I am honored to have Lize Brittin as a guest on the blog. She is the author of Training on Empty which chronicles her struggles with, and recovery from, anorexia nervosa as a runner. Rated one of the top mountain runners in the world in the 1980s, she has worked in careers ranging from teacher to chef to assistant manager of an art gallery, and has also hosted her own radio show.
When I first got the offer to write a guest post for the blog Running in Silence, I was both excited and honored. There are so many topics I would like to address, but I feel I should break the post down into a limited number of points I believe will help others most. Since I have already shared my story in my book, Training on Empty, I decided to give only a brief history of my career as a runner. The reason why I feel this is necessary at all is to show not just what I have survived but how my past played a role in both the eating disorder and my recovery.
In exploring what led to my eating disorder, I discovered that, like many others, I used eating or not eating as a way to cope with uncomfortable situations and my feelings. I was a sensitive child and got overwhelmed easily. Given my tempestuous living situation with an alcoholic father and peers who constantly criticized, it’s no wonder I had a hard time self regulating as a child.
At first I over ate, stuffing my hurt feeling down as far as they would go, but by the time I was 13, I started restricting, which brought about a false sense of control. I couldn’t control what was going on around me, but I could force myself to eat a certain way, taking my attention away the chaos in my life. In the early 80’s, anorexia wasn’t well understood, and it certainly wasn’t discussed. I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was experiencing until a few years after I started my extreme diet and exercise regimen.
Shortly after I started losing weight, I found running. It was an exercise I used primarily to keep myself thin, but I was also instantly successful when I entered races. Within a few years, I became one of the top mountain runners in the world, setting records on nearly every course I ran, including the grueling Pikes Peak Ascent. I also had tremendous success in road races and cross country in school, and I was only 16.
But my career was cut short due to my ever worsening disorder. I was plagued with illness and injury despite some outstanding showings in races. Eventually, before I hit my mid twenties, I was forced to give up running altogether. At one point, I was so weak, I could hardly stand on my own two feet.
Since numbers related to weight can be triggering, I won’t mention them in this post. Instead I will say that during the throes of my illness, I was having seizures and headed for disaster. One night, I was rushed to the hospital with chest pain, and doctors predicted I had only hours to live. My health had gotten that bad. The main doctor in the ER told my family to prepare for my passing and stated that I probably wouldn’t make it through the night.
But I did, and I went on to recover.
There is no secret formula or pill that will cure an eating disorder. Everyone must find his or her own way out of the illness. There are, however, key factors to address during recovery.
Unfortunately, a lack of food contributes to an increase in distorted thinking. Re-feeding and stabilizing the body is an essential part of recovery from anorexia, but it is only one aspect and can’t be done in isolation. A person must be seen in a whole way. One must address the emotional, mental, physical and even spiritual bodies together.
Diane Israel, a former elite runner herself, makes it clear that there are four main points to consider in regaining health.
1. Reclaim the self/Identify the self.
2. Heal the family/Move away from the family (if healing can’t occur)/Heal or address past trauma
3. Community support/community involvement
4. Give back/Charity/Service to others
I want to focus on number one, because for athletes, this step, while being probably the most important, can be the most difficult. It’s bad enough that eating disorders cause us to lose ourselves, but for an athlete, finding your true identity can be complicated by the fact that athletes so easily define themselves through their sport. For me, I was so overly identified as an elite athlete, I didn’t know how to exist without running. Worse, I felt tremendous guilt and undeserving when I didn’t run.
Naturally, when I couldn’t run, I lost myself completely in the eating disorder. I didn’t know who I was apart from both the illness and the running. I was either Lize the runner or Lize the anorexic. At times, I was even Lize the anorexic runner, but I was never just Lize. I didn’t even know who Lize really was anymore. In order to recover, though, I needed to find and reclaim myself, and that was not an easy task. Most of us are not taught that we are OK just as we are, and we are not taught how to truly know who we are. In this society, we are what we do instead.
So what does it mean to reclaim yourself? It means learning to appreciate who you are and your physical body apart from anything else. It means being comfortable and secure in your own skin and balancing all aspects of yourself.
This doesn’t usually happen overnight. For me, I had to start with the basics. Rather than focus on what I was eating or how much I was running, I had to turn my attention inward and ask myself what my passions were. I needed to rediscover what I liked and disliked, what my beliefs were and what stirred my emotions. In doing this, I started to better understand how I could move away from the labels that had bound me for so many years. I had to fight the negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones too. My mantra became, “I am OK and everything will be OK,” because I had so many fears and old beliefs that things would never be even close to OK, let alone good, especially if I couldn’t run.
Take time to analyze your specific set of circumstances and explore activities that you were forced to give up due to the illness. Ask yourself how this disorder has served you and how you can replace the harmful behaviors with healthier coping strategies. Tackle new experiences and prepare yourself for change. Allow yourself to FEEL and know that strong emotions will pass.
Once you take a leap of faith and start on your recovery path, it’s not so much that you can’t turn back; it’s more that you probably won’t want to. You’ll become too aware of the contrast between merely existing and actually living.