Running was a love affair that started from a healthy place.
It was March of my senior year of college when I first laced up a pair of running shoes and hopped on the treadmill. This was for me alone, a way to regain control of my life. Days earlier a court-ordered breathalyzer was installed in my car after I’d been arrested for driving under the influence—drinking pinot noir had gone from a casual college habit to three glasses every night when my bartending shift ended.
“Stretch your legs out,” I remember thinking as I reached the treadmill. “Take a deep breath. Turn up the music. Get a hold of your life.”
I pushed “go’’ and ran four miles. Walking out of the gym that day, the fatigue in my legs felt like the kind of self-control I needed to keep me on track. I repeated this the next day and the day after that. Before I knew it, two months had passed, and I was running six miles, four times a week with an almost never-ending runner’s high.
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I made it a point to outrun all of the people on the treadmills around me, and for the first time in a while, I felt good about the direction my life was going. All the recklessness and self-hatred lifted when I watched that treadmill turn another mile, music blaring so loud that it felt like I was screaming all the thoughts from my mind.
By month two, my ribs started to poke out, reminding me of what it felt like to be the thinnest girl in the room. It was a badge of honor I enjoyed in elementary and middle school—I was known as “skinny Linny” until I hit my teens and puberty set in. My parents praised my new “regimented” lifestyle while my girlfriends grew jealous. “You’re so tiny, Linds!” they’d say, grabbing my arm. But I’d wave them off. “I just needed to give up the wine,” I’d say with a laugh.
Next thing I knew, I was on the treadmill nearly every day. The more I ran, the less I ate. I’d sit at the table with my fists clenched, secretly congratulating myself on how much self-control running had given me. I’d gloat in the mirror at night as I massaged my thighs with my thumbs and marveled at their definition. Then I’d give myself a big hug to feel the bones in my back. As I got more and more obsessed with my vanity, I knew I could never lose running—that I could never feel this confident without it.
Three weeks after graduating, I hopped on a plane to Seville, Spain to start my new life as an au pair. I reasoned that moving away from the comforts of home would be good for me (and give me something new to focus on besides my looks). But two days into my stay, the compulsion to find the treadmill consumed me. Instead of exploring this new foreign city, I found myself walking around, map in hand, asking passersby where the local “gimnasio” was in my broken Spanish.
Anxiety mounted to new extremes as I realized I was in a society that was far less obsessed with the latest fad diet, and far more engrossed with the local white bread and sangria. Unable to find the food I deemed healthy, I started throwing up in my host parents’ bathroom to avoid the extra calories. Soon running six miles a day didn’t seem like enough to burn off the calories I ate.
“Eat only the food you can count,” I wrote in my diary. Eat 250 calories in the morning and run five miles. Eat fewer than 10 bites for lunch. Run four miles after. Walk one mile to pick up children from school.
“You are too thin,’’ my host mother clucked six months in, but I’d just smile my big toothy grin and brush her aside.
“Was I a little too thin?” I wondered as my jeans loosened in the back, or when I woke in the middle of the night, clutching my legs as they cramped. “Maybe,” I thought as I crawled down the marble stairs with tears welling in my eyes from the sharp pain in my back. But the muscle pain, even when it seemed unbearable, couldn’t stop me. Being thin—and feeling totally in control of my body—gave me the kind of self-gratification high I didn’t want to climb down from.
The Breaking Point
After one year in Spain, I moved home to Texas, where my compulsion to exercise escalated to a level I felt both empowered and controlled by. Exercising became my identity. I’d run 16 miles one day then 10 the next. If I took a rest day, I threw up. I had constant pain in both shins that shot through my legs. But the pain dulled when I ran so I pushed ahead, even after doctors told me I had stress fractures in both legs and needed to give up running cold turkey.
My weight sank and the compliments faded. I could see the pity in my friends’ eyes when I hobbled late to a dinner—the perfect excuse to always miss appetizers—but I refused to believe I was sick enough. If I lost five more pounds and got down to what I truly deemed a sickly weight, I told myself I’d let up a bit.
