My struggle with exercise addiction—and what I learned through recovery

Sitting on a bed with a feeding tube up my nose and a woman hired to watch me eat, sleep and pee was a low point in my life. In eating disorder treatment, the only moments of privacy I had were behind the shower curtain. Under the roaring shower head, I kicked my legs, did squats, and punched the air in vain hopes of getting some sort of crazed workout in my alone time. Welcome to the nonsensical world of an exercise addict.

We are all told exercise is good. Exercise daily, exercise more, just do some sit-ups while watching TV! You never see anyone saying you need to cool it on the cardio. It is part of being healthy. But for some people exercise is a slippery slope. Exercise addiction may sound like a good problem. Trust me, it is not.

I realize exercise addiction manifests differently in different people, and I am only telling you about my experience with it. For me, it stems from more than the desire to be healthy and burn calories.

I was raised in a family where the value of exercise was both taught to and modeled for me by my parents. That’s is a positive thing! My folks just wanted us to be healthy. If we didn’t get exercise walking to and from school, my parents would play music and have my brother and I dance around the house. Family vacations were often about going to national parks and hiking. My father either jogged or rode his bike five miles each way to work, even in the dead of winter. What I’m saying is, exercise was an important part of growing up.

So my folks didn’t notice when I started being compulsive about exercise around age 8. I’d go through phases of, say, jogging around the yard 100 times before dinner. My mom just figured I was a kid burning off steam. After all, I’ve always been someone who tends to remain in motion. My foot jiggling and chronic fidgeting are probably annoying. The problem was that I had already started to associate exercise with earning the right to enjoy basic necessities for staying alive. I needed to complete those jogs before it was ok for me to sit down to dinner. Not only did it make me feel deserving, it was a way for me to manage anxiety. Working out IS addictive. You become a slave to those endorphins.

My parents didn’t recognize any problem until my compulsive nature manifested itself in my diet. It was easier to “get away” with over-exercising than an eating disorder. Even in treatment. People notice if you aren’t eating, but not when you are silently jogging in place in the corner of your room in the middle of the night. So at age 12 when I began restricting my food and lost a lot of weight my parents took action. That is when I had the first of many hospital stays for my diagnoses of both anorexia and depression.

Truthfully, my problem did become less about exercise and more about an eating disorder for many years. But over-exercise always crept back in.  For me, the excess exercise wasn’t just to burn calories.

Was there body hate? Yeah that was there. And I probably did have trouble seeing just how malnourished I was. But my problem was much less about thinking I was fat, and far more about generalized self-hatred and feeling that I had to “earn” my right to eat and sleep. To live was not something I believed I deserved. I can’t describe why I have felt this way. But I felt I couldn’t relax, eat, sleep or do anything until I’d worked out to the bone, done all my schoolwork, cleaned my room and more.

After high school graduation I convinced my family that I would be okay to head off to University of Chicago for college. Unmonitored I did the classic swan dive into my disorders. At my worst my day looked like this: wake up at 5 and do jumping jacks and jog in place in our rather large dorm closet (so as not to wake my roommate) for an hour and a half. Walk a mile to campus and go to a 7am ballet class. Possibly stop by the student gym and lift weights. Go to classes until mid-afternoon. Walk a mile back to the dorm and do homework. Maybe do a tae bo video. Walk a mile back to campus where dining hall was and eat iceberg lettuce. Walk a mile back. Maybe do another workout. More homework, then a parade of fat-free food and eventually bed around 3. Then get up and do it again. By Christmas break that year I was hallucinating from lack of sleep. I was a skeleton walking around campus worrying that I might fall over.

At home over the holiday break my parents drew the hard line and decided that rather than a brief hospital stay I needed to take a leave of absence from school and check into a long-term residential program. At that time I was out of my mind. There is a certain bodyweight at which your brain starts feeding on itself. As grueling as my self-inflicted regimen was I could not imagine a way out. I was pretty sure if I kept up at the rate I was going I would die soon. I was good with that. Seemed like a solid plan.

In treatment they quickly realized I couldn’t be trusted. I was working out in any way possible in any given moment of time when someone wasn’t watching. Well, I slept a little but would stealthily get up at the crack of dawn to do as much as I could without making noise. I was hiding food left and right. As opposed to eating it. I was moved into the front room-the one across from the nurses’ station with a clear window in front. And then they installed someone to sit at the foot of my bed and keep an eye on me. This was also when they shoved a tube up my nose and down to my stomach and kept nutritional fluid (a bulked up form of Ensure, essentially) dripping into me at a steady rate.

Yes, all this was completely nonsensical. On the outside looking in, you’d see a girl draining her insurance and wasting her life for no reason. You’d see a brat shunning her family who only wanted her to stay alive. I have a hard time thinking about my unreasonable  behavior without still being wracked with guilt for what I put anyone who had to interact with the monster I had become. That is what the disorder did to me.

I was in treatment a seemingly endless amount of time. More than a year. The first year I spent defying the rules as much as I could and denying that I wanted to get better. I’d have left but knew my parents would have me committed if I tried. So I stayed in treatment and got away with as much bad behavior as I could.

Eventually, after so much treatment and time, I  learned to care for—and about—myself. To love myself. I was as well as I had ever been, eager to explore the world I’d been ignoring in favor of broccoli and cardio.

Eating, food and cooking are now one of my chief joys in life. I see food as way to express myself artistically and share that expression with others. I maintain that eating and sex are what bond us as humans. Exercise, however, remains something I have to do battle with. The thing about exercise is, that like any addiction, it sneakily gets worse and worse. It is so easy to write off excess exercise as just being super healthy.

I have gone through phases where I get up, do my allotted healthy quota of exercise for the day and go on about my business. I’m OK. Then one day I do my workout but then also get invited to go on an afternoon hike. That evening I realize I feel like I truly DESERVED the right to relax. And it feels so good that the next day I NEED to do both morning and afternoon workouts. Or I can’t relax at night. Then the next week I take a walk at noon—just to stretch my legs, I swear! And then when I get back from drinks with friends on Friday night, I find an abs workout on YouTube and embark on a midnight workout, the fourth one of the day. And all these activities don’t feel optional. Suddenly I am turning down social plans because I won’t be able to fit in an extra workout. I am home so I can sit on my exercise bike for an extra hour. It interferes with me living my life. That is when I know that it has crossed the line.

For me, it’s always a fine line between staying healthy and going overboard in an attempt to stay healthy. And it sucks when I can’t get through my day without itching to get up and do some jumping jacks or at least a casual sun salutation. Plus, unlike when I quit smoking, I cannot say goodbye to exercise entirely.

I have a variety of methods of managing my anxiety these days. I started a practice of transcendental meditation. I never believed I could sit still quietly for 20 minutes, much less twice a day but doing my meditations really has helped me be someone who can then go on and focus on their day. And I take a cocktail of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines that allow me to actually get out of bed in the morning and go through my day without the chest-crushing anxiety attacks that used to just lead to me NEEDING another workout. Just to deal. But it is a problem I have to keep my eye on.

And if I do a workout in the morning, and a friend asks me to take an evening walk around the reservoir, I’ll still say yes. But I’ll remind myself that it does not mean if I don’t fit in a workout the next day that things will be bad.

Through dealing with this addiction, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that if you recognize the problem and do the work required to recover, things can get much, much better. I’ve learned that even with the everyday struggle to keep my addiction in check, life can be good. And most of all, I’ve learned that I am not crazy, I am human. And that is a beautiful thing.

(Image via iStock)


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