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Joyful Movement in Eating Disorder Recovery

If you have come to read a perfect story of recovery and joyful movement then you have certainly come to the wrong place, as my story is full of ups, downs, and gray spaces.


A guest story with C.C.


I grew up in a family that valued athleticism and perfection in every endeavor. One of my earliest memories is of ballet class and of a nice woman who helped me learn my left from my right so I could perform the choreography with the rest of the class. Soon after ballet became “my sport” my mother took up rock climbing. She would take us to ballet after school and as soon as we were done we would all hop in her car and drive straight to rock climbing practice.


Of course, as a mother of young children, this stretched her thin and I soon gave up ballet to focus on climbing. Through my younger years, I focused all of my energy on rock climbing, qualifying for regional, divisional, and national championships throughout my career. I climbed throughout middle school and into my high school years, which is when my unhealthy eating habits began to rear their head. But working out seemed to be my safe haven. I was safe there, and there was room for perfection left in this area of my life.


A new athletic obsession


In 2014 I watched a biathlon for the first time during the Sochi Winter Olympics and was immediately hooked. I ran out to the garage, where my parents were, and told them that is what I wanted to do. Mind you, I had never skied cross country before and they had no idea what to do, but I was determined to become those athletes I watched on my television.


I found some pre-season competitions, learned how to ski, and found myself a coach. I was so excited when we got in contact with the US development team coach, who asked me to go and train with them. However, when I talked about this with my cross-country ski coach he told me that this would not work. I could do biathlon or cross-country skiing and suddenly the weight of my dreams seemed too heavy and I opted to cross-country ski rather than become a biathlete.


I continued to ski with a coach at my local college, despite the fact that I was in high school. This simply meant that I had to skip out on, or “redshirt,” a few of the national races, because I was just a bit too young to compete in them. My coach was lovely at first, though I do call into question now his lack of support for my dreams. Though quickly the tough love he was dishing out fueled my inner critic.


Soon enough, I was a full-fledged college athlete and my once-upon-a-time safe space became a living nightmare. There was no joyful movement, only unhappy over-exercise. My inner critic took over and my life soon became overwhelmed with self-bullying and compulsive exercise. However, it was not until years later that I learned that this was not what exercise was meant to look like.


The struggle with perfection


For years I had been looking to be perfect in all areas of my life. When my eating disorder had taken hold some of the coaching practices only fed the fire. We had an intern who would video our workouts and offer helpful tips. We were told to try juices to stay healthy and of course, losing an extra few pounds was not going to hurt! I was of course looking for perfection and all of these things were going to help with that quest and make me look better in a skin-tight suit when hundreds of people were watching me. I lied on screening forms (which no one really read) and hid all of my behaviors from my coaches and teammates.


My inner critic became louder as my practices became filled with criticism and “tough love.” My normal became going to practice and mentally abusing myself, but I didn’t know yet that this was not in fact normal. In my sophomore year of college (though several years into my ski career) I took a step back to heal my relationship with food. I told my coaches that I had to step back due to health concerns and then when I was ready I would come back to skiing.


I “felt ready” the first time it snowed and qualified for nationals my first race of the season, though my coach told me days prior to the race that they would not be taking me as I was “not committed” to the sport. When I tell you I cried, I mean I sobbed. Didn’t he know I was killing myself for this sport? To race for this team? To be the perfect athlete?


Taking back control


During my junior year of college, I knew that I needed a change, I knew that my eating disorder was controlling my life, and I decided this change was going to be found in triathlon. I quickly switched sports and found a new coach, confident that this was going to solve my problems! Spoiler alert, it didn’t. My inner critic followed me to the pool, to the bike, and on the run. I finished the season and decided that I needed a break from college athletics, though the running didn’t stop and neither did my inner critic.


When I say that triathlon brought me healing in other forms, the biggest one being my then-boyfriend and now fiancé. One night while I was crying at 3 in the morning in our bed he told me he thought that I needed help. I told him that I certainly did not need help. I had handled this for years on my own! Besides, I had tried to get help in the past. However, he was persistent and very convincing. The next day I got on my phone and found a therapist as well as an eating disorder recovery coach, a new tactic was necessary.


Meeting with Sarah


I started meeting with Sarah Lee in 2020. Not only had I suffered from an eating disorder for close to 8 years at that point but I was also working in a hospital during the height of COVID-19. Talk about an emotionally draining time. I worked with Sarah Lee for several months, and during that time we spoke about how I was a life-long athlete and how movement was key to my life. So we set a new goal, joyful movement. What does that even mean? Isn’t exercise for control? To gauge how well I am doing in life? How well I measure up against others?


I resisted this new joyful movement goal for some time, though I did not want to go back to the life I was living prior to this. I knew that my relationship with exercise was disordered. But I did not know what the cause of this was other than over-exercising was a “sign” of trouble. So, I sat and rested and waited until I was “ready” to find joyful movement, whatever that was. Several months after working with my coach some life changes happened and I stopped working with her. Slowly I slipped back into my eating disorder.


Back to needing help


After some time I needed help again, so I reached out to Sarah Lee once more and resumed working with her. I slowly began to fight back against my inner critic. I learned that this bully that lived in my head did not serve me in the way that I thought it was. It was not motivating me the way that I thought it would.


After several months of work, I began to learn that joyful movement meant moving for fun. Not for control, not to measure myself against others, and it is not an excuse to bully myself at length. I began to take barre classes and guess what, the inner critic lived on in this space. It lived on when I ran and it lived on after these classes were over and I had returned home. Was this joyful movement? Was I doing it right?


Recently though I was in barre class when I realized that I was looking in the mirror and telling myself that I was strong, beautiful, and capable. And that I could take a break if that is what I needed to do. I could take a break, take a breath, and continue to try. I was not finding myself nitpicking how I looked in leggings, I was not comparing myself to others, and I was not trying to control anything. When I got home, I realized that I had found joyful movement, possibly for the first time in my life. My inner critic was silent, I was living in an authentic way.


Loving joyful movement


Not only had I found joyful movement but I was moving through life joyfully. I would be lying to tell you that my inner critic never pops up. I would be lying to tell you that I had completely silenced the beast. Though, I have learned that it does not serve me in the right ways. I have learned that my life is better without this voice constantly bullying me. I am learning to take back movement, a core part of my being.


So, if you, like me, have found yourself attached to movement in the wrong ways, here is your sign to break free from that, even if it is hard and messy. Please know that you are not alone, you are needed, wanted, and loved. Please know that your inner critic is not always telling you the truth, and there is always a way to move through life joyfully.


(Guest Blogger & Beautiful Warrior)


With Love & Light,

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