I knew that I was teetering on the edge of something bad, but I only thought about eating disorders as a weight thing. I’d find myself scrolling through Instagram photos of painfully emaciated “pro-ana” women and compare their sickness with my own. Since I didn’t have a thigh gap, I told myself I couldn’t have an eating disorder. Around the same time, I heard about exercise bulimia, but those searches turned up pictures of people with more bulging musles than I knew existed. None of them looked like me.
“You’re just making excuses for wanting to be lazy,” I concluded.
Another six months passed, and I jumped at the opportunity to move to New York and take my first job in publishing. I thought this would be the move that would help me find a change of pace and something besides running to obsess about. But the pull of the treadmill didn’t let up. My busy work schedule made trips to the gym difficult, yet I’d find myself sneaking out of networking events to head back into the 24-hour Planet Fitness, my teeth stained purple from the free wine.
My behavior became increasingly erratic. More than once, I ran completely intoxicated, my foot slipping off the side of the treadmill, but I’d just laugh it off with the gym employee. Like a hamster on a wheel, I couldn’t stop moving. I’d walk eight miles home from work and then head to the gym to run another 10.
Increasingly bulimic, I’d binge eat a box of cereal at home and then throw it up before forcing myself back to the treadmill. My energy dwindled and I started to wake up with a sore throat, a dry mouth, and a bloated stomach.
If it hadn’t already, body dysmorphia consumed my every waking moment. I stopped showering with any kind of consistency because I couldn’t deal with the stress of being naked. Fearful that I took up too much space on the subway, I wouldn’t let myself sit down between people, and instead spent many rides fighting back tears.
At the urging of a therapist, four months after my move to New York, I told my parents that I was struggling. They were willing to do whatever it took to help, but I wasn’t ready to give up my exercise—the only thing I was sure would make me feel better. The final straw came when I went home for Thanksgiving that year. Weary of my eating, my parents counted the cereal boxes in the pantry before we left for a wedding. When I woke up the next day, they confronted me with two empty boxes I’d binged on the night before. Rehab on call, I went without a fight.
Stripped of both running and alcohol, I had to relearn who I wanted to be without the aid of a drug—and yes, exercise was my drug. We live in a society where exercising and focusing on clean eating are the signs of a healthy (and even sought after) lifestyle—and I was able to hide behind that for years. While exercise is important for our health, it can also be used as a coping mechanism.
Growing up with a family that swore by the gym, I thought of exercise as a positive way to blow off steam. When my best friend passed away unexpectedly at the start of college, I found the gym to be a saving grace, the only place to subdue the grief.
Exercise is scientifically proven to boost moods, and it helps many achieve balance in their lives. But exercise is not immune to the same types of dependency and abuse that booze and drugs carry when it’s escalated to a level of obsession.
Fresh out of rehab, I assumed I was mentally capable to go back to a “healthy running” routine, but I quickly found myself sucked back into the hole of calorie counting and compulsion. Running had been my identity for so long that I felt anxious without it. At the advice of my therapist, I turned in the towel and spent all of last year using my old gym time to discover the other things I wanted out of life. I changed jobs. I went to a book club. I finally started a blog. I recently started dating again and instead of shying away from my past, I told him exactly who I was—and much to my surprise, he stuck around.
One year later, I’ve accepted that I will always have a challenging relationship with the gym. I’m still learning how to accept the idea of exercise as something that is an addition to a balanced life, and not the definition of a successful one. I’m far more mindful of the fact that running will not fix any discomfort I feel. It’s a Band-Aid, not a stitch. I’ve started working out again, but I stop myself from heading to the treadmill and obsessing over the digital readout of calories burned and miles run. I take classes instead—bootcamp, barre, Zumba—you name it, I’ll try it. I’ve even come to enjoy them. I like the feeling of my body growing stronger, not weaker. And on weekends, I rest. I eat veggie burgers and fries. I lie in bed watching Netflix because sometimes it’s nice to do nothing.
While I’ll can’t go back and change the past, I now know that I can choose to be mindful—thinking in terms of self-love and self-respect—of the way I live from here on out. And as I finish my story, sitting here at my computer, I’m choosing to be mindful of that.