Mitigating risk from my comfort zone

As I wrote last week, untangling my body image from fitness goals has been a difficult and triggering process. During my injury and for several weeks following my return to running, I felt good about my body. I ate what I wanted, without much second-guessing. I was running a bit, but also practicing yoga and resting as needed. I enjoyed feeling myself grow stronger without feeling tired. My main goal during this early recovery was to re-acclimate myself to running. I did not even measure my pace or count my miles. I ran for time and for ease. This was a lovely period.

Unfortunately, my competitive drive started creeping back after a while. For the past few weeks I have struggled to know how much I can (or should) push my body to increase my speed and endurance. Always in the back of my mind is the caution against returning to a life or restriction and overexercise. I want to stretch the boundaries of my current fitness, but I also want to stay in this happy mental space I have constructed, in which running is a fun addition to life and not the driving force behind my existence.

As I explore the possibility of running more, I am flooded with anxiety about what might happen if I use even a slight increase in mileage as an excuse to increase more and more and more. I am afraid of losing control. I am afraid of losing my progress.

At the same time, I am not content with my mileage or my pace. Running slow for short distances is relaxing, but only when contrasted with harder efforts. Easy runs become monotonous when they are the norm.

The few times in my life when I have been content not to vary pace or distance have coincided with vitamin deficiencies, illness, or impending injury. My desire to stretch out of my comfort zone, therefore, is a good sign of health. I am happy that I have a drive to improve, but I don’t know how to approach a change in training, just as I don’t know how to approach a change in diet, without inviting a relapse into maladaptive behaviors. I do not fully trust myself to make the right decisions.

My thoughts are tending to loop these days: I am happy that I have returned from my injury without incident; I am happy that I am growing stronger and enjoying running; but I want more out of the experience; I don’t know how to achieve more without the risk of losing the moderate behaviors I have learned; if I don’t expand my running regime, I will be bored and increasingly frustrated by an activity that usually gives me joy; but if I do expand my running, I might lose the joy and replace it with the anxiety of restriction and overexercise and, probably, reinjury.

I know I cannot remove the risk from this equation. It will remain. The habit of resorting to extremes is too ingrained in my life to be eliminated just yet. For now, I can try to accept that the risk of relapse will always remain. It was present before, during, and after my recovery from this year’s stress fracture. Risk has formed my recent running. So far I have done a good job creating a training plan that minimizes this risk, and keeps me healthy. I have found comfort in running again. Before my injury, running felt like a chore. My mileage was low, but I was still overexercising in that I was extending myself further than felt natural. Most runs required a pep-talk in order to leave my apartment. (As I mentioned above, this should have been a red flag that injury was looming in my future.) I do not want to return to that fraught relationship with running.

If I make small, safe changes (an extra mile here or there throughout the week) I can push the boundaries of risk from afar. Touching on the edges of my comfort, knowing I can retreat if I become uneasy. I am at the beginning of what I predict will be a long, possibly forever, process of being comfortable with moderation.



Understanding my eating disorder is a hard process

I have been delving, over the past few weeks, through my relationship with my body, with food, with running and the way all three are interconnected; the effort has resulted in a lot of good insight but also a lot of mental instability. I am having a hard time concentrating, or finding motivation to write. And, as I’ve said  before, the longer I stay away from writing the more daunting a task it becomes in my mind. And the less I write, the harder it becomes to focus on life. And so on and so forth in an annoying cycle of anxiety and diminished productivity.

Or, at least, diminished perception of productivity. Because I know that the hard work I am doing now is important to creating a stable mental outlook. The more I talk and think and write about the role food, and control of food, has played in my life the more I realize the complexity of the problem. I have only recently had the courage to acknowledge that I struggled with eating for more than a decade. And that I still struggle, although in different ways, today. I thought that by becoming vegan, by cultivating a more forgiving understanding of my body, implementing fewer rules and allowing more freedoms I would be healed. Although veganism and self-compassion have worked wonders for creating freedom around food, they are not panaceas.

As often as I experience joy around food, I also experience stress and doubt. I do not trust myself to make the correct choices; I often second-guess the ingredients on my plate. I worry I am eating too much, or not enough. Simply put, I am not comfortable yet around food.

