UN-Podcast 019: UNtimed

Moon-Silhouette

[source] I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating (again and again, since it seems to surprise me every time): our paths are inexplicably intertwined with the paths of those who need to be a part of our … Continue reading

“But You Still Have To Go To The Gym”

This commercial makes me so angry–it embodies pretty much everything that’s wrong with the state of fitness and nutrition in our country today. There are so many things wrong with commercial that it’s almost hard to find a place to start. So I’ll do my best to focus on the main reason why this seemingly innocuous Cheerios commercial makes my blood boil.

Looking past the fact that I no longer agree with the contention that the whole grains in Cheerios are part of a “heart healthy breakfast,” the majority of my ire today comes from the last line: “But you still have to go to the gym.”+

Now, as a certified personal trainer and an incurable gym rat, I’m happy that General Mills is suggesting that fitness is an important part of anyone’s “heart health” and “weight loss” regime; however there’s a more insidious message behind the commercial, and it contains that ugly, 7-letter “C-word.”

Calories.

(If I never have to hear the word again, it will be too soon.)

The crux of this commercial’s message is: no matter how healthily you eat, if you don’t burn it off, you’ll get fat. (And Cheerios carries disordered food messages throughout much of its marketing strategy. Dr. Deah Schwartz, a Health At Every Size blogger, did a great post on the disordered implications of its “more whole grains, less you” message on Peanut Butter Cheerios boxes).

More Grains, Less You: negative body image from Cheerios Ad

This is disgusting to me on so many levels.

Here’s the thing: calories in vs. calories out does work. But only for so long.

It goes something like this: I start eating well and working out. I eliminate processed foods but don’t change my portion sizes. I buy a pair of running shoes and go for a 12+ minute mile jog 3-4 times a week. I lose weight. And then, all of a sudden, I plateau. So:

I lessen my portion sizes slightly and keep up with my running. I lose weight and then plateau. I get a personal trainer and lift weights several times a week in addition to the running. I lose weight and then plateau. I read some broscience forums and realize that I need to tighten up my diet. I eliminate fats (because fats make me fat amirite?*) and start working out 6 days a week. I lose weight and then plateau. Fine. Now my choices are to either make my portions even smaller or eat nothing but egg whites and tuna with steamed broccoli. I do both just in case. My metabolism slows. I become leptin resistant. I am hungry all of the time. I need to work out more. I go to the gym twice a day or do more than an hour of steady-state cardio every day, because who needs rest days?**

And in order to maintain, I have to continue manipulating my food or my workouts in an ever lessening/increasing ratio.

Exercise should be about rewarding the body with endorphins and strength, not about punishing your body for what you've eaten

FACT.

WHY. Why would anyone–anyone–do this to him or herself? What’s the point of spending your entire life worrying about how small, bland, and tasteless you can make your portions or how long, bland, and exhausting you can make your exercise? For some aesthetic goal? (Because it’s certainly not for health, despite what the fitspo images are assuring you. If you were healthy, you’d be able to go to a restaurant without freaking out when they cook your chicken breast in oil, or stay out late without worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to wake up in time to do an hour on the elliptical before work.)

Sorry to be absolutely blunt here, folks, but calories in/calories out is a really tragic*** way to live.

But what’s the alternative?

Well, let’s start at the beginning.

– K.

+And I can guarantee you’ve all seen this couple at the gym, too–you know, the woman sweating it out on the treadmill for an hour, lifting a light dumbbell awkwardly while reading a magazine, the man sitting on the pec-deck machine for an hour, doing endless sets of chest flyes with his neck jutting forward and taking 20 minute breaks between sets to chat with his friends…

*No.

**Everyone

***I was going to use a different word here, but I figure I’ve maxed out my curse word allotment for this post by using the “c” word again.

Forgetting Fitspiration

A quick thought before I go back into the science and history of the calories in/calories out myth: 

 

My physical therapist wants me to start going to the gym again. And I am utterly terrified.

 

I know it’s silly, especially since I’m hoping to make a career of fitness and nutrition, but I can’t help it.

 

The gym has always been both a haven and a prison. It is where I saw some of my greatest triumphs and my hardest falls. It is where I learned to love my body and hate it, to gain muscle and lose my mind.

 

Yoga is one thing, but going back to the gym is definitely another.

 

I just find this very relevant now, as I start to understand the myths that fueled my ED and exercise bulimia–as I start to explore why calories in/calories out is a fallacy, and how obsession is fueled by the false advertising of the fitness and health industries.

 

I’m not sure how to reconcile the fact that my PT wants me to start doing 5 minutes of steady state cardio with my former impulses to do hours of the same. I’m not sure how to reconcile 3 sets of ten light-weight negative calf raises on the leg press with the desire to deadlift 100+ pounds on the first day.

