Interview with National Champ Erin Herrmann: Speaking Up About Eating Disorders

I had the privilege of interviewing National Champion for the 3000m Steeplechase from Hope College Erin Herrmann, who came out about her eating disorder in May. She shares her story & advice for others who may be struggling in the video interview below! Biggest tip? TALK ABOUT IT.

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“Trust in the love of the people you are surrounded by. They will help you see what you need to see in yourself.”

Order your copy of Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It here.

Weight Loss & Running Faster: Beyond Fuel

“But Rachael, you need fuel to run well.”

“Your body is a machine. You are the driver. The body needs fuel and maintenance.”

“If you burn it, it really does not matter what you put in the furnace.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these comments, and easily dismissed them in the depths of my eating disorder while running. I knew how important food was. In fact, I knew everything about food. When anyone assumed I didn’t see food as fuel, it was tough for me to give them much credit since all they knew about nutrition was that you eat to have energy.

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Thin Enough? The Athlete’s Dangerous Secret

Following up on the recent bravery of Michigan State University standout runner Rachele Schulist, I want to share my story too, because I think it’s important for all of us who’ve dealt with body image issues to speak up–
and that includes MANY of us.

Let’s examine what Rachele calls, “the lie of not being thin enough”:

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TOP LEFT PHOTO: Being thin for collegiate running got me school records, 6th & 7th places at the national cross country and track meets, and times a minute faster than I had ever run for a 5k. Sounds “successful,” right? It also created isolation, obsession with food, constant hunger, and a disconnect between me and my teammates. My only identity was cutting food and running fast.

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What Are You So Afraid of?

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately, or at least questions similar to it: What is my fear, how do I handle it, and why the heck am I so afraid?

All fears need contemplation in order to face and deal with them. Half the battle is knowing what you are dealing with–and for me, coming to terms as to why I fear food must be faced. So as I finally make time for myself to just think, I can finally “hear” my thoughts. It doesn’t come in a roar or in an astounding revelation. It doesn’t change my life in an instant. It comes in increments, entering either slowly or suddenly as I allow my mind to wander and drift among my thoughts to the deepest emotion.

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Time to Change: Adding New Food to My Diet

I think I’m ready for change. I’m ready to take the next step to eating “normally” among society. I’m ready to get out of this rut.

It’s weird how those feelings suddenly come; when you realize the food you deemed “fattening” was only so because it became a rule in your head. The voice whispers to you day after day that you must eat perfectly, that you cannot mess up, that if you do mess up, bad things will happen.

And suddenly, I dared myself to change, dared myself to face my fear, because as scared as I am to move on, I know I must move on; that the only thing scarier than staying in one place, is thinking that you may stay in one place forever if you don’t do something about it.

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Hungry to Speak

You ask me why I eat in secret.

I wish you couldn’t see me eat. I wonder how much you think about what I eat. I decide what I will eat next to make it look like I am not eating too much. I wait until it is noisy enough in the room so that you may not notice how much I am eating when I grab more food.

I sit there acting like nothing is wrong because I don’t want you to notice I am screaming inside. I don’t want you to know how embarrassing this is for me.

You ask why I can’t have more self-control. I tell you, it is because I used to have all the control in the world.

You ask me why I take food out of the trash. I tell you, it is because I used to spit my food into it.

You ask me why you find food wrappers, empty cans of vegetables in strange places around the house. I tell you, it is because I pushed food away for so long–and now there is a shaking, anxious girl inside of me that is terrified she will never have enough.

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Guilt and Ghosts: Struggling in Eating Disorder Recovery

I still have so much anxiety about what and how much I’m eating because my body will stop at nothing to get what it wants–even if I think it doesn’t need it, even if I think I did everything right, even if I think I know what I am supposed to do.

Words from friends play over and over in my mind as I observe myself:

“Looks like you’ve got some good meat on you now,” she says, gently pinching my arm. I feel the heat rise in my face. Anger? Frustration? Guilt? Embarrassment?

“Yeah, I thought you looked different from the last time I saw you.”

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How to Find Balance in Eating Disorder Recovery

Q: Balance – If we don’t take care of ourselves, we aren’t as able to [take care of] others. It’s about finding balance so that you avoid extremes in diet and exercise. I know that people have commented that they want to know what diet you finally found that works best, and it makes me wonder if they are looking for answers for themselves. That’s a pretty tough question to answer because nutrition isn’t that cut and dry, and there is still a lot that we don’t know. Everyone thinks that they are an expert, and you can find great arguments that support almost any diet. That’s why I think balance and moderation. I’m curious to learn where you are at with this.

Balance is a topic my friends tried to stress to me at one point this past year (something I will go into detail in my project – it was stressful, but eye-opening, and continues to turn up in my life as I come to more conclusions/realizations).

Being a perfectionist, dedicated, hard-working person who finds the ultimate “secret” to success (supposedly) caused me to be consumed with achieving success at the cost of my mental and physical health. I think it comes with having that natural drive, that certain personality – we perfectionists seem to want to go “all the way” with anything and everything. If a little bit is good, then a lot must be better, right? I think it comes with being a runner, too. You think, if I run this many miles, then ten more miles each week would make me even faster. While that can be true, we perfectionists think we can bump it up quickly: Because I have enough discipline. Because I have enough willpower. Because I can force myself to do it.

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Doesn’t Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder?

It’s amazing how many of us are obsessed about our weight. This does not, of course, exclude men (men getting eating disorders, too), but it seems typical–almost normal–to see nearly every woman out there on a diet, attempting to lose weight, or at least never feeling satisfied with their body. It’s an unfortunate truth, and it’s a big problem in our society. With all the fat-shaming, and especially a bias against women (see just one of many articles about the subject here), it makes eating disorders that much more common.

We can’t just blame the media, either. Eating disorders are not caused by the media, but media images/pressure can act as a ‘trigger’ to someone who may be predisposed to developing an eating disorder. It wasn’t like one day I looked at a skinny woman on a magazine and thought, I want to be skinny as her, and developed the eating disorder.

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The Power of Fear

Q: Even though running was your primary goal, when it became evident that the diet was detrimental to running it still pulled you back in. Why do you think it still gripped you even when you knew it wasn’t the direction you wanted to go?

One word: Fear.

When I continually tried to stay on the raw food bandwagon (especially the fruit-focused diet), I felt that I “just wasn’t it doing it right,” that I had worked too long and hard to learn everything about the benefits of raw food (and its connection to weight loss) to stop. After all, what would that leave me with? Cooked food would only cause me to binge more–or so I thought. I was afraid of my own appetite, afraid of how “out-of-control” I would feel eating any cooked food (it just tasted too “stimulating”–now I would happily say, DELICIOUS!). I feared gaining weight, feared putting all the hours of research to waste, feared that if I didn’t at least try this raw food diet, I would never reach my running potential. Wasn’t eating only raw food going to get me to the top? After everything I had learned, wouldn’t it be a waste to just go backwards?

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