Recently I’ve been getting a lot of questions from people about how I’m doing in my eating disorder recovery now. Usually people ask because they’re curious or are struggling with similar demons themselves – truly I never had any idea how prevalent disordered eating and thought patterns are until I started blogging/writing about it – but I got a couple of e-mails this past weekend that I want to specifically address, especially as they seem to be recurring criticisms of my book.
Am I Still A Compulsive Over Exerciser?
The gist of the first e-mail was along the lines of “You say you’re recovered from exercise addiction [compulsive over-exercising*] but I don’t believe you. You still obviously work out a ton.” Other people have asked this question in a slightly different way by saying, “Is it really a good idea for you to continue writing about fitness when you know you have this issue?” One sweet reader even suggested that I rename my blog The Great Charlotte Experiment and then I wouldn’t have to blog about fitness as much. (Love you Annie!!)
Quoth the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
I try to be very careful with the words I choose in talking about my struggles with various eating disorders. (In the past I’ve been anorexic, orthorexic and, obviously, a compulsive over-exerciser. And while I’ve never been bulimic I’m going to confess that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Apparently I don’t have a very sensitive gag reflex.) So I would never say – and hope I’ve never led you to believe – that I am “recovered.” I don’t know that I will ever say that. I prefer to tell people I am recoverING. And doing really well with it.
Here are the facts: I am at a healthy weight (nope, still not weighing myself but I was healthy the last time I weighed myself and my clothes still fit the same), one that I’ve been at for about a year now so I think my body is happy with it. I’m at a healthy body fat percentage. I’m menstruating every month (and also PMS’ing every month, sigh). My thyroid is no longer whacked out. I workout one hour a day (sometimes less), once a day, six days a week and the Gym Buddies hold me to it if my workouts start to creep up. These are all the numbers.
While there is no formal definition of exercise addiction as an eating disorder (it’s classified in the DSM either as a symptom of bulimia as a purging tactic or as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder as a compulsion), according to most accepted standards I do not now fit the criteria. Yay!
But the real story goes far beyond the numbers and official definition: I am light-years happier than I was three years ago (the time span covered in my book). Not a day goes by that I don’t sit down to eat something and am overwhelmed with immense gratitude that I get to eat this yummy food. It is such a gift. Also, I am better about listening to my body with the exercise thing. After feedback from you guys, I dropped doing any measurements for my Experiments and now evaluate everything purely on if I think it is fun and effective. Yes, it’s subjective but I’m cool with it and seems like you guys aren’t bothered by it either (not that any of you are under the delusion that my “experiments” are very scientific anyhow, right?).
Yesterday: We were running Tabata intervals and six into it, I suddenly felt queasy. The old Charlotte would have pushed through and finished – juuust twooo moorrre! – even if she puked. But instead I hopped off, turned off the treadmill and said I was done. Gym Buddy Krista even prompted, “Come on you can do two more!” (She was being encouraging, not pushy) and I still said, “Nope, not feeling it today. I’m done.” And that was it. We used the rest of our time playing a hilarious game of 2-on-2 basketball in the gym during which I learned that you CAN foul people even if they’re not holding the ball. (How was I supposed to know that holding Allison’s hand wasn’t allowed?!)
This is a huge deal to me and I like to talk about it for two reasons: First, it took a lot of hard work to get to where I am now and I’m proud of myself for doing this. I honestly never thought I could live my life every day without counting calories, tracking macronutrients, clocking workouts and weighing myself. And yet here I am, not just hanging by my fingernails off the cliff’s edge but really genuinely happy with myself and my life. Second, I want to give other people hope that they too can overcome the worst of this. (And thirdly, I want my kids, when they’re old enough to read all this stuff, to know how much I love them and how hard I’m fighting to be the mom they need me to be.)
Now for the bad news. I still care too much about my perceived weight. I still have a lot of ED’ed thoughts. They’ve been a part of my thinking for so many years that they are almost second nature. All bad things still manifest as “fat days” in my mind. Sometimes I still mentally calculate the caloric “cost” of meals. Sometimes I still cry in my closet because I can’t find anything to wear even after trying on 70 outfits. Sometimes I still complain about my thighs. But the difference now is that I don’t let these thoughts define my behavior. I think it sometimes, yes, but I don’t act on it. And I try not to beat myself up for thinking them.
As for the blogging/writing aspect, fitness is my passion. I have so much fun doing it. I never get tired of learning about it. I love everything about it and the thought of losing that aspect of my personality feels like an immense loss. Exercise is important. Telling me to not ever exercise again is just as unhealthy as me telling myself I have to workout 6 hours a day. And I want to show people that you can have a healthy relationship with exercise, even if it wasn’t always so. This may not always be the case with me and this blog – I’ve really been enjoying all the parenting writing I’ve been doing for Redbook and Yahoo this past year – but for now this balance works. (Annnnd let’s be honest, I blog about way more things than fitness on here anyhow.)
Using Humor to Discuss Eating Disorders
The second e-mail I got was from a very, very upset girl who feels like I trivialize the seriousness of eating disorders by using humor in my writing about them. This is a personal thing and I believe her feelings are legitimate but for myself, using humor is a way for me to talk about very painful subjects in a way that I wouldn’t be able to without it. I try not to cross the line but since the line is so individual I know I sometimes offend people. And for this I’m very sorry. Eating disorders are often started as a way to protect that fragile inner part of us and when we’re in recovery we’re cracked wide open, sometimes before we’ve had the chance to develop other, better, coping techniques. I never intend to hurt or offend but all I can do is say that I’m doing my best and offer my apologies. The only story I can tell is my own.
And please, if you think I’m being callous leave me a comment! The only way I’ll ever learn is if people tell me what helps them and what hurts them. In the entire 5 years I’ve been blogging I have only deleted two comments and neither was a criticism of me (one was a stomach-churning comment from a trolling pedophile and one was a comment saying my ex-boyfriend should have killed me and shut me up when he had the chance). As long as you’re not a pedophile or a murderer, your comment will stand. All I ask is that you try and be respectful – I am a real human being:)
Where I Am Now
I’m not perfect. (So so so not perfect!) And eating disorder recovery is not a straight line. But I’m definitely moving forward. And I have so many of you to thank for this. I cannot even tell you how many times an e-mail or comment has come offering just the right words or resources when I needed them. Feeling accountable to you guys has kept me from some serious back-sliding (like the day I bought the diet pills and then returned them because I didn’t want to have to write the post explaining that insanity). I thank you for your love, kindness, support and especially for your gentle criticisms. I appreciate every one of you who has cared enough about me to write me and say, “Girl, you’re getting all crazy up in here again. Find a therapist who’s not in prison.” And thank you most of all for your patience as I find my way through this. I never anticipated that my eating disorders and my recovery process would be so public but in the end it’s been a gift.
Do you have any other questions for me about my eating disorders past, (less) present and (hopefully gone) future? Anyone else make it all the way through high school and still not know the rules to basketball? (Did you know that every shot is worth an arbitrary 2 points?? Why not just say 1 point and save on math?)
*After trying out all the various names for this affliction – exercise addiction, compulsive exercise, exercise bulimia, excessive exercise, exercising done wrong – the one that I ended up settling on is “compulsive over-exercise” because it best describes how this disorder feels to me. While I have used it as a way to control my caloric balance, the majority of the time it’s been a compulsion that I’ve used to ameliorate the seriously high anxiety I have from my obsessive thinking. Even when over-exercising started to make me gain weight I didn’t want to stop because I found it so temporarily soothing. When I went to ED therapy, the diagnosis I got was “Anxiety disorder, subtype: OCD”