“If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Anyone who has ever tried to embody these words as a lifelong philosophy is most likely aware of two things: the thrill, and the danger. The thrill can come in the manner of extreme sports, daredevil challenges, and risks that can leave you feeling exhilarated. But when the philosophy manifests itself as an eating disorder, the outcome can be deadly.
I have struggled with anorexia for the past 30 years. The concept of “taking up space” as a negative entity began for me at the age of 13. Poised on the brink of puberty, living in a body that was changing without my permission, I attempted to take control and stop the forces of nature by denying my body the nutrition it needed to evolve into adulthood. Having been taunted throughout my childhood about being fat, this seemed like the perfect time to stop taking up so much space. I was going to call the shots now. Taking control, I reasoned, was somehow going to save me from a transition for which I was not yet prepared.
Taking control — what a paradox that concept quickly turned out to be. What started out as me being in control of what went into my mouth, down to the last calorie of the day, quickly turned into a frightening nightmare. Contrary to my belief system, I was no longer in control of my life; I was held captive by the eating disorder, which had taken on a soul of its own. The anorexia now held me in its clutches; as an entity I had given it power over me, and it was making all of the rules and decisions in my life. The eating disorder dictated what I could and couldn’t eat, how many sit-ups I had to perform every night, and how to plan my social activities so as to avoid having to eat in public. I began a slow descent into a hellish trap, one from which there seemed to be no escape.
As my body became thinner and thinner, the scope of my life became narrowed accordingly. I truly was “living on the edge”: the edge of life and death, in a world of punishment and denial. Any attempts at intervention on the part of my family and friends simply fell on deaf ears. The anorexia had become my only friend, the only thing in my life I could count on to always be present. It didn’t matter that I was no longer in control; I just knew I had to follow the rules. The mere thought of deviation was too terrifying to even consider.
Not surprisingly, as an adult, a career in the fitness profession seemed well suited to my illness. It was an opportunity to burn more calories, while at the same time being in front of a mirror to monitor my body image. I became certified as a group-exercise instructor. As I gained more experience in this field, I quickly added to my class schedule. Before long I was teaching 19 hours a week, while continuing to consume very little. My students and co-workers would occasionally comment on my appearance; but since I seemed to have so much energy, nobody really felt there was a problem.
By my late thirties, the eating disorder had such a stranglehold on me that my health began to decline. I fought to continue teaching as long as I could; but in the spring of 2000 I was forced to enter a residential treatment center for around-the-clock care and monitoring. Acknowledging the fact that I had to surrender control to a treatment team was terrifying. However, accepting a feeding tube, to deliver the nourishment I refused to consume, was a defining moment for me. It was the realization that I had lost the battle, that anorexia was winning, and I was going to die if things did not begin to change.
After several months of treatment, I began the painful process of re-entering my own life, a life that of necessity would be very different from the dangerous one to which I had become accustomed. This new life centered on consuming sufficient calories, and severely curtailing my exercise expenditures. At first, I was only allowed to teach 2 classes a week, which to me seemed like torture. Despite all the treatment I had received, all the counseling on positive body image, nutrition and self-acceptance, old demons began to resurface. I found it difficult to adhere to my food plan if I wasn’t allowed to exercise as much as I desired. In an effort to stay fit without teaching so many aerobics classes, I turned to weightlifting. At least, I reasoned, I could put on some lean muscle mass, and I could keep my metabolism running high.
Throughout the next year, I focused on strength training. Slowly I began to notice an increase in my energy level while teaching. In addition, I could actually see some muscle definition appearing in my previously stick-thin arms. Others noticed the changes as well, and offered positive support instead of expressing concern as they had in the past. For the first time ever, I could look in the mirror and accept what I saw as a good thing, rather than a body needing to be punished into emaciation.
As I continued lifting weights, a change in my mindset began to evolve as well. Knowing that I needed protein to feed my newly developing muscles, I actually began keeping track of what I ate, and setting calorie goals to be met each week. Instead of purposefully trying to skip meals, I now looked to add protein shakes and protein bars into my day, in an effort to preserve the muscle I had worked so hard to attain. To some, it probably seemed as though I had simply traded one obsession for another. However, I am healthier now than I have been in years, and I am enjoying the challenges of pushing my body in a stronger, more positive direction.
Recently I have been entertaining the idea of entering a bodybuilding or figure competition. Preparation for such an event requires a tremendous amount of work in the gym, as well as ample and carefully planned nutrition outside the gym. I have become devoted to this endeavor for several reasons. It has made me aware of the need to feed my body, not merely in order to survive, but to safely and adequately build muscle mass. Also, and perhaps even more important to me personally, I have finally found a positive way to view my body. I have created within myself the power to affect change in my size through muscular strength and definition. The balance of power has shifted; this time I truly am in control, and the feeling is exhilarating. I will probably always be on the thinner side of “normal” in most people’s eyes. However, I am no longer “living on the edge”. Rather, I am strong, confident, and proudly taking up space.