How Strength Training Saved me from an Eating Disorder

This post tells the story of something I coped with long before I discovered Muay Thai. Here, I wrote about what my experience with an eating disorder, what triggered it, how it progressed, and how I eventually pulled myself out of it.

How it Began

In 2006, I began my first year of university, studying Enterprise in Product Design at the University of Portsmouth. Like many first-year students, I gained a fair amount of weight during that year.

The huge lifestyle change meant that I was eating and drinking rather poorly. Home-cooked meals were replaced with takeaways, and long walks through my seaside hometown were eradicated in my move to the city. Then, I started drinking hideous amounts of alcohol.

The UK is known for its binge drinking culture and at university, this was at its worst. I was out drinking at least three nights a week, always aiming to get as drunk as possible. Each morning after, I’d crave some sort of junk food and the cycle would continue.

At this stage in my life, I wasn’t taking care of my body at all. I wasn’t even particularly aware that I should have been. When I went home for the Christmas holiday after the first semester, my mum’s first reaction was to point out how much weight I’d put on. A friend who I hadn’t seen for a few months reacted in much the same way, his first comment being “your bum’s gotten bigger”. All of a sudden, I realised how much my body had changed. Only then did I notice the extra flesh spilling over my jeans and how much rounder my face had become. I wasn’t ‘fat’ by any means, but certainly heavier than I’d been before. I’d jumped from 50kgs to around 58kgs in that one semester. Up until this point, weight and body image weren’t things that I was used to worrying about. Now, I hated my body.

I returned to university with a vehement desire to lose the extra weight. However, having never been into sports or exercise of any kind, I wasn’t quite sure how to do that. I began by taking up swimming a few days a week and adopted a much healthier diet, and after just one week, saw a significant change in my body. My boyfriend at the time commented on how much “better” he thought I looked and spurred me on to keep going with it. To take things to the next level, I then joined the gym with my housemate. This was my first experience with any kind of exercise apart from P.E classes at school, which I was always terrible at. My only memories of those classes involve hiding at the back, avoiding any attention or participation. As a painfully shy child and teenager, I hated having to get up in front of people and do anything, let alone sports, something I was never any good at. At the gym, none of that mattered. No one would be looking at me there and I was too determined to change my body to care if they had been. My housemate absolutely hated exercise of any kind and had to force herself to go at all. I, on the other hand, threw myself into it completely.

The Downward Spiral

With my new eating and exercise habits, I was making positive changes and very quickly got down to my original size.

At first, the reaction to this was good. I liked the changes that I was seeing in my body and the comments I was getting from people. After a while, I almost became addicted to them. I would obsessively weigh myself, look in the mirror and pore over my body each day, checking to see how much smaller I’d become. Despite already reaching my goal of losing the extra weight I’d gained, I saw no reason to stop there. I wanted to take it as far as I could.

While my housemate quickly gave up on her new year’s resolution of exercising, I was becoming increasingly engulfed by mine. Having no real knowledge of proper exercise meant that I went into this totally irresponsibly. I’ve always been a creature of habit and this attribute was the driving force in the escalation of my problem.

My first priority would be to make sure that I went to the gym every day. If for some reason I was unable to go, I felt uneasy. The thought of not being able to ‘burn calories’ made me extremely uncomfortable. I religiously carried out monstrous cardio workouts, never changing or adjusting them. I ignored any conditioning work, as my only concern was to burn as many calories as possible. I thought that the way to do that was just to exercise for longer, so I did – sometimes for hours on end. I would hop ritually from one machine to the next, in the same sequence every time. I would always have to reach a certain amount of calories burned on each machine (even though those numbers are completely inaccurate) and wasn’t able to tear myself away from them until I had fulfilled my predefined deficit for the day. It became an obsession that I was unable to control. I also became increasingly irresponsible with my eating habits. I was continuously searching online for what foods I should and shouldn’t have been eating and eventually, convinced myself that less was better.

So, it seemed as though the correct thing to do was to try to survive on as little food as possible. If I could reduce the number of calories that I consumed and increase the amount that I used, I would lose weight quickly, right? I set completely unrealistic limits for myself, allowing myself to only eat minimal amounts of foods that I deemed to be ‘healthy’ enough. With this mindset, I ended up only eating one meal a day, which was usually a miniscule salad. I would meticulously measure the amount of each ingredient I used, making sure not to overstep the mental boundaries that I’d set for myself. Any infractions would create feelings of anxiety and discomfort.

