Weekend Diversions 7.1.2016

I submitted an essay this week (about my body image and running and many of the challenges I have faced post-injury) to a magazine. Sharing myself like that made me feel vulnerable and unstable. Even though I know the readers will be strangers, I still worry about judgement and being thought unworthy. I worry that the concerns in my essay will be construed as whiny and irrelevant to a cultural discussion of body image. I worry the readers will laugh at me for being so critical of myself. I worry I will be told I don’t deserve to criticize myself, because I am ablebodied and fit. Submitting this essay was hard. But also liberating because my story is no longer pent up inside myself. I have kept my body-hatred as much of a secret as possible for most of my life. Sharing in this way marks a huge progression in my journey toward self-acceptance. So, I am proud of myself even as I worry about how I will be perceived.

To celebrate my successful submission, here are a few things I have been reading this week. Enjoy!

  1. Strawberry rhubarb crumble bars I have a fridge full of strawberries as well as some rhubarb leftover from recent CSA pickup. I made these bars last year when strawberries and rhubarb were in season and I was impressed with how easy they were to make (and then eat!). They are this weekend’s baking project.
  2. Can you get over an addiction? Or are addicts doomed to live a life of degeneracy if they do not repent and succumb to a higher power?
  3. All U.S. medical school training is now animal-free! Until I read this announcement, I did not realize medical training has required extensive animal testing (often using dogs as the experimental model -after they are injected with various drugs and substances the dogs are killed by the doctors for dissection). After years of lobbying and legal efforts led by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, Johns Hopkins University and University of Tennessee (the last two holdouts) have removed animal testing from their curricula.  Current technology makes using live models for anatomy unnecessary and, therefore, unethical.  Advanced medical training still includes animal testing, as does veterinary training, but with concerted efforts from PCRM and animal advocacy groups, this practice will hopefully become an anachronism.
  4. Why I don’t give toothpaste advice A funny (and short) lesson about taking nutrition advice from someone who is not qualified to give such advice. As Dr. Davis points out in his rant, dentists know a lot about dentition and oral health, but do not usually immerse themselves in nutrition research. As such, in his professional opinion, dentists should stick to recommending toothpaste and not specific diets (especially when the diets they are promoting have no scientific validation).

Have a lovely long weekend! I will be working for most of it, but I do have off on Monday (4th of July), which I plan to spend working in the garden with my boyfriend.

 

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.

Weight and running

I am conflicted about running. I want to run faster than my current ten-minute pace, and I blame my body (and the weight I gained while injured) for my current slowness.

Focusing on weight loss, however, invites the possibility of relapse into food restriction. Through mindful eating and a lot of therapy, I have learned over the past year to eat when I am hungry without regard to how much I have exercised on any given day. I no longer run to the restroom to complete emergency sets of squats and jumping jacks to combat the effects of oily foods, or to punish myself for indulging in dessert. I do not enforce long runs on the days after a large meal, nor do I only eat without hesitation when I have completed a certain number of miles.

This comfort with food, however, combined with the lowered activity levels of an injury, has left me fifteen pounds heavier than I was before my first sacral stress fracture two years ago. I do not mind the size so much as I mind not fitting into my clothes and not running as fast as I used to.

Running slower does have benefits: patience, for example, because even a short distance takes much longer to complete; gratitude that I can run at all after my injuries; enjoyment because I am no longer running out of habit, but because I make a conscious decision each morning to run (or not).

But still, running at this reduced pace is frustrating. I have not been this slow since middle school, when I was first learning how to run. And even then, my gains came quickly and I did not stay slow for long.

I feel disconnected from my former running self. I am not content to run slowly, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that this pace is okay. I happy after each run, but also a bit sad at the thought that I may never qualify for the Boston Marathon again, or run a twenty-minute 5K.

I want to regain the level of fitness I had before this two-year cycle of injury. My easy pace then was eight minutes per mile, sometimes faster; this was the pace I fell into by instinct, without effort. Today I ran an eight minute mile as part of a speed workout, and was glad when I had reached my mark and could slow again. The pace felt familiar, but it was not effortless anymore.

I do not know if it is possible to become faster without losing some weight. And I don’t know how to lose weight without opening the door to disordered eating. I worry that if I reach the benchmarks of an eight minute mile or a Boston qualifying time, I will not be satisfied but will set new, difficult-to-attain standards for myself, constantly grasping at a perfection that is always just out of reach.

I know that I am strong and that my self-worth is not defined by the size of my skirt or my shirt or my dress; nor by the time in which I can run a mile or a marathon.

But knowing and embodying are two different things.

I am not ready to accept that I will have to constantly struggle to balance fitness and self-compassion.

 

 

On eating and running and loving my body, part two 

Let’s just preface this by saying that again, definitively, I do not want to write. On the other hand, I have been looking forward to this since I stopped writing last week. So, I have a conflicted relationship with writing. It is my favorite outlet for my thoughts, even more so than running, which I usually use to escape the chattering mind. Still, it is so hard to confront these thoughts, the stupid imaginings, worries, memories, that I often push writing to the very last possible minute. I do not want to open that box, even though I know it will help, as it has all those times before, during the twenty-odd years I have been writing my feelings into solutions. In any event, I am here today to continue my story about eating.