 

Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated, fitspiration

So said the voices in my head. But sometimes, obsession is really just obsession.

I’m terrified of finding myself listening to the voices that once upon a time told me the lies that led to my pain.

 

That being said, I feel a little bit better about the fact that I know that the voices tell lies. That I know that ED is always going to be waiting for me to start listening again. That I know how to tune the voices out–that I want to tune them out.

 

It’s funny: I was listening to the most recent Paleo Solution Podcast, and someone wrote in with a question regarding the Health at Every Size movement. It seemed strange–Robb Wolf, of The Paleo Solution Diet fame, is all about nutrition and strength training; HAES is more about body image and mental health/perspective. The question seemed out of place, being answered by a man who doesn’t struggle with an eating disorder and really hasn’t focused on Paleo or strength training as a method for coping with overweight or obesity in his own life. And something in the question stuck out at me: it was sent in by a personal trainer who noticed that the several of his overweight/overfat clients who had made significant gains in their health and vitality were the ones who were more likely to be upset when they didn’t see the same results reflected in belly or underarm fat.

 

What is so striking to me is that those people–people whose health has dramatically improved, whose lives have become infinitely better, whose chances at surviving to live a long and happy life have just increased–were unhappy because they aren’t physically “perfect” (whatever that word means).

 

All of that to say that I don’t understand why we spend so much time trying to equate health and fitness with aesthetic ideals.

 

I don’t understand–even though I’ve lived through it–why we have to equate flat abs with health and First Lady arms with longevity.

 

You know what? I no longer have completely flat abs. My triceps don’t pop anymore. I can’t deadlift or do a pull up (or ten) like I used to.

 

But you know what I’m more concerned about? The fact that I can’t run up a flight of stairs–or even walk it without getting winded. I’m more concerned about the fact that my gut health is still affecting my skin. I’m more concerned about the fact that walking my dog isn’t easy.

 

And because I’m spending more time worried about my lack of physical fitness, I’m spending less time worrying about my lack of a six pack. Funny how priorities change. (Would I like a six pack? Sure. But if it means having to starve myself or eat tuna and egg whites six times a day, then it’s not worth it.)

Me with flat abs after Muscle and Fitness Hers Challenge

In order to take this picture, I starved myself, ate nothing but tuna, egg whites, and protein powder, had no friends, went to the gym 7 days a week, and cried a lot. NOT WORTH IT.

 

So maybe I will be okay to go back to the gym. Maybe I finally have the perspective that I was missing when I was spending hours on the elliptical, hoping for the “perfect” body (whatever that is). All I want now is the perfect body for me, where I am today. One that will keep me healthy, happy, and living a good, long life.

But that’s just me. More soon,

Love,

K.

The Skinny on “Strong”

Today, I just wanted to say a few words on the “strong is the new skinny” phenomenon, since it seems to have popped up in my life multiple times over the last few days.

And I know that the following is out of context if you don’t know the rest of the ankle-and-ED story, but bear with me, since it’s what I’m dealing with right now:

Right now, I am not strong. Right now, I can barely stand on my own two feet. Right now, I literally have no balance.

The infection in my ankle, the synovial inflammation, the atrophy of the muscles, the months of poor, compensating movement patterns–all of these things have kept me from pursuing my “strength” and “health” goals.

I am not fat, but I am not muscular. I am not large, but I no longer wear my “skinny jeans.” I am not unhealthy, but I am not fit.

HOWEVER: I am deconditioned, but not decommissioned. 

I am no longer able to do what I used to do, but I have been given a new agency: the power of acceptance. I have let my ankle be an excuse for why I couldn’t achieve the aesthetic goals I thought were so important, but in the end, it became an excuse for me to tell ED “no.” I can’t do hours of cardio. I can’t even go swimming. There is no outlet for my obsession, and so I have had to learn instead how to cope.

And in learning how to cope, I opened my eyes to the Monster in the Mirror who was terrorizing me with images of fitness models and unrealistic goals. I opened my eyes and looked at some of the women who are competing and realized how thin and sickly they look. They are “strong” and they are “skinny,” but I know all too well that somewhere, gestating inside of them, are the seeds of malnutrition, adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance, and mental/emotional disorders such as BDD and ED.

I know, because even though I never had the chance to compete, I was there with them. I have all of those problems because I allowed myself to believe that I had to fit an ideal–not of the waif-like skinny models of the 90s, but of the 0% body fat fitness models of the millennium.

Yes, strong is important. But strength has nothing to do with an aesthetic ideal. Strength–and health–can happen even without fasted cardio and tupperwares full of boiled chicken and steamed broccoli. And, yes, I still think muscles are sexy; however at this point, I’ve been forced to accept that it’s not about body fat levels or lack of cellulite, it’s about nourishing my body enough to survive until tomorrow, and as many tomorrows as I can after that one.

