If you know me, you know that my idea of “fun” usually involves running, and you might know that I haven’t been doing very much of that this past year. However, not many people know why.
Last December, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with something I’d already known I had for years: an eating disorder. What they weren’t able to pin a diagnosis on, however, was the damage it had done to my body that brought me there to begin with. I was there seeking help not because I finally felt like I had earned it, but because my body forced me to. Since then, for over a year, I’d been struggling to breathe in fully. I’m often unable to manage a deep breath at all, but when I do, it’s frequently painful. As you can imagine, this has been problematic for a formerly-competitive distance runner (not to mention for a 20 year old, in general). After countless doctors and enough tests to rival a lab rat, there are still no satisfactory answers about how long I’ll be stuck like this, or if it will even resolve at all.
I don’t write this to garner pity, but to contribute to a conversation that is often brushed under the rug. In high school and college, and particularly among young women, disordered eating is entirely normalized. In the context of distance running, specifically, I can think of more individuals who have been affected than those who haven’t. It’s a culture of silent complicity that put me in this position to begin with; it’s much more convenient for us to look the other way than it is to confront the real problem. After all, I never “looked unhealthy.” I just wanted to lose a few more pounds so I could “look like a runner” (spoiler: this doesn’t actually exist).
I told myself that I wasn’t unhappy, that I had things under control; that, sure, my behaviour came with risks, but I wouldn’t be a statistic; that I was smarter than that. My eating disorder had me completely blind to reality. In truth, you can never be enough for an eating disorder. You’ll always be “just a few more pounds,” “just a few more inches,” “just a little bit longer,” away from getting help; always “I don’t have a problem,” or “I’m not [that] sick.” I mistook mental illness for mental toughness. I broke my body senselessly, chasing a standard I was never supposed to meet. Normalizing this conversation is the best way to keep others from falling down the same rabbit hole.
One year in, I’m still dreaming of going on a long run again, or finishing a workout with my friends. For now, I’m stuck with a cautionary tale. It’s relevant to everyone, and it’s much bigger than just athletics: even if you can’t relate to a word of this, up to 33% of females and 25% of males develop disordered eating by college, and 30 million Americans deal with it in their lifetime. My perspective matters not because it’s unique, but because it’s so common. And while a return to normalcy could still be in the cards, a return to silence and stigma can’t be.