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We hear the phrases all the time — quitters never win, give it all you’ve got, train insane. But what happens when a perfectionist takes all of that and turns it against herself and her body?
From the very beginning, over-exercise was a large part of my eating disorder. I was raised in an active family, but when the ED started to manipulate my brain, it twisted healthy activity into the ultimate way to achieve the “perfect” body I so desperately wanted. I thought that if I could become a great athlete, I could become someone, I could be that girl.
I often wonder what aspect of my workouts I was more attracted to — the pleasure or the agony. I chose repetitive sports (rowing, weight-lifting, and distance running) that I could exploit for their pain and drudgery. I glorified blisters, ignored physical distress signals, and pushed through injuries that devastated my body. My brain screamed at me to never settle. It told me that I would be seen as weak for giving up, that I would be a failure if I didn’t win, that I should be ashamed of any sub-standard performance. I listened.
These cryptic phrases would repeat in cycles with every stroke, every rep, and every step. Training became my form of self-harm. The reality is that lactic acid is a socially acceptable form of self-punishment.
My training regimens were elaborate and inflexible.
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I was congratulated by coaches, fellow athletes, and others for my dedication. I believed the extra hours of training and refusal to rest were what I would need to lift me above the competition. In truth, it was an addiction. I had a pathological need for the exercise. I thought I was becoming stronger, more focused. In my mind, I was creating an iron will along with the solid muscle.
I believed that I was sacrificing everything — my sleep, free time, social life, and sweet treats — for the glory of victory. I can see now that I was also sacrificing my body, my happiness, and my sanity.
I will not pretend that I am not proud of my athletic achievements. I was part of championship rowing crews. I achieved a Boston Marathon qualifying time in my first marathon and won the race out of a small pool of female athletes. I proved many coaches wrong along the way, turning skeptics into believers and shining against all odds. But the truth is that the pride and exhilaration from each of these victories was very short-lived. The ED voice in my head said that it wasn’t enough, that I should always be reaching for more.
I was forced to stop rowing only when I became too frail, having lost too much weight due to my anorexia. The doctors said that it was likely I would never exercise again. I weight restored, just to begin working out again, far too soon with such a vulnerable brain. It was only after another three years of ravaging my body with more exercise that I stopped and truly saw my life for what it was and what it had become.
I had trained myself into the ground, running on injuries until I was unable to walk down the stairs without breaking into tears. I had extreme tendinosis and microtears in four of the tendons in my lower right leg. It was so painful that it was impossible to walk properly. The tissue damage was deemed extreme. I brought it on by an amalgamation of extreme overtraining, training under poor nutrition and hydration status, and brushing previously unhealed injuries aside.
It came as a sudden thought — What was I doing to myself?!
It was in that moment that I realized that none of my athletic accomplishments — none of those rowing titles won, none of the running victories, none of the compliments on my body — would ever be enough for me. None of it. I would always still be striving for more, for better. I had been conditioned to think that way.
A terribly toxic combination of my own perfectionistic tendencies, the encouragement of coaches, and the relentless messages from society convinced my mind that there could always be another, higher level of achievement. I could never win.
I’ve come to learn the beauty of never being able to win is that you can also never lose.
After 12 weeks off running, my leg is nearly fully healed, but I’ve chosen not to return to exercise. I have an active job, I walk the dog, and I bike the short distance to work when weather permits, always compensating for energy expended. I’ve gained weight and lost tone since the injury and subsequent revolution. But instead of hating my body like I thought I would, I’m loving it for the first time ever. It’s more feminine and much softer, as my smile shines and my cheeks glow — changes which make me more approachable. My repaired mind now whispers compliments of competence.
My entire outlook has changed.
Why drive yourself into the ground? Why let yourself be haunted by the soulless voices telling you that you are not enough? Why feel the need to push yourself past the most extreme physical barriers? Why put yourself in pain? What are you trying to prove?
I became an athlete because I wanted to be somebody. It took giving that up to realize I already was somebody.
It can take just one sentence to set you free. Just a few words, honestly spoken to your vulnerable self to turn your life around … I am beautiful and I am enough, just as I am.
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