Friday, December 31, 2010

Where It Began

So most runners run to stay fit, and some run to lose weight. No big news there, right? I even think many fit runners want to lose just a few pounds here or there, and it's charts like this one that make us all aspire to lose just a little bit more. Who wouldn't want to lose 10 pounds and run nearly nine minutes faster in the marathon as a result? But back in my college years, I took dieting to an extreme. Running was the catalyst in my extreme weight loss. Before long, anorexia nervosa had begun to take hold of me. Here is the story of how it happened.
Healthy weight at eighteenth birthday party in 1995, right before leaving for college
I was a typical college freshman at Auburn University in 1995, and, like most freshman, I gained the dreaded "Freshman 15" while enjoying the usual college dorm food. I probably got at the most up to about 130 pounds, and I am 5'5"--not overweight by any means, but big enough that my size 5 clothes were fitting too tight and I felt bigger all over. So, when I signed up for a running class for credit in the Spring of my freshman year, I was ecstatic to have found a way to earn an easy A while also working myself back into shape. I excelled in the class and earned many bonus points for running in Auburn's local races outside of our usual runs during class time. My roommate at the time was a nice girl who was a runner and a health-conscious eater as well. After the class ended, I began running with her on a regular basis (something like 4-5 miles a day) and adopted some of her eating habits.

But then, little by little, I began taking things just one step too far. I had always been very perfectionistic and competitive as a child and teenager-- very hard on myself and very eager to please. I was the kind of student who would get so worried before Chemistry tests that I would be sick beforehand. And I hated anything less than an A; in fact, I never earned less than an A all through high school and college. As I began losing the weight, I started feeling better about myself and also began getting some good attention as well. And suddenly eating had become the enemy, and running, my best friend. I kept a diary all through college, and here are some of the more telling entries from that period:

October 14, 1995 "I've had a good couple of days. I ran the Auburn Fall 5K with {roommate's name} and we got 26:40. We didn't stop at all!"
October 13, 1996 "Tonight, {my sister},{my roommate}, and I went out for ice cream. We started talking about weight and stuff. {Roommate} weighs 123 and I weigh 116. I feel better about my body now. I will try to eat good--but in this crazy life I have trouble."
December 20, 1996 "All of the holiday cookies and sweets around the house are driving me crazy! I hope I don't gain any weight or only a few pounds. I'm at 110 (with clothes)."
April 28, 1997 "Today began at 7:15 a.m. when {Roommate} and I went to work out (stairmaster-35 min.) at the Student Act [Students Activities Center]. She made me weigh myself (her-120, me-100) and then freaked out and told me to start eating more fat. I think it's ironic that she's the one that makes me feel guilty when I do eat fat."
April 1997 --A year and a half since the picture above

June 27, 1997 "My biggest (hugest, HUGEST) problem since I have been home is my weight and eating habits. I am obsessed! I only allow myself certain foods for b'fast and lunch (fat-free yogurt, fruit, graham crackers for b'fast--combo of 2; salad and pretzels for lunch). Then I feel guilty at night and torture myself with guilty feelings if I snack. Why? I weigh about 90 now, and I know I have a problem. I run 4 miles everyday or I feel bad, but I'm really tired when I run. Everyone at work asks if I lost weight, if I was sick, what do I eat, etc. I HATE it."
Summer 1997
June 4, 1998 "Today I weighed 100 at the Student Act. I'm proud but also upset that I'm letting this happen again. I eat only fruits and vegetables most days and it makes me feel good throwing out fatty food."
February 21, 1999 "I feel like I need to get this out--I've been feeling fat again lately."

Twenty-first birthday--three years into the disease and after many ups and downs

Before I knew it, I had become anorexic. I had heard about anorexia nervosa back in high school when a teacher showed us a movie called The Karen Carpenter Story. But back in high school, I never thought that would happen to me and never aspired to it at all. When I started losing the weight, I bought a book on anorexia and realized that I showed most of the symptoms even though I wanted to stop. I remember being so tired of getting on the scale, "measuring" my arms (I would encircle my thumb and middle finger around my upper arm right above my elbow as a means to "check" myself), restricting my food, being cold, being stared at, etc. Still, each morning, I felt a strong desire to get up and run (even though I had absolutely no energy) and to continue the day with my strange eating patterns.
My family was so worried for me but didn't know how to "fix" me. My heart aches now for all of the pain I put them through, and it hurts for all of the young girls (and boys) living this way right now. Even the memory is so unpleasant to me that I put off writing this (and put off thinking about this stage of my life) for a very long time. Still, the process has been cathartic to me and, it is my hope, may also be helpful to someone else reading this. My story does not end here.
Before I continue with my second post, I wanted to share some of my research. I went through a list from this website to review the definition and symptoms again and see how many related to me at that time. It states:
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about their weight and the food they eat. People with anorexia nervosa attempt to maintain a weight that's far below normal for their age and height. To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia nervosa may starve themselves or exercise excessively.
Anorexia (an-oh-REK-see-uh) nervosa isn't really about food. It's an unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia nervosa, you often equate thinness with self-worth.

Physical signs and symptoms of anorexia include:
(I added the asterisks to the ones that applied to me and added my comments next to the items)
*Extreme weight loss (I went from about 130 to around 90)
*Thin appearance
*Abnormal blood counts (Around age 21, I tried giving blood and was anemic. This was when I was also not eating meat)
Dizziness or fainting
A bluish discoloration of the fingers
*Brittle nails
*Hair that thins, breaks or falls out
*Soft, downy hair covering the body (This was very apparent and hard to hide)
*Absence of menstruation (Lost periods for over a year and then they were hit-or-miss)
*Dry skin
*Intolerance of cold (AC in the summer was always too cold)
Irregular heart rhythms
Low blood pressure
Swelling of arms or legs

Emotional and behavioral characteristics associated with anorexia include:
*Refusal to eat (I did not eat breakfast or snack, so I normally ate only two meals a day. I tried counting calories and aimed for 1000 calories or under, and very few fat grams a day)
*Denial of hunger (I actually lost the ability to feel hungry after awhile)
*Excessive exercise
*Flat mood, or lack of emotion
*Social withdrawal
*Preoccupation with food (I dreamed about food and often wrote what I ate in my diary)
Reduced interest in sex
*Depressed mood
Possible use of herbal products or diet aids

If you're concerned that a loved one may have anorexia, watch for these possible red flags:
*Skipping meals
*Making excuses for not eating
*Eating only a few certain "safe" foods, usually those low in fat and calories (This is how I began shunning meat. I was a vegetarian for years and loved how "in control" it felt to not eat meat. I also ate only fat-free dairy. I loved anything fat-free since it felt "safer." Rice cakes and olestra fat-free chips were a big splurge for me. I could eat the whole package of each in a sitting.)
Adopting rigid meal or eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or spitting food out after chewing
Cooking elaborate meals for others but refusing to eat
*Repeated weighing of themselves
*Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
Complaining about being fat
*Not wanting to eat in public (I would purposefully avoid eating out with friends because I didn't know what was "safe" on the menu. I lost many friends that way.)

I overcame each of these terrible symptoms. Running is now my release, my joy, a great source of my happiness. And I have learned to overcome my unhealthy food habits.

Tune in for the second part of my story where I share my recovery.


  1. Wow, Katie! This is an amazing story and you've written it so well. You really lead one who hasn't been there through the process so we can understand the disease better.

    Very well written!!!

  2. Jane, what a compliment coming from you. You are an awesome writer and blogger and friend. Thank you so much for all of your encouragement on the roads and here on the blog too! Isn't it amazing what God can use for good?