NEDA Week Day 3: Running Away

NEDA Week Day 3: A (complicated) relationship with running

I started running when I was 12. The sport taught me resilience and the merits of grit and determination. During a time of social angst and growing academic stress, running was my sanctuary. It freed me from my anxiety and fears – every mile a reprieve from this internal battle. I relished my strength and marveled at what my body could do. There came a point, however, when things shifted. The weightless sensation of flight became a heavy burden. Running became a vehicle for perfectionism – the ultimate source of control over my malleable appearance. My reflection was no longer a strong, young girl capable of covering vast distances; it was a pudgy stomach and thick thighs. A flat chest and flabby arms. Grit and determination were replaced with insecurity and shame. I avoided mirrors – seeing my reflection caused too much shame and anxiety – and scales became a game of bait and switch. The reinforcement of a lower weight was intoxicating, but a higher number, even just tenths of a pound above what I deemed acceptable, was devastating. Every meal had an asterisk, every dinner plate a disclaimer reminding me of my inadequacies. I became compulsive about running, not for the joy of the sport, but to ease my conscious at the dinner table. Sometimes I left things upstairs at home, so I would have to go back up throughout the day – and burn extra calories. I was thirteen.

It was also around this time that I started to experience immense stomach pain and discomfort after eating. Curling into the fetal position was commonplace following every meal. I tried all of the fads – elimination diets, vegetarianism, probiotics, prescription medications – to no avail. Food became psychologically and physically painful, and every thought centered on coping with a meal’s aftermath. It took five years to find relief – additional symptoms emerged and, after another round of testing, I was diagnosed with gluten-intolerance. I felt relief within days of changing my diet, but my relationship with food and my body had already deteriorated. I kept running away.

I was diagnosed with my first stress fracture five days before what would have been my first high school cross country meet. We trained hard over the summer, sometimes reaching 60-70 mile weeks, and I thrived under the systematic and predictable environment. I felt strong and fit and was beginning to love my body again, not for its visible ribs or flat stomach, but for its strength and resilience. I ran well, and the sport became my identity, until I lost it.

Injuries rob you of normalcy and routine. They force you to relinquish control and redefine your identity. I was not prepared for this. This initial stress fracture sparked an ongoing battle between my body and my mind. I lost my greatest expression of control and sought that same relief in other areas of life. Restricting food intake shifted from a satisfying practice to an addictive, compulsory ritual. I turned to schoolwork for distraction – studying six to eight hours a night. Failure continued to be my greatest fear; however, its expression changed. Weight gain was a failure. Anything below an A was a failure. My body was a failure. Without running I was forced to be still, to face these fears. My harsh internal voice gained strength and courage. What were once subtle, controlled reminders of my inadequacy became constant. I lost the strength to doubt this voice; I lost the will to fight. It became my truth. I am not enough. I will never be enough.

This was the first of nine stress fractures. This was when I fell off the ledge. I was fifteen.

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