On Gaining Strength
By: Molly Tow, Project HEAL Guest Blogger
I am an athlete. I started playing organized team sports at four years old and never looked back. I also have a history of anorexia. These two things can make for a lethal combination.
When my anorexia first set in, I was 16. I remember very little from that time, given the fact that every cell in my body was deprived of nutrition—but one shudder-worthy memory stands out. It was a Friday night in November and I was in the midst of basketball season. For those of you who haven’t played basketball, the energy expenditure per game is significant, especially for starting players. Many normal eaters tend to supplement their daily intake when exercising consistently, as our bodies naturally want more in these situations. For those of us with eating disorders, the word “supplement” might as well be profanity. To return to my story: Team plays. Team loses. Team partakes in consumption of post-game hors d’oeuvres. I participate by eating three shrimp. I rush to my friend’s house to prepare for an evening full of “high school fun” (if there is such a thing). I realize: those three shrimp were my dinner. Though I had not yet put myself on an extreme weight loss diet yet, my mind had already fallen prey to a ravaging eating disorder. I felt powerful and successful. For the first time, I experienced the sick pleasure that accompanies restriction. “If I can pair a diet with an exercise regimen,” I thought, “I’ll be golden.” Well, if “golden” translates to “landing in the ICU on bed rest for three weeks due to malnutrition and a dangerously low heart rate” then yes, I suppose I was right.
I relapsed soon after I turned 18. I was playing softball and decided that it “wasn’t enough exercise.” At that point I didn’t realize the parallel with my eating disorder: I used maladaptive coping mechanisms because I felt fundamentally inadequate—it is my personal opinion that many who suffer from eating disorders experience this mindset. Feeling like you’re not enough. Feeling like you’re too much. Feeling deep-seated, gut-wrenching shame. That translate to a superficially benign goal of “being in shape.” Though harmless for some, for me this goal translated to leaving school during every free period while my friends walked to the neighborhood water ice stand, driving 20 minutes to the gym I belonged to, running 4 miles and making it back just in time for softball practice. I was a girl possessed.
Figuring out how to channel my innate desire to be active in a healthy way since I’ve been in recovery has been a process. What I’ve learned is that I need to exercise in a way that is loving to myself as opposed to punishing. When I was 16, I forced myself to start running. Ironically enough, the concept of just “going for a run” has never appealed to me, considering my history as an athlete. I told others that running was “meditative” when really every step was painstaking—it hurt me physically, emotionally and spiritually. Exercise is meant to make a person feel good—but it was the most onerous task of my day—and was fully self-imposed. In recovery, I have learned that exercise should be something that I enjoy. That may seem blatantly obvious to some, but it just shows how much an eating disorder warps a person’s thinking.
Now, I weight train. As corny as it sounds, I feel like a strong woman because I am a strong woman—not because I’m denying myself basic human needs. My strength now does not lie in self-will—it lies in the willingness to do this differently. A helpful distinction I make is the one between self-will and willingness. The former is rooted in fear. The latter, in faith. I see progress when I lift weights but the fear can often hold me back. My perfectionism leads me to fear failure. And wouldn’t you know it, lifting weights is just as mental a task as it is physical. When I trust that my body can do something, I am amazed with the result. This in turn leads to self-love, something that is completely absent when my eating disorder is driving my thoughts and behavior. I can look at my body in the mirror now and be at peace with my reflection. I’m not saying my life is devoid of body image issues—that’s an issue I’ve been struggling with long before my disordered thoughts started to manifest as disordered behavior so it makes complete sense that I sporadically fall prey to the dysmorphia. But here lies another parallel. Just as I’m making progress with weight lifting, I am also making progress in recovery. There is always room for improvement in both. I can either beat myself up for lack of progress or I can take contrary action and be gentle with myself.
One reason why lifting has been so wonderful for me is that rest days are equally as important as lifting days. Pre-rehab Molly genuinely felt that going a day without running would result in some sort of catastrophe. But I almost killed myself that way. My body has been ravaged and it needs to be taken care of. So sure, I can sweat it out at the gym on Monday, but on Tuesday I let me bones and muscles take a breather.
I also love lifting because I can now defy some of the female stereotypes that happen to also be side effects of my anorexia. I don’t need to sheepishly ask any male in the vicinity to help me stow a carry-on. On the contrary, I now politely decline when a male says “oh, let me get that for you.” While it is nice to see that chivalry isn’t dead sometimes, I have taken myself out of that equation completely as I don’t hail from the “damsel in distress” camp anymore.
Today, I feel capable. That might seem like an austere statement, but for me this is a novel and healthy way of going through life. I no longer feel weak and incompetent as I did when my anorexia ran my life. On the flip side, I am also kept humble. I don’t strut down the street feeling holier than thou just because I can lift a certain amount of weight. There are plenty of things I can’t do too and accepting that fact is a daily practice for me. I’ve always loved the quote “there is strength in humility” because staying right-sized as opposed to living under the assumption that one is better-than or less-than can require a lot of effort. Surrendering control does not come easy to those who have suffered from eating disorders. But it’s how we progress and eventually shed our self-imposed shackles. Today, I can accomplish far more than I ever could when my world revolved around food, weight, body image and running. I am capable. I can’t conquer the world just yet, but where I’m at is really okay.