Rejecting the perfection: Exercising past the eating disorder

I was a good student, but also an insanely clumsy one with odd mannerisms, and my school coach was my dad’s best childhood friend. They played football together back in the day, which my father reminisced with pride because they set up a local club together, and he wasn’t a soft and sweet type either. And because I used to be contrary for the sake of it when somebody did something I didn’t approve of, I did a lot of weird stuff just to annoy the hell out of him. It was a simple way to show my dad that, in fact, I am different. We’d play volleyball and when the teacher finally found me playing truant or chilling in the changing rooms, he’d drag me to the court. Then, I would literally do nothing – I’d just stand around pulling faces. And because the other group figured who to aim at so that they don’t hit the ball, soon nobody wanted me on their team. “Sorry, Kasia,” one of my besties would sigh, “but you can’t do that!”

The coach became irritated because he needed to grade me somehow, and my attitude successfully blocked that. Jackpot, you vexing theatrical thing! He’d get frustrated eventually, let me go and yell at me, and I’d walk triumphantly out of the court smirking at him, picking up a notebook to write, a book that I’ve just borrowed, or a script to memorise my lines instead. Here I am, an intellectual! (I didn’t mean it as a joke back then, and I don’t think the “me, an intellectual” meme existed – I was an asshat, alright? If you’re thirteen and reading this, please don’t do it because it’s not rebellious or edgy which you’ll learn when you’re older.) Funnily enough, if I went outdoors with my friends, volleyball turned out to be fun. So were the dance rehearsals for the drama club.

Things changed substantially later on. I used to exercise compulsively when I was in high school while being on a strict “diet”. From a school in a small town with an exceptional final exam score, I progressed to one of the best schools in the city of my birth. There, I was surrounded by people coming from different backgrounds, sometimes more affluent than me. It was a liberal arts school, which meant I had to pass over 14 subjects in three years to graduate, ranging from my major in civics/social sciences, history, literature and arts to various areas of science, modern and ancient languages, and even civil defence. The professors were outstanding, the pressure was enormous, and although I was doing very well academically, I still felt inferior. My clothes were out of fashion. I never had pocket money to go to the cinema or theatre, let alone go with someone to have a meal or a drink in the club. But what I could do, I thought, was to make myself look like I fitted in.

The old friends of mine also suffered in the process. No drinking cheap wine with them at long walks in the summer, no interest to go and see a football match of the local team anymore, no mad banter on the weekends. I had a different focus now, and people were puzzled – at the beginning, it was all invisible; for a while I’ve done a good job covering myself up with oversized clothes, and then I couldn’t hide it anymore. I’d blow off the friends that came over to take me out because “I needed to exercise”, and frankly, the idea of eating out gave me an outright panic attack. One of my friends saw Black Swan and took me to the cinema to explain how my perfectionism looks from a different perspective, but I scoffed at the idea. “You’ve changed,” people repeated but I didn’t think it was the case.

I ended up sickly and thin, feeling my spine on the back of the chair, with bruises that appeared out of nowhere, and without energy. One day, I fainted in the snow-filled field when running for the train, and I couldn’t get myself up. When I finally made it to the carriage, I struggled with opening the compartment door, attracting some (what I thought were) pitying looks from some of my neighbours. I didn’t see any sense in doing things – books, films, drawing, it all went out the window. I secluded myself to the point I was feeling panicky when I had to present in front of people, which is an everyday instance in the Polish system of grading. I was crippled.

Finally, teachers noticed. My biology teacher was concerned about my peculiar interests and strange questions so she reported me to the head teacher. My French teacher noticed my thinking was clouded, hinting this at my tutor: the girl who thrived in linguistics couldn’t cope with forming simple sentences anymore and seemed disengaged. They’ve repeated it all back to me, advising that there might be a problem. The school psychologist got me into talking about perfectionism and tried to understand why I constantly felt so ashamed and inferior to others. I went to the doctor to get the blood tests and all. My mum, who wasn’t fully aware of what my case was, was scared that as working-class people we wouldn’t be able to get any assistance, but she was advised to send me to a dietician who kindly helped me out for free. My friends showed support, even though I was doing my best to push everyone away.

In the process of recovery, I was advised to tone it down. My dietician made me a food plan that I needed to follow to refill everything I’ve lost in my body living on “minus calories”. And believe me, it was the scariest thing ever. I postponed putting the plan into action for three days: I remembered textbook stuff (ignorance is bliss), then googled more and ended up scared that my metabolism will make me fat – this is what distorted body image does to you. My dad would tell me angrily to “stop fussing and just start eating normally”, which I fiercely argued with and rejected.

To feel in control of the calories, I started weighing portions. I’d make all the food myself, collected recipes, scoured food blogs for the recipes I could adapt to make them “healthy”. I’d suddenly become the chef of the family, too. For my eighteenth birthday, I baked an halva cake – rich, looking beautiful, stuffed with cream and sugar – that I wouldn’t even try, giving generous helpings to my family instead. Finally, I started getting opportunities in journalism. Working on deadlines and being on the go all the time, along talking about my experience, helped to let go of thinking about food and exercising, but it was still at the back of my head. Finally, I dropped out of the support that’d been set up for me. Now, I recognise that my recovery shouldn’t have stopped there.

Then, things happened. Once again, I was under a lot of pressure that came from adapting to a new country, work and study, and there was nobody aware of my history to watch me when I was doing all these strange things. What wasn’t fully cured sneaked up on me.

