I am two days into my commitment to not exercise for a month, and it’s hard. I was not wholly aware of how much my decision to exercise was dictated by my disorder, but it most certainly was. Although I had an inkling that I was not exercising for the right reasons, I was at least a little bit in denial. I exercised to relieve anxiety about not exercising. I exercised to relieve anxiety about eating. I exercised to earn the right to eat. I exercised because it suppressed my appetite. I exercised because I didn’t know what else to do. But, in the last year, I think I can safely say that I have rarely exercised simply because I enjoyed it.
Exercise, and the compulsion to engage in it, has been one of the ways that my disorder has manipulated me and those around me the most. People with eating disorders are often seen as dishonest and manipulative, and I would agree that I have been both of those things. However, I think the sad reality is that nobody is being lied to or manipulated more than the sufferer. I recently read something that said, “You don’t become anorexic. Anorexia becomes you.” Those words struck a chord with me. It absolutely does become you. Your own wishes are replaced by your disorder, and nobody is more confused about it than you are. Eating disorders take over your entire life. Their rules become yours. Their compulsions become yours. You lie to protect your disorder because you think that you are protecting yourself.
Because of these things, in retrospect, I probably should have taken a clean break from exercise long ago. In the beginning, especially, it was nearly impossible to distinguish my own desires from that of the disordered part of my brain. If my therapist would say that I could leisurely walk to relieve anxiety because I said that I enjoyed walking, I would take that idea and run with it. I would walk for hours on end, never taking the shortest paths, solely to appease my disorder’s wishes regarding caloric expenditure. And I lied, to myself and to my therapist, about why I was doing it. If my physical therapist suggested that I could do some core strengthening exercises to improve my hip pain, I took that to mean that I had to do a series of planks every morning. I do enjoy walking and core strengthening has helped my hip, but I was too confused and mixed-up in my disorder to understand that I was not doing these things for the right reasons.
It is far too easy to make excuses for your disorder when it is constantly telling you lies about what you truly want to do. Depending on how long it has been around, you may not even have an idea of what that might be. And, if you choose to investigate what it is that your genuine self wants and realize that you don’t actually enjoy doing sit-ups every single fucking morning, you pay the price. Your disorder makes you think that you are lazy, or worthless, or that you will gain weight indefinitely if you don’t do things exactly the way it wants you to do them. So, in a lot of ways, it feels easier to keep making excuses and keep doing things to appease the disordered part of yourself so that it will just leave you alone.
But here’s the problem. It doesn’t leave you alone. A few minutes of sit-ups becomes twenty. A five minute walk becomes a thirty minute one, and before long it is an hour. Then it’s a walk with some running incorporated because, you know, cardio. If exercise has been a part of your disorder, I believe that it is nearly impossible to exercise in a way that is not disordered until you make a clean break and take time to ascertain your genuine needs and wants. I once read that an eating disordered individual will take any activity and find a way to use it against themselves, and I wholeheartedly believe that to be true. When I first started doing yoga, I had to do it for at least an hour. I had to do it every day. I had to do it perfectly. I did it in place of eating. I took something that could have been an excellent self-care tool had my priorities been in line, but I found a way to lie to myself about what I wanted and manipulate myself into using it to appease my disorder.
Until you care about yourself, your real self, enough to find out what you want, exercise and food can be sketchy territory. You may need to follow rules, entirely eliminating exercise or strictly adhering to time limits. You may need to follow a meal plan to ensure that you are eating enough. And do you know what? That is perfectly okay. There will be a day when you know what you want and you feel free to pursue it without guilt and shame. The disordered voice will be only a whisper, or maybe it won’t be there at all. Until that day comes, however, I advise that you proceed with caution. Let the people around you who care for and about you carry some of the weight. Let them fight the disorder when you don’t have it in you. I knew that I was not going to be able to entirely eliminate exercise on my own, which is why I approached the topic with my therapist and one of my closest friends. I knew that they would support me. Find somebody you can trust, somebody who will hold you accountable, and let them help you defend your true self against your disorder. Trust me, you don’t need to go it alone.
Since exercise has been taken off of the table, I have felt strangely free. Yes, I have felt anxious. Yes, I have felt guilty. Yes, I have second-guessed whether or not I can eat or how much I can eat. But I have also felt myself take a deep exhale. Not feeling like I have to get a workout in every day lets me think about what else I can do with my time. It lets me clean my house, spend more time writing, and be more engaged at work because I’m not stressing out about leaving myself enough time to get to the gym. I needed the support of those around me to make this choice, and I will continue to need their support as I navigate its inevitable challenges. But I know that this is one of my last, biggest fears to move past if I want to live a fully recovered life. And, with the help and support of the people around me, I think it will be one of the best decisions I have made in recovery.