The number one thing you saw when searching for ‘healthy living’ instruction and tips in mainstream media and literature was weight loss. The two concepts were practically synonymous.
My eating disorder crept in to my life initially as an attempt to ‘improve my diet’. It was a coping device, and at first a seemingly harmless one. What woman wouldn’t mind improving her diet or her body tone? After all, the number one thing you saw when searching for ‘healthy living’ instruction and tips in mainstream media and literature was weight loss. The two concepts were practically synonymous.
The gateway spiralled out of control, as I was depressed and unable to see myself or my situation clearly. My self-image was distorted and I became trapped in a vicious cycle of self-sabotage as I restricted the fat and calorie-dense foods in my life to an extreme. My body would crave calories, and I would often ‘lose control’ and ‘binge’, which felt like this huge excess of intake, while in reality it was replenishing what I had restricted. I would then feel disgusting afterwards and resolve to be even more strict with my diet.
Denial can be overwhelming, blinding even. There are many people struggling with eating disorders who never are able to get past their tight grasp of denial.
There was no other way to term it, I was sick. I was obsessed and stuck, I could not see outside the hole I had fallen into and no matter how aware I was of this problem that was literally causing me to waste away, I knew that I did not have the ability to conquer this beast myself. My saving grace was my ability to recognize that I had a problem, and my willingness to try and overcome. Denial can be overwhelming, blinding even. There are many people struggling with eating disorders who never are able to get past their tight grasp of denial.
They say that where there is no risk or sacrifice, there is no possibility for great gain. This is a lesson that transfers across all spheres. I bring this attitude with me now when I line up to race. Racing requires this same ability to risk and allow the possibility of failure, in order to achieve something great. My recovery required me to become completely vulnerable. It was terrifying. Facing my fears without any shield.
Some of the girls I was with, younger than me, are not alive today.
I think I was scared of failure most of all. Failure for me was not being able to recover, and have the life I had before I became anorexic. After six weeks in the inpatient program, I was deemed physically and mentally ready for release. and I was filled with dread as much as excitement and hope. I wanted to cry and curl up in that strange hospital where I had lived for the past weeks, where I didn’t have to be in charge. I was back to a non-threatening weight, but I didn’t trust yet, that it was only because of the clinic and the people who worked there. I was surrounded by other young women who were in the clinic the second time – maybe even third time, relapses were common. Some of the girls I was with, younger than me, are not alive today.
The truth is, the Vanessa from before the eating disorder doesn’t exist anymore. I will never be the same. It took me years to trust that this is an ‘okay’ thing. And even longer to know that I am even stronger because of it. I will always live with an eating disorder crouching in the corner of my mind, but instead of it being a suffocating beast, it is a shadow that I am able to walk right by.
Through the sometimes terrifying process of facing recovery, living with the very real possibility of relapse, having to trust, even though I didn’t believe that what I was doing would work half of the time, wanting to go back to what was familiar and felt ‘safe’ when things felt hard or threatening, I was able to go from merely making sure that I ate the calories I needed, to very slowly being able to enjoy food and feel free from fear. This took years, a wretchedly long time. You have no idea how relieved I was, when, six years later, I finally started to eat pasta again. (It was thanks to cycling for this one.)
I want to share with those who currently struggle, things I wish I was told early on in my recovery: successful recovery does not mean perfection and 100% turnaround. That expectation is completely unrealistic and sets people up with a mentality that is more likely to crumble when bumps inevitably rise up along the way.
Recovery can be ugly, and slow and above all, recovery requires patience and forgiveness when mistakes are made. When I have challenging moments, even moments where I am tempted to revert back to negative behaviour, I allow myself those bumps, and don’t take it as a sign that I am headed for relapse. By not giving them any power or recognition, that is how I am able to move past them.
My desire to live healthily and happily, with occasional feelings of vulnerability and frustrations, trumps the patterns of negativity and lack of self worth that lay at the heart of eating disorders.
In the sport of cycling, there is a lot of pressure on body weight. This has undoubtedly been a pressure I have felt, and I am fortunate that I found this sport later in my life for this reason. The younger women and men who enter the sport are especially susceptible to the pressure to slim down and reach their optimal ‘race weight’. This is often at the cost of their health. No sport is worth reaching a body weight so low that your body begins to lose natural functions, and for women, this most often means losing menstruation cycles.
Trying to gain a competitive edge by reaching optimal weight-to-power ratio is undoubtedly a part of elite-level success, but never without the proper resources and guidance from professionals, and a healthy attitude along with it.
Lastly, make sure to take care of yourselves, embrace the journey, and pedal hard.