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I am an addict. Stating these words still feels surreal, even after all this time.
I remember my first meeting: “My name is Regina, I have anorexia nervosa, anorexia athletica, orthorexia and exercise addiction, among other diagnosed psychiatric disorders.”
Even though I knew my situation was due to an illness and not a choice I had made, feelings of shame started creeping up on me.
Yet, I felt weirdly liberated once I said it out loud.
The secret was out.
It all started with a genuine desire to feel more energized, ease anxiety, and increase my serotonin levels (having spent my whole life with panic attacks, GAD, OCD and Bipolar II, I could use all the serotonin I could get).
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Exercise felt good. Until it felt too good, until I could not skip one workout without feeling like I was going to die. Maybe my addiction came from the chemical substances the brain releases with it, or from the fact I felt worthless if I didn’t do it; perhaps, a combination of both.
All my social media accounts were covered in accounts that promoted “fitspiration:” quotes encouraging people to get off the couch and get rid of their muffin tops, images shaming pizza and worshipping quinoa salads, pictures of photoshopped bodies with rock-hard abs and cellulite-free legs.
The point is, my whole life revolved around the fabricated illusion we call “fitness lifestyle.”
At first, I thought my exercise addiction made me happy, but the fake happiness rapidly became exhaustion, accompanied by anger. Introspective as I have always been, I knew there was something wrong.
I had this picture of my illness dragging me by the hair towards my next high-intensity workout and pushing me all the way through it, screaming at me to get things done faster, harder. I even cried once during a workout.
“Oh I wish I had that!” is one of the most common responses I get, whenever I tell someone about my experience. Contrary to what many people think, exercise addiction is not a “cool” addiction to have. It is just as serious, damaging, and life-threatening as any other. It consists mostly of constant fatigue and exaggerated amounts of pain.
I actually came to envy people who had injuries or any other condition that wouldn’t allow them to work out. “It must be great to have a valid excuse to avoid exercising. Maybe if I cross the street right this second a car will run me over…” I thought sometimes. Evidently, I was as wrong as those who think having an addiction to exercise is wonderful, but that is just how bad things had gotten.
The real pain, however, came when I finally chose to recover: withdrawal syndrome.
Oh yes, I had it, just like a drug addict or an alcoholic would have. I stopped abruptly; one day I was exercising intensely, and the next, I just didn’t. it was horrible, but there was no other way. I twisted and turned in bed while my brain tortured me, I screamed as if someone was stabbing me, I grabbed my body parts and wished I could get rid of them or I could crawl out of my skin, I prayed for some miraculous angel to come and take my life. And I cried. A lot. All the time.
Coping with my addiction takes tremendous amounts of effort, patient, and willpower; every single day. I still have moments when I’m feeling too anxious, when I get the urge to exercise intensely for hours in order to get whatever is bothering me out of my system.
Unfortunately, there is no instruction manual on how to manage something like this. It’s a matter of avoiding the destructive behaviors at all costs, while learning to sit with horrible feelings, allowing ourselves to really feel them, without doing anything about them.
I know I made it sound as if I had gone through hell, and I am not going to lie, that is exactly what it felt like at the beginning.
The thing is, if I had to make the decision of whether to recover or not all over again, knowing how much it would hurt, I would still choose recovery.
Every single time. Fortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel does exist. It doesn’t appear magically, for we must be the ones who light it up. What I am saying is, it really does get better. Eventually, the good days will come more often, and the bad ones won’t be as painful as they used to be, because now we know we can make it through.
Having a healthy lifestyle has gotten a whole new meaning. There is nothing healthy about working out for endless hours and only “nourishing” our bodies with lettuce and “nana ice cream” — I’m sorry but that’s not real ice cream. Being healthy is about doing what we love: taking a yoga class because we genuinely enjoy it, hitting the gym one day and staying in bed the next, eating the salad because it tastes amazing or deciding to ditch the greens for the day and have chocolate-chip pancakes instead because it’s what we’re craving.
We are not weak, or lazy, or useless for skipping a workout or eating a cookie. Our worth is not based on any of this. The truth is, things like “fitspiration” are sometimes pure bullying.
So yes, my name is Regina and I am an addict. I am, however, no longer a victim of exercise.
I no longer fall for the lie that is the “fitness lifestyle.”
I get to choose who I am and what I do. Whether I spend the entire day in my pyjamas, or decide to go for a run, I am in control. It is the lifestyle that has to fit me, and not the other way around.
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