How weightlifting has been pivotal in my eating disorder recovery

In first grade, I told my teacher I was fat and needed to go on a diet. I will never forget the bewildered look on her face. I was the tallest student there, socially awkward, all of 6 years old.

I’ve been obsessed with food for as long as I can remember, convinced I was fat, though I never was. As a child, I would flip through magazines meant for women much older than me (though similarly obsessed with their weight, I would guess), reading about trendy new diets, determined to find the right one. There was the Two-Bite Diet, where you eat whatever you want but are allowed no more than two bites of it. There’s the cabbage soup diet, which is self-explanatory—and quite inconvenient if you don’t have a lifestyle conducive to nearly constant trips to the bathroom. Low-carb. No carbs. Zero fat. Meal replacement bars and shakes.

I would spend the next several years fully immersed in this constant chase for thinness and wrestling with my disturbingly low self-esteem.

Simple lunch. Chicken patty + mustard + bag of smart pop popcorn + Zevia Cola. 220 calories.

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I certainly wasn’t alone in my preoccupation with food. In one study of 5,000 men and women by U.K.-based Shape Smart, researchers found that women think about food almost as often as men think about sex: Nearly 25 percent of the women said they think about food at least once every 30 minutes (compared to 36 percent of men who think about sex every 30 minutes). Even more surprising: Some research suggests women will spend an average of 17 years of their lives trying to lose weight.

My own obsession with food (and how to eat less of it) hit its apex when I was a junior in high school. My parents split up; the only logical thing to do, to control was my body. That meant reducing my calories to 500 a day, exercising like a fiend, swallowing laxatives by the handful, and weighing myself multiple times a day. Some of my hair fell out, I lost my period, and I looked overall like someone had sucked the life out of me. But it worked: I was thin.

As you might’ve guessed, this isn’t exactly a lifestyle you can sustain. Your options are to continue on this path and hope you don’t eventually croak, or put on some pounds. “Eating disorders have the highest mortality of all the psychiatric illnesses—more so than major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder,” Dr. Lindsey Ricciardi, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of eating disorders, told the Daily Dot.

I didn’t want to die, so I went with the latter of the two options. I gained the weight back (and then some), learned what binge eating feels like (not fun), and alternated between loathing every fiber of my being and maybe, possibly, kind of, not really, sort of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. While my eating habits (as in, not eating) became a thing of the past, it would be about another decade before I finally made peace with food—and that peace didn’t look anything like I had imagined.

. . .

Through the job I had at the time, about four years ago, I joined a gym and was introduced by a friend to Olympic weightlifting. For those not familiar with the sport, the condensed version is it involves putting weights on a barbell and lifting it. My “physique” could be described as flimsy, at best. I was a skinny-fat vegetarian living off salad and twigs, running two miles every day and still desperate, even all those years later, to find happiness within myself. Weightlifting first terrified me, but I soon found myself hooked. The environment was unlike any I had ever known. The people around me were strong and fast and powerful. I wanted to be like them. But I certainly wasn’t going to get there eating lettuce leaves and croutons for dinner every night. So, I adapted.

I wasn’t alone in my journey. Many women who have suffered from disordered eating turn to weightlifting—and quickly discover how good it feels to feel good. It becomes less about reaching a goal weight and more about getting stronger. These body (and mind) transformations are in no shortage on social media. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll find countless girls who got out of their dark place and picked up a barbell. Sarah Ramadan, who goes by the IG handle @fightforgrowth, is one. Once hospitalized and barely bigger than a minute, she’s packed on pounds of healthy muscle and feels better than she ever thought she could. Molly (@mollyeledge) recently shared the story of her own struggles with anorexia, followed by binge eating; CrossFit and weightlifting have helped her get to a much better place, one where she is no longer controlled by food.

And there are many, many others. All one has to do is search a hashtag like #strongnotskinny and see the endless stream of women who have devoted themselves to a life of well-being and heavy lifting, not a life ruled by the scale.

It’s been four years since I started weightlifting, and you’d be hard pressed to find remnants of the girl who used to chew up and then spit out her food because she didn’t want to “absorb” the calories. These days, as a competitive athlete, I’m actively trying to gain weight. My nutrition programming requires me to track my calories and macronutrients. When the day is almost over and I haven’t had enough carbs, I eat another Pop Tart. I spend a considerable amount of time thinking of creative ways to sneak in more calories—all because I want to be bigger to lift more. My posterior has doubled in size and doesn’t fit in most of my underwear; some days, I feel like I could choke a grizzly with my quads. I carry almost 30 more pounds on my frame than the walking skeleton I used to be, and I don’t even care that I live in leggings because they’re all that comfortably fit.

