I don’t quite know how to start this; I’ve tried several times, but struggled each time. Putting something into words that you’ve only recently acknowledged and accepted is quite challenging, but writing it down for anyone to access online is downright terrifying.
From the age of 19 I suffered from disordered eating. I had gained a bit of weight during sixth form, and then some more when I started uni. Diet, weight and size hadn’t even been part of my conscious thought before then, but at some point during my first year at university, I realised I’d gained weight and decided it would be nice to get back to my ‘normal’ size. What started out as an innocent attempt to lose some gained weight soon became an obsession, however, and it took over my daily life for more or less the next five years.
When my eating first became disordered, it never occurred to me that anything was wrong. I wanted to lose some weight, which isn’t particularly unusual, and I therefore ate less than I had been doing. I also made a point of walking everywhere to expend more energy, in addition to the sports and dance classes I did. Eating less and doing more exercise doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but it was my mindset that had changed from when I first started to lose weight, and it had become very unhealthy. I was concerned that if I didn’t expend enough energy, or if I ate too much, I would gain back the weight, so I was constantly looking for things to do to keep me busy so that I didn’t notice I was hungry, and to keep me moving so that I burned more calories. I was basically exhausting myself. I didn’t think there was anything strange about my eating habits or behaviour, but I distinctly remember my mum telling me off for ‘eating like a sparrow’ when I was at home during the Easter holidays in my second year of uni, so she was clearly concerned.
My disordered eating continued, on and off (mostly on) for the next four to five years, sometimes getting better, sometimes getting worse. I don’t know that I ever weighed little enough or ate little enough to be classed as anorexic, and I don’t know that I ever binged and purged enough to be considered bulimic, however looking back now, I clearly suffered with very disordered eating due to mental ill-health.
I’m not altogether sure that I’ve fully recovered, if I’m completely honest - and that’s a very hard thing to admit. Things improved when I moved in with my then boyfriend (now husband) when I was 25 - it’s much harder to pretend to yourself that your disordered eating habits are ‘normal’ when you're also feeding someone else, and you can’t hide disordered eating so easily. Aside from that, I was working full time and busy, so my mind was focussed on other things, so my disordered thinking wasn’t all-consuming, even if it was still there.
It’s only very recently, within the last few months, that I’ve even admitted to myself that all of this happened and considered why my thinking around eating, weight and body size is so unhealthy. It seems that for me, it’s all linked to a lack of self-esteem and self-acceptance.
During my childhood and school years, I was relatively confident, happy and accepting of myself, but after some tough self-reflection over the past few months, I’ve learned that this was probably because I received a lot of external validation. I had a very stable upbringing, I did well at school and received a lot of encouragement and praise from family and teachers (although I will say my parents were always very careful to praise effort, rather than grades), and I had good friends with whom I got on well. Going to university was a big change - suddenly I was surrounded by clever people, it was harder to get good marks, and I needed to make new friends and find my own way in life. I am naturally a people pleaser, and want everyone to like me, and I’m also a control freak. I think controlling my eating and my weight gave me a sense of control in a more chaotic phase of life, and I think I figured that being thinner would lead to other people accepting me more easily. I had learned, albeit subconsciously, that external validation made me feel good, and for some reason, being thin seemed like a way to gain this. To this day I can’t think why, as thinness is not a quality I would ever personally look for in a friend, and I wouldn’t want anyone to value me based on my size either.
I’m slowly learning that I need to learn to like and accept myself, regardless of my size and weight, but it’s not easy. Even though I would say that my eating hasn’t been particularly disordered for at least eight years now, my thinking still is at times. My life isn’t ruled by it though, and running has played a big part in this by improving my self-esteem, boosting my mental health and changing my mindset around food.
I started running about 18 months ago. I started for a couple of reasons; partly to help me wind down from my stressful job (as it was something I could do in the hotel gym when I was away with work) and partly because it seemed like a practical and easy way to keep healthy. I hadn’t exercised much over the few months before I started running, so I started with a complete beginners programme, working up to being able to run 5k. I had no intention of running any further and figured that 5k, three times a week would be enough to keep me fit and healthy.
However…I got the running bug, and found that I love running longer distances. Running gives me ‘me’ time, time to wind down, it allows me to process my thoughts, it gives me endorphins and it gives me a sense of achievement. On top of that, I actually just really enjoy being out running. Not every run is a good run, but I have very rarely regretted going out for a run. I am a happier person thanks to running. My self-esteem is slowly improving, as I can see the progress I’m making thanks to the work I put in. There will always be faster and slower runners, so I’m competing only with myself, but I’ve come a long way in 18 months and can run further and faster than I ever thought I would be able to.
Running gives me a constructive way of channelling my need for a sense of control. It means I can set a goal, make a training plan, stick to my training plan and give myself something to focus on. Focussing on a specific objective also means I need to think about my physical and mental health as a whole, not just isolated aspects, if I want to succeed. I’m very aware that this in itself could turn into an obsession and cause further disordered thinking, so I’m taking it slowly and trying to make sure I do this healthily.
Running has also changed how I think about food and diet. If I’m going to run well, I need to eat well. I still think a lot about what and how much I should eat, and I’m still trying to find the right balance, which is difficult as training cycles involve periods of more intense training and less intense training. I’m at least trying to not worry about it. I know that I’m not fully recovered, and I still constantly want to lose several pounds, but I’m not really bothered enough now to do anything about it! Running has really helped my mindset improve to the point where I can think more rationally and logically, and I can therefore work on creating my own sense of self-worth. Some days it comes more easily, on other days I find it hard to list more than one thing I like about myself. But it’s a start. What began as a way of getting fitter and decreasing stress has ended up changing my life.
Bring on the first marathon.
Thank you to Jenny for sharing her story. As part of #MilesForMind we want to raise money for Mind and also awareness of mental health issues.
It's OK to have a mental health issue, it's OK to talk about mental health, and it's OK to ask for help.
We firmly believe that running can contribute to a healthy body, and healthy mind and we hope sharing people's stories of mental health and running will inspire others to lace up for better mental health.