Too Much of a Good Thing – Exercise Bulimia and Orthorexia

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**TRIGGER WARNING** Essay topics covered include exercise bulimia, orthorexia and trauma

About 10 years ago I read an article written by a person who had been a competitive athlete for a very long time and they were starting to have realizations that their incessant need to workout came from a place of deep emotional hurt and wounding.  I found myself ugly crying while reading it and it was the first time in my 30+ years of living I even considered this as part of my reality.

For decades I *never* stopped moving.  The older I got, the more I moved and the more I pushed myself.  Nearing my 30’s I would have days that I called “beat myself into physical submission” days where I would row w/ my nationally competitive masters women’s 8 at 4:30am for a few hours, go home to change and maybe take a quick nap then head to my high stress corporate job. I’d run a 5k at lunch, after work I’d meet up with friends and run around Lake Washington, which is a 10k, and then I’d head to yoga where I’d do the most intense 90 minute vinyasa class I could find.  I’d either get home and crash so hard OR I’d get my dancing/drinking shoes on and go out until way too late after drinking way too much and definitely eating way too little.  Just sprinkling in a bit of disordered eating into my already disordered existence.

Itty bitty baby rower me 1996

Exercise bulimia is a much less talked about form of eating disorder.  I remember mourning the day I got to 100 pounds when I was 13 years old.  I started rowing when I was 15 and my 5’7” frame was absolutely not ideal if I wanted to do well as a female rower so the best option was to row as a lightweight, which meant I had to stay under 130lbs. This was not a challenge for me during highschool but it has left me with a lifetime of horrific body dysmorphia. Anytime I started to approach 130lbs I would start to panic and since my 20’s I’ve constantly tried to stay as close to that weight as possible and feel absolutely horrified about my body if I went over it, which has been almost every year of my adult life.  I told my wife recently that I’d have little bouts of actual bulimia but not anything crazy like other people I know, who literally threw up almost every meal. I’d just intentionally throw up after a binge 1x a month, maybe 2, maybe every other month.  She side eyed me and said “Jess, I’m pretty sure there isn’t such a thing as ‘a little bit of bulimia.’”

While I was attempting, unsuccessfully, to sweat my way into the smallest body I could, I did work myself out of my corporate project management job and decided to move to India to study anything and everything yoga. It was more common than not that I would spend 3-5 hours a day training with a well regarded yoga teacher and I did that for 2 ½ years.  When I wasn’t doing my actual practice with a teacher I would take a poi spinning class, I learned to climb, hang and drop from a tree with aerial silks, I hiked up and down the Himalayan hillside more times than I can count, I did my own self pratice in my home and I did 5 Vipassana courses in 16 months, which is its own form of physical torture (which I also consider a gift but that’s for another article).  

Itty bitty India yoga me 2012

During all that time studying yoga I was also not eating a sufficient amount of food for the work I was exerting.  What I was eating was highly controlled but it was the one time in my adult life where I looked at myself and at that moment thought, “yeah, I look great!” I was surrounded by people doing the same stuff I was, micromanaging what they ingested, so I never thought anything of it.  In my last few months living in India I met an amazing Danish woman who was working on her thesis for her masters in psychology and that’s when I learned of the word “orthorexia.” She told me it was an eating disorder where the focus is obsessing about healthy food and I felt complete rage and annoyance build inside me.  How could someone who ate healthy food have an eating disorder?  All my friends eat like this.  I ate like this!  How could she even think to write about something like that and give it any validity?  Oh… me… oftentimes the things we get most triggered by are the things that are true for us, we just haven’t acknowledged and healed from it yet.

Well, what I didn’t know then, that I’m now painfully aware of, is I had and have Complex PTSD, which isn’t acknowledged by the DSM (my god why not??).  It is a form of PTSD but instead of being caused by acute trauma it develops over the course of a significant number of years as a person’s entire sense of worth is chipped away, often from emotional and psychological abuse, often during childhood. 

How did I learn about this after living my life blissfully unaware for 35 years? Well, I got violently assaulted my last month in India and a few years later ended up doing EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) because I couldn’t handle the PTSD flashbacks I had from it.  Anytime I heard quick footsteps coming up behind me my heart felt like it wanted to lurch me into the nearest bush to hide.  It was pretty horrible. What happened in that first phase of EMDR uncovered an immense wealth of pain, wounding and trauma I had been living with my entire life. I had become an expert at suppressing everything through a revolving door of addictions, including a cornucopia of drugs, an abundance of alcohol, workaholism, disordered eating and my favorite and most socially acceptable and celebrated, excessive working out.  If you’re moving so much and getting flooded with so many endorphins you never have to feel any uncomfortable emotions, especially if the moments between workouts you’re buzzed or too busy to even stop to feel… anything.  What was originally supposed to be just a few sessions of EMDR turned into an entire year, which was one of the worst years of my life, but also one of the most healing. Let me tell you, if exercise of any variety, including yoga, or intensity healed trauma I’d be the most healed person but alas, it doesn’t… at all.

