I am a runner. The repetitive two way movement loathed by many energizes and grounds me. Running frees my mind, encourages my soul, and strengthens my body. However, until this month, I hadn’t run a race in about 5 years. In fact, I hadn’t run over 5 miles since before I was married. These facts may seem arbitrary, but they reveal a difficult part of my story. A runner doesn’t just stop running. Something causes her to step away. Sometimes the things I love fall victim to the broken pieces of me. This is true of my relationship with running. Not only am I a runner, but I am a women recovering from an eating disorder (ED). Although running did not cause my ED, I used it as a tool to fuel it.
I didn’t wake up one day and decide I was going to have an eating disorder. It happened slowly over time, without my permission, but because of my concessions. Women are bombarded every day with messages that claim our worth is in our appearance. I tried to ignore them, however, I never forgot the words I read, the pictures I saw, or the messages I heard. They collected in a part of my subconscious mind, awaiting a vulnerable moment to reveal themselves:
The boy who warned never to go up a jean size, because there was no going back.
The relative who wondered aloud “who could lift you?” when I voiced an interest in ballet.
These messages were shaping what I believed about beauty without me even knowing it.
This collection of insecurities and beliefs about beauty grew louder my freshman year of college. I was lonely in a new city. After a painful breakup and without a roommate to confide in (yes, I lived alone my first year. It was not my choice. I do not recommend it), I turned to exercise as an emotional release. When almost everything around me felt outside of my control, diet and exercise were two things I had power over. And, if I’m honest, I was also motivated by a desire to look good when I inevitably saw my ex over winter break. This thought in itself shows how much influence the world’s view of beauty already had over my conscience.
During this time, my relationship with running changed. Instead of honoring my body with the gift of running, I chose to abuse it. I would go 6 to 8 miles a day without ever taking a break. At the same time I restricted my caloric intake. I didn’t eat to run, I ran to void my eating. The success or failure of my day relied on the number of miles I ran and the number of calories I avoided. It was a dark time. Unfortunately, when I returned home for the holidays, I received only compliments for my shrinking frame. This only encouraged my bad habits. I stopped avoiding the subliminal messages the world was sending me, and fully embraced them. I desired to be fragile and thin. My athletic frame is not meant to be dainty. But I didn't care. At that time, I believed only thin was beautiful. It became everything that mattered and defined me. So I chased a pipe dream that was bound to fail and cause collateral damage.
Fortunately, my ED had a lot of enemies. Happiness was a big one. My second year of college was immeasurably better than my first. I lived with the most wonderful human, who is still one of my closest friends today. She had a habit of eating uncooked brownie batter, which is quite tempting to an empty stomach. I also joined an a cappella group and felt like I found my place in DC. These things offered me some perspective. I became painfully aware of my obsession with my body. I knew that something was wrong, but I wasn’t strong enough to fix it.
For the next three years I fought an internal battle, my happiness against my distorted body image. It was a miserable fight. Anytime happiness won, shame was waiting to attack on the other side. I forgot how to eat like a normal person. My body had been depleted for so long that any time I ate a healthy amount, I felt like I had over indulged. Often, my starving body would overpower my mind causing a binge that demolished my self worth. During my junior year, my disordered eating morphed into bulimia. According to the National Eating Disorder Association “Bulimia nervosa is…characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.” Eventually, I confided in my sister and my mother, hoping their accountability would help me win the war. But none of my eating disorder’s enemies were big enough to defeat it, until God stepped in.
My senior year of college, I studied abroad in Russia. Looking back, it was not the smartest decision for a girl trying to overcome an eating disorder. Russia isn’t exactly the Disney Land of foreign countries. On the contrary, Saint Petersburg, although beautiful, is dark, damp, and slightly depressing. Russians know the true meaning of hardship. The weather is not forgiving and the people, although extremely kind and genuine, are not particularly friendly to strangers. Again, I found myself lonely and separated from any support system. I was determine to give my obsession with body image a rest, but in this unfamiliar place, I felt as insecure as ever. I tried to write myself new rules. I attempted to run the beautiful streets of the city without calculating the calories burned. But my own efforts failed me. All I knew were the lies I believed. Lies that told me beauty was skin deep and worth was calculated by the shape of my body. Nothing productive happened until I invited God into my mess and allowed His truths to cover the many lies. Unfortunately, it took a very dark day for that to commence.
