Exercise and me
!TRIGGER WARNING! do not read this if you are feeling vulnerable, are easily triggered and/or are currently suffering with obsessive exercise. Detailed discussion of ED behaviours, specifically exercise.
As you may have seen from my 'About me' page, I love being active. I have been an active person from birth, my mum used to hike with me strapped to her front. There is a picture of my mum hiking Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in south Wales, with me only a few months old. As a family we are all very active, as a child I'd be out on day long hikes with family, swimming in the sea when I could, or just tearing around the garden. As I grew I started horse riding and competing. I would go swimming, surfing, climbing, hiking, cycling and more. It was and is a way of life for me.
But my relationship with exercise is complicated. At 14 I started having food issues, which spiralled into Anorexia Nervosa. Part of my illness was obsessive and compulsive exercising. Exercise became a form of punishment, and self-harm. It was a source of great pain and suffering. When my Eating disorder was at it's worst I would spend hours and hours exercising, heavily ritualised exercise ruled my days. Even when my body was screaming in agony, my joints were swollen and damaged, black spots appearing in my vision and I started fainting, I just could not stop. I would push my body to such extremes that I would completely black out, I'd be so malnourished and exhausted that I'd have to lie in bed and sleep any other time that I wasn't exercising. I would count the minutes and work out the calories I'd burned. I knew how many calories I'd burn if I walked, 2 miles, 4 miles, 6 miles. I would be doing exercise in my room and as I was doing it calculating in my head how many calories I'd burnt and how many more I could burn if I carried on for another hour, two hours, three hours. Sometimes I didn't sleep, I'd be stuck in a cycle of exercising and calculating calories, unable to let myself stop and lie down. Even when on the psychiatric ward I'd pace the corridors, run laps around the garden and insist on getting leave so that I could run around town.
I am writing this because at the moment I am in recovery, and under an exercise embargo. My dietitian has given me a strict no exercise rule - and for once in my life, I'm actually listening to someone telling me what to do. I have to admit during the appointment in which I explained my decision to recover and handing control over to her, I was completely terrified by the prospect of not being allowed to exercise, but at the same time I was so relieved that I had permission to stop and rest. My body was a mess, I had the joints of an 80 year old, my heart beat was slowing to uncomfortably and dangerously low rates, and my muscles were completely wasted. I was desperate for someone or something to stop this completely overwhelming and unexplainable compulsion to exercise.
I am not going to lie and say that it has been easy, it hasn't. The compulsions haven't magically disappeared, but I have worked extremely hard to allow my body to rest and fix itself. I am not perfect and of course I have slipped sometimes, falling into anorexia's tricks occasionally. But, in stopping I have realised how much damage I caused my body. Of course not intentionally, I have an illness, it was not in my control. But in giving my body a break it has become clear that the obsessive exercise did more damage than anything else.
As someone who has been active since birth, it is completely alien to me to not do any physical activity other than what is 100% necessary. It has been a real challenge to adjust, and it has really upset me sometimes. In the spring, for example, family came down including all of my cousins from my mum's side. We went out for a bit of a wander and sat on some rocks by the sea. They all started climbing and exploring around the rocks, and to my dismay I couldn't join them, mainly because my body was so broken I was physically incapable. This was not who I was, previously to illness I would be at the front leading the exploration. It was a painful reminder of how my eating disorder steals everything, my body, my mind and even who I am as a person.
A couple of weeks down the line and although my body has made good strides in fixing itself I know it is still a long way to go before exercise will feel safe again. I dream of a future where I feel strong, wh
ere I can fuel my body for the enjoyment of exercise again, where activity is a part of my life again - not part of my suffering. I want to run, hike, ride, swim, climb, do yoga and explore the world because it makes me happy, not because I 'need' to, not because I 'need to burn calories', and not because my illness demands it.
As I sit and allow my body to fix itself so courageously, I think about how I will run the Cheltenham challenge with my uncle and enjoy an ice cold beer afterwards, smiling, laughing and celebrating our bodies abilities. How I will go climbing with my brother again and climb the hardest route and feel pumped. I think about how I will once again hike the coastal paths around Pembrokeshire, and how I will gallop along the beaches on the back of my dear Tommy. And all of it will be done in celebration of my body.