I have latent phobias of fat that emerge when I am anxious. I have noticed myself recently using food as a reward for exercise, and withholding meals until after I have burned a requisite number of calories, without regard to hunger.

This past Monday, for example, I slogged through a twenty-mile bikeride instead of eating lunch. I did eat when I returned home, but I had not allowed myself a meal beforehand. I think my reasoning was that I did not deserve anything because I had not sweat. I wanted not only the high of exercise, but the euphoria that accompanies eating after pushing my body. The problem with this thinking is that the euphoria is never as good as I imagine, and the letdown leaves me irritable. I snap at my boyfriend. I fall into self-loathing. And then I scheme ways to reconnect with the hunger-high.

This is not healthy behavior. It is not behavior I want to identify with. It no longer describes me, or the version of me that I am cultivating.

The person I envision myself being eats when she is hungry. Eats to fuel her body, and also her soul. She has cake without shame. She does not think much about food, other than as a vehicle for pleasure or utility. Food, in terms of quality and quantity is a minor part of life. Food is delicious and satisfying. It does not occupy my thoughts all day. Food is an accent, a benefit of living in a life of privilege and love.

I am not there yet, to this rational, empowered identity. But I can see it, peeking out beneath the years of maladaptive patterns. As I venture through memories and beliefs, I will probably experience a lot of triggering moments. I can foresee days when I will not want to eat. Days when I have to remind myself that food is good and nourishing. Days when I will not want to do anything but sit in my own thoughts. This is okay, because it is all part of the process of change. I am doing the hard work. I am becoming myself. I am learning to love my body and accept its needs. I am me. And I am doing my best to remember that the messiness of this process is okay.



Restriction was my comfort zone

When I think too much about my body, when I think about controlling myself, even if it is to think of ways to stop controlling myself, I begin to restrict. The line between balance and extremes is thin. In fact, I don’t know if I know how to balance myself around food yet. Because every time I think I have succeeded in moving past body image or the need to control, I slip back into old patterns.

Either my weight is high and my running suffers or I pour all of my energy into running and losing weight, and approach the change in a way that is not sustainable. Rather than adjusting my diet and creating healthy lifestyle changes, I increase my mileage as fast as I can sustain (or faster, although the one time I tried this method I ended up with stress fractures throughout the metatarsals on my right foot). Usually, I become injured and so I gain weight. I realize I have gained weight and panic. I up my workout routine, doing up to two hours of intense cardio activities per day, and cut my food intake. Part of this reduction is natural: running suppresses appetite and the boost I receive in mood from so much exercise lifts the depressive effects of injury. When injured, I become lethargic, unable to exercise to my normal extent, and eat more calorie-dense foods to lift my mood (bagels and bread and alcohol in college; fries and pizza and greasy tacos and cheese on top of everything post-college; nut butter and avocado and granola bars post-veganism).

I lost my train of thought someplace in the middle of thinking of the crap I used to eat. I really can’t believe that for five years I soothed my emotional pain with animal products, such a departure from my previous obsession with clean eating that included a fear of cheese and fried food and fat in general. I really experienced quite a reversal when I became vegan. Which honestly has made it harder to regulate myself sometimes. I know that everything I eat is healthy; even the rare meal containing vegan meat alternatives made from isolated soy protein (not a health food) is healthier by leaps and bounds than its animal-laden counterpart. (I don’t know what I’m writing. I’m pretty sick of it all).

I think what I’m trying to say is that I am no good with balance when it comes to my weight and my exercise routine. Both of these things are ways to control the other (if I lose weight, I run faster; if I run more, I lose weight), and both are prone to obsession. I do not want to be controlled by endless rules about what I can eat and when; which foods are safe and which will make me fat; how much I have to run each day in order to ward off fat and laziness; what ratio of food to running equates to self-worth. But I am also sick of my clothes not fitting. I am at a point where I need to buy a new wardrobe or to lose five pounds.

I am so afraid of trying to lose weight. I am afraid I will lose control. I am afraid I am doing it for the wrong reasons. I am afraid I won’t be able to stop, that I will revisit the misery or rules and regulations that governed my life in high school and college. I am afraid I will lose myself.

I want to feel comfortable in my body. I know there are some who argue that I should feel comfortable now. That size does not dictate self-comfort or self-love. And I agree. But I just don’t feel it. I don’t feel like myself. And I also don’t know if I have to defend my decision.

