May 4, 2016 by Deanna James, LPC, CEDS in Alumni and Family, Testimonials Guest Post by Paul Beuttenmuller, Castlewood Alumni
When you hear the word “exercise,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Do you feel anxious? Stressed? Do you feel irritable or guilty because you didn’t go to the gym today? Or maybe you even did go but didn’t push yourself hard enough? Is exercise an obligation, something that you have to do as part of a rigid, structured, no-holds-barred routine?
Your gut reaction to that word says a lot about your relationship with it.
An Eating Disorder (ED) is a sneaky disease. Yes- I used to binge and purge, but was able to eliminate those behaviors. Voila! I no longer have an ED, right?!
Unfortunately, an ED is ridiculously good at morphing your behaviors so that it never leaves you- even if you think it did. Your bingeing and purging is gone? Well that’s just fine then because the ED will attack with something that is commonly glorified in society- restriction. It can take over your life with other compulsive behaviors. And in my case, it can consume your life with exercise.
For years I replaced the “typical” eating disorder with a total enslavement to exercise and “clean” foods. I binged on exercise and restricted any sort of food or drink that was not considered 100% pure. If my closest friends or my family asked me out, I immediately declined because of my relationship with my eating disorder- AKA exercise and obsessive “good health”. Because in my mind- if I went out to dinner with them, or went to the sports bar with friends, I would have to eat deep fried wings or pizza and drink beer. Furthermore, I had to make sure I could wake up at 4:00 the next morning (yes, even on weekends) to hit the gym and work out until I could barely stand because of the rush it provided and sense of accomplishment.
Vigorous exercise was my justification for earning an upcoming meal or more importantly, feeling like a worthy human being. So with that type of belief system, why the hell wouldn’t I want to work out like a maniac? It relieved stress and anger, allowed me to disconnect from anything in my life that I felt was negative, and made me feel like I deserved to live.
“I really don’t want to go the gym today, but I need to/have to/should,” is a common comment that I used to hear myself saying. Nobody should feel an obligation to engage in physical activities. Exercise became something I associated with gyms and aerobics and grueling runs, which most of the time was physical torture and abuse. I had lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that I enjoy that involve physical activity.
Exercise was a toxic part of my life. It became something that was unhealthy for me and caused me so much mental and physical distress I don’t even know where to begin. Because I no longer competed athletically in soccer or baseball or running, I felt the need to have some sort of external validation to prove that I really was worth something. That external “trophy” ultimately became my discipline and extreme workouts in the gym. It became my toned muscles and abs. And because I had this visible proof that I was working hard, I wasn’t a complete waste of space.
Obsessive, compulsive exercise and a rigid diet was a way that ED maintained a foothold in my life. For six or seven years, it was the only tool that made me feel like I was living a life worth living. It was protecting me from feeling a worthless, friendless failure- and ultimately, a miserable lonely person.
If you look around at the media, at health food blogs and FaceBook pages, listen to doctors’ advice, and browse through magazines/books/website articles, you will see that we are constantly bombarded with messages that we should be exercising in order to lose weight or become toned. I literally just saw a post this morning on FaceBook from Men’s Health that was titled “Six Ways to Force Yourself to the Gym When You Don’t Want To.”
Don’t get me wrong- I am not promoting a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating fried foods and cheesecake on a nightly basis. But after the experience I went through these past several years, I would not wish it upon my worst enemy.
The issue with exercise in my world wasn't the way I exercised. The issue was why I exercised. The issues were the mentality that was driving me to exercise and the outcome that I was seeking.
A lot of people do have a healthy relationship with exercise. And I legitimately applaud them for it- They do it because they have a real passion for it and have fun doing it; they do not do it because they have to. But some people (this is where I fell into) use and abuse exercise to lose weight, change their bodies, cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or prevent them from feeling unproductive or worthless.
Being active is great, but only when it involves doing something that you really enjoy. This could just be leisurely strolls or hikes through nature, making sure to take in the beautiful scenery and thank God for the ability to do so. It could be finding a team sport that makes your heart race and your grin widen. It could be practicing mindfulness through yoga, or getting competitive with a colleague while playing ping-pong.
This could be once a week or once a day. Whatever makes you happy. Not whatever makes you lose weight, or gives you an 8-pack, or bulging arm muscles. Not whatever burns the most calories. Not what makes you hungry for a big dinner or works off that piece of dessert from earlier. No, it should be whatever makes you have fun.
Exercise can turn into a dangerous addiction, and in the case where exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life, it needs to be taken very seriously. This is something that I have finally come to realize in my life and only wish that I could have recognized it sooner.
I try to imagine a life in which I literally become free from that demon. Free. That’s the only way to describe it. No more obsession. No more exhaustion. No more anxiety. No more pressure about going farther, running longer – One more workout class. Five more minutes. Two more laps. — Freedom.
Ultimately, I had to convince myself that I needed to take time out, stop exercise entirely, and take the time to evaluate what I was really doing. I needed to assess the reasons for exercising, and start building a positive and healthy relationship between myself and my body, both physically and emotionally. Because I needed it, and I deserved it. My body is perfect just as it is, and I need to learn to love it, not to wage war on it.
And as difficult as it was (that’s an understatement), I gave it up cold turkey. It terrified me because I had told myself I’d never be hungry again. That I would feel like I was force-feeding myself at every meal. That I would lose every one of my abs, feel my belly jiggle when I walk up and down stairs, and start breathing heavy after just walking up a slight incline.
This period could have seemed to be a devastating turn of events — where my life was thrown on its head and all my plans were derailed — when in reality, it was actually a major blessing. Yes, it flipped my life upside-down…but in a good way. Because during this time my body literally forced me to heal from its sprains and torn muscles. From the social anxiety and mental torture. It proved I can consume three meals and three snacks per day and not collapse from disease. It showed me that I didn’t become any less intelligent, any less loved, or any less of a person. In reality, it actually did the complete opposite.
And now- My body is finally beginning to trust itself again. After years of punishing it, my body has accepted this newfound love and acceptance. Exercise is not an obligation. It’s not a form of self-punishment. It’s a form of love.
I have explored new ways to incorporate movement in my life that make me smile. I have found movement in my life that I look forward to doing. I have found movement that brings me positivity, and never expends energy in the name of diet culture.
I have finally come to adopt a gentleness with myself. I have come to accept myself, and one of the ways I show myself that is by not punishing and torturing my body and mind with exercise. It is absolutely phenomenal. I have time for relationships, friends, family, and hobbies because I’m not spending every free moment at the gym, working out, or stressing over the next workout. I won’t be exhausted all the time. My life won’t be ruled by the gym, or fitness class schedules. I can be spontaneous. I can be me.
And it all came from trusting myself for once and taking a massive leap of faith. I promised myself that it will be the greatest thing I’ve ever done. And in reality, it was- because now I can feel that I am worthy, and this is what I deserve.