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Talking About the Untalked About

The sad truth is that today's society puts an emphasis on being preoccupied with how you look, how you wear your hair, how defined your muscles are, and how much you weigh. This, coupled with a high prevalence of self doubt and self criticism, leads to a skewed perception of what we value in a person. Our focus is drawn away from who we are on the inside. With almost no hesitation, our integrity, character, and inner strength are glanced over, being replaced by "thinness", "athleticism", and "beauty" as terms of defining who we are. 

Over time this skewed perception can begin to alter a person's psyche, and worse, result in people making decisions that ultimately can affect the rest of their lives. Yes, I am talking about disordered eating patterns, exercise addiction, supplement abuse, etc. Much like an addiction, these issues begin to consume a person's world, so much so that the person loses control and can no longer recognize they have lost this control over their behavior. This is a scary thought. The mind is an intricate element of the body and it can play tricks on us - we begin to feel like our behavior is normal, expected even. We lose the ability to notice how we are being affected by these decisions or how our lives are changing as a result. All of these behaviors have very real, very serious consequences, including: alterations in heart rhythm, sleep issues, extreme fatigue, amenorrhea (loss of the menstrual cycle), iron (and other vitamins) deficiency, bone density reduction, extreme weight loss, agitation, irritability, and in the case of supplements, seizures or even death to name a few.

There are several triggers for these behaviors as well, and it is important to recognize all of them. Societal pressures are one of these, but other things can influence these patterns as well. Perfectionism, stress, depression, anxiety, and athletic performance goals are some of the other influences that can play a role. Put simply, the more triggers present, the more at-risk an individual may be. Thus, it is imperative to recognize the triggers and the warning signs because it can do two things: 1) Prevention, and 2) Early detection to receive help, both for ourselves or for our friends, loved ones, and athletes. 

This is all good and grand, but if there's anything I've learned from being a personal trainer the last four years, it is that we, as human beings, are creatures of habit and need a reason to change. So, how do we go about changing this body-appearance-centered mentality that is so prevalent? How do we get people to start talking about this taboo subject? So here is your reason... here is my story:

I will never forget the feeling of pure fear when I was rushed home from college my freshman year to see a cardiologist because my resting heart rate had dropped to roughly 35 bpm. Even worse, was the fear and anxiety that overcame me when I found out, after having to wear a portable EKG for 36 hours, that while I was sleeping my heart rate was dropping to 27 bpm, a mere 7 beats above classified heart failure. There I was, 18 years old, still attempting to compete for the University of Illinois Division 1 track and field and cross country teams, and my heart was shutting down - but it was not just my heart that was shutting down, it was my whole body. 

Flashback to the beginning of my freshman year. My transition to college was not an easy one. I struggled to fit in socially as I wasn't a "partier" and didn't drink, an isolating combination on a campus so known for its Greek life. In order to give myself the best chance of being a contributor to my team, I decided to redshirt (or sit-out) my first season of cross country so I could save this elgibility for my 5th year season. Though I could still train with the team, I had to compete unattached at meets. This created some separation between my teammates and myself. So my isolation felt like it was worsening. On top of that, my ferritin iron, levels dropped within a few weeks of arriving on campus, drastically affecting my practice and race performances. Sadly, I didn't recognize this as an iron problem, but began to acknowledge myself as one of the "larger" girls on the team. I felt like if I could just eat "healthier" I would be back to running well in no time. Over time my depression was worsening as I felt like I didn't belong on campus, and wasn't able to compete to my potential. Soon my desire to eat "healthier" began to consume me. I began making subtle changes to my diet, though never cutting out entire food groups. Quickly the weight started to shed off due to my high workout volume as I was still training for the team and I was eating less than I was burning. Within the first two months of making these "healthy" changes I had already lost about 15 pounds. So clearly the changes I had made weren't healthy, but were rather drastic and actually unhealthy. But guess what! I was running better; in fact, I had never felt better running. I felt light and fluid, gliding through the air. It is in that moment that I fell victim to losing control over my diet. It consumed me. It controlled me. It spiraled me because I thought 'I look good, I'm running well with a little weight loss, just think how good I could be with a little more'. Yet I lost the ability to see it. I would look in the mirror and see the same girl I always saw, and yet somehow I ignored the fact that my clothes were hanging on me like bags. It continued to spiral until I had lost about 40 pounds. To give you perspective, I am 5'6" and came into my freshman year weighing in at about 143 lbs. 

