on forgiving yourself, food and running

I've had this post draft sitting, saved, for the better part of a week. It was hard to write. It's scarier to share. But I believe in pulling back the curtain, in writing my honest truth - some may say a little too much - and it's always what I've found most therapeutic.

Have you ever heard of the female athlete triad? It's the name given to three symptoms that, together, create a combination of unhealthy lifestyle risk factors most often found in female athletes. They are : disordered eating, amenorrhea and bone loss/osteoporosis.

In high school, I lost a lot of weight in a very short amount of time. It was the first time I ever liked how I looked. It was the first time in my life that I looked in the mirror and felt proud of my appearance. Every day was a good or bad day depending on how much I restricted what I ate. If I was having a bad day, I wore sweatshirts - even in hot weather. If I was having a good day, I'd wear the clothing I thought was reserved for thin kids : Abercrombie polos, Hollister t-shirts, short jean skirts. Fridays, I'd weigh myself, and the number on the scale would determine my self-worth for the next seven days. And repeat. It got to the point where I would walk with skirts that slid around on my hips so much that their button fly would end up on the opposite side of my body, and I was so cold, all the time, that I existed under a pile of layers.

I think back to sixteen year old Elizabeth, and my heart aches. I want to hug her, I want to tell her to throw the scale out, to have real meals and above all else, to stop basing her entire identity around food. I can think back on the younger version of me with compassion, but I'm having a really hard time treating the current version of myself in the same way.

I cried so much during my second MRI that they had to replace the earplugs that they give you for the machine's noise. The tears streamed down the sides of my face and, because I was lying flat on my back, pooled in my ears until the plugs were so soggy they simply fell out and with a defeated, sad plop, landed on the board I was strapped to. 

It took me 15 minutes to compose myself enough to drive away from the imaging center, and all I could think about was - this is all your fault. In one diagnosis, the mean, small voice that I'd managed to control for a long time had returned.

Today is the end of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I was never diagnosed with a true disorder, never sent to a treatment facility, but my relationship with food ruled my life for many, many years. In dark, sad moments, it still does. I still get self-conscious about eating in public. I still tell myself I have to earn treats and meals by working out. It's a battle. It will be a life-long battle. But now, it could be possible that somewhere along the way, I did enough damage to my bones with poor nutrition to result in this series of fractures.

This second time around has been so much harder than the first. The first time could have been a fluke, a really awful case of bad luck, the one injury we all suffer at some point in our lives, especially if we're active. The second time is a pattern. It feels like a life sentence. And it's brought up a lot of questions, analysis and discussion of a very painful part of my life and the way I've treated myself.

I have to forgive myself. And I can't. I look in the mirror as I strap on the boot and I curse myself for being so cruel to my body. But when I wake up and my jeans are a little too tight, I momentarily am sixteen again, circling my waist with a measuring tape to make sure it hasn't grown.

One thing a doctor asked me recently is if I thought, perhaps, I'd traded basing my self-worth with food to base it on running. Part of that may be true. But there's another part - which is that running helped me to realize that my body is so much more than something to hate and try to control with a strict diet. When I run, it still sometimes astounds me that my body is capable of miles and hours. I wish I could tell you how beautiful it feels to look down at my legs and, instead of wondering if they need to be skinnier, feeling awed that they just carried me for 20 miles. Running taught me to feel beautiful in my own skin. It taught me that I was enough, just the way I was.

Now, it's been stripped from me for the second time in a year, and this time, it's harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's harder to believe that I will ever be able to run without breaking something, without turning my back on a race because I couldn't stay healthy. It's harder to believe that I'm ever going to get it back. And it's really hard to forgive myself for past mistakes that could be taking their toll on my body today.

But I have also learned so much from these injuries - my own strength. The size of my sheer will and determination, which has surpassed beyond what I ever thought possible. I've been working on reminding myself where I was last May - unable to walk upright, limping, in constant pain, wondering if I would ever have a normal gait again. I fought through that, and I'll fight through this.

So as we close NEDAW, I thought it might be time to pull back the curtain on my own story. Because if you're out there struggling with the same sort of self-worth battles, or you're fighting an injury that seems determined to steal your joy, or if you, like me, are having an incredibly hard time forgiving yourself for your faults, I think it's sometimes helpful to read someone else raising their hand and saying hey, me too.

I don't want my story with running to be over here, and I'm going to fight with everything in my power to continue that chapter of my life. But what I've learned is that you write your entire story, even the really sad, really painful parts. So while I'm angry at myself for failing, angry at myself for setting myself up for these health issues, I'm also working on letting it go. My self worth is not my running, or my eating, or any combination of the two. It is my strength, my determination, my ability to get up each time I'm knocked down. It's my family and friends who have refused to let me stay flat on my back with tears running down my face. It's all I have accomplished and will accomplish. And it's being open, raw and honest so that maybe someday, someone who is fighting her own small, mean voice inside her head, will see that... me, too. And it doesn't have to win.