As my eating habits grew more concerning, my obsession with exercise intensified. I was trying to eat as little as possible while exercising as much as possible. It became almost like a challenge, a competition with myself to see how little I could survive on. This included keeping a food diary. Having to document my intake forced me to think about it even more, and that made me less likely to eat. At the time, I considered this to be a good thing. As I scrutinized everything that I ate, I tried to reduce my intake more and more, searching for the lowest-calorie foods possible. Looking back, it’s difficult to fathom how I managed to get through the day at all, let alone the ridiculous workouts that they involved. I know now that it was because I was mentally unwell. I would ignore my body’s needs, restricting my intake as much as I could because I associated food and body image so closely with self-worth and esteem. Eating made me experience harmful, negative emotions and thoughts about myself, and I seemed to find more comfort in punishing myself at the time. When I did eat, I would have miso soup, an apple or half a can of tuna to curb my hunger — never allowing myself to get nutrients my body needed.

My friends and family were baffled when I turned down offers of food and invitations to eat out. As time went on, it started to become impossible to hide my condition and some of them became concerned.

On one occasion, after going swimming with my mum and sister, I passed out in the changing room. My sister, on the other side of the door, shouted for me to let her in. I immediately stood back up and adamantly denied having ever passed out at all. She responded with a sharp determination in her voice, informing me that I had in fact collapsed twice, as she’d seen me through the gap under the door and had heard everything. I quietly accepted what had happened and admitted that I’d only eaten a single banana that day, and we headed home. When we got there, the story was relayed to my dad, and he responded with great concern. My dad is a man of few words, but the worry he felt was conveyed by his eyes and the tone of his voice. It was then that I thought that I might have a slight problem, maybe. On another occasion, just before my third year at university, I was clothes shopping with my mum. She accompanied me to the fitting room and helped me try on some things, at which point she looked at me and pleaded ‘Emma, please stop losing weight‘. I brushed it off, telling her that I still had a way to go and that I wasn’t quite happy with my body yet. She dropped the subject, knowing it was a lost cause.

I continued with the starvation and over-exercise, but of course, this kind of behaviour was impossible to keep up. After the restriction and deprivation, came the binge-eating.

The huge drops in my glycogen and blood sugar levels meant that I got intense cravings, which, when I gave into them, I would seek to satisfy with any kind of sweet food I could get my hands on. When no one was around, I would buy ridiculous amounts of chocolate and biscuits, eat them in my room and then discard the packaging outside in an attempt to hide the evidence. This, typically, was followed by feelings of guilt, shame, regret and self-hatred. Unable to purge by vomiting (although at low points, I tried) I would ‘make up for it’ with more over-exercising and at one stage, even turned to laxatives.

I remember once driving home from another huge gym session and stopping at a supermarket along the way. Once again giving into my cravings, I bought another batch of junk food and quickly ate it in the car before finishing the drive home. When I got there, I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I went into panic mode, frantically searching for a way to rid myself of the bloated, guilty state that I was in. As usual, attempts to vomit were unsuccessful, so I looked around for something else that I could eat or drink that would force me to throw up. I didn’t keep any Ipecac or medicine of the like in the house, so I pulled out a bottle of gin from the cupboard, wondering if a quick shot or two would do it. I even considered swallowing shampoo to get the job done. That’s how desperate I was. Thankfully, in that moment, my rationale returned to me and I abandoned the idea altogether, letting it pass and vowing to myself that I would get back into my routine the following day. On another occasion that I ‘slipped up’, my housemate went out for the evening, leaving a packet of chocolates on the dining room table and telling me to help myself. I managed to avoid them for most of the night but eventually gave in and put one in my mouth. However, I quickly regretted it, realising mid-chew that it ‘wasn’t worth it’ and subsequently spitting it out. Blind to the fact that this wasn’t normal behaviour, I nonchalantly mentioned it to my housemate upon her return. Needless to say, she was baffled by the fact that I saw a tiny piece of chocolate as such a threat. She was often dumbfounded by my actions, once breathing a sigh of relief when I eventually walked through the door after being out for so long that she was worried about me. She asked where I’d been all that time, to which I, of course, replied ‘the gym‘. Occurrences like these became normal to me. Things had definitely gotten out of hand.

A Bad Influence

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one punishing my body. My boyfriend at the time encouraged my behaviour and also restricted my food intake. He would often make comments about how much more he liked me when I was thin, urging me not to put the weight back on.

I have a distinct memory of being in my local supermarket with him, drifting towards the bakery section. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me away from it, saying “No, Emma. You don’t need it”. This was certainly not an isolated occurrence. He would often make comments about what I ate, shaming me into putting the food down, once even making such a comment about my own birthday cake. At the time, I didn’t see this as anything untoward, and I certainly didn’t think it was controlling. In fact, I thought he was supporting me by keeping me in check when I went off the rails. Plus, he made me feel as though the smaller I got, the more attractive I was.