Obviously looking back there were other indicators things were just not quite right.  All of my intimate relationships were absolutely unhealthy and toxic and I would have severe swings between both being anxiously attached and avoidantly attached, which I have since learned is called “Disorganized Attachment.”  In my first session with my EMDR therapist she asked if anything else had happened in my life that may come up and I answered, “well my dad left us when I was 12 but I’ve healed things around that and the rest of my life is pretty great so this is it.”  Oh me… if I meant I healed it by ignoring the emotional, psychological and physical abuse that came before the abandonment, I was sorely mistaken.

An interesting thing happened during the course of my EMDR, my body stopped wanting AND being able to move.  I had 2 full years of being sedentary and anytime I attempted to do anything my body felt like it was made of lead and I’m not a boomer who actually ingested a lot of lead in my youth. XD I’m just an Oregon Trail playing Xennial. As you can probably imagine, my obsession with what I was putting into my body just got worse.  I know Whole 30 isn’t a diet but I sure did treat it as one.  I did paleo, keto, vegan, liquid detoxes, pretty much anything to try to make sure I didn’t gain weight.  If I didn’t have time to prep appropriate meals I would live off RX Bars or opt to not eat all day until I got home. Each round of restriction would elicit a dive into all the dopamine seeking foods I craved though.  I was going through trauma recovery and I didn’t drink anymore, I didn’t do drugs, I couldn’t freaking workout so all I had left with to comfort me during times of “emotional uprising” (aka: emotional breakdowns) was food. The more I tried to stay close to my “ideal” weight the further I got.  We live in this society, we know how people feel about others who are bigger.  We’d rather celebrate someone’s physical minimization, regardless of the cost to their actual health, vs tolerate those who gain any weight.

It’s been 7 years since my first big round of EMDR ended and I’m going into my second big round as I type this.  In these years I’ve tried to start moving again but I’ve tried to move the way I did for so many decades.  I’d make plans to do some big event, like do the Seattle to Portland bike ride in a day or do RAMROD (Ride Around Mt. Rainier in One Day).  An event goal was always the thing that helped me stick to something. I can stick with a workout plan for 6 weeks and then something happens.  I’ll get sick, I’ll get injured, have big surgery or any other countless things and my body will just stop again, for months.  It’s gotten really frustrating because each time I stop and start it feels like I’m going back to square one.  I’ve tried switching up what I’m doing because maybe I’m just not supposed to be an endurance athlete anymore with big hairy audacious goals so I tried different martial arts and still… something just stops me.

Wedding day in 2022

It’s taken all 7 years and so many failed attempts at moving my body again to make me realize the more I’ve healed what’s inside me, the less I need to move my body in the ways I used to.  When I try to make my body fit that old mold it will tolerate it for a hot minute but then it goes, “fvck you jess, I’m over this stuff, stop it!” and it stops me.  So where am I now with all of this?  I’m trying to love this bigger, softer body I currently have, which may stay the same, may get smaller and may get bigger… it’s the nature of having one of these flesh suits.  I’m less neurotic about what food I put into my body and more interested in making sure I’m *actually* getting food into my body, which is also a struggle as someone on the spectrum.  I’m also putting together a home gym that feels like play, to me, complete with all types of equipment. I’m figuring out what my new “why” is for movement.  Some things I try work, and some things don’t but I’m just taking everything as new information and allowing myself to adapt as much as I need to, which may be forever.  I do miss moving my body, I miss feeling really strong, though, objectively, as a woman I’m pretty effin strong but I miss feeling stronger.  I miss being able to move effortlessly while I hike and not grunting when I get up from cleaning the cat box.  

This is just my story but I know others may relate to pieces, or a significant chunk, of it.  When I talked to some rowing buddies who have been doing similar internal work, I felt a lot less weird and lonely knowing I wasn’t the only one having these realizations and needing to make dramatic shifts. I’m reinventing how I relate to moving my body and I know so many others are in a similar place as their bodies age, life priorities shift or maybe it’s the first time you’ve even considered how you relate to movement.  I hope that sharing my journey, the things I play around with, the programs I try and the successes and “failures” I experience in this trial and error process helps others to embark upon their own journey.

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As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.