How Exercise is Helping My Recovery

‘No hockey. No gym. No running.’ My therapist is ticking the list off her fingers, looking straight at my parents as I stare at her in horror. I can’t comprehend what she’s talking about – doesn’t she know that these are the only things I still have in my life? University is a no go for at least another year. My friends can’t think of anything to say when they meet me. I spend my life crying at the dinner table, watching the scales or watching Facebook videos of mouth-watering desserts. Hockey in particular is now the sole focus of my life, the only distraction from the illness that is ravaging my brain. My closest friends are there, my teammates – on a hockey pitch, I can yell at and laugh with women twenty years older than me and girls five years younger than me. I’m not anorexic on the hockey pitch – I am Lauren, number sixty seven, ‘that b***h at the back’.

Photo credit: Will Palmer

My therapist is still talking. ‘No walking for more than fifteen minutes.’ She looks at me and smiles a smile that has seen hundreds of faces like mine – at eighteen, I would probably be ID’d for a twelve rated film. I am tiny next to my parents, but the window behind them is distorting my reflection so that my stomach bulges. It is an accurate reflection of the image I hold in my mind.

In the car on the way home, I scream, I cry, I swear. No one is taking hockey away from me. She doesn’t know anything. Life is unfair on a level no one else can understand. That night, during the daily war over the kitchen table, I laugh in my dad’s face when he tells me, in a desperate attempt to get me to eat half a chicken breast, that I am killing myself. Then I cry myself to sleep.

I am not going to include numbers, because I know how competitive eating disorders can be – you have to be the best at being ill. But my weight was so low that of course, my therapist was completely right to ban me from any exercise. If you can bruise your hips taking a bath, you probably shouldn’t be let loose on a hockey pitch. Instead, I spent a year of my life religiously attending my team’s matches; crying when they cried, cheering when they won, writing match reports, being sent off even when I wasn’t on the pitch. The team became my lifeline – they were and are some of my closest friends. My motivation was hockey – every kilogram I gained was another step towards the match. The limit on walking was lifted. The arguments in my head became more intense, because the recovery campaign had gained a crucial piece of ammunition.

It wasn’t a smooth process, and I would never attribute my recovery to hockey. I had weekly therapy sessions, weekly nutrition sessions, parents and friends who let me go at my own pace without pandering to the ‘ill bit of me.’ I stopped weighing cucumber – then I stopped weighing meat, fish and carbohydrates. Four months after my diagnosis – or half a hockey season, which was how I was measuring time – I came downstairs on Christmas Eve and found on top of my presents a tiny envelope. Inside was a month’s worth of sessions with a personal trainer.

My team and I

For the first time in almost eighteen months, I cried because I was happy. Not because I had eaten too much, not because I was slumped, retching over a toilet bowl, but because my life was coming back to me. The deal was, if I got out of the Anorexic weight range, I could start the training sessions. Sobbing into my dad’s shoulder, I heard a wail from being me. My cousin had just unwrapped FIFA 2017 – happiness comes from all sorts of places.

Two months later, I was in the gym. My goals were still focused on weight, but this time, it was the weight of the metal in my hand. It was how much I had squatted that day, how much I could deadlift. Rest days were so I could recover for the next session and I stopped feeling guilty for not working out. My personal trainer was pulling me out of the mess I had got myself into but with every squat and shoulder press, I was taking more of the fight on to my own shoulders. I stopped thinking about how my food would make me look, but what it would let me do. Instead of feeling elated when my weight dropped at the therapy sessions, it started making me more determine – I began voluntarily upping my calories. By March, I was back at hockey training and by April, I was back on the pitch. I was awful – my mind thought I could still run speeds that my legs simply could not comprehend, and faceplants were a common occurrence – but I didn’t care. I was back on the hockey pitch.

In June 2017, I took part in my local 10km race and experienced a level of elation that for months I had only associated with the moment I stepped on the scale and my weight dropped. I was taking my friends to the gym and creating workout programmes for them – my personal trainer sessions were still a highlight of my week, but they were no longer the focus of my week. As I gained weight, my life expanded – I went traveling with my mum, spent a couple of weeks doing work experience, went shopping with friends and managed to try on clothes without having a panic attack.

Fast forward to February 2018. I am still in recovery, not recovered. I still have to watch my weight and my food or I become panicked and out of control. But I barely recognise the emaciated creature that I was a year ago. I don’t count my ribs anymore – I count the miles I have run, the weight I can lift, the hours of lectures I attend, the friends I want to invite to parties, the hockey goals we need to win a match. If I had been told in that therapy session almost eighteen months ago that within two years I would be running a marathon, I would have laughed in your face. But that is exactly what I am doing in April this year, to raise money for Mind, the mental health charity.

Exercise did not save me, and I would be lying if I said that at times, it did not create its own problems – an addictive personality combined with the endorphins of a long run or tough workout is less that healthy at times. But my personal trainer, my teammates, my coaches and my parents all created a structure of goals that lead to a life brimful of positivity, comedy, intrigue and yes, still some stress and anxiety. But it is a life, and I am no longer trapped in my own gaunt, malicious mind – when I run, it is that mind that I run away from, and this life that I run to.

If you have been affected by an eating disorder or related issue, please find a list of organisations who can help below:

Beat – The Uk’s Eating Disorder Charity
Mind – The Mental Health Charity/Eating problems
The Mix – Essential Support for Under 25s/Your Body

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