Unsurprisingly, my relationship with him ended up being the catalyst for my subsequent plummet in weight. Eventually, it descended into a particularly nasty break up, which left me absolutely distraught. As a result, I ended up barely eating at all for two weeks. I made myself ill and stayed in bed almost all of that time. Eating even less than I previously had been left me looking almost skeletal and my weight dropped to 44kg. The problem was, I saw this as a good thing. I looked terrible, but I felt great. I’d always obsessed over the numbers, weights and clothes sizes, always trying to get them lower and lower, with no regard for my health or well-being. Finally, I had reached one that satisfied the strange demands that I’d put on myself. It was a milestone, and I felt like celebrating it.

DSC01480

Before I reached my lowest weight, with my twin sister on our 20th birthday. In this picture, my boyfriend at the time was presenting us with our birthday cake, which he later berated me for eating.

Recovery – How Strength Training Helped Me

As many women do after emerging from toxic relationships, I went on a journey of self-improvement. As always, I took a long, hard look at my body. It was finally a size that seemed acceptable to me, but I realised that after all that, I still wasn’t happy. All of a sudden, I realised that I didn’t actually look good at all. I’d spent all that time torturing myself for a body that would be pleasing both to me and my boyfriend, only to end up on my own, still hating the vessel I was left with. I hadn’t yet grasped the fact that my body existed only for me.

The breakup hurt, but it was best thing that could have happened to me at the time. From there, the most obvious thing for me to do was to throw myself into the gym even more, but this time, I was looking for something different. I turned to strength training for something else to focus on, and started attending sessions with a personal trainer. This is what sparked my recovery.

Having never even touched weights before, strength training was totally new to me. This made my gym sessions much more enjoyable. Instead of just doing monotonous, repetitive workouts all the time, I was adding new variations that stimulated both my body and mind. I discovered new equipment and exercises that I’d previously ignored, and the barbell went from being an intimidating piece of foreign equipment to a staple in my workout. After each session, I felt energised. This was a welcome change to the worn-out and run-down state in which I was used to leaving the gym.

I quickly started to see changes in my body, too. Where clothes used to simply hang off me, curves began to appear. That’s when I realised that I needed to change my eating habits. If I wanted to increase my muscle mass and optimize my workouts, I would have to fuel my body correctly. Otherwise, my work would go to waste.

This is where a switch flipped.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do — to drag myself away from the negative emotions that I’d always associated with food, exercise and body image. I had to force myself to change, educate myself on the correct way to treat my body, and realise that if I didn’t change my behaviour, I would never be happy. I worked on it for some time and eventually, my mindset changed from punishment to empowerment. With my newfound workouts came better eating habits, and I began eating bigger, more frequent and more well-balanced meals. I began to realise how ridiculous the ideas of counting calories, skipping meals and cutting out certain foods were. I was amazed that changing my habits allowed me to eat more and that doing so created positive results instead of feelings of self-hatred and guilt.

All of a sudden, life opened up a little more. Instead of destroying my body, I was building it. For the first time, I started to look in the mirror in a positive way. Although there are many stories of people who’ve gone from being anorexia suffers to body builders, I wasn’t taking it that far. I just wanted to be healthy, strong and happy. Instead of setting unattainable goals and punishing myself to reach them, I committed to just doing something that I enjoyed. Previously, the gym had been a place I felt compelled to go to out of self-hatred. After making some tough changes, it became somewhere that I thoroughly enjoyed myself and looked forward to visiting. Since those changes took place, it has remained that way. My relationship with food totally changed, too. Discovering strength training was a key part of my recovery because it forced me to educate myself. It gave me a totally different perspective on my body and fuelled a lot of positive changes for me. More than anything, it was something that I enjoyed. I may well have had the same reaction to Muay Thai, had I discovered it at that point in my life. As it happened, Muay Thai came to me a year or so later.

Knowing I had an Eating Disorder

Until very recently, I’d always refused to believe that I’d had an eating disorder at all, even years after recovering from it. It was only after revisiting the subject with those who were around me at the time that I was able to accept the reality of the situation.

I’d previously thought of it as a series of individual, separate experiences, but collecting them and looking at them as a whole made me realise the seriousness of my situation. Even when I was aware that I had a problem, I thought that because I seemed healthy enough — because I was never hospitalised and because my periods hadn’t stopped, that it ‘wasn’t that serious‘ and therefore I couldn’t have had an eating disorder. I’d always described myself as being ‘on the verge‘ and having a ‘potential eating disorder‘, but only now can I admit to myself that I’d actually surpassed that. Although my situation may not have matched the usual lines given for diagnosable eating disorders, that didn’t make it any less significant. I’m just fortunate that I was able to correct it before it reached that level. As with many eating disorders, it started off with good intentions, but escalated into something that was about much more than just losing weight. Ironically, my desire for control resulted in me losing it completely for some time.

Eating Disorder or Disordered Eating?

They may sound the same, but there is a difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating, and not knowing this is one of the main things that prevented me from realising my problem.

