This is the body of a letter that I wrote to a friend recently. I thought it might be good to post it here as well. I see that being open about my experience will only help me as I try to live my life in a new way. I recognize that this letter focuses on my life with an eating disorder as it related primarily to bike racing. It's not super detailed, nor does it even begin to touch on the true emotional turmoil that I was experiencing, but it sheds light on some areas of my life which have been kept in the dark for a long time nonetheless. Enjoy.
So, of course you're well aware of the fact that I had a pretty severe eating disorder in my freshmen year of high school and that I went to a residential treatment facility where my weight was restored and the deeper roots of my issues with food and my body were discussed. What you didn't know, and honestly what I didn't even realize until quite recently, is that upon returning home and completing my out patient treatment, I quickly developed new behaviors around food and exercise that were every bit as obsessive, compulsive, and all-around disordered as the behaviors I had gone into treatment with. I can see it now quite clearly, but at the time I didn't see that I had exchanged my patterns of restricting for a pattern of restricting, binging, and exercise purging. This pattern conformed to my meal plan in the sense that the total amount of food I needed to eat each day was still consumed and so my weight was stable for the remainder of high school, and since exercising and eating large quantities of food in a single sitting is generally socially acceptable behavior for a teenage male, these new patterns with food and exercise went unnoticed by my peers, my parents, or by myself. As I mentioned, I can look back from the place that I am in now and realize that I had simply traded restricting anorexia for a form of exercise bulimia but in my eyes and in the eyes of those around me, I was cured of my eating disorder and living a recovered life. I recognize now that I started high school with an eating disorder that nearly killed me and I finished high school with an eating disorder that was socially acceptable, but no less intense.
I used to see my high school years as a period of recovery in my life, now I see that they were a period when my disorder allowed me to function but still held control over many of my behaviors and seemed to just be waiting patiently for the moment that it could take full control once again. When I found out that my roommate/girlfriend/high school sweetheart had been sleeping with her manager during the summer after high school, I gave up. I lost sight of why I had been trying to hold my life together, lost sight of why maintaining my weight mattered so much and why I even bothered to take care of myself. I gave up on my life essentially because I couldn't see the point in living a life in which the person that you loved could do such a terrible thing to you. Life seemed worthless, I seemed worthless, I made myself believe that what she had done was my fault and I set out to punish myself in every way that I could. I abandoned my meal plan entirely, seeing no point in continuing to care for myself, I began cutting myself as a way to punish myself when I felt I had eaten too much, and I discovered alcohol. I drank myself into oblivion every chance I got that summer in an effort to ease the pain, to numb the intense emotions that I was experiencing. I didn't want to hurt anymore and yet I had begun to turn back to the most hurtful coping mechanism that I had when I began to restrict my food intake again. I felt as though I was being thrashed about on a stormy sea and my old behaviors were the only piece of solid ground that I had. It was the opportunity that my disorder had been waiting for and I recognize that from that point on, I have been actively struggling to keep my disorder in check. I have recognized this fact for quite some time, but I have been in denial about it for just as long; telling myself that things weren't as bad as they once were so there was really nothing wrong, or convincing myself that these disordered behaviors were simply quirks in my personality that should be embraced, not avoided.
For better or worse, another result of my breakup with said person was many, many long hours spent alone on my bike. The party lifestyle could not coexist with the need to run from the real world which was so strong and seemed satisfied only with an ever increasing amount of time in the saddle. The bike would eventually win as my coping mechanism of choice and on my 19th birthday I decided that I would be a professional cyclist. A lofty goal, given the fact that I had never entered a bike race at that point in my life. But my goal it became, and it was a goal that allowed me to completely distract myself from what was going on inside and to hurt myself as much as I needed in a way that was actually admired by my peers. The more I trained, the more I was noticed and the less I had to deal with people. My bike protected me from ever getting too involved in another relationship because I was dedicated only to cycling and no girl would ever come between me and the bike, though the bike would come between me and every girl I would date from that point on. And so it went for a time. I didn't worry about what I ate because I trained so much that putting on weight wasn't an issue. I convinced myself that spending every spare moment of my life on my bike was an acceptable and safe way to live and that in so doing, I had been finally freed from my preoccupation with food.
