The following piece was written by one of our patients, KC, a 32-year-old female from Wellesley.
Growing up as an athlete encouraged me to develop a commitment and eventually a passion for health and fitness. Over a year ago, that commitment turned into an unhealthy obsession. I lost the balance I once had and quite honestly it happened without me even realizing it. It took control of my life and isolated me from my friends and family and ultimately, it led me down a path of sadness and despair. This is my story of how strict discipline, unwavering dedication and the pursuit of perfection turned my otherwise healthy lifestyle into a battle with Orthorexia and exercise obsession.
I always looked to exercise for stress relief and an outlet when life became challenging and quite honestly, I still do. It was the one thing I could rely on. I felt a sense of calm when I planned strict workouts and meal plans. Sticking to them built my confidence, but failing to do so broke me down. I had to be perfect in order to achieve my goals of being fit. This discipline isolated me, but also made me feel better than everyone else. The more perfect I was, the more I separated myself from the average person. I looked down on everyone that didn’t share my passion for health and fitness.
I eventually developed such strict, unattainable rules failure was the only outcome. Each day I had to eat more cleanly and train harder than the day before. Even if I did achieve this for a period of time, I wasn’t capable of maintaining this intensity and in my mind the only solution was to be more strict. I started a food journal, something I have done my entire life off and on. In order to control my “bad” habits and cravings I felt it was necessary, although it only set me up for more potential for failure. The dieting world promotes food journals as a way to control calorie intake and unnecessary binges. I believe it can be a positive tool for those trying to develop better eating behaviors. However, this only contributed to my perfectionism, obsession and unrealistic ideals for myself. The more I recorded, the more I restricted.
At the time, I was experiencing discomfort with my stomach, which I blamed on my eating habits. It caused sleepless nights and uncomfortable days so I developed another rule, no eating past 8pm. This eventually ruined my social life. I had to rush home after work to eat dinner and declined all invitations to go out. For a while, I was convinced that it made me feel better physically, but the guilt I felt from avoiding parties, friends and anything social greatly affected my self-esteem. I justified it by telling myself I had to stick to the rules and staying out too late would no doubt ruin my workout the next day. The irony was despite following my rules and avoiding social settings my workouts weren’t always perfect. This only added to the growing feeling of failure and ultimately I wasn’t happy.
At this point, my dedication should have given me positive self-reinforcement and contentment. I was nowhere near content. I was exhausted all the time, injuries were creeping up, and I wasn’t enjoying myself at the gym like I once was. In addition, as hard as I was working out, I felt like my body looked awful and therefore I needed to push myself harder. This vicious cycle continued for months. I couldn’t look in mirrors because I felt like I wasn’t getting the results I should be. I avoided anything social because I felt like I needed to reach that level of perfection in order to feel good enough in my clothes to go out and be around people. I was stuck in a rut of failure, frustration and disgust. I found myself constantly comparing myself to others. I felt if I could maintain healthier habits than the people around me, I was ultimately more dedicated to fitness than anyone else.
One temptation that I always tried to control was my love for sweets. I figured if I eliminated eating them altogether I could get even better results at the gym. In reality, I didn’t get better results, I just deprived myself of something I enjoyed for the sake of achieving that perfect image. The interesting thing was I never defined what perfect was. I was constantly chasing something that wasn’t realistic. I just figured I would know what perfect felt like when I got there, but of course I only found sadness and disappointment.
My fitness became my identity. I figured it was the only real reason people liked me. They knew me as the fit girl. If I did overeat and not train hard enough, I wouldn’t be living up to that fit girl image. When I did overeat the punishment I put myself through at the gym was extreme in addition to depriving myself further of the nutrients to get rid of the heavy bloated feeling as a result of the overeating. My meal planning became so structured, I completely lost touch with listening to my body and I didn’t trust my body to make the right decisions. I would force myself to eat things I didn’t even want because they were ‘healthy’ and in my mind would get me closer to my goals. I planned my meals a week in advance and I ate based on the clock, not how my body felt. I had to eat 5-6 meals a day to get all the nutrients in I needed whether I was hungry or not. I realize now, I never enjoyed what I ate or really tasted my food. It took all the pleasure out of eating.
Despite the fact that I was so sad, I was still able to fake a smile. Everyone in my life knows me as a happy person so I had to keep that up. I’ve had people say to me, “You are so happy all the time, I don’t know how you do it”. Honestly, at this point in my life, I didn’t either. I was able to be happy on the outside, but miserable on the inside living a life of solitude. I knew after months of feeling this way something had to change. It was wearing me down physically, emotionally and psychologically. Initially, I was fearful if I got help I would be told that my lifestyle was crazy and obsessive and would be encouraged to drastically reduce my exercise intensity. Reluctantly, I went to therapy.
Talking about my fears and habits helped, but I didn’t change. I realized a lot of our conversations focused on my nutrition, especially when I talked about my stomach pains. My therapist encouraged me to see a nutritionist. I willingly agreed to this because it was such a passion of mine and maybe this person would be able to finally help me reach my goals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it ended up being a life changing decision that opened my eyes to a severe pattern of disordered eating. I had no clue how much food was controlling my life. My rules and relationship with food took priority over everything in my life. Until I started talking about my feelings toward food and the role they played in my life, I had no idea how much I was under its control.
I was encouraged to read a book called ‘Health Food Junkies’, a book that focused on the eating disorder Orthorexia Nervosa. It was absolutely eye opening. I identified with every story and every statement made about what I now realize to be an unhealthy relationship with food. This really started my journey to truly becoming healthy in my mind and body. I had to relearn how to listen to my body. I had no idea what I felt like eating because I lost touch completely with trusting what my body was telling me. I remember being in the grocery store without my list and recipes for the first time in months and I felt completely lost. Despite feeling lost, I did have a sense of excitement going to the grocery store and shopping based on what I wanted to eat not what I should eat. To relinquish my rules was terrifying and I was afraid to fully trust myself. I wanted to get better, but was fearful that it would have a negative impact on my body. If I sounded conflicted, I was.
I will never forget the session when I was encouraged to eat a cupcake for dinner. Restricting myself from all sweets made me crave them more. I was excited to have this freedom. Within that next day, I bought two huge cupcakes and ate them on the way home in the car for dinner. I was finding sprinkles in my seat for days after. It was the first time I listened to my body in months and it felt empowering. I knew this was the turning point in my recovery. Cupcakes for dinner blew my rules out of the water and it felt pretty awesome.
I started to really believe that listening to my body was the way to achieve the results I wanted all along. It was telling me exactly what it needed to keep me healthy. My body told me when to eat and what to eat. I also started listening when it told me to take a day off from the gym. My social life and relationship with family were becoming strong again. I felt truly happy. For the first time in a long time, I realized being real was a much more fulfilling lifestyle than being perfect. To this day, I carry these valuable lessons with me. I am still one hundred percent committed to my health and fitness. It will always be a passion of mine, but I allow myself the freedoms I never did before because to me this is what it truly means to be healthy.