Often I run because I’m afraid not to.
The day after the race one of my friends texted me: Did you run a half marathon yesterday?
It wasn’t exactly a secret that I ran, but I also hadn’t told anyone. When I asked her how she knew, she said she saw it on Facebook.
Confused, I checked my feed, and there I was — flushed cheeks, sweaty pony tail, and half-empty water bottle. Another friend (who had seen me at the end of the race) snapped a picture of us with our finishers’ medals and posted it. Because she’d tagged me, all my friends could see that I ran a half marathon the day before.
Why didn’t you tell me? My friend wanted to know. She included a GIF of Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) sprinting. Aren’t you proud of yourself?
The answer to that question is complicated.
Yes, I’m grateful to be a 44-year-old mother of two children who has a support network that allows her to train for a 13-mile race. I do not take for granted that I have a partner who is willing to run the house while I’m out running my training miles. I’m also grateful that I had the money to pay the entry fee and a healthy body that would carry me through 13 miles of running on asphalt.
But as someone with a history of bulimia, I’m not always sure how to think about my running.
While there are plenty of days I lace up and hit the trail for laudable reasons — to give my body the exercise it needs and deserves or to get some fresh air — sometimes I’m motivated by darker demons. Like when I force myself to run as payback for unhealthy eating choices the day before. On those runs, I’m punishing my body for having appetites I cannot control. There are also days when I run to drown my overwhelming feelings of terror, anger, boredom, or grief under the rush of endorphins and exhaustion. On those days, I choose calorie-obliterating exercise instead of what I really need: sleep, a cleansing cry, a hug. Often I run because I’m afraid not to — I don’t know how my body will change if I pick another form of exercise, one that burns fewer calories per hour.
Sometimes, I suspect that running is a way to be bulimic without having to stick my finger down my throat.
My flirtation with disordered eating began in sixth grade when I read all the YA books about bulimic ballerinas and anorexic cheerleaders. I dog-eared articles about young girls who were restricting their calories and swallowing fistfuls of laxatives. My fascination tipped into practice in seventh grade when I stuck my finger down my throat one night after eating what felt like too many nachos for dinner. Eventually, I became an expert on getting rid of my food, and I honed those skills until I hit bottom as a sophomore in college after fainting in the shower after a horrific, hours-long binge.
Since then, I’ve found a mostly peaceful way of living with disordered eating and body dysmorphia through a hodgepodge of 12-step recovery, therapy, and intuitive eating. What has helped me most is developing friendships with other women who are willing to share their eating struggles and triumphs.
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Today, I consider myself an imperfectly recovering bulimic who still sometimes battles immense shame about her body and her relationship with food and eating.
As for running a half marathon, I honestly don’t know if that falls on the health or the dis-ease side of the ledger. In one light, running 13 miles looks like a triumph over sloth, age, and the crushing press of daily work and family obligations. In another, it seems like a symptom of my age-old battle to wrest control of my body and its appetites with a punitive exercise regimen.
But I am sure of this: Posting a picture of me holding up a medal and smiling on social media is posting a lie — and that's the last thing anyone needs.
The majority of my social media contacts don’t know that I’ve battled eating and body shame most of my life. The people who don’t know my history are likely to see the picture and think, You go girl! Perhaps they will feel inspired by my discipline and fortitude. But they won’t know that, for me, reaching that finish line wasn’t simply a celebration of an impressive athletic feat. Nor will they know that running is inextricably linked with my eating disorder and that the question of whether I deserve admiration in the form of upturned thumbs and heart emojis on social media is murky at best.
So I will not be posting any victory selfies after races until I'm willing to tell the full story about my running and how I use it to aid and abet my disordered eating. When I am ready to do that — to tell the whole, messy truth of what it means to be a former bulimic and current runner — I give myself full permission to plaster social media with post-race images of my smiling face.
In a text to my friend about whether I am proud of myself, I tell her the truth: I’m not sure. It’s complicated.