This post contains descriptions of disordered exercising and may be triggering to some readers.

by Annemarie McDaniel

Every Thanksgiving during middle school, my evening was broken down into two parts: the meal and the post-meal workout. The first half of the evening was like most typical Thanksgivings, filled with scarfing down turkey and mashed potatoes while joking with family about who ate the most. After saying goodbyes to my relatives and goodnight to my parents, I would lock myself up in my room, put in my headphones, and prepared for my most grueling exercise regiment of the year. I had memorized all of the best exercises from my dance and aerobics classes, and I rotated between them until every muscle in my body ached in pain. If muscle toning didn’t feel like enough, I would often turn on a movie downstairs and pedal as hard as I could on my father’s exercise bike for the two hour duration of the film.

As a ballet and jazz dancer since age 5, I had always been conscious of my weight and body health. When I was in 6th grade and joined my parents in dieting, I started shedding pounds faster than they did. It never seemed alarming since I ate three balanced meals a day and most of the time, I had a normal workout routine, just exercising in the dance studios with my instructors. But on those days where I felt really low, I lifted weights and did crunches like it was Thanksgiving night.

This became less and less of a problem by the end of high school, when I felt more positive about my friends, my academics, and my appearance. But I was deathly afraid of losing those things I gripped onto so tightly; I was constantly anticipating slip-ups that might make me less likeable or successful. After a series of private breakdowns around the time of college application season, I realized I needed to ask for help. I wanted to handle my personal problems on my own, but I was too entrenched in my own perfectionist mindset to look at things objectively. I met with a professional to talk through my unhealthy view of self-value, which gave me new strength to deal with my own flaws and shortcomings. Jumping from my high school setting into the college scene, however, was not seamless and I soon experienced new manifestations of my old problems.

“Wow, Annemarie. Really living the ‘go big or go home’ mindset with that dessert there,” a friend said to me in the dining hall. I had a small plate of gooey brownie lava cake, but suddenly it felt like a giant monument of gluttony. After dinner, I sprinted on the elliptical until the calorie counter showed that I’d sweated out every calorie of brownie lava cake. I went back upstairs and immediately passed out in bed from exhaustion. I didn’t eat dining hall desserts for weeks. I worked out until I passed out again and again over the year, spurred by the anxiety of my eating habits, my academic failures, my social life, or practically anything.

To other people I looked healthy, working out at the gym and eating a balanced diet. Some days, I did feel like that happy, healthy girl “fitspiration” images on Pinterest advertise, where they have mottos like “The stronger you are, the better you feel” or “healthy is happy” over the picture of a thin and muscular woman at the gym. But there were also days where my mindset wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t working out because I wanted to be “healthy,” I was working out because I was desperate to offset or forget my insecurities.

During my toughest semester at college, my fitness obsession turned truly all-consuming. Between working at my two stressful on-campus jobs, managing school assignments, and attempting to have a social life, I was bottling more anxious energy than I could bear. I switched from the gym to running outside because I loved the sting of my feet pounding against the pavement and the chilly autumn air cutting through my lungs. I thought about how sexy I must’ve look to every stranger I ran by. I felt it in every part of my body; my face sparkled with small beads of sweat, my legs felt strong and tones, my abs appeared slim, and my eyes were piercingly focused from the endorphins. It made me feel beautiful, but it was about pain and exhaustion. I couldn’t sleep at night unless I had done my midnight run, I couldn’t handle a stressful morning meeting unless I ditched my next class to run, I couldn’t stop crying about how overwhelmed I felt until my run, I couldn’t function through a full day without at least one run.

I realized that I needed professional help again, so I found a therapist to address my anxiety and find new strategies for managing it. I wasn’t even seeing him to directly focus on my unhealthy obsession with running, food, and body image, but as the weeks passed, I found myself running less and less every week. When I did run, I tried to focus more on the happiness it gave me rather than the toned abs or exhaustion. I dropped my most emotionally consuming extracurricular, made sure to have a better balance of both challenging and relaxing classes, and created new friendships where we could be 100% honest about the stresses of life.

I am definitely not finished with this journey. I can’t force myself to always feel happy and healthy every single day, because people’s emotions just don’t work like that. Recovery is a slow process that requires me to break down my engrained assumptions about beauty and value, forgive myself for my daily shortcomings, and accept that just because there are days where I run until I pass out or feel uncomfortable about my unhealthy lunch doesn’t mean I’m not getting better.