My alarm goes off, it’s 5:30am, dark outside and it’s snowing. I REALLY don’t want to get up, but I must. I must swim at least 30 lengths before work. “You know you will feel better afterwards. Don’t be lazy – get up.”
I put my Ugg’s on and trek through the black sloshy snow up to the local pool and wait for them to open at 6am. I am the first there, the only one crazy enough to go swimming when it’s Baltic outside. It’s freezing in the pool and I barely have enough energy to do 10 lengths, but I can’t leave until I’ve done 30. I power my way through – mixing up front-crawl with breast stroke and back stroke. I reach 30. “You can’t stop there – you need to do another 10 –push.” I make it to 40. “You can’t stop there, 10 more.” I hit 50. (I could never stop on an odd number, it always had to be even). I get out of the pool (only because I will be late for work if I carry on – my saving grace).
The above story was not unusual for me. I was in a total state of self-punishment, because despite being exhausted, I never refuelled my body for what I had just put it through – why would I? That would have been giving in to my ED. Exercise became as much a part of my eating disorder, as my eating disorder was, if that makes sense? I controlled my emotions and feelings by punishing myself with exercise as another way for my eating disorder to sabotage me. As much as I hated it, I did feel a sense of achievement at being able to push myself harder that the next person. I enjoyed it when I ached – it was almost like a relief for me.
Now in recovery, I have established a whole new attitude to exercise – one that nurtures my healthy self. I was taught in treatment to respect exercise and we referred to it as ‘movement.’ In the early days of being in treatment I wasn’t allowed to go on the ‘walks’ or participate in gym sessions. I could only do yoga, which totally pissed my ED. It was agonising watching the other girls in the clinic exercise, while I just felt as though I was eating for England and sitting on my back-side all day. I felt trapped in the early days and weeks. I couldn’t get away with anything. I couldn’t walk up the stairs or do sit-ups in my room – there was always someone around. Despite feeling like a beached whale, I slowly realised that I had to also let go of my unhealthy behaviours around exercise to heal fully. After a few weeks, I was allowed to go on the walks, but I didn’t enjoy them because I still had the voice in me, telling me that I should try and walk faster and harder. I wasn’t present or in a relationship with my peers, I was still being dictated to by my ED.
It took a while before I started to enjoy the walks for what they were. They were a chance for me to be with nature, to connect with myself and others in a more natural environment, away from all the ‘illness’ talk. I have always loved being outside and by the beach and so Saturday morning, when we would go for our ‘beach walk’ became a huge part of my recovery. I would talk to the other girls on a different level – we talked more about who we were as a person without our ED’s. Since returning from treatment I have established a whole new approach to exercise or ‘movement’, as I prefer to call it. I am aware that swimming can be a trigger for me, and as much as I love being in water, I stayed away from swimming pools for a good number of years. I couldn’t trust myself to go for a leisurely swim – I knew I would be compelled to do a ‘swimathon.’
In the past year, I stayed in a hotel which had a gym and a pool. I have never been a gym lover, but I woke up and felt like stretching and moving my body. To keep myself safe, I gave myself some boundaries; I allowed myself a certain amount of time and I stuck to it and I told my friend to keep me accountable. That was several months ago now, and I haven’t been back in the gym since. I have been in a pool several times but mostly in company, and have not engaged in unhealthy behaviours. Instead my choice for movement is to go for walks, spend time outside, surf, yoga, and horse-riding. I respect my body and choose movement that connects myself at a deeper level.
I always like to reiterate that this is purely my experience. Exercise is incredibly beneficial for the mind and body, but in the early days of recovery from an eating disorder it might be wise to consider the following:
- Is this activity going to support my recovery?
- Will I be triggered by doing this exercise?
- Why am I really doing this – is it because my healthy-self wants to, or is my ED-self taking charge?
- What boundaries can I put in to keep me safe?
Recovery from an eating disorder is not a quick process, it is a long hard slog and anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling themselves. Recovery is not just about what you put in your body, it’s about how you treat it as a whole package. I have since re-established exercise as a way to add joy to my life rather than just a way to burn calories. I have discovered what I like and what I don’t like. I know what my triggers are, and only participate in activities that nurture my healthy-self. I am grateful that these days I would not even consider getting up in the dark to trek to the swimming pool – I couldn’t think of anything worse!
Being free from the abhorrent voice in your head that dictates everything you do is so worth the slog. Be excited at being on a journey of self-discovery…exercise is a great way to connect with others, but is can also be valuable ‘alone’ time. You deserve to enjoy exercise/movement as a way to strengthen not just your physical self, but your mental and emotional wellbeing.