Now, for the ironic part: If you were to say I’m a completely different person now, you’d be wrong—because I’m still obsessed with food, albeit in a healthier way and for a better purpose. I count my calories just like I used to, but it’s to make sure I get enough. I continue to step on the scale, but only twice a week. I still envy other women’s bodies—elite athletes who I look to for inspiration. The same determination, stubbornness, and discipline that got me to lose so much weight all those years ago are the same traits that have helped me put on extra pounds, eat as much as some men, and gradually get stronger. I still have something to fixate on and obsess over, but as opposed to controlling food to look a certain way, I’m controlling it to accomplish a specific task.

Sure enough, being able to keep these similar habits even with food abuse in your past can be done—it’s just a matter of changing your perspective, says Penny Fife, a licensed marriage family therapist and certified eating disorder specialist. It’s about redefining a calorie, learning not to look at it as a bad thing, and understanding that it’s a unit of energy. She explained to the Daily Dot that there’s quite a difference between participating in this behavior athletically and obsessing over it as an eating disorder; and if you’re far enough into your recovery (or recovered), it’s really not all that bad.

#transformationtuesday I want to make my narrative here honest but I think I've missed something important out. I am recovering. Right now I am happy and thriving. But recovery isn't linear, I've said that over and over. But I think I neglect to talk about the fact that where I am now isn't permanent. Mental health is complex, there is no certainty that I'll be this stable forever, I cannot say for certain that another aspect of my mental health won't prove itself a struggle later on down the line. For the first time in my life I have some healthy coping mechanisms and I'm going to make sure I always try my hardest to use them instead of disordered behaviours but that doesn't mean I won't struggle. Mental health can be a life long journey. I am happy but I am not cured, it's important to be upfront about that. But I am still happy with that. It is still worth it to recover even if it isn't a solid prospect for the future. It is still worth living your life to the fullest. The fact that I may still struggle doesn't take away from my recovery and it doesn't make it any less worth it. #recovery #transformation #edwarrior #eatingdisorderrecovery #weightgain #bodyimage #bodypositive #fitgirl #fitness #fitfam #fitspo #fitnesslife #fitnessjourney #fitnessmotivation #girlswholift #strongnotskinny

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Dr. Ricciardi is a little more cautious, based on her experience of working with many competitive and professional athletes: “My biggest question is are you getting enough nutrition to meet your energy needs? And to what extent is the restrictive eating or intense training impacting biopsychosocial functioning?” she said. “When I discuss staying strong in one’s recovery from an eating disorder, I often use the metaphor of staying away from the edge of a cliff. Imagine being at the Grand Canyon, and staying behind the rope in the safe area. The further you can stay back from the edge, the less likely you are to ‘fall’ in your recovery.”

So it seems, then, that one can go from the calorie counting of disordered eating to calorie counting as an athlete with a specific diet; but care must be taken not to fall back into old habits. You have to understand your disease, your triggers; you need to sort out the competing voices—the ones that coax you into falling into dangerous territory and ones that warn you to take a breath and step away.  

While certain parts of my life haven’t changed, what has is my perception of beauty—which I see as a healthy sign. In my younger years, bony was pretty. I strived for stick thin and waifish. I flipped through magazines and admired underfed actresses with their jutting clavicles, pointy hips, and flat chests. I knew that it was unhealthy, unreasonable, and most likely unattainable, but I wanted it anyway.

Now, I’ve stopped chasing the thigh gap and go after thick thighs. I want a bigger butt, a muscular back, strong arms. I’ve learned to admire the curves of my body instead of running away from them.

Furthermore, what I see in the mirror isn’t even the focal point anymore. I want to see what my body can do. As a 118-pound walking stick figure, I knew what my body couldn’t do. It couldn’t menstruate. It couldn’t handle more than a couple bites of food at a time because my stomach had shrunk too much. It couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without getting tired.

That all changed. While the story of my struggles isn’t even remotely special, what’s uncommon about it is I found a way out. Some might argue that you never really fully recover from an eating disorder, much in the way that a former alcoholic is forever an alcoholic; they might say you are always an “addict.” But Dr. Ricciardi offers a little more hope.

The research, combined with my clinical experience, demonstrates that many people can fully recover from an eating disorder, have a healthy relationship with food and their body, and never relapse again,” she said.

Sometimes recovery really is about taking it one step, one day, one meal at a time. The path feels right when the focus is on your well-being, not the protrusion of your clavicle.