By the time I reached high school, restriction was the norm. I was becoming familiar with and comfortable in hunger. I did not necessarily like being hungry, but it was the norm and accepted as such. That summer after middle school I looked forward to the heavy-legged exhaustion I felt post-run; this total lack of energy meant I was working hard, building strength, and readying myself for the rigors of varsity racing. Adding food into the mix gave me energy and eliminated this reminder of my exertion; food, therefore, was avoided as much as possible. I wasn’t interested in totally starving (part of my mind knew I couldn’t run and starve at the same time) and so I ate what I deemed minimal for survival, and minimal for parental acceptance.

That I was a runner made my skinny frame easier to rationalize.  Successful runners are thin by nature and by sport. Every time I was praised for my “runner’s legs” or “runner’s frame” my resolve to maintain this new physique solidified. (Until I began running long distances, no one had ever, to my memory, told me I looked like a runner, or athletic in any sense. I did not believe my parents and their friends when they told me my frame was natural, but was sure it was the result of hard work through exercise and restriction.)

In high school, adult supervision of my meals disappeared. I went to a boarding school in New England, thousands of miles from family and friends in Los Angeles. I want to emphasize that the boarding school did not create my disordered eating. It was already well engrained in my mind before I packed my bags and attempted this new, far-away life. To my knowledge, none of my close friends from this time developed eating disorders (although, of course, as in any high school they did exist).  I was also, again to my knowledge, the only member of the girl’s cross-country team during my four years to struggle with food. I was surrounded by supportive people (peers and adults); I simply was not ready to accept their help nor their theory that I needed to eat if I wanted to thrive.

The first day of cross-country pre-season, after my mom had unpacked my boxes and made my bed and kissed me goodbye and headed back to California, I realized there was a salad bar in the dining hall. I could eat vegetables upon vegetables and nothing else, if I so chose, and nobody would notice! The elation I felt at this epiphany remains vivid: control, my most sought-after state, was now possible at every meal. The presence of the salad bar meant, to me, that eating salads alone was socially sanctioned: they  (the intelligent and omnipotent powers of the school) would not have included a salad bar if they did not believe salads were valid meals, right?

It did not occur to me that my teammates might notice my veg-heavy meal. I was absolutely astounded when a new friend asked if that -pointing at my bowl of greens -was the entirety of my meal. (In fairness, the salad probably contained tofu and/or beans of some sort and so was not at nutritionally unbalanced as it might have been, but still I was fooling no one, especially not myself, with my claims to health.) I did not have a good reason to defend my meal, and in all likelihood stammered my way into embarrassment.

Even in my flustered state, however, I felt a sense of pride. I had more control than my friends. I could survive on less. I did not need food to run well. I am strong because I am not dependent on food. These were my beliefs and even as I felt myself falling into more destructive patterns of restriction (skipping meals, especially on weekends when I had more time alone), I clung to their words as my reinforcing mantra. What had started out as justifications changed to rules, unable to be broken. Restriction changed from a choice, a neat way to control a tiny space of my life, to a compulsion.

Friends pleaded with me to eat more than a salad, to eat more than half a sandwich, more than an orange. I wanted to listen but I couldn’t. The more I restricted the more I had to restrict to feel like myself.

The times when I gave in, when I had the cookie, the cake, the pizza, the cheese and crackers at the holiday dinner -I panicked. I would pay penance by eating nothing either before or after the binge (basically anything more than my safe foods of fruit, vegetables, maybe a bit of yogurt or cereal was considered a binge and even these could be labeled as such if I felt too full after eating). I never went whole days without food, but I was generally eating below my caloric and nutritional needs. My body was trying to sustain the massive growth of puberty along with a rigorous running schedule and I refused to give credence to either.

I don’t like to regret, but I often wonder how much I could have achieved if I had fed myself and loved myself during these years. I certainly would have been happier. But I was stubborn and refused to believe I was worthy, no matter what my friends, family members, or teachers said. I was not even swayed much by awards or leadership positions, although they did lessen my need for control for short periods of time.

And so I passed through high school without much confidence in my ability to do much more than study and run (and I even faltered in those pursuits more than once, especially when my need for control usurped my desire to perform).

Again, this post will be continued. I have never written this much about my relationship with food and it is just as difficult as I expected. Thank you, as always, for reading. 

On eating and running and loving my body, part one

*Trigger warning: this post will cover disordered eating, and my early experiences with restriction. 

I’m avoiding writing today because what I want to write about is scary. What I want to write about is personal. What I want to write about makes me feel vulnerable, naked, unnerved. What I want to write about is body size, weight, restriction, and recovery. This morning, after years of  heading toward recovery, I tried on a skirt that was once too big and is now barely the right size and I landed in a tailspin of shame. I try to tell myself that I love my body at any size, but I don’t know if that is totally true yet.  To process, I thought I’d share some of my story. My journey is still ongoing. 