I also opened my eyes to the “regular” women (and men) I know, who post and tweet and talk about eating less and exercising more and how fat they think they look. All of the negative self-talk, all of the unnecessary worrying…wouldn’t life be so much better if they could learn to appreciate, nourish, and augment the strength they are already capable of?

Yes, being strong is an admirable goal, but what is strength without balance?* What is weight loss/gain without confidence? What is life without happiness? Where is the strength in a world dedicated to ED?**

I spoke to a woman the other day who couldn’t understand why I was against the fitspo images of “strong is the new skinny.” She is strong, and she is proud of her muscles. And she has every right to be. But for her, muscles are a means to improving athletic performance, not augmenting the clothes she wears. She is concerned with how many pounds she can lift in so much time, not by how much her triceps “pop” in a sleeveless shirt. She uses her abs instead of looking at them. Every person should be so lucky to have that kind of relationship with his or her body. “Strong is the new skinny” makes us want to get fit because we want to look a certain way; the athletic/muscular performance is considered only a side effect.*** But right now, “strong is the new skinny” is something I am not and cannot be–and I am not alone in this.

Letting go of the look and striving for the be is the only cure. And that means letting go of the have to and the should. It means investing in a strength other than the one that ED offers–call it a spiritual strength, call it an emotional strength, but call it anything but “strong is the new skinny.”

With my injury, I have lost the ability to train the way I used to. Even the basics are less available to me as I try to keep the inflammation in my body down (and let the antibiotics do their work). It has been a long time since I have been able to devote hours to the gym, but I have made do. And I am still strong.

No, I can’t do a pull up, but I am still strong enough to chin. No, I can’t run a mile, but I can hold a plank for 2 minutes. I will celebrate whatever strength my body will let me have while I heal, and I will be gentle with myself until I can get my ankle strong again.

That’s the kind of strength I can believe in–and skinny be damned.

Happiness, Choice

Happiness is a choice, and today I choose to be happy.

-K.

*And I’m not just talking about being able to do an overhead press while standing on a bosu ball…

**Even if you don’t have a clinically diagnosed ED, by continuing, spreading, and promoting the negative self-talk, the abnormal and unattainable body ideals, and transmutation of health and wellness into aesthetic goals, you’re helping keep ED alive–even in your own life.

***I’m sure if personal trainers+ had a dollar for every client who came to them seeking to look better and then complained about having to work out, training would be a much better paid profession. If you go to the gym because you want to look a certain way but hate every second of it, there’s something wrong. Find a way to be active that makes you happy, and the aesthetics will follow.

+To clarify, I’m talking about general population trainers, not specialized trainers like strength coaches, athletic coaches, physical therapists, etc.

One Rep Max

Before I get started with the (red) meat of today’s post, I just wanted to thank those of you who have reached out to me about your own struggles with ED, food, and body image. I know how difficult it can be to tell others about your struggles or to ask for help, and, frankly, I’m amazed by how many of us are out there. 

It’s funny: when we suffer from ED, we see ourselves imprisoned in this horrible, dark, windowless tower, hidden from rescue, alone and miserable. But in reality, those metaphorical towers are all lined up, one next to the other–windowless, perhaps, but not impervious to sound. 

So if you find yourself alone, allowing your jailor ED to make you waste–your body, your life–away, call out. Chances are, someone else–someone just one tower to the right or left–will hear you. And you will know that you are not alone. Together, you have hope. 

(And please, if you ever need to call out, my tower isn’t that far away. In fact, I’ve started carving windows into it, and I can see that there is light outside. Don’t hesitate to call, text, facebook message, comment, tweet…just reach out. I’m here.) 

Ask any truly knowledgable fitness professional about lifting your one rep max, and they’ll probably advise that you don’t attempt it too often. It’s something you aim to increase and improve, sure, but not a feat you seek to pull off every day. It’s an extreme act, meant to be performed in moderation.

In a way, my life had become a poorly executed one rep max: extreme and ultimately unsustainable in the long term.

My nightly excursions to hear the MT’s band play or to sing karaoke with my coworkers–often followed by all nighters and a nine-hour shift at work–were beginning to take their toll on me. Moreover, I had been promoted to full time at work (and given a semi-promotion that involved the same amount of pay for more responsibilities and a ton of extra stress), and I was no longer working out. My diet consisted mainly of apples, egg whites and protein powders laced with acesulfame-K. (Okay, I also ate a lot of peanut and almond butter and deliberately turned a blind eye while I over-measured the 2 tbsp portions).

I started putting on weight. My pants were getting tighter and tighter, and I felt uncomfortable in my own body. I needed new motivation to get back into the gym and get skinny again.

Karaoke night at the Dubliner (and singing, ironically*, No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs”)
*And I mean “ironically” in the Morissette-ian sense, better defined as “unexpectedly coincidental”.