Disordered eating is more about behaviour, and quite commonly seen. This includes crash dieting, under-eating, over-eating and selective-eating (i.e. having ‘bad foods’ that you don’t allow yourself to eat), but can also involve more drastic measures such as purging by vomiting or laxative abuse. However, the difference between this and an eating disorder is that the latter is driven by mental cues.

Katherine A. Beals, author of ‘Disordered Eating Among Athletes‘ wrote that the motivation behind the behaviour is more indicative of the problem than the behaviour itself. In writing about exercise levels, she stated that “many athletes train at levels that may seem excessive to most people“, so the exercise itself may not be the problem, but how the individual feels when they don’t exercise is more telling.”You should not have feelings of guilt, stress and self-hatred if you skip a workout“. That’s the difference. The same applies to eating habits. Disordered eating is a behavioural issue, but an individual with an eating disorder is guided by obsessive, compulsive thoughts that they may not have control over. That’s why disordered eaters may find it difficult to keep up a certain diet, while those with eating disorders may continue to suffer mental and physical effects regardless of their habits. While they are indeed different, disordered eating and eating disorders are equally significant and both require treatment. I don’t believe that an individual’s problem should have to fit into a certain category or tick certain boxes to be taken seriously, as I did while I was suffering. It was that idea that stopped me from helping myself sooner.

For me, what started as disordered eating due to a lack of knowledge progressed into an eating disorder that was physically and mentally consuming. Unfortunately, disordered eating is often normalised in our society. We’re constantly bombarded with different ‘diets’, negative ideas about food and unrealistic forms of body image in all forms of media. With the right knowledge and support, it’s possible to lift yourself out of these behaviours and ideas. Thankfully, this was something that I was able to do alone, using strength training was a tool.

See also: Struggle with Weight Gain and Body Image

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “How Strength Training Saved me from an Eating Disorder

  1. Emma, this is a really wonderful blog to offer to your readers and I know that it took a lot for you to share it. I feel that your description of getting deeper down the rabbit hole, so to speak, by researching online what foods you should and shouldn’t eat, repetitive and monotonous cardio workouts with arbitrary settings and calorie readings… the lack of information and context allows the disordered cycle to define itself, set its own limitations, etc. I don’t know that everyone has experienced an eating disorder or obsessively losing weight, but I do know that most women experience aspects of this and it’s important to talk about it – to put these things in context – so that not everyone need slip so far before starting the climb back up.

    I love so much that the difference between feeling exhausted and “punished” after a workout that is intended to make you feel “skinny” or “small”, versus feeling energized and strong after a workout that is intended to make you exactly those things is so mind-altering. I’ve been subject to the misfortune of listening to folks comment on the bodies of muscular women, asking “why would she do that?” and the answer is exactly the same as to why a man would “do that.” Because strength feels good. Power feels good to everyone, whether it’s being able to lift a weight you couldn’t before or the more dedicated versions of transforming one’s body for aesthetic purposes.

    Lastly, your boyfriend was an asshole. Sorry for the pain that came from the relationship and with the end of it, but man…

    • Thanks, Sylvie. I do think that it’s something that a lot of women experience at least to some degree, and that those of us who do should be talking about it more. While these kinds of disorders are usually rooted in uncontrollable internal or external factors, the right information and support can still go such a long way towards helping those experiencing them. If I had known the effects of what I was doing when I started, I might not have lost control of it in the way that I did.

      Indeed, strength feels good. That seemed to change everything for me. I realised that I could control my body in a positive way without ‘punishing’ myself in all the ways that I had been, and it all went from there.

      Also, no need to say sorry about the boyfriend! That’s one of those things that I look back on in disbelief and think ‘what on EARTH was I doing?!’ It was all part of a process, I suppose. I certainly wouldn’t put up with that kind of treatment now, so it served that purpose.

  2. “I’m grateful that I discovered it when I did and am happy to say that I fully recovered from my eating disorder a few years ago, and have been consciously practicing positive, responsible and self-loving behaviour since then.” — The whole post is very inspiring, thank you! It hasn’t always been easy to practice self-loving behaviour yet I realized it’s important to make an effort every day

  3. Hi Emma,
    Thanks so much for that post, unfortunately the “cult of the body” in our society is so present and so important that we tend to forget what should be the main goal “love-compassion-happiness”. Some of us feed and feel our emotions through our stomach, I was like you with eating disorder but with boulimia, took also a long time to understand but when you understand it means you are less likely to fall back into that pattern.
    I’m so glad I’ve read your post, and I truly hope it will help some others around here who may be into that situation or help parents or friends to understand that sometimes just a small talk can change everything.
    Thanks again!

  4. Pingback: Breaking Up with my Gym | Under The Ropes

  5. Pingback: Struggles with Weight Gain and Body Image | Under The Ropes

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