When I was four, my dad declined to buy me the Cheeze-Its I requested, because they are unhealthy. In their place, he bought me pretzel thins, probably saltless, which tasted like cardboard. They sat in my mouth, refusing to be dissolved by saliva, or to be properly dismantled by my teeth. Flecks stuck to my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Health, I learned, was a burden, but was somehow preferably to cheesy, salty, delectable snacking. My first lesson. 

Around the time I was nine, my step-mom’s sister pulled me aside to feel how hard her legs were, from biking so much and subsisting on Trident sugarfree gum (the wrappers of which she scattered around the house, messy reminders of her strength) and on the boiled cabbage that had been filling our house with the smell of sulphur since her arrival. “Hit them,” she said. “They don’t jiggle at all. See? Feel?” And then we went on a bike ride. That night, I hit my own legs. They jiggled. My second lesson. 

I don’t know how much I weighed by the time I was ten, but I remember feeling like I was bigger than the other girls in my class. Not fat, and years away from puberty, but larger. I was never a skinny child. Strong, my mom told me. Well-proportioned. The hit-test on my thighs (which I soon performed regularly on myself in the shower, or whenever I needed to reinforce my inadequacy) told a different story. My legs jiggled. I was not enough. My third lesson.

By the time I was in sixth grade, I learned I could substitute my normal breakfast of a bagel and yogurt with my younger sister’s toddler-portioned containers of yogurt. I learned I was okay with part of a half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I learned to leave the cheese off turkey and cheese sandwiches and to only use one slice of deli turkey. At family meals, and when I was at my mom’s house, I ate normally and so my restrictive habits went unnoticed. 

I became obsessed with stories of anorexic and bulimic women. I knew it was unhealthy, I knew the articles in teen magazines and the books about recovered actresses were meant to be cautionary: do not repeat our mistakes. But I wanted their strength. I wanted their willpower. I wanted to be skinny and cool enough to have a story of my own. 

In sixth grade I also discovered running. A friend suggested I take out the frustration I was feeling toward a teacher during our weekly timed mile in gym. The relief was almost instantaneous. I was hooked. I was the fastest girl, and relished the praise of my teacher. I had shunned sports before, and was always picked last for teams in elementary school. Being good at running took some (but certainly not all) of my attention away from food. If I ran, I figured, I deserved treats: a cookie, a scoop of ice cream, a soda.

In seventh grade, my friends convinced me to join an after-school running club, designed to keep kids off the street by training them to run the Los Angeles Marathon. I never intended to continue long enough for the marathon (I hadn’t run much more than a mile at a time by this point), but it was more entertaining than sitting around for hours waiting for someone to pick me up from school. But then I became hooked on increasing my mileage, and my strength. My legs hardened. I could see new muscles. The adults in my life began to comment with approval. My parents had a reason to brag (a twelve-year-old marathon runner is a unique conversation topic). I felt their pride. And I enjoyed my changing body.

Becoming vegetarian, also in seventh grade, was one more way to exert control. To keep myself from becoming fat. My decision was accepted without much fuss, as long as I promised to continue eating fish on occasion. I felt smug in my choice, powerful. I could abstain from meat. I could subsist on vegetables and ranch dressing, on salads with the dressing on the side, on soy protein powder in orange juice (horrible, horrible combination. Do not try this at home).

Still, part of me was worried about my weight, or increasing lack thereof. The rational bit at the back of my mind knew I was too thin and wanted hello. In eighth grade, after I had run the marathon, had begun running track on a club team, and had increased my mileage, strength and commitment to the sport, I was weighed in gym class. I was 5’5″ and 83 pounds. I commented to my teacher on my low weight and she replied that I had been running a lot and was fine, and gestured for the next student to step on the scale. 

A picture from around this time, taken at my then-best friend’s birthday party, shows me in a bikini top, twisted to the side, my torso all rib cage. My friend told me I looked like an alien. I felt pride at having whittled away so much flesh and embarrassment and not being able to feed myself enough to look human.  

My mom was worried, too, but I resented her questioning and encouragement to eat, and my weight and eating patterns only became fuel for fighting. If I ate the right amount at the right times, and compensated when I was away, peace was easier to maintain. And so I hid my restriction as much as possible, trading cake now for carrots later. 

There were moments of unabandoned indulgence, when I forgot I wanted to be skinny and just enjoyed being happy, like the day I found out I had been accepted into a boarding school far away from my family and in celebration ate half a pan of brownies before track practice (also the day I discovered the visiousness of side cramps as I struggled through two-mile repeats). Or the Cinnabon I devoured at the airport the day after competing in the Junior Olympics in South Carolina.

But those moments were rare, often tinged with shame, and always connected with running. 

**This is all I can handle for today. I will share the rest of my story next week. Thank you for reading.