I began racing the year after high school and the results in local events quickly followed. The results came with a price. Each time I raced and each time I won, I could feel the pressure build within me, could feel it pressing down on me like a weight on my shoulders. I found joy in only one victory and that was the very first 24 hour race that I entered. I was so nervous in the days leading up to the event that I had reached back out to food as a coping mechanism, but instead of restricting, I let the anxiety overwhelm me and attempted to numb the feelings by burying them beneath a binge, which, due to the pressures I still placed upon myself to remain thin, was followed by my first physical purge after my stay in residential so many years before. I had opened the door to a new world of pain and suffering and from that point forward, racing would go hand in hand with my bulimic and anorexic behaviors. I fought them for a long time while I tried to race as I recognized that purging had a very negative effect on my physical performance and for the better part of my 2007 season, I was able to keep my behaviors in check, though I still relied heavily on emotional eating as a way to cope with the extreme anxiety that was developing around racing.
I had found success in my first 24 hour race due in part to the need to bury myself in pain and suffering as a means of coping with the demons which I seemed unable to escape. I pushed myself further in that race than I ever had before or have since and the sense of relief that I experienced as a result of my victory was something I had never experienced before. For the very first time, I felt justified in doing nothing, in relaxing, in taking a break, in truly eating and enjoying food for a few days because the task which I had just completed and the place where I had pushed my body was so incredibly painful. The feeling of sheer exhaustion and the ability to finally take a breath and relax made every moment of that race worth it. But, I had won, and so in my mind, that meant that anything less than victory from that point on was nothing more than a failure.
That fear of failure and the pressure to win drove me to train ever harder in that first season and each time I won, I found less and less ability to relax, less pride, less joy, and instead I found myself backed into a corner where I felt that winning was a given and so there was no room to relax afterward; there was only a mandatory waiting period when my body wouldn't allow me to start training for the next event. I made my victories and accomplishments seem commonplace and everyday by working up to the day of the event and returning to work the day after with a medal as if nothing had happened because in my mind those victories had become worthless. I felt trapped by my own success and as if no one understood that my success had been based only in a need to hurt and I knew that at some point the need to hurt and to try to run away from myself. I did not set out to win races, I merely crossed finish lines as I tried to escape the emotional pain that I didn't know how to deal with.
I continued to build the pressure to win within myself until the World Solo Championships that first season and when my race did not go as planned, my world fell apart. I fell into a deep depression and once again turned to food to cope. Bike racing had become my identity, I could not see that I was more than what I accomplished on the bike. I had proven that I was capable of succeeding and yet I had failed. I took it out on myself, I felt that I was worthless and I couldn't be forgiven for my failure. I stopped training and ate more for a period of time leading into the winter that year. I had lost sight of what it was I loved about the bike, but my sponsors were overjoyed with the success I had experienced and so the mounting pressure of being a valued member of the team and receiving more support in the coming season motivated me to get back on the bike in the dead of winter. When I did, I was disgusted by how I felt and what I saw. Who had I become? Where was my self-discipline? I didn't know it then, but I was experiencing the first portion of a pattern which my life would be following for the next few years.
I had lost control, or so I felt, and as a means of compensation, I decided that I needed to move to San Diego where I could train and get serious once again. I made the decision, packed, and left within a week. I had no idea where I was going or how I was going to survive, but I had come to recognize the environment in Northern California as the cause of all of my lack of self-control and I needed to leave as soon as possible so that I might be able to regain a hold on my life. I trained harder than ever, hell-bent on being even more successful as a bike racer in the coming season than I had been in the last. I restricted heavily, rode more, went to the gym, and dedicated myself to this new pattern of strict rules and discipline. And with this new restrictive lifestyle, came a regular binge component. I restricted so heavily throughout the week that every few days my body would get to the point that it just needed food, and lots of it. These binges only motivated me to restrict even further in response. So it went, until Sea Otter when instead of dominating the field with my new body and training regimen, I found that I was so weak that I could barely keep up and finished a disappointing 11th. That result was a wake-up call that what I had been doing to myself in San Diego was not going to help me win the races that I needed to win in the coming season and that something needed to change drastically.
I was sick then, I can see that now. I wish I would have gone back to treatment in the spring of 2008 because my thoughts were as disordered as they had every been. The physical manifestations of those thoughts had changed and as a result, no one really recognized that I was still suffering with my disorder. I recognized that I needed to put weight back on if I hoped to be a successful bike racer and so I began the next chapter in my disorder when I began to eat a half gallon of ice cream each night in an effort to gain weight. My eating behaviors throughout the rest of the day remained the same, highly restrictive, and now that I had opened myself up to eating such a dangerous food, the potential for binging was back on the table. Soon, my day consisted of a huge breakfast, four or more hours of riding, work, school, more riding, a small dinner(if at all), followed by bowls of cereal, mounds of peanut butter and not unusually, a full gallon of ice cream to top it off. I was living in a binge/purge cycle but didn't recognize it as that anything was wrong as I wasn't starving and I wasn't sticking my fingers down my throat. 2008 would prove to be my my most successful season as a bike racer which would in turn make it that much more difficult to stop the behaviors or to reach out for help. My success on the bike essentially kept me living in a state of denial about my disorder.
I followed a similar pattern in 2009, moving to San Diego and becoming hyper-restrictive for a period of time only to fall back into a binge/purge life style of over eating and over exercising. Unlike the year before however, my binges had become more out of control and I was more isolated, so I now found myself regularly physically purging my binges in an effort to keep my weight in check. The racing season came, and as a legitimate professional I now found the pressure to win more overwhelming than ever; and yet, another string of victories would promote no motivation to change my behaviors around food or training. I binged, I purged, I restricted, I trained, and I raced. That was life. The knowledge that I was treating myself so badly and still finding success as a racer made each and every victory that much less fulfilling and by the end of the year, I was beginning to question whether or not I wanted to continue living life in the way that I was. I was miserably depressed and alone, consumed by my eating disorder and all the behaviors that went along with it. I had given up on school so that I could focus on racing and I had come to blame the pressure and anxiety of racing for my undeniable relapse into my disorder. I felt trapped once again and thoughts of not wanting to be alive came and went throughout the day. I felt I had nothing to live for anymore. I found no joy in riding, absolutely no pleasure in racing and now I couldn't even feel good about winning. I wanted to go back to school, but knew that I didn't have the power to stop eating the way that I was and since I couldn't control my eating I knew that I needed to keep riding to control my weight and if I wanted to continue to have an excuse to keep training, then racing was something I felt I had to do, which left no time to pursue academics.
I would often look back as my depression and dissatisfaction with life worsened and wish that I had never won that first 24 hour race, wish that I would have been terrible at bike racing as I had come to blame racing for all of the emotional distress which I was experiencing. I continued to train throughout the winter of 2009 because I didn't know what else to do. I didn't feel that I could pull the plug on racing because I felt that I had no excuse to stop. I felt that since I was so good at it, no one would ever understand that I just didn't want to do it or that somehow it was unhealthy for me. Then, in the spring of 2010, Cannondale offered me a position in the company driving one of their demo trucks. This could have been seen as the opportunity I was waiting for to step out of the world of racing and into a potential career and yet, now that the offer was on the table, all I wanted to do was race. I found that the true opportunity to stop racing had brought up so many insecurities about who I was without racing that I was hesitant to accept the position and actually declined the offer once before eventually taking the job. I had convinced myself that racing was the cause of all of my behaviors, but upon accepting the new job and transitioning away from the racing world, I would find the opposite to be true.
My new position with Cannondale was full of stress, responsibility, long hours, and long periods of time away from familiar faces. It was the perfect place for my disorder to take hold once again and I quickly found that not having racing as some sort of motivation to fight disordered thoughts and behaviors allowed them to become part of my daily routine with what seemed to be little consequence. I no longer had to worry about whether I felt good on the bike or not because the bike had now become a tool used only for weight maintenance and the people I encountered each day were different, so they had no idea if I was operating at half capacity due to the fact that I had been up all night in my hotel room binging and purging. My weight fluctuated drastically throughout 2010, first reaching it's lowest point since I was in residential during the summer months(still roughly 45 pounds heavier than I had been when I went to residential) when I used my job as an excuse not to eat and then jumping to the