As write this, my heart rate is slowly lowering from 120+ bpm. I’m covered in sweat – glistening, really. My legs ache, my stomach is a bit twisted, and I’m gulping a lime-flavored LaCroix as fast as I can manage without giving myself hiccups.
I just got back from a 50-minute run, and I feel great.
There’s something about running that makes me feel very connected, and grounded, to myself. I can simply lace up, throw my headphones on, and let my legs do the rest. It’s freeing. My body gets to show off how strong it really is. But, it wasn’t always that way.
I hated running before the age of about 16. Hated it. I never thought of myself as capable or fit enough to keep up with the athletic kids in school – rather, I was chubby, shy, and prone to seeking comfort in my books and stuffed animals, rather than sports or exercise.
But for some reason, during the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I decided to join the track and field team on a whim. I figured I had strong enough legs, and even though I was overweight, I was healthy and able-bodied enough to try. I was so tired of crash dieting in an effort to lose my tummy fat that I thought diving headfirst into competitive endurance running would be the answer to all my problems.
Big surprise, it wasn’t. At least, not at first. I didn’t last long on the track and field team – about a month and a half, probably – before a stress fracture in my right foot left me in agony each time I took a step.
I quit the team. But I didn’t stop exercising. In fact, as soon as my foot was healed, I went from the elliptical right back to the trails. I ran at night in the dark, chasing my streetlamp shadow around my neighborhood, hoping for some kind of miracle to happen.
I ran through the winter into the spring. I ran though a few pairs of exercise clothes. That summer before 11th grade, I took up biking – I’d bike 5 miles to the gym, run for 30 minutes, lift weights, then bike home. Then I’d carefully count the calories in the post-workout fruit smoothie I’d make for myself.
And one day – on my brother’s 18th birthday, actually, shortly before I turned 16 – I ate a bit too much. We’d gone out for Famous Dave’s, and after stuffing one too many cornbread muffins in my mouth, I knew I had to do something about it. I’d come too far to set myself back.
So once we got home, when everyone was out on the patio enjoying cake, I sneaked into my mother’s bathroom and, for the very first time, I purged. It wasn’t the last.
By the time I entered 11th grade, I was 40 pounds lighter than I’d been a year before. I was at a different school – a specialty arts high school, where I lived during the weeks and went home over the weekends – and nobody there had known the fat, depressed Em who came before. When I went back to my old school to visit, I remember the first real inklings of pride tickling me on the inside. People noticed my weight loss, boys were asking me if I was seeing anyone. I felt amazing, if only for a little while.
My eating disorder lasted through the summer after 12th grade. Nobody ever knew, because I refused to tell anyone – even my best friends. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to change, or that I didn’t want to stop. It was that I was afraid of admitting I had a problem. I was afraid of de-legitimizing my weight loss. I was afraid that people would see me as “fucked up” or as some kind of mental case.
I finally realized that something had to change when, during my afternoon class, I sneaked off to the bathroom to rid myself of lunch. It hurt. When I looked in the mirror afterward, I realized I’d given myself a nose bleed. For the first time, I was legitimately scared. I didn’t want to ruin my body, mess up my teeth or land myself in the hospital, but I was terrified of what would happen if I just… let myself eat.
Eventually, without any intervention, I stopped. I don’t quite know how, or by what method, but by the time I turned 19, I was done.
Unfortunately for me, that story isn’t very unique. I tend to find vices and latch on, even when I know they’re no good.
On top of purging from ages 15 – 19, I started smoking cigarettes around the same time, and never quite managed to kick the habit until just this past winter, at age 26. Despite having a grandfather pass away from lung cancer and two loving parents who very desperately and vehemently spoke out against smoking, I picked up the habit and through my own anxiety, I smoked for nearly 10 years.
And then, to top it all off, I started drinking heavily and regularly right when I was legally able to do so. I believe that there was a multiplicity of contributing factors that led me down the road of abusive drinking, not unlike my binge/purge habits and my propensity toward smoking, despite knowing better.
When I started drinking regularly, I had just exited a very difficult, abusive relationship, and I’d run directly into the arms of the man who is now my ex-husband (also my high school sweetheart/V-Card holder, but whatever). We promised to help each other forget the shit we’d been through, and to some degree, we did. We drank together and encouraged drinking in one another. We were enablers for each other, and I an’t help but believe that that aspect of our relationship was by far the most uniting and subsequently dividing thing we ever did together.
Fast forward to summer, 2014, my new husband told me he wasn’t in love with me, and he wanted a divorce. I started drinking a bottle of wine a night by myself. I ran drunk and crying to my then-best friend’s apartment, sobbing all over and incoherently recounting the arguments I’d been having with him.
I was like the walking dead. Eventually I eased off, but not by much. This pattern continued almost non-stop for a year, with a few breaks here and there.
Fast forward again to this summer – June 2016, to be exact, a few weeks before my 27th birthday. Once again, I’m hiding the effects of my self-abusive behaviors. Nobody really knows how shitty I feel, or how close I am to losing what shit I have left to lose. I decide that something has to give. I need a break. I need to stop and let myself breathe. I decide that, after my birthday celebration, I’m going to give up drinking for at least 100 days. Just to give my body a break.
I mean, for pete’s sake, I was able to slog down 3 large shots of hard liquor + two 6% ABV beers within a 2.5 hour time frame, and then convince myself that I was okay enough to drive home after “cooling off” for about half an hour. I was sure my tolerance meant my liver was a certain level of fucked. By the time I was 100% ready to quit, I didn’t even really want to drink – yet I drank anyway.
So on July 9th, 2016, I woke up bloated and mildly hungover, and I finally told myself – as I’ve done so many times before, for so many other things – that I was done.
My heart rate is at 63 bpm now. My lips are salty with sweat, and my legs still ache. These days, I’m not running away from anything. I’m not trying to burn parts of myself away, or to erase mistakes, or to forget how badly I’m treating myself. I run because I finally feel connected to myself again.
I run to help myself heal with fresh air and new scenery. I run to get my blood coursing and my lungs open wide. My blood, which is free of poison, and my lungs, which are finally healing and growing again.
And you know, I gotta say, it feels pretty damn good – achy legs, sweaty brow, sun-kissed nose and all.