Over the course of my freshman year, between the extreme weight loss and depression I barely had the energy to walk to class - my body felt like lead all the time. Yet, I still went to practice everyday and tried to train through it. My body would wake me up everyday at about 4 in the morning because my stomach was churning and starving. When I say starving I mean that literally because from what the doctors told me my body had gone into starvation mode. Once I was at my lowest point (103 pounds) was when people finally stepped in. My team doctor threatened to medically disqualify me, hospitalize me, or make me go on an all liquid diet that they would watch me consume daily, IF I dropped below 100 pounds. Having visited friends who had been hospitalized for eating disorders before and thus having witnessed what that was like, this was enough of a reality shock to get me to change my ways. The biggest problem? I wasn't taught how to gain the weight back. I began eating out of fear, the fear that I would drop below 100 pounds. There were some days that I would eat nearly 6000 calories because I had lost the ability to tell when I was hungry or full. Just like I had lost control losing weight, I had lost control with the eating in gaining it back. As bad as losing the weight was on my body and psyche, gaining it back made me feel even worse about myself. Though it took roughly a single summer to gain all the weight back and then some, it took roughly 4 years for me to shed back down to my ideal weight, ideal for my health and running competitively. Well, do the math. By the time I had "recovered" I was out of running elgibility. My whole running career essentially wiped out due to my eating disorder, which they called "orthorexia" (only eating things deemed healthy by the individual). Not only that, the aftermath of it all is ever-lasting. People tell me all the time how proud they are of me for beating the eating disorder, but what they don't realize is it isn't something that can be beaten. It is something you learn to manage, but it is something that you will live with forever. It is like an addiction. It never truly goes away, it's about coping with it and overcoming the triggers and dealing with the stresses to manage it. In that way, I have finally learned to love myself, love my body, and manage it well. It is now my turn, as a trainer, coach, and friend to help others around me. 

I never want someone to have to endure the experience that I have had. For that reason, it is my willing duty to share my story and hope that it helps someone out there. Please spread the word on this taboo subject and let's get people finally talking about it. I'm here to tell you, it's okay to talk about it. In fact, it needs to be talked about. It is increasing in prevalence, and if detected early, it can be stopped before it's too late or it has devastating consequences. Please look out for those you love, your clients if you are a personal trainer, your friends, and your athletes if you are a coach. Let's shift the focus back onto what really matters - who we are, NOT what we look like. Love yourself. 

To sum it up here is a poem to describe my story:

Battle Scars

Michelle Stratton

Captive to her own mind,

Distorted views plague her eyes.

Pinching, tugging, fidgeting when she wakes,

Only to hide her barren skin in disgrace.

No one would even bat an eye,

As the pain is hidden deep inside,

Behind a smile ever glowing.

A girl who seemingly has it all,

Yet somehow she is blinded by

A distorted view which plagues her eyes.

Comparing herself to all her peers,

Never feeling good enough.

Years of wondering what people see

Or even if she’s being seen.

She feels as though she’s invisible,

Surrounded by girls glamorous and bold.

She goes to the extreme to change her life,

Her body, her face, her whole wardrobe.

Thinking it will make her happy,

Not realizing the emptiness that will ensue.

She’s blinded by the distorted view which plagues her eyes.

Flash forward to when it all went wrong,

Skin and bones she lost it all.

That radiating smile is no more,

Emptiness and loneliness fills the air.

Her friends don’t mutter a single word

Leaving her lost and deeply scared.

It’s in that moment her life’s about to turn,

With a pledge to never return to there.

She is awoken to her distorted view,

Held captive no more, set free to live.

She began a long and rocky road,

A road to loving herself the most.

No more pinching, tugging, fidgeting with the skin,

No measuring, no disgrace, she bares it all.

Vowing to make a change forever more,

Checking her negativity at the door.

Though the battle scars will always be deep within,

Her strength launches her forward in the fight.

To the days of confidence,

To the days of authentic smiles,

To the days of being proud of who she is.

She is awoken to her distorted view,

Held captive no more, she’s free to live.

Empowered by her choice to change,

Vowing to help others now along the way.

As women we must respect ourselves,

And realize there is no standard set,

No weight, no look, no body type for anyone to be the best.

So spread the word and touch a soul,

Let’s ban together to change this world.

Unveil the distorted views from our eyes,

Unrealistic expectations that feed us lies.

So we are all held captive no more,

Free to live our lives as we deserve. 

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