Which brings me back to my search for balance. I will know I have achieved balance when…do I even know what balance will look like? I think that is important to find out. At one point in my life, when I gave up ten years of vegetarianism for meat, balance meant being able to eat anything I wanted without stress. Balance meant not restricting my food. Balance meant enjoying the foods I had denied myself for those ten meatless years. I became vegetarian when I was twelve not from a love of animals but to eliminate a food group in a socially acceptable manner. It was the most extreme diet I could imagine, and there was a girl in my class, with whom I felt competitive, who was vegetarian. I was raised to eat no red meat or pork (except for an odd stint around the age of eight when I tasted hot dogs and developed an obsession) so the only thing to lose was poultry. I continued to eat fish on occasion, as well as my great aunt Rose’s chopped liver.  I had no knowledge of animal agriculture and was careful to draw a distinction between my diet and what I viewed as the extreme animal activism of PETA.  I even resisted learning more from a vegan friend in college because I had concluded, without evidence, that the claims were overblown.

Adding meat to my diet, therefore, was a way to heal this restrictive past. I did not want to look longingly at the chicken or steak on a friend’s plate, nor feel superior because I was abstaining. I did not want to settle for salads, or be relegated to side dishes. Most of all, I wanted the freedom of an omnivore lifestyle.

I did find balance with this change in diet, although there were also many meals in which I overindulged and spent the following days bloated and barely able to eat from pain in my abdomen. I knew the change in food probably influenced to some degree how I felt, but I was committed to eating meat and so I continued on this path for five years.

My switch back to vegetarianism and then to veganism came when I realized that it is possible to thrive as an athlete and a person without meat and that my previous struggles with disordered eating came not from vegetarianism but from my irrational belief that eating less would make me like myself more.

I decided I was strong enough to experiment with removing meat from my food again, if only to improve my health. I had reached my limit for bloating and discomfort after eating, symptoms mostly absent from my life pre-meat. I was looking again for balance, but the terms had changed. Now, I wanted balance for my body, not just for my mind. I stopped buying meat to cook at home, and then after a few weeks I stopped eating meat outside the home as well. The last flesh I consumed was a chicken sausage on Memorial Day, 2013. By the time I met my boyfriend two weeks later, I was confident enough in my decision to declare myself vegetarian. (“I am not a crazy vegetarian, though,” I was quick to assure people. “Like, I won’t freak out if my spinach is sautéed in chicken stock.  This is just a test to see if my digestion improves.”)

My digestion improved, I lost some weight, and I ran close to my personal best in the marathon.

I returned to a place of balance.

Sixth months later I transitioned to a vegan diet. I no longer feel guilty about any of the food I eat; as a vegetarian, cheese, which formed a large part of my diet, could trigger restrictive behaviors. Butter, egg-and-dairy laden desserts, and cream sauces also induced panic. Becoming vegan removed many of these triggers; their replacements, vegan butter, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds felt safer.

My new comfort around foods that I had previously associated with stress and shame was freeing. And so I indulged in vegan cookies and cakes; cashew cream sauces; peanut butter banana nice cream. I was so excited to bake (and then be able to enjoy my creations) that I forgot that dessert is still dessert, no matter the ingredients. Even black bean brownies cannot be eaten by the handful without repercussions.

My solution was to avoid all sweets and rich dinners; to deprive myself of the pleasure of food. This plan, of course, was not sustainable. Injury was just as much of an excuse to eat more as was an increase in miles after I recovered.  So here I am, wondering how I can eat for pleasure and for health. I am struggling for a solution that does not lead back to restriction or excess.   I do not know how to define balance, at this moment in my life.

My mind swirls with solutions, but whenever I try to articulate them I go blank.

Last week, I wrote about my weight gain and then became so self-conscious I could not eat to satiety, keeping myself in a constant state of hunger for days. Focusing on weight is, therefore, not the answer, but it is the only thing I know how to do. Even as I try to distract myself with writing, with gardening, with my work as a SMART facilitator, my role as a partner and a friend, food continues to lurk in my mind.  How much to eat, and when. Am I really hungry? Do I deserve a snack? Have I had too much, or not enough. Balance right now is elusive.