It’s bright and early in my condo gym and I feel good about carving out a quick 30 minutes for myself before the madness of the work day begins. Given my ED history, exercise is something to be approached with utmost caution. Notwithstanding some five years into my recovery, I remain easily triggered. The mere act of slipping my feet into running shoes or placing my hands on a treadmill’s handlebars often bring me back to a time when exercise was a means of purging what I ate, and the gym was my torture chamber of choice. Nonetheless, each time I manage not to awaken the sleeping dragon is an inch closer toward normalizing exercise, and an achievement unlocked.
This morning, I’m pedalling away on the stationary bike while meditating with a rosary app on my phone. However, the gym’s usual peace and quiet is interrupted by the cries of a baby—sounds I don’t expect to hear in a place like this. Craning my neck to trace the source of the discomfiting wails, I spot a pair of chubby legs sticking out of a stroller. They belong to a baby girl seeking her mother’s attention. Bored with her rattle and chewing toys, the infant is presently tossing them in the direction of a thin lady who’s pounding the treadmill with dogged determination. Twice, the toys bounce off the machine and land on the floor, making the baby more hysterical, but the mother—still plugged into her headphones—only casts a perfunctory glance over her shoulder. She’s scrawny and bears an uncanny resemblance to Jennifer, down to those hollow eyes and protruding cheekbones, and the sight of her instantly makes me uneasy.
When the baby’s mother finally gets off the treadmill, everyone around seems to heave a unanimous sigh of relief, but that’s until we realize she isn’t quite done with her workout. The stroller gets moved to another corner of the gym, where she proceeds with an intense routine of crunches and weights. Meanwhile, her baby is squealing in amusement at a man doing burpees, much to his irritation. I spot one or two fellow gym-goers stifling their giggles, but I’m not laughing. In that moment, memories flood my consciousness and I feel a deep sadness.
Because I used to be her.
Anyone who’s struggled to recover from addiction can tell you the aftermath is like skating on thin ice. A glass of wine may seem harmless to the average person, but the sight of it could spell the undoing of a recovering alcoholic. Similarly, what may come across to most as positive pursuits of healthy eating and exercise can be a slippery slope down a sinister path for ED sufferers wont to use health and fitness as smokescreens. Though an ED isn’t strictly an addiction, its addictive nature locks you in a vicious cycle you feel powerless to break free of. When your mind’s taken over by the workings of compulsion—a formidable force no amount of willpower can come up against—compulsive behaviors such as fastidious calorie-counting and excessive exercising manifest. Years go by and one day, tired from running but getting nowhere, you wake up and wonder when you became a hamster on a wheel, locked in a cage.
For most addictions, the straightforward approach is to identify a trigger and go cold turkey on it (i.e. abjuring the very substance you’ve been abusing, such as alcohol or drugs). But how do you ever cut out food, the very thing you’ll die without, but which is killing you? I learned quickly that in regard to ED recovery, the cure lies in the poison—not only do you not get to escape your demons, you have to learn to live with them. Like it or not, it was time for me to call a truce with eating and my body.
Very much like uninstalling programs on a computer, I had to empty my brain of all “knowledge” about food and exercise that I once held as sacrosanct. Like an infant who identifies a hunger signal and knows to cry for milk, then settles down when sated, the new rule was to only eat when hungry and stop when full. Suffice to say this was no walk in the park for someone so accustomed to denying her hunger pangs and gorging to the point of pain. In the process, I came to view food through a different lens. Whatever I used to believe were “good” and “bad” foods seemed irrelevant when I applied the principles of moderation, be it in terms of consumption or my attitude in general. When food wasn’t abused in abnormally large quantities to trigger a chemical reaction (binge eating), or withheld and constricted to keep my body weight unnaturally low, this betwixt-and-between state was where food and I learned to peacefully coexist.
The gym door closes with a thud, and I realize the mother and her baby have left. I hop off the stationary bike and decide that I too am done for the day. It hasn’t been a vigorous workout by any means, though all the baggage unlocked over the course of the morning has exhausted me.
As I exit the gym, I look back at the man on the floor, still doing his burpees, and I can see how that might look funny to a baby. Perhaps there is much wisdom to glean from infants: eat when hungry, stop when full, laugh when funny.
Sometimes I think we forget to do any of these things.
[to be continued]