The story of how I developed an eating disorder isn’t all that compelling – unless you consider getting blindsided by an overthrown softball traveling about 70 miles per hour while running out to warm up the right fielder between innings of a Big Ten Conference game and having your jaw broken compelling.
That’s effectively how my varsity athletic career ended, in the spring of my freshman year at Northwestern. I wasn’t, by anyone’s estimation, a key player on the NU softball team (I was a darned good cheerleader!), and not being able to eat solid foods for four weeks, while being forced to pitch wearing what amounted to a football helmet didn’t increase my value. What it did was shave about 20 pounds off my robust 5-foot-9 frame.
So, since I went to school within walking distance – about six miles, which to me qualifies as such – from home, I still occasionally accompanied my mom to church (Trinity Lutheran in Evanston!) on Sundays. I grew up in that church as a blissfully ignorant three-sport athlete who ate whatever she wanted without ever paying attention to serving size, and when I showed up one morning late in the spring of 1997, a couple months after the jaw injury, a long-time member sized me up and said, “You look wonderful! You’ve really slimmed down!”
That did it. Something inside me short-circuited, and I’ve never been the same.
Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t blame that old lady for the body image issues and self-hatred I’ve carried around for the past 20 years. There was something in me building up, throughout my childhood, that had nothing to do with food, exercise or weight but was more about how I viewed myself versus how I thought I needed to be viewed by others.
I always explain my personality thusly: I remember playing by myself with my dollhouse in my bedroom – maybe I was 8, 9, 10? – and being perfectly content in my solitude, making up stories and imagining scenarios, when I heard the laughter and shouts of neighborhood kids playing together outside through my open window (because we didn’t have air conditioning in my house). And I thought to myself, “Oh. Maybe I shouldn’t be playing by myself. Maybe I should be out there with them.” And I felt conflicted.
So basically that’s the war that’s been waging inside me all my life, and it escalated after I stopped being an athlete and started being a normal college student. A walk-on receiving no scholarship money, I walked OFF the NU softball team after one season, and was left without that thing – SPORTS – that had always defined me. I felt lost, unmoored, and the one thing I realized I could control was how much, or how little, I ate.
I could define myself by being skinny, and having people remark on how skinny I was, and then I would have some importance in the world, since I was no longer that star athlete and top student at Niles West High.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because it never leaves you, that need to feel important. You don’t necessarily recognize it, or what you’re doing to compensate for feeling less-than, but it’s there, and you’re doing it.
So my life has changed a lot recently, and these issues of identity and self-doubt are once again front and center. I have not yet acknowledged the photo accompanying this blog, but that photo was taken about a year ago when I was hard-core into CrossFit and The Zone Diet and “competing” in the CrossFit Games Open at a local gym where I felt immense pressure to look and perform a certain way in order to feel like I belonged or had value to the community. My identity, I thought, revolved around having six-pack abs and being able to do muscle-ups, the same way I used to think my identity revolved around striking out batters on the softball field.
Here’s me now. I mean, here’s me writing this; I’m not going to post any more ridiculous mirror selfies to prove a point. Me now feels like that same normal college student from 1997, a woman at a crossroads.
I have a new job and a new schedule, and while I love working out and I still eat clean-ish, I do not give a shit about muscle-ups or six-pack abs or The CrossFit Games. I give a shit about inner peace, which I find taking walks and looking at the sky and listening to audiobooks and laughing with my husband and coworkers and interacting with people via this blog.
But I still have that urge inside, that urge that says, I’m wrong or I’m less-than because I’m not a hard-core exerciser with super-lean muscles who wears a Size Medium. I can’t resist beating myself up every time I look in the mirror. But here’s the thing: I know deep down that even though I don’t look like a Spartan and I no longer “throw down” every day in a CrossFit gym, and I wear a Size Large – a Size 10, holy hell! – I’m growing as a person and learning, through difficult trial and colossal error, to find true pleasure in this life.
They say you never get over an eating disorder. I was fortunate in that I got the real messy stuff out of the way in my 20s, first losing a dramatic amount then gaining, and I’ve since been able to find a bit of homeostasis. I fluctuate, sure, and as you get older you notice significant differences in your body that are both confusing and depressing – but only if you let them be.
What’s different about The Great Identity Crisis of 2019 and its ancestor back in 1997 is, I now have my head out of my ass. I now believe, when you are at peace and doing what makes you happy, how you think people see you or whatever mould you think you’re supposed to fit in doesn’t matter anymore. You don’t need to define yourself in any way. You can just be.
Who am I now, without sports and CrossFit and journalism? I’m excited to find out.