It happened one afternoon when I was on a binge. It wasn’t my own food I was consuming, but the limited rations of my host family. Almost every student in my program lived with a Russian family. Total immersion was the best way to learn the language. So my host family gave up one of the very few rooms in their house to benefit me. They didn’t have much, but what they possessed they freely gave. It was some of the precious food of this generous family I consumed. Everything I ate quickly found its way to the toilet never to be utilized for nourishment. I wasted valuable calories that many could not afford, food my host family likely could not afford to throw away. The shame that washed over me when I flushed that toilet is still palpable today. It’s hard to offer myself grace for that moment. It’s easy to hate that girl. I still do sometimes. But I also know she wasn’t whole, she was sick and blinded to reality. Thankfully God used this ugly moment to encourage rapid change. I stopped trying to fix myself up before approaching Him. Instead, in an empty apartment in the former USSR, I bowed before God, and handed to Him the battle I’d been losing for so long.
There was great freedom in giving up something I never actually had under control. I was enslaved to the ideals of this world and unable to meet their standards. God showed me grace that humbled and encouraged me. It would have been easy to drown in the shame of my privileged selfish obsession. I had wasted so much time and energy on fitting into a smaller jean size. Only God’s grace could break the cycle of self-disgrace. The process was not easy or painless, but He was faithful. Slowly, with the help of scripture and prayer, truths about my identity replaced the lies about my worth.
I traded in the world’s lies for the truth about God’s creation. I was created in God’s image. He “knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise [Him] for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139: 13-14) We are all image bearers of God— every shape, color, and size reflects the omnipresent, omnipotent, almighty creator of the heavens and earth. How then could we be anything less than beautiful?
Verses helped me fight the lies I believed for so long. It was a difficult process. I had to filter every thought in my head and dismiss an abundance of negative self-talk. Slowly, the positive truths replaced the destructive lies I once held so high. As my ideas about my body began to change, I was able to see the actual purpose of my physical being— to serve and love others.
My body’s appearance is irrelevant to its actual purpose. I am not saying that how we treat our bodies is unimportant. On the contrary, in order to utilize them well, we must honor our bodies, no matter what shape or size, with healthy diet and exercise. Our bodies are tools. Tools need regular maintenance to run effectively. I was neglecting the needs of my body while obsessing over its appearance. This paralyzed any potential I had in fulfilling my purpose. It's very difficult to use my body while I tearing it apart. It's nearly impossible to see the needs of others when I'm battling my own flesh.
The hardest part of my recovery was relearning how to love my body. My ED was an addiction. Unlike most addicts, I couldn’t separate myself from my weakness. Instead I had to relearn how to approach diet and exercise. This meant nourishing and moving my body without overtraining it. I thought running would be a healing component on this journey. Unfortunately, it was so intertwined with toxic thoughts and trigger behaviors that it stopped feeling beneficial. I fell out of love with running. I didn’t stop running altogether, but it was no longer enjoyable for me. Over time, I participated in my favorite pastime less and less.
I assumed running was collateral damage for the choices I’d made. Somehow it was the cost of my disorder. I believed the imperfections of the human condition had ruined it. I was wrong. How fickle my faith is. I watched God remap my brain to restore a healthy body image, but I didn’t believe He could reconcile my relationship with running. For years I avoided the one thing that gives me so much joy and freedom, until a friend asked me to run a race with her. I said yes, because.. well, I’m a runner. I didn’t realize I was saying yes to a journey into the reflections I’ve made here and a reintroduction to my favorite exercise. In the time I stepped away, God was quietly healing things I can’t even begin to understand. I can now lace up my running shoes and hit the pavement for no other reason than to care for my body and worship the One who gave it to me. By His grace alone, He has restored this gift. I am not naive to the temptations that may come my way, but I find strength in a God who is greater. A God who created me in His image, called me His child, and designed me for greater things— things I can accomplish with Him, irrespective of my physical appearance.
[This post is a look into my personal battle with an eating disorder. I cannot change the way I handled things. However, if I could go back, I would have sought out counseling during this trying time. I believe it would have expedited my initial recovery and equipped me with priceless tools to move forward. If you or someone you know struggles with an ED, please be encouraged to seek help. For more resources click here]