When I was going to the gym regularly, my head wasn’t in the right place. Eating disorder took over and made me obsess over the calories I ate and calories I felt I needed to burn to fulfil my idea of “optimal” which was far, far lower than any doctor or dietician would call healthy. Everything I’ve been told before faded into oblivion, and after a few months, I relapsed. But starving myself throughout the day resulted in an ultimate binge-purge late at night. And yet, it wasn’t enough. I’d feel stupid and weak for breaking the rules I imposed on myself. I’d punish myself because I felt insanely guilty.

I’d pick up my kit, leave home at 1am and spend hours running and cycling, to the point where I was too exhausted to do absolutely anything.  The place would be empty which I preferred, nobody would pay attention to my disappearance, let alone tell me off for wrecking myself while I was there – the level of clarity of thought I put into my planning frightens me to this very day. But there was a payoff at the end, or at least that’s how I saw it. I’d run on energy drinks to go to classes and work. I ate salads without dressing to show people who were concerned that, after all, I ate. Isn’t salad healthy? What do you know about healthy eating anyway? What do you want from me? Little did I know that what I was doing couldn’t be called wellness, but fulfilling the demand of my illness.

Finally, after arguing with people concerned about my state, I was forced to go to a GP and tackle the situation head-on. I was about to start the last year of university too, and I knew I couldn’t live the same way. My doctor concluded that I was depressed and bulimic, but I got little support from the healthcare system altogether – and that’s probably because there aren’t enough resources to tackle eating disorders and mental health problems in general. But there was a will to live in all of this. I got up slowly, talking things through. I graduated, found internships, and soon a job. Things straightened, and although there’s still inferiority and shame in me and there are periods of time when I can be unreasonably anxious for different reasons, I’m fighting it slowly, a step at a time.

But imagine having this entire package standing in the way of you actually trying to live healthier. I often tried to act self-deprecating when explaining to people why I wouldn’t exercise or withdrew from a conversation when it was being discussed. There are many reasons for that. But there comes the time when you know you need to face your fear to overcome your demons.

For me, one cardinal rule it begins with is: never weigh yourself or measure exercise in numbers. It works for some people, but given my circumstances, I needed to stop paying attention to the numbers related to this entire fitness business way back when. In the beginning, it was tough because that’s how everyone measures it, but I’m really willing to keep it up for my mental health. And that means: don’t obsess over what you eat and don’t set yourself bizarre goals based on numbers, and goodness gracious, don’t try to be perfect or compete with anyone.

Make sure your reasons are right. Ensure you’re not hiding darker thoughts under the thin veil of being fit. You’re not a number. It doesn’t define you, and you’re exercising because you want to improve your wellbeing and shake off the tiredness of sitting down while learning or working. It’s tough to avoid the topics of exercise and dieting, especially when you don’t want to announce that you had an ED mid-conversation (whatever fears you have: the stigma, the misconceptions, the accusations of wanting pity and trying to get away with things, being defined by your eating disorder and depressive states in your work, academic and private life – anyone with a mental health disorder was there at some point as we’ve only started being more open about our mental wellbeing as a society), but watch out for discussions that trigger you. If they happen, use the beliefs you’ve worked so hard to overturn. Switch yourself off. Things that are right for others aren’t always right for you.

Secondly, the gym is my idea of hell: it’s full of people, and for somebody who still deals with massive anxiety, it’s a perfect breeding ground for a panic attack. It might be just in your head, but when you’re alone, you can’t help and compare yourself to others. And when you feel that someone’s judging you, it might be tough to reject these thoughts at first. I dropped it two years ago, but I was doing a bit of running to stay healthy until I realised it’s my thing only to a certain extent. Returning to the gym back then evoked a danger of getting myself hooked on numbers again. And, after all, when I took them away from the activity, I realised that I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I found it repetitive and boring, and these are two things that are a no-no for me. If I’m not stimulated in any way, shape or form and I don’t enjoy it, and I don’t want to follow the competitive, destructive practice that led me astray before, I know I’m not gonna stick to it. It works for others and that’s good, but it’s not my thing, and not the right thing for my wellbeing altogether.

Then again, I know there are activities that I love. And even though exercising was such a crucial factor in my eating disorder, when it’s moderate, I understand that having self-care routines can make me feel better. I could go to a dance class – a good dancer I am not, but I enjoy it endlessly, so it seems like a good way of keeping in shape. I would love to do something like kickboxing; please don’t judge me, but I love to entertain the idea of being somewhat of a Hollywood action film star *insert an emoji of choice here, we know you want to* and punching things. I really like yoga and pilates because I enjoy the sensation they give to my muscles, and I could easily do it on my own without comparing myself to other people and wondering if they’re judging my perceived imperfections. And classes are limited in time, so it’s less likely for me to stay later and let the toxic self-talk kick in. Plus it’s something new and exciting, and that solves the issue of boredom, too. And it’s good to stick to whatever schedule they have so that you don’t go overboard: if the classes are twice a week, do them twice a week and don’t overthink it. You’ll learn to listen to your body and drop the negative thoughts in your head when you don’t think too much.

All of this comes to one thing: do a thing that’s best for you, and under no circumstances allow others to shame you into doing things that you know aren’t right for you at the moment. If there are people who aren’t aware of your past or simply disrespectful of your experience, don’t give in to whatever they say. Rebuilding your relationship with food and exercise, as well as healing your wounds will take time, and it’s tough when you face lack of understanding at some point, but you owe it to yourself. You’re enough, and you’re worthy, and your recovery should be the priority.

Now, I’m not a professional and I can only share what worked for me, so please talk to somebody if you need help: there are charities such as BEAT that will help you face your circumstances, or your GP, school/university counsellor, or a friend/family member. If you wanna chat, I’m out there too, you know where to find me.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *