Strong Not Skinny: Lifting Weights in Eating Disorder Recovery

The first time I attended yoga I was fifteen years old. I was the youngest person in the class by at least ten years. I started to practice yoga amidst eating disorder recovery, as I attempted to leave behind excessive exercising, and build strength instead. Strong not skinny is my greatest mantra. And it really did make a difference. It started with yoga, and the more I went, the more I built not only strength but confidence in myself, my body, and my abilities. Within three months, my hands could rest flat on the floor with straightened legs, I could downward dog with heels down, and I attempted my first headstand. I felt the most confident about my body that I had for years. I also felt a part of a community, as my local gym had a wonderful atmosphere and even more wonderful instructors.

It wasn’t unaccompanied by its own set of anxieties though, especially as I built muscle in new places, and mistook it for fat – particularly around my glutes and calves. But my stomach was lean, not concave, and I had kick ass obliques. I was proud of how far I had come, especially because of where I had been.

Yoga was just the beginning of my strengthening journey. After that, I started to do Les Mills classes – Body Balance, Body Pump and CX Worx. They are all set to music, and are high energy, high impact classes. The more strength I built, the more empowered I felt.

When I moved away for study, I could no longer afford the gym. I continued to do yoga, but doing it by myself to a YouTube video once a week, or cycling through all the sequences I could remember, wasn’t the same at all, and not nearly as rewarding. There was simply no encouragement involved. As I lost strength, I felt worse. My depression got worse. And it had an impact on my eating disorder too (lots of things did, but this was just another contributing factor). As I lost muscle, my metabolism slowed down, and I fasted more often, and for longer. Which only precipitated binge eating and the compensatory behaviours that followed, and so the cycle continued.

Twenty eighteen is the year I returned to the gym, and to Body Pump. Already, after four weeks of being back in that sweaty, empowering environment, I’ve noticed the difference. Not only do I feel leaner and stronger (and a little sore too, which is encouraging), but my metabolism has begun to increase again as muscle mass returns. Muscle memory also helped with this.

This is why I encourage people trying to lose weight, or struggling with disordered eating, or tried to lose weight and slipped into disordered eating, to reduce their cardio, and pick up some weights.

Because it’s far better to be strong than to be skinny.

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The headstand shots and above photograph were taken in Nepal 2016; on hillsides, mountain tops, roads and bridges, in the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara and in the Annapurna Mountain Range.
Other image credit to Rupi Kaur

 

Bearing My Battle Scars Before I Am Ready

Aside from running an Etsy store, tutoring high school students, and pouring my heart out on this website, I also work in a bakery. Which requires me to wear short sleeves.

I have scars. They are battle scars. Some people don’t like to call them such, but I’m fighting a hard fucking battle, it’s given me scars, so thus, they are battle scars. And yes, even though I did this to myself, I am ashamed of them.

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I am ashamed of them, but not ashamed because of them. I’m ashamed of the stares, glares and glances. The whispers, murmurs and mutters. I’m ashamed of a society that prefers to gossip about mental illness, than sensitively ask questions.

I would rather be asked “are you okay?”, than stared at. I would rather respond “not really”, than feel guilt and anxiety over the only coping mechanism that really works for me. I would rather people talk about my scars openly, and in front of me, than behind my back and closed doors and whispers and vicious murmurs. Sometimes I selfishly hope that people will ask me about them. I don’t self harm for attention – not at all. It’s for punishment, and pain I deserve mostly, and an emotional release. But still, there’s that little mutter (the BPD mutter) in the back of my mind that says ‘if they see them they’ll think you’re brave, and strong, and worthy’. Which is just another lie my illness feeds me. Because I don’t feel brave, or strong, or any semblance of self worth at all. I feel shame.

I am so ashamed of my scars that I refuse to wear shorts around my family. Which I guess is a little strange, considering that actually produces more anxiety than wearing a bikini to the beach (despite the eating disorder and body image issues – which I think is because the beach is my happy place).