ED suggested that I revisit my bikini-body dreams. So I hired an IFBB pro to train me.

Darrem Charles was one of the trainers at my gym. He had worked with amazing competitors like Erin Stern, and we had struck up conversation after he noticed me doing my daily squats/deadlifts/plyos before my back injury.

My first training session left me with DOMS* like I will never forget: I was in so much pain that I spent both of my fifteens at work and my hour-long lunch in the service hallway, attempting to loosen my knotted muscles with a tennis ball. I didn’t let that faze me though. I was thrilled to be working with Darrem, eagerly anticipating the body that we were going to build together. ED was nearly jumping out of my skin with excitement.

And then my mother moved to California.

Mind you, I was living with her rent-free while I tried to rebuild my life with retail, so when she moved, it forced me to go back into the real world and start to fend for myself like an adult.

World of Beer with my amazing coworkers

Fortunately (or so I thought), I had become incredibly close with two of the guys at work. I considered them my best friends, and they were both also in need of a new place to live. We three found what can only be described as a dream house, and decided to move in together.

The only downside that I could see was that I had to give up my training sessions if I wanted to pay the rent.

I signed up at a new gym close to the dream house, and I prepared to take matters into my own hands. I was going to shape myself into a bikini competitor if it killed me.

Things were looking up, and I was going to hit a new PR. What I didn’t realize was that I had already passed my one rep max, and things were about to change drastically.

-K.

*Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Where ED Wasn’t

The new year brought even bigger changes.

It started like this:

Even after months of working side-by-side with literally more than one hundred other employees in a fast-paced high-volume retail box, I would occasionally encounter employees whom I had never seen or interacted with. Somehow, between the increase in sales attachments and the averted tech support crises, there were people who just slipped past me unnoticed.

And then one day, I found myself in the tech support area of the back of house, begging one of our technicians to help me figure out a complex customer issue–when I noticed a technician who I had never actually spoken to. We were both waiting for our respective customer issues to be resolved, so we struck up a conversation. It came out that he was in a band, and that his band would be performing that weekend, and that I should come and check it out.

My throat closed up. I nodded a hurried, “sure,” knowing that the only thing I was sure of  was that I wasn’t going.

The following weekend, some of the employees who had been hired just a month or two after me invited me to go bowling. It was a Saturday night, and I didn’t exactly have an excuse not to go (because “I have to stay in and eat my Casein, Peanut Butter, and Cinnamon Pudding” is not an excuse that most people would understand or accept). I also had another open invite to hear the technician’s band play.

Here was a multi-layered dilemma: First and foremost, ED didn’t want me to go. I would be missing a meal and potentially staying out late enough to make me miss my morning gym session. Second, I would have to go out and interact with multiple people outside of work. This was like going from talking about spiders to holding a tarantula without any of the intermediate steps.

My therapist was therefore astonished when I told her how much fun I had going bowling with my friends and then staying out until sunrise at the technician’s gig.

Something had shifted inside of me. I started going out nearly every night (after I had eaten my casein pudding, of course). I stopped hanging out with my work/gym buddy. I started having a drink or two at the band’s gigs. I pulled all-nighters and missed gym sessions. I made up for my alcoholic indiscretions* by trying to eat less, although I found myself craving sugar all the time (and since my managers would put out an economy-sized bag of LifeSavers mints at the start of each shift, I found myself reaching my hand in once or twice an hour).

At an *actual* restaurant with my cousin and sister

Hanging out with the musician-technician (henceforth MT for brevity’s sake) brought me into contact with an entirely new group of people and a range of experiences that opened up a side of me that I never believed I could possibly share.**

For several hours each day, I was free of the Monster in the Mirror: I traveled from my windowless, mirror-less retail box to the dimly-lit, mirror-less dive bars where the musician-technician played, and I was too busy having a good time to look for ED.

But he came back full-force when I actually managed to make it into the gym: My progress had, obviously, begun to stall, what with my new sleeping and eating habits. I was frustrated by my loss of strength, and so I decided that I would make up for it by lifting heavier and heavier each time I made it into the gym. (Obviously, the personal trainer inside of me was pissed that I’d ignore common sense and good gym practices, but ED didn’t give a damn about what common sense had to say at this point.)

Things finally came to a head–or, rather, a slipped disc–when I tried to Romanian deadlift about 10 lbs higher than my previous 70-80% 1RM.***

I could barely walk the next day, but I went to work anyway. And then stayed up all night with the MT and his friends. The following day can only be described as one spent in a fair amount of agony.

I knew what this meant, and the thought hurt more than my injury: I was going to have to give up the gym until I healed.

And though I wasn’t looking in the mirror when I had the thought, I knew ED was smiling, because he knew that this was his way back in.

-K.

