Exercise bulimia is often referred to as "the eating disorder no one talks about." It's true that it doesn't get as much airtime as disorders like anorexia, but I think that's because it often goes unrecognized and therefore unexplored. That's why Linnea Zielinski's raw and eloquent story about her journey through this horrific mire is one that needs to be heard, far and wide. — KM
The second time I collapsed from running, it was to the sound of hundreds of people cheering. I had just completed the last leg of the Prague marathon relay, despite a horrifying combination of intense dehydration and under-training. Except, in a way, I was perfectly trained for this very moment. I ran through the growing blister on my right heel. I ran under stone bridges that twisted and spun like rubber because of my dizzy spells. When I crested the final hill and collapsed into my teammate's arms just across the finish line, there's no doubt in my mind that people saw my stubborn willpower — not the sickness it sprang from. That's certainly not to say that everyone who runs a relay or marathon is sick; what they do — and how they do it — illustrates respect for the well-oiled machines that are their bodies. Dragging mine the furthest distance it had ever run knowing full well that I was dehydrated, ill-practiced, and close to passing out was indicative of only one thing: I was very practiced at ignoring my body. I've had an eating disorder for 10 very long years, though it's now in remission. More specifically, I've had EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which means I've had symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia — sometimes all in the span of a couple of months, sometimes overlapping. Essentially, food was the enemy, but how I chose to fight it was constantly changing. During college, I turned most frequently to exercise bulimia, which meant that, more often than not, purgatory was sandwiched between the sad cement blocks that supported the university gym. That's where I did penance for the inexcusable habit of putting food in my body. Shackled to the treadmill by guilt, I sentenced myself to hours slogged based on calories consumed, buying minutes of freedom with calories burned. I tried to play it off as genuine adoration for the gym — a dedication to fitness. But there were subtle clues that surely gave me away. I made it my mission to cover them up.
More of my college memories have to do with numbers on an elliptical than nights out with friends.
The funny thing about your body, even when it's abused, is its persistence in telling you something is wrong. Sometimes it’s through screaming shin splints that send you crashing face-first into the pavement (the first time I collapsed). Other times, it's the whisper of unnatural weakness, a breathlessness that catches you after a flight of three stairs. I spent the evenings of my college years beating this voice into submission. More of my college memories have to do with numbers on an elliptical than nights out with friends. I told myself many things to get through the runs, but the biggest, most repeated lie was: You're not tired. You're weak. That was me: weak in willpower, weak in body, weak in mind. I honed my ability to ignore my body and its cries for rest, for food, for mercy by increasing the pressure, week after week. I ran through bleeding toes. I ran (hunched over) through hunger pangs. I even ran between the bathroom and the treadmill, through stomach cramps from the laxative pills I popped at all hours of the day. By the end of senior year, I had ditched the laxatives, but not the soul-crushing cardio habit. I joined the Peace Corps right out of college. It felt as if I was running all the way to Ukraine, attempting to flee my cement purgatory. Indeed, I escaped the treadmills — but not the running. I wasn't done punishing myself, not even after the disastrous Prague marathon. It would take more than collapsing in a foreign country to derail my torturous training. After I finished my Peace Corps service, I found a temporary job before grad school. The job paid well and had easy hours, so, with no long-term responsibility to distract me, I funneled all my time and attention into meticulously measuring out calories. And I jumped right back on the treadmill — just not with the intensity of years past. This time, it felt controlled. (It wasn't.) I told myself I’d change when I left for grad school in New York. (I didn't.) Instead, my bulimia, a habit I took pride in having defeated, returned after lying dormant for six years. Disgusted with myself, I broke down sobbing in the shower. I had to admit I couldn't handle this personal hell any longer.
I finally asked for help. Just days after the breakdown, I was sobbing through appointments with a psychiatrist, psychologist, nutritionist, and physician specializing in eating disorders. I wanted to know, in excruciating detail, what damage I had done to my body — and mind. I sat across from my nutritionist, equal parts stunned and embarrassed, as she patiently illustrated the fact that I had no idea how to put together an actual meal. Week by week, she slowly re-taught me things I’d deliberately forgotten, like how many sushi rolls equalled a lunch and how to fill my plate. She gave me cheat sheets to help me figure out if I’d fed myself enough. Daunted by all this food work, I quit the gym entirely. I told friends and family I didn't want to complicate my recovery, claiming that eating properly was already overloading my plate. I had to straighten out the food thing first, and later I’d deal with the exercise. It was a healthy choice, I told them. The truth was too hard to admit: That self-inflicted torture had been comforting. The pain was scheduled, planned, predictable. The familiarity of this harrowing routine was a siren song calling me back. Instead of trying to shut it off, I simply covered my ears — and the fear I was trying to conceal intensified. A jaunt on the treadmill would never be just a jog for me. There was no gray area there, I thought. Just health without the gym or hell with it. But recovery is never that simple. Burning off every calorie that I put in my body obviously tamed my fears of food during my sickness, but exercising had been a huge part of life before college, before I knew anything about calories — before I felt that food was something I had to deserve. I wanted that back, though I had no idea how to go about getting it. But I am lucky enough to have my life complicated by a boyfriend who worries about my “old age” and risk of osteoporosis. So I let myself be pushed back into the gym — to lift weights this time, not to run. My wimpy little weights immediately labeled me a beginner, and I fiercely embraced the blank slate. This was the one place where none of my training mattered. Putting one foot in front of the other past the point of exhaustion may have been possible for my nonexistent leg muscles while running, but doggedly pushing through deadlifts was not. For the first couple sessions, I stubbornly threw myself at this wall, sinking down into squats my body could not complete — but something amazing happened. Instead of pushing through stabbing pains or pulled muscles, I had to just let go. My muscles stopped working, and I actually had to listen to my body. It was the only time in my life I've been happy about failing. But the truly amazing thing about lifting was that it made me finally listen to my hunger cues, both appetite and cravings. The truth is that exercise eases my relationship with food, for worse and for better. Working up a physical hunger instead of working out to suppress it helped me accept the fact that, yes, my body actually demanded food — whether or not my mind deemed it deserving. I had only one option: to finally fuel my body. Realistically, I may never undo the damage I inflicted on my body. A quick enough shuffle up the subway steps can cause a familiar twinge in my shins. Jogging half a block to catch up with friends, I hear a whispering voice pushing me to just keep running. But I'll keep walking through the gym doors because, for the first time in almost 10 years, working out isn't about buying minutes of freedom from food guilt. It is freedom. If you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorders Association to find help.