Hi everyone! This post has been made possible by my hot water bottle and about 2890873243 layers of clothing. It’s gotten extremely cold here and the only way for me to stay warm is to become a walking laundry pile and continuously clutch that hot water bottle. I also have to keep it out of the way of a certain set of claws – Shalimar has already popped two hot water bottles in her life time. Thank God I don’t have a water bed..
I often wonder, how do people with an ED (or just more susceptible to feeling the cold) cope in countries where it gets far colder than here in Australia? The weather here sounds balmy compared to the UK, or many parts of the USA in winter. Here in Brisbane, we don’t even get snow.
I know that most houses in those colder climes seem to have central heating as standard – that’s something you will not see here in my city. But how do you cope out of doors? I find winter a lot easier than I used to – I don’t feel the same sort of cold as I did then – it was like having ice in your veins. You could have all the hot water bottles, warm clothes, heaters, doonas in the world and never get warm – it was inside you. Now I just feel cold from the outside in – unless I’ve done something silly like eat frozen things in the cold (like I used to a lot!). It’s a totally different ‘cold’ feeling and one that’s easily fixed.
Add this to all the rain we were having – and poor Shalimar had been going crazy. Cabin fever. I have been doing my best – but I just can’t walk around 24 hours a day with string.
It means I’ve had to be quite imaginative. I’ve put the above ball of string in my pocket as I walked around the house, just happened to be trailing quite a bit of it behind me. Funny being chased after by a scampering cat everywhere! I’ve also draped it over various objects, and hung it from the ceiling..
Thankfully it’s been sunny since Friday though – and Shalimar has enjoyed it. Very much so! In fact, I think she should have been a catathlete. I spent Sunday afternoon running up and down the garden path with her string and Shalimar trailing. She never got tired! Even when we took a rest break, Jaws attacked!
So despite the weather, we have both been getting some exercise! Which brings me to what I wanted to write about today. I’m taking part in one of those University studies – this one is about the role of exercise in anorexia, and in people’s recovery. It’s for people at any stage of their ED, and it involves a couple of interviews on the phone. I can’t hear on the phone, so I use the National Relay Service, and took the first interview this afternoon. It took about two hours. It would have been about one, but the relay means it’s slower.
By the way, that relay service is a godsend. I’ve overcome my extreme phobia about using the phone and can make ‘calls’ now easily and without having a panic attack.
The first interview covered my feelings and behaviours around food, eating habits, body image, and weight. It was very full on, and it’s all stuff I’ve known for a long time, but a very good opportunity to have a good look at myself again. We often live with a reality that we ignore much of the time – and this is true for me to some degree. I can’t live without the eating disorder being rubbed in my face as it touches every single aspect of my life – but I try and hide the worst of it from myself. It’s simply too scary to focus on for long – it’s frightening to have so many things I still feel powerless over, and it’s frightening that the ED way of life has become my ‘norm’ and been that norm for so long. Talking about it to someone who does not (I’m assuming!) have an ED makes you realise that it’s just SO different to what other people do, not in a good way either.
But the main focus of this study is on exercise – before, during and after the illness. I cannot say anything about exercise in recovery – because I have not been there yet. But I’ve been a dancer pretty much all my life, and for my teens I considered myself an athlete in a dancer’s way – strong and fit. My dancing did not have anything to do with developing an ED as far as I believe.
Body image was a very pressured area – I totally felt the pressure to be slim and toned, and most of the other girls in my classes did too. We were coached on training ourselves and refining our appearance, in a teacher’s words, “Like prize racehorses”. There were quite a number of girls who took it too far – a graduate sent home from the national ballet school for losing too much weight (who simply joined in our classes instead of recuperating.) A girl known to be vomiting after every meal. A girl who collapsed in class, whose technique has been suffering along with her extreme weight loss. It was heartbreaking but it was there. Hazard of the occupation, sadly.
Not that it should be – I long for the days when ballet dancers and gymnasts are normally healthy. Above a BMI of 20 – despite aesthetics. I don’t expect it to happen – when all models are above a BMI 20 in our magazines and on our catwalks, I might start hoping then. Professional dancers and gymnasts are STRONG though – very strong. As a rule, they are not starving, not purging, they take care of their bodies. But it’s still a high pressure area with often unrealistic expectations.
I believe my eating problems were there from a very young age. I was hiding food despite being hungry and liking it at four years old. I was fighting with my mother because I couldn’t eat breakfast, I just could not face it. Already being deceptive to get out of eating it but make it appear I was. And then there was the push and pull she and I had over food – pushing it on me, pulling it away. So dancing was not the cause, and my body image was fairly okay in my teens – I realised that I was actually one of the thinnest girls in the school and often wished I could be a bit ‘softer’ – have feminine arms like another girl had instead of them appear hard and sticky, for example. I was overall, quite okay with my body.
I don’t know when this changed for sure. Throughout those years in my teens, what my body could do was the most important thing for me. I loved that it could dance, that it carried me around. I loved feeling strong and limber. It was immensely important to me to not just preserve these functions, but to improve on them. Be able to dance longer, harder, higher, stronger. In fact I do see I was obsessive about this – exercising every spare moment I had – even overnight in my bed or while I was doing everything else. I couldn’t stand still, I had to be doing barre exercises. I couldn’t sit still, I was doing foot exercises or arm exercises or something.
