In this post I share some details of the eating disorder that I had when I was a teenager. If you’re experiencing or recovering from an ED, please be aware that this may be a difficult post to read and proceed with caution. Thank you.
At this very second, I feel joyful. I’m in the sort of mood that makes me want to run out into the street and start foxtrotting with the nearest lampost, hugging the local Big Issue vendor, and dashing into the M&S under our flat and scattering sheaths of tenners, while yellling “Percy Pigs are on me!”
This is because I have just been for a run.
I am not one of nature’s runners. I come from a long and perversely proud line of exercise refuseniks. My parents may have piled on the academic pressure, but I think it was a point of pride that I was so bad at PE. Performing poorly at sports ran in the family, or rather, it sulkily limped along, complaining of sprained ankles and demanding Kit Kats.
Growing up, I was big, slow and self conscious. I avoided exercise in the way I avoided wasps, and boys on bikes who would shout insults at me that I didn’t entirely understand. (Now I think of it, I suspect the boys didn’t, either.) But when I started secondary school, I realised I’d been swizzed. It was a school for posh, clever girls, and I’d blithely assumed that we’d all be really crap at sport. Perhaps there would be no PE! But there was a sizeable Venn diagram overlap between the A star students and the lacrosse ninjas. I was insufficiently posh or clever, and I didn’t have the self esteem that I needed to survive.
So I stopped eating, and started to use exercise as a punishment for my many failings. My inner voice was much more critical and demanding than any bootcamp leader. Accidentally eaten a Pringle? Go on a brisk four mile walk and think about what you did! Christmas Day? Well, you can’t be trusted to be near all that chocolate. Get on the exercise bike in your parents’ room – the one Mum uses to hang her dressing gown on – and go on a stationary cycle for three hours, or at least until The Sound Of Music has finished.
Eventually I recovered, but eating disorders never fully leave you, and mine gave me a particularly poisonous present to take home in my party bag – the idea that exercise was horrible, and a stick to beat myself with. It was connected with weight loss, and the way I wanted the world to see me. It wasn’t a way to feel good. It was something I had to do when I had been bad.
Over the years, I tried and failed to maintain some sort of fitness routine. Kind, patient friends encouraged me – not just to go and do some exercise, but to reframe the way I saw it, and to think about taking care of my body as an act of self love, not of self loathing. I tried Bikram yoga. I joined gyms. I bought a FitBit. I signed up for a 5K and freaked out, deciding to cancel, and just donate more money than I could afford to the charity I was supposed to run for. I was too frightened to move.
Even though I know that my anxiety disorder is about eight times easier to control when I exercise regularly, that I like the way that exercise makes me feel, that I can power walk up the highest incline on the treadmill until the sweat burns my eyes and I look so sodden and spaced out that I might as well have just been hauled out of a river, and it’s euphoric – I feared running. “I will be bad at this,” I thought. “People will see me and laugh at me. Children will point. I will feel ashamed. Why try?”
Then I heard that the gym was shutting over the weekend, right before my holiday. I realised that 12 days with no exercise would be bad for my head and my heart. People had been telling me about trying a running app designed for people who had never run before. “It’s amazing!” my friend Rhiannon enthused. “There’s a recording of a lady called Laura who tells you what to do, and she’s so patient and encouraging. You alternate between running and walking, and it’s hard, but she keeps you going!”
So I set off for the local park, comforted by the fact that enough people felt as anxious as I did about running for the NHS to bother making an app for us. It was much harder than I thought it would be, and at first, I felt embarrassed every time I bounced past another runner. Were they thinking about how slow I was, about how out of shape I seemed? Did they pity me? Did they want to stop me and tell me that there was no point, I should just go home and get back to my sofa?
Well, I don’t think most of them even noticed me, but occasionally I’d share an eye meet and a smile with one of the proper runners. And I don’t think it was a condescending “Good for you!” nod – it was a smile of solidarity, a cheering glass clink with a distant stranger. And being outdoors and among all the green took me out of my head prison and right into the world. Oh-God-So-Sweaty-And-Crap-And-Out-Of-Breath-And…ooooh, look! A swan in the boating lake! Why-are-you-so-slow-these-people-are-going-to-overtake-you-you-big…how adorable is that puppy?! Dogs are a great source of inspiration for new runners, because they move with such unselfconscious, happy freedom. Every time I worried about accidentally getting in somebody’s way, or how weird my arms might look, a dog would gently remind me to calm down and keep going.
When I woke up the next morning, I was looking forward to my second run. I just came back from my third, and the memories make me smile – the lacy, leafy canopies leaning over pathways and protecting me from the full glare of the sun. Noticing more than 10 different shades of green in the trees, as I bounced along. Being waved at by a kid in a cool lobster t shirt.
I know this is the very beginning of something. Not my running career – but of me finally being able to recognise the fact that exercise is even better for my head than it is for my body. There are so many things to be scared of, and so many physical and mental reasons why it’s hard for millions of us to get started. But exercise is waiting for us when we’re ready for it. It might not make our bodies ‘better’, but it will make us love them harder. It will bring us joy.