How Running Helped Me Face a Decades-Old Eating Disorder

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When I was 16 years old, I ran in place in my bedroom each day for at least an hour. I ran, not going anywhere, in front of a television to distract me from the fatigue and pain radiating through my young muscles and bones.

Sometimes I could stretch that hour into almost two hours if I was feeling particularly guilty about something I ate or if something interesting aired after the latest “X-Files” episode. The door was always locked. I ran in soft socks on thick carpet so no one would hear. I never told anyone.

Each day was a challenge to overcome. I set a calorie-count goal. At first, I aimed to stay under 1,000 calories per day, and then the number dwindled. The lowest point I remember was limiting myself to 300 calories per day. Some days I ended up coming in under that goal.

I wasn’t the first teenager to suffer from an eating disorder and to exercise to the point of nearly passing out several times per week. I feel fortunate to have made it through that time even though I didn’t have any support. The morning I had to crawl from my bedroom to the kitchen for something to eat because I had so little energy forced me into a moment of self-awareness. I needed food. I needed to look honestly at what I was doing to myself. I needed help.

No one told me I was worryingly thin until after I had managed to get myself back to a healthy weight. “You look so much better! I was really worried!” they said, but only after the danger appeared to pass.

I’m older now, and a mother of two. I’ve gained weight through pregnancies and returned to my baseline weight each time. I don’t count calories, though I try to spend my money on wholesome, natural foods, both for myself and for my family.

I have exercised on and off over the years to maintain energy and relieve stress rather than to look like the distorted ideal body type I imagined when I was younger. I know that body type is a myth.

So when I started training for a half-marathon with my teenage daughter, I didn’t expect some of the panic I felt as that 16-year-old girl to resurface. We ran long distances on the weekend, often 10 miles or more. Anyone who runs long distances knows that this type of activity burns a significant amount of calories, and those calories need to be replaced.

I researched how much I should be eating to compensate and what types of energy bars runners preferred. I found myself fixated on calorie and carbohydrate counts. It felt like too much, as though these recommendations that were reasonable for other people somehow were unreasonable for me. That should have been my first tip-off.

This went on for a few more weeks. I would run, feel weak, and instead of simply eating enough to restore my energy, I fell into a slump.

Yet, it wasn’t until finishing a nearly 13-mile long run without enough sustenance to help me feel strong, and to help me recover, that I recognized that old tired feeling seeping back into my body. When my daughter walked into the dining room while I rested my head on the table, I felt the need to perk up, as if I was hiding something. That’s when I knew.

It’s scary to be surprised by an illness you thought was cured, when actually it was only lying dormant. But at least I was able to recognize the resurgence. Others aren’t so lucky.

It might sound strange to someone who hasn’t been affected by an eating disorder, but I had to give myself permission to consume energy gels when on long runs. I had to direct myself to enjoy an after-workout nutrition bar. Even though I sometimes fell into the abyss of dubious nutritional information found on the internet, I used those same tools to help me come out the other side. I chatted with runner friends who knew what was required to sustain a healthy lifestyle and I felt a connection to others who shared the same story. I was able to write about it in my journal and from there I was able to speak the truth to my own family.

Most of all, I allowed myself to remember what it was like before. Thinking those thoughts didn’t make me feel better about myself. They only put me in danger.

I realized that I willingly turned away from the reality of an eating disorder in the same way the people around me turned away from my severe weight loss as it unfolded years ago. My daughter is now the same age that I was when I nearly starved and exercised myself into irreparable damage. She’s healthy and she amazes me every day. I want so much for more for my children than I was willing to give my younger self. But how much can I give if I don’t move beyond shame and confront my past honestly?

Running has helped me come face-to-face with what I took for granted: I believed my eating disorder was a story that belonged in the past. Now, I know that this was a lie I told myself, a narrative that wrapped sickness up in a box and tucked it away unseen. If those feelings can arise decades later, I know that my recovery is a story that belongs in the present and the future as well as the past.

Knowing the truth of it is the only way to confront it. Now, when I run, I’m not standing in place and I’m not alone. I run though the city streets with the girl I wished I could have been. We talk and laugh and bemoan steep hills. But we go home with a sense of accomplishment, and we raid the fridge without looking at any labels.