*I didn’t have more than one or two drinks pretty much ever, and I never actually got drunk. These were “indiscretions” because they were empty calories–even a vodka and soda still comprised 100 non-nutritious calories.

**No, I didn’t do any drugs, but thanks for your concern. 🙂

**1RM stands for “one rep max,” as in the maximum amount of weight you can lift once if you are going all-out, balls-to-the-wall. You shouldn’t be able to do a second rep after that lift, hence the singularity. It’s suggested that,when you strength train, you lift about 70-80% of that maximum for multiple reps. In this particular injury’s case, I was lifting closer to my 1RM than I should have for many more reps than I should have with worse form than I should have.

Retail Therapy

I’ve been thinking a lot about Stefani Ruper’s post on Paleo for Women about doing away with our mirrors in order to promote a better self-image. I think it’s such an empowering idea (if not a little difficult)…can you imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have to answer to our own judgments? Ever since I read that post, I’ve had Sesame Street’s “Monster in the Mirror” Song stuck in my head. I find it kind of fitting, though, when thinking about my ED. 

“Saw a monster in the mirror when I woke up today
A monster in my mirror but I did not run away
I did not shed a tear or hide beneath my bed
Though the monster looked at me and this is what he said:

…’Do not wubba me or I will wubba you.'”

In the song, Grover wakes up and has to face a scary looking monster in his mirror–a monster who, he realizes, is actually him. And he has to learn how to sing along with the monster or else the monster will “wubba” him–sort of like how I learned how to deal with my ED. Because the stronger ED became, the scarier he was–and the harder it was to summon the strength to look at my reflection. I had to learn how to stop looking–or find a way to sing along without letting the Monster “wubba” me. And for me, that song was Retail.

“…If your mirror has a monster in it, do not shout
This kind of situation does not call for freaking out
And do nothing that you would not like to see him do
‘Cause that monster in the mirror he just might be you…”

I found myself thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t being forced into inpatient treatment now that I had found myself an effective form of retail therapy. Instead of being force-fed bagels and weight gain shakes, I supplemented my high-protein, bikini competition diet with a steady stream of metaphorical Kool-Aid.

And it’s no wonder that the Kool-Aid worked wonders: for the last several months, I had been entirely alone with my own thoughts and constantly confronted with ED, the Monster in the Mirror. Once I had a job at the mall, I was stuck for 9-plus hours in a windowless box, confronted with an endless stream of other people who had problems to solve and needs to be met. And my meal breaks were programmed into my day (each small snack eaten on a 15 or on a 30-minute or hour-long lunch), so I didn’t have to worry that I wouldn’t have time to eat. For the first time in a long time, I was focusing my attention outward–and like garlic to vampires, other people helped me ward off the Monster in the Mirror.

Moreover, I finally had “friends.” No, I still went home directly after my shift and panicked if I had to go out after dark, but I at least had an incredible, dynamic, amazing cast of characters to look forward to seeing each time I worked. No, I never called any of them or offered to sit with them in the food court, but I felt accepted and loved, if only for a few hours a day.

My therapist urged me to get to know these people better. She saw a breakthrough coming–and so did I. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: resist it at all costs.

With the holidays approaching, my managers started approving massive overtime, so I was working constantly. I was still a part-timer and not receiving benefits, but I needed the money, so any offer my managers made for extra hours I gladly accepted (so long as those hours did not overlap with a feeding time for which I hadn’t packed and planned).

During this time, I also started taking my fitness to a different level. I was doing serious squats and deadlifts, and turning heads at the gym with my strange-looking plyometric routines (remember, this was before box gyms started buying into the whole “functional fitness” thing and stocking their new, open, functional areas with bouncy medicine balls, battle ropes, and speed ladders). I cut way down on my cardio (mainly because I just didn’t have time, now that I had to get to work after my workout), and started picking up heavier and heavier weights.

I even ventured into the gym with one of the guys from work–my first real friend in this new life I was living. I gave him some tips on training, and we spotted each other at the squat rack. I even spent time post-workout with him–talking about nothing in particular and worrying about the future. It was liberating.

My food, however, was still a major issue.

Because I had so much less time to cook (and because working a retail schedule meant unpredictable hours, all of which spent away from a source of healthy, non-mall food), I started to rely more and more heavily on egg whites and protein powders. In fact, my entire diet became based on combinations of egg whites and protein powders. I learned ways to mix in oatmeal, apples, berries, cottage cheese, peanut or almond butter and massive quantities of stevia, cinnamon, and cocoa powder in order to provide enough variety for six meals per day.* Sure, I still had my boiled chicken and dry turkey breasts with defrosted stir-fry vegetables, but those taste sensations didn’t stop me from craving my protein-powder-and-baby-food puddings. Yes, I ate baby food. I was hitting nutritional rock bottom.

My body started giving out on me during my workouts, and I was showing up at work with an impinged shoulder or a pulled hamstring.

I pushed through these “minor” injuries, and continued working out. Since the store wasn’t open all night and my shifts couldn’t last forever, working out was all I had to keep the Monster in the Mirror at bay.

ED couldn’t follow me to work, but he damn sure tried.

-K.

*I think some of these recipes are actually better than the crap that I actually shoved down my throat, but here’s an idea of things people actually do instead of eating real food : “20 Delicious Protein Powder Recipes That Are Not Shakes“+

+”Delicious” is disputable, although I suppose it’s a subjective thing; anything is probably delicious when you haven’t eaten anything but plain chicken for six months. And if you add enough fake sugar, well, then anything is possible.

Fitness Models Don’t Drink Kool-Aid

It’s difficult to adequately describe the absolute physiological and mental agony of anxiety if you’ve never experienced an attack; however, suffice it to say that I suffered from the throat-closing, chest-crushing, dizzy/nauseous symptoms* from the moment I got the email inviting me to interview for my retail job to the moment I met the store leader.

I was fortunate to, for whatever reason, completely circumvent the entire hiring process and just meet with the store leader at the mall directly. (Normally, the company makes you go through several rounds of group interviews over several days at a hiring event.) I spoke with her for about half an hour, and, rather than invite me back to meet with a second manager another day, she pulled a manager and had me interview with him right then and there. Two days later, I came back to meet with the head of our market, and by the following day had an invitation to come in and fill out my paperwork.

I was both delighted and devastated.

Here I was, technological know-nothing with no sales experience and an eating disorder keeping me prisoner in my own house. How was I going to function as a high-volume sales rep–and, more importantly, how was I going to continue my eating habits while working retail hours?** (Not to mention the fact that I had gone from 21-year-old high school teaching rock star to 23-year-old part-time retail employee who had completely failed to live up to her prep school’s Ivy League expectations.)

I wanted to die.

The good news (?) was, if I continued on my “health” trajectory, I was going to.

Sure, I could do pull ups, but it looked like my arms were going to break while I did them.

A visit to the physician brought me some disturbing news: I was 112 lbs and severly underweight. I had dropped below 15% body fat (somewhere around 12%), and was testing positive for osteopenia, bradycardia, and secondary amenorrhea. That meant I was at risk and on track for osteoporosis, heart failure, and an early menopause. In other words, I had turned myself into an old woman. Death couldn’t be that far away.

I’ll admit that scared me.

Unfulfilled threats of suicide are one thing, but complete and impending physical failure are quite another.

Shredded abs…and not enough body fat for healthy reproductive function.

I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could: go to work.

And work, my friends, is what saved me.

On the morning that I left for the first of my three days of corporate employee training, I told my mom to kill me if I came home having drunk the “Kool-Aid.” She didn’t kill me, but I drank that metaphorical Kool-Aid with the fervor of a three-year-old on a sugar binge. There was something absolutely compelling–a sense of purpose and a company culture of openness and forward-motion, perhaps–that made me feel almost high every time I clocked in.

It turns out, I was very good at retail. And being good at something was fun. Although I was still freaked out about downing my whey-protein-cottage-cheese-and-spinach shakes on time, the very act of working at my new job calmed some of the anxiety. I felt needed. I felt useful. I felt okay for the first time in months.

And though I had the opportunity to train to become a staff personal trainer at the gym where I still worked three days per week, I quit. I wanted to commit to my new Kool-Aid job and work my way toward a full time position as quickly as I could. I never wanted to leave.***

-K.

*These are the same symptoms that led my pediatrician to misdiagnose me with asthma in the 6th grade. I’ll touch on the issue with anxiety in another post, I’m sure.

**I tweeted about my concerns (as whimsically Millennial as that sounds), and I was answered by one of the fitness models and pro figure competitors who I followed. Apparently she had done the retail/fitness thing, and had lived to tell the tale. While her answer wasn’t a complete panacea, it certainly did a little to alleviate my immediate concerns. I mean, if she could do it, then why couldn’t I?

*** On the days I worked, I hated sitting at home and waiting to put on my uniform, so I’d leave early and wait outside of the store until I could go in. In fact, I used to show up at the mall on my days off just so I could say, “hi,” and make sure that the store was still functioning without me. After a few months of this, one of my managers actually yelled at me to go home when I showed up unscheduled on a Saturday.

Walking Into Spiderwebs

Imagine that you were afraid of spiders. Not just “get-your-roommate-to-squash-it-with-a-shoe-because-you’re-too-scared-to-do-it-yourself,” but also “too-scared-to-venture-out-of-the-house-without-a-can-of-RAID-just-in-case.” The kind of afraid that leaves you physically unable to function at the very thought of leaving the house and entering a world where spiders could potentially jump out at you from any corner or fall on your head as you walked through your front door. Sounds like a pretty miserable existence, right?