I now see that this wasn’t a good sort of obsessive at all. It was actually my way of coping with the abuse that was going on at home and the bullying that was happening at the school. I did not think about it, and I kept on pushing down my feelings. Instead, I flooded my brain with the counting of the exercises, the music I imagined playing while I did them, and swapped the bodily sensations from whatever happened for those these exercises caused. It was a blatant “Nothing is happening and I’m FINE.“ lie in the face of the reality. A lie to myself as much as it was to the world.
I have some brief memories here and there of body image becoming a problem. When I graduated from the dance school and then was accepted into the university, we went on an orientation camp, and the food was awesome (especially compared to at home). I ate so much! I remember one of the dance lecturers asking me if I was going to go on a diet after I devoured a pile of salads. I finally grew out of the shorts I’d worn since I was about ten years old (I was 16 – 17) in a very seam-splitting way. I noticed all this and I do remember some panic.
Fast forward a few months, and I was out of home, and completely a mess. I’d begun eating everything not tied down and gained a lot of weight. I reached about 70 kg at my highest (which for my height is only just bordering on underweight, but for a dancer, was awful.) I was also having dance lecturers tell me that I was getting ‘too big’ to be a dancer. There were times I was lying in bed crying because I’d eaten so much that it hurt, and I didn’t feel in control at all. Everything had become about my body, about feeling fat, needing to lose weight, hating myself, trying to hide, camouflaging my body in any way I could, hiding away and not going out (I had extremely bad acne too). I was so ashamed.
Wanker was on the scene and I’m sure that played a huge part in things too. I was very suddenly thrown into a woman’s body and I hated it.
My dancing was no longer enjoyable, and I couldn’t leave my problems ‘at the door’ the way I used to. Exercise as a means to lose weight – with desperation – took over. Counting calories to my steps as I marched around the city, doing aerobics classes back to back and hours in the gym, reading every diet book in existence, planning my days around food and exercise – it was like someone flipped a switch somewhere. It didn’t happen overnight, but to me, I don’t remember it creeping up so much as it was just there.
So, since then, exercise has been a tool with which to lose weight, to punish myself more, and to block things out. I can totally understand my treatment team requiring me to stop all of this – on a physical level, it was frankly dangerous for me, on a psychological level, I was never going to deal with anything if I just kept on blotting it out that way. And while I was in hospital, not only was it medically a danger a lot of the time, but the more I exercised, the longer I would be stuck there – it was counter-productive to their main aim for me of weight gain.
But what if exercise could have helped me?
I really do think it could have, and still could help me where I’m at now.
During refeeding, I felt awful. Bloated, sluggish, heavy, slow. My body gained weight so fast and put it on in a ‘newborn baby’ sort of pattern (common, because your body is so used to being starved it’s depositing fat in the fastest possible places at first) so my face puffed up, as did my tummy – like a pregnant belly. I pretty much spent my time sitting there watching myself grow. It was often painful – cramps and that sluggish feeling you get when you just can’t move around very much and are always FULL to bursting with a huge sugar-load of carbs. I’m sure you can imagine it – or have already been through it.
Being able to do some kind of daily, gentle exercise would have helped me through this time a LOT. I am sure I would have found it a bit easier to accept my body, too, had I been able to move it instead of being stuck on my bed. I also feel so uplifted after I’ve done some exercise. My body feels better, my mind feels better - I feel better.
But there is just too much risk of exercise being a negative too, especially in treatment. So this is why I think we should have some focus and inclusion of good gentle exercise while in treatment or wherever someone does their work towards restoring their health.
I can probably bet you that the majority of people with an ED that you talk to will have a pretty screwed up relationship with exercise. (This again, is an assumption.) What is it teaching us to have exercise off limits? It’s not teaching us how to to have a healthy relationship with it. It’s not teaching us that it should be for fun and feeling good rather than for self flagellation, weight control, or purging calories. And it’s very likely that if someone has been unhealthily exercising before treatment, they will go back to that afterwards too.
Many of my friends who I’ve talked to about this with have said that they struggle to find the middle ground – once they start, it’s very hard to not give in to that obsessiveness again. Fifteen minutes might be fine, but then it suddenly could be twenty. Or they aren’t doing it hard enough. Why not thirty minutes? And so on. It is never enough. Some of them manage this by setting themselves a definite time limit and routine that they must not stray from, some of them avoid exercising altoghether, and some let it take over again. Personally, I find that it starts to creep into the obsessiveness again and I have to shut it down completely, usually for a week at least, then start from scratch with what was originally our agreed appropriate amount again.
Since I’ve been doing physiotherapy, and now Ballet, the way I feel about my body has been far better. Just that bit less uncomfortable and hateful of it. And I am starting to imagine how good it would be to place importance on the way I feel and what I can do again instead of what my body looked like and weighed. I can’t go back to the obsessiveness about being the ‘best’ I could be in function either, but I do think it would be far better for me to focus on being strong and healthy and feeling good instead of being a certain weight or shape.
So I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on exercise. What is your relationship with it like? If you are in recovery (or managing your disorder) has it had a role in that? If you aren’t, can you imagine whether it would be helpful for you or not? And anything else you are thinking
And a bonus question – do you feel the cold?
Thank you for reading so far!! I just realised I am responsible for over-exercising your eyeballs