The first time I went to the ER for self-harm it was actually an accident. I had intended to cut, but nowhere near as deeply as I did, and certainly not to the extent I would need stitches, antibiotics, and have to deal with a hard-core scar. The doctors and psychiatrist who saw me were fine with it. Not fine; it was self-inflicted, and I was distressed, yet they were politely concerned and professional. But I could hear the nurses gossiping through the thin partitions, and simply didn’t have the energy to snap a retort. It hurt me though, it hurt me that I was seeking help and being punished for it. I punish myself enough already.

I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of my scars, but I’m pretty fucking ashamed at the way society treats me because of them.

Anorexia: An Introduction

Have you met Ana?
Ana-who? I hope you wonder
Murmurs – Ana-rexia.

When my spiral down the eating disorder rabbit hole began, I didn’t know anorexia existed. I had seen pictures of emaciated women, of course. I thought it was purely about looking in the mirror and seeing an obese person staring back. Having now experienced this illness, I can say with 110% certainty that it is so, so much more than this. Still, I think it took my adolescent brain a solid year or two to even realise that my behaviours were a problem. They felt so right. Turns out, there’s nothing right about anorexia nervosa.

It’s a little like having two personalities. And before I even knew that “healthy self” and “eating disorder self” was a fairly common concept and hallmark of eating disorder treatment, I had given a name to my second personality, two years in to my struggle, when I was about thirteen. I read, and still do read, the DSM a lot.

I called her Ana.

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Now, Rosie started out as a pretty wild, cheeky, sassy, and fun child. In fact, she had so much energy, the adjective ‘crazy’ was tossed around fairly often – and I don’t fail to see the irony in this now. But Ana is a tumour, and she hijacked that bubbly personality. Rosie became more and more withdrawn, anxious, secretive, manipulative, deceptive and damaged. Ana was just a voice, but she felt entirely separate from me. It is truly like having a whole other person freeloading off your rapidly firing, rapidly shifting, neurons.

These neurons were morphing into a shape it would take nearly a decade to unravel. And they’re still being unravelled.

The thing is, eating disorders shift, they shift, and morph, and strengthen, and change, all the while continuing to hijack your brain. Once my weight was restored by the beginning of 2017, moving out of home triggered a whole new set of neurons to fire.

They arranged themselves into bulimia nervosa.

I never vomited. And because of this, it did take me a little while to recognise the bulimic battle. But there’s more than one way to have bulimia, just as there’s more than one way to have an eating disorder in general. I binge. I purge. I just don’t throw up. I abuse laxatives, I exercise excessively, I restrict for the following day, and then the cycle begins all over again. There’s normally some self-harm in there too.

Some people choose to identify as having both Ana and Mia inside their minds. Personally though, my disorder has always been, and will always be, Ana.

The Dangers of Numbers

I’m good with numbers. In fact, I like to think I’m pretty exceptional when it comes to working with numbers. My mental arithmetic is pretty on point, which comes in handy at my IRL paying jobs: running an Etsy store, working at a bakery, and tutoring high school students. It definitely speeds up the cash handling process, and I guess it’s what landed me the tutoring gig in the first place. Helped me to develop a pretty kickass budget too.

But numbers can be damaging. Oh, how they can damage me. Not only are they a refuge – doing complicated calculus in my head calms me down – but they’re also dangerous. The written word isn’t my most dangerous outlet (although, I suppose that’s a little dangerous too); the real danger lies in the numbers.

This danger, coupled with perfectionistic traits, low self-esteem somewhat satisfied by solving complex equations, and an imagined loss and consequent need for control, was the spark to my anorexia. Watching numbers drop is its own form of complicated mathematics. Calories in and calories out. Multiplication and division, addition and subtraction.

Thanks brain. Mental illness has hijacked yet another one of those handy life skills.

The other problem with numbers is a little like the problem of evil – once the numbers are known, they are impossible to forget. And that is why, even though my weight is restored, the struggles against that fucking voice are just as hard as they always were. Calories in and calories out. Multiplication, division. Addition, subtraction.

Words aren’t the weapon for me, although they make a mighty sword at times. The real problem is with the numbers.

Sketches From a Psychiatric Ward

They’re strangely aesthetically pleasing.

In 2017, I was admitted to three separate psych wards, for a total of six weeks. It might not seem like a lot, and sure I had 46 weeks of non-psych ward living, but these were my first three trips to the ER, and first three admissions to hospital for any reason. In Western Australia, it is much more difficult to seek help for depression. If I had gone to my local ER before leaving Geraldton, it is likely I would have been turned away, told to stop attention-seeking, or sent five hours away by ambulance to the nearest psychiatric facility in Perth.

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Which is sad, because the psych ward is not what I had expected. And not what most people would expect, I imagine.

Let’s talk about that third and final admission for the year. I was discharged exactly one month prior to writing this. I was suicidal, and this time I was going to do it. Fortunately, I was already at the hospital for an eating disorder assessment, and was admitted from there, which made things simpler, and far less anxiety provoking.

Being admitted involved a lot of tears, emotional exhaustion, silence, withdrawal, scratching (a form of self harm), anxiety, screaming (not from me), locked bathrooms (because of the bulimia), quiet conversations in side rooms, and meetings with various doctors, nurses, psychologists and occupational therapists. It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not a place I ever want to be, but it kept me safe. And I gained a lot of insight into how my depression, borderline personality, self-harm, and eating disorder function and protect me.

The psych ward also involves a lot of dissociation, board games, card games, drinking tea, sharing with other patients, making good friends with other patients, watching television, doing Sudoku, and drawing.

Drawing is my lifesaver. I hadn’t picked up a pencil or a canvas since year 10 of high school, because I channelled all my energy into the singlest most greatest distraction in my life – study. But now that I’ve picked one up again, I can’t put it down.

These drawings are raw, they are real, and they illustrate my mind in it’s most distressed state. Behold, sketches from a psychiatric ward. They’re strangely aesthetically pleasing.

An Untitled Poem

Why is it that getting dressed

Causes me so much distress?

And dresses with pockets are rarer

Than any form of self-instigated self-care?

Dried blood on my wrists and on my thighs

Like a burgundy tattoo that gives me a high.

Not to look at, but to feel the pain;

This refuge from hurt, is what keeps me sane.

There’s real tattoos too – across my back

And my chest and visceral in black,

Are the quotes that keep me alive.

Not just alive, but giving me something to strive

For, aim for, save for. Adding art to my body

Instead of sketching on paper, and photocopies,

And dumping thoughts as words, and an ocean

Of sadness. These waves of anti-promotion,

Nihilistic claws that trap my skull under the

Immense monstrosity that is her,

That is me, that is pain, and darkness.

Never-ending deprecation and harshness

That dribbles from my mouth, floats,

Unto the air, and becomes new quotes,

For others to repeat, cockatiels,

Whose sadness is my only appeal.

This abhorrent self who can only try

And try to be nothing else, lest I die.

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Icarus and the Phoenix – A Poem

I am plummeting, an Icarus without sacred plumage,

nor the beauty of a soft dusting of undergrowth,

to break my fall.

Each time I rise, I am a phoenix,

but even phoenixes will finally die.

Being engulfed in agony, where I seek shelter,

and comfort, and safety,

and learn to decorate pain, like A.W. Toad suggests.

Each time only makes it harder to return. To sanity.

To distorted sanctitude, yet perfectly perceived control.

While in the dark recesses of my mind, the gremlins call,

trembling as I quiver with anxiety,

highly strung, unlike an arrow,

in everything but form.

For I may appear thin, but she tells me I am fat.

I am tense, but not strong.

For this is a land of skin and bones,

where sticks and stones and everything breaks me,

and I do not belong.

That space between a venn diagram where only I exist.

Too fat for one circle, too thin for the other.

The thing about binaries, is eventually you’ll be shattered in two.

Still, I swallow saccharine words and bittersweet pills,

without knowing what purpose they serve.

Nil.