Well, by mid-summer 2010, life outside of my kitchen had become a giant effing spider.

By late July, ED and I had taken up residence in the corner of the kitchen. We two spent nearly all of our waking hours standing at the counter and surfing bodybuilding and fitness meal plan blogs.* Even when I wanted to leave, I had nowhere to go–the other areas of my house were filled with mirrors (from which ED would leer at my not-yet-perfect body), and to leave the kitchen meant that I was separated from my food. To go anywhere but the gym would send me into a panic that left me nearly incapacitated and suicidal.

At the suggestion of my poor, beleaguered psychologist in NYC (and much encouraged by my parents), I found a therapist who practiced “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” I figured I would try it, since CBT is intended to help lessen anxiety through exposure.

To give you an idea of how CBT works, we can use our fear-of-spiders example: In the first few sessions, you might talk about spiders. Eventually your therapist might bring in a picture of a spider. Soon, you’d have your sessions with an actual spider in a cage on the other side of the room. Perhaps one day you’d be able to go up to the cage, or even touch the spider.

For me, CBT meant leaving my house for something other than a trip to the gym or Publix. CBT meant attending group sessions and building relationships with the other women who attended. CBT meant being okay with leaving the house without a cooler filled with snacks just in case. CBT also meant letting go of my obsession with becoming a bikini competitor.

Dying to be a bikini competitor. Literally.

The problem with therapy was that, while I wanted help, I was still in love with the ideas that ED had planted in my head. Why couldn’t I be healthy and also a Bikini competitor? If the way I was behaving was keeping me thin, what would happen to me if I gave up those behaviors? Though I wanted help, I wasn’t ready for it.**

I argued with my therapist in every session. I attended the group CBT classes grudgingly, and I refused my therapist’s repeated assertions that I should come to her weekend eating disorder meetings. I had no faith in her methods; she was beautiful but overweight, and therefore a repulsive example of what I could become if I listened to her. She and I disagreed on what foods could be considered “carbs” (she said that vegetables weren’t carbohydrates, and her ignorance made me hate her). She wanted me to go out and make friends. I wanted to stay in and build muscle.

She wanted me to go to a physician so that she could have tests run to prove that I was an anorexic. But first, I needed insurance. And that meant I needed a job.

I had been putting my resume out various places, and was finally hired by a gym to work the front desk. This was a part-time, no benefits position, but at least if I had to go out I was going somewhere I felt comfortable. At the gym, people understood me. There were bodybuilders who ate every three hours like me, men who brought in tupperwares of tuna and steamed broccoli or downed their whey protein during their 15 minute post-exercise window for optimal protein uptake by the muscles. There were the spin and boot camp devotees who were as addicted to their post-cardio endorphin highs as any druggie. There were the women who would stop me in the locker room and beg me to tell them my “secret” for looking “so fit.” (And I would smirk, because I knew that no one else had the dedication to do what I was doing, so they would never be as thin as I was.)

Too thin.

I would wake up at 4 am, get to the gym by 4:30, have the coffee brewing and the doors open by 5, make small talk with the old men who came to “work out” (read: do a couple of pec-deck flyes and then socialize for a few hours before going home), and then exercise as soon as my shift ended at 10. It was an almost perfect arrangement. I just needed that insurance.

As August drew to a close, I got an email inviting me to interview for a part time retail position. This wasn’t just any retail position, however; this was a position with a Very Important Technology Company. One that doesn’t just grant interviews willy-nilly, and one that even more rarely grants the interviewee a job. Since I had no background in either sales or technology, I was ready to write this one off.

But I went to the interview anyway. Just in case.

-K.

*So many of these blogs were just thinspo/pro-ana in disguise–often unbeknownst to the women who where writing them. Looking back at my bookmarked and most-visited pages now, I realize just how sick so many of these women actually are. It’s one thing to have a healthy interest in food and its effects on the body/body composition, and it’s another to spend one’s entire day obsessing about manipulating macronutrients and photographing tupperwares filled with protein powder pudding.

**If you’re in the same place I was–where you can acknowledge that you have a problem but aren’t yet ready to change–don’t despair! If you can, try to find a therapist or a person who you can talk to. Sometimes, just talking helps. Eventually, you will be ready to accept change, progress, and hope for your future.

A Measure of Worth?

Just a quick note: we’re getting into some of the most recent (and, frankly, most difficult) parts of the ED here. I just wanted to post a little disclaimer here that NONE of this is to be considered “pro-ana” AT ALL–please, if you feel yourself identifying with some or all of the thoughts and behaviors I’m posting here, please please please seek help. Tell a friend or family member. Find a doctor. Reach out. An ED is a very serious disease with some very serious consequences, both psychological and physical, and you do not deserve to live in pain. Please don’t isolate yourself: there is hope and there is help outside of your own mental prison. 

Moving back to Florida felt like failing.

Here I was: 23, salutatorian of my high school class, having both graduated from college a year early (and summa cum laude) and successfully managed a high school drama department, and yet now I couldn’t manage my own life. I was moving back in with my mother. I wasn’t going to get my MFA from an Ivy League or become a dramaturg at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or work for the New York City Center’s Encores!.

I felt like my life was completely out of control. Fortunately, ED was right there beside me, offering the magic pill: control your body, control your life.

I was aware that I had a problem–that I was addicted to my new Eat-Clean lifestyle–but I was hellbent on not giving it up. Even though I didn’t yet have a car or a job, I went to the Busy Body Fitness Center up the road each day and worked out. I was nearing the end of my eight-week transformation challenge, and I refused to miss a muscle-building moment.

My post-“transformation” photo

As soon as the transformation challenge ended, I knew that I wasn’t thin enough. Looking at the pictures of the other women online, I knew that I still had work to do. I beat myself up, knowing I hadn’t been compliant enough with the transformation diet–some days I had had a bowl of cereal before bed (old habits die hard) or had even god forbid snuck a handful of chocolate chips past ED.

At the gym, one of the trainers there asked me if I was training for an NPC* competition. I said I wasn’t, but immediately went home and signed up. This was going to be how I made up for my transformation failure: I was going to train for a Bikini competition.

My reasoning was this: if I wasn’t good enough to use my brain to impress everyone–my Ivy League dreams were still stuffed inside the boxes I’d shipped home but never unpacked–then I was going to use my body to prove I was worth something.

I started a new regimen of training, which involved alternating squat and deadlift days–with plyometric days in between. I cut down on some of my cardio since I was no longer running to and from the gym, but I still managed to log hours upon hours on the arc trainer. I poured over pictures of figure competitors and studied training logs and meal plans in my copies of Oxygen, Muscle and Fitness Hers, and Fitness RX while I elliptical-ed away my calories.

I was also becoming more and more obsessed with eating–and eating the right things at the right times. I was downing protein powder two to three times a day (whey in the morning after my workout and mixed with water and cinnamon as a pudding for my mid-morning snack, and casein mixed with water and cinnamon as a pudding for dessert). I cooked batches and batches of boiled chicken and ground turkey and stored them in the freezer for easy access. I made egg-white and oatmeal pancakes. I ate sweet potatoes and green beans and lettuce and didn’t taste a single thing.

The Eat-Clean Diet told me to eat six meals a day, spaced three or so hours apart. I took that to heart and, of course, to the extreme: If I wasn’t shoveling tasteless fuel into my body every three hours on the dot, I would start to panic. ED would start to whisper threats in my ear: My muscles were going to shrink. All of my hard work was going to be thrown away. I was going to gain weight. If I couldn’t get to my cottage cheese and blueberries or dry tuna fish, I would start to hyperventilate, my chest closing up and my head spinning. I felt like I was going to die.

That also may have had something to do with the hypoglycemia from the fact that, despite eating six meals a day, I was starving myself.**

This was no way to live my life. I knew there was something wrong. But I loved looking in the mirror and seeing my beautiful muscles and knowing that they were my justification for not killing myself. My muscles were going to prove that I had worth.***

-K.

*NPC stands for “National Physique Committee.” It is one of the amateur bodybuilding, fitness, figure, and bikini organizations, and certain NPC shows act as qualifiers for a pro committee like IFBB (International Federation of Body Builders).

**I lived my life from meal to meal because I was only eating 100-200 calories at a time. I was constantly hungry, counting down the seconds until I could eat again. When it was finally time to eat again, I would inhale the food, torn between consuming everything as quickly as I could and savoring every last bite. When the food was gone, I would sink into a depression that would last until the next meal time. Needless to say, I wasn’t much fun to be around between meals–and god forbid you get in my way when I was cooking…

***I spent most of my time worrying about what my friends from high school would think of me. I had been one of those “most-likely-to-succeed”, type-A kids who everyone just assumed would go far. I had such a low sense of self-worth, that I took their dismissive “stop-worrying-you’ll-be-great-at-whatever-you-do’s” as threats–in other words, if I wasn’t great at whatever I did, then I would be a complete failure. I was so afraid of disappointing everyone, that I just went ahead and disappointed everyone (read: myself) to prove they were wrong for having had faith in me. It’s taken me a long time to start to separate myself from this need to live up to what I have falsely believed are other peoples’ expectations of me. (And there are still days when I wake up and wish I had a better life to display for those acquaintances on Facebook. On those days, I have to remind myself that I am on my own, non-traditional journey–and that I can’t base my destination on what I imagine is someone else’s ideal.