friends, family and readers and really listen to them if they are concerned. And sometimes I just grit my teeth and try to breathe deeply until the scary feelings pass. But whatever I have to do is worth it because I refuse to leave an eating disorder as my legacy to my kids.
If you think you are an exercise addict, know that it can kill you and it will not get better on its own. And then know that you are not alone in your fears and that there is help. Getting this message out there is one of the main reasons I wrote my book and I’m so grateful to Ashley for helping me do that!
For a chance to win a copy of Charlotte’s book, leave a comment answering, “Where do you draw the line between passion and obsession?” OR simply share your reactions to Charlotte’s experience. For additional chances to win, tweet about this post and leave a comment telling me you did! All entries are due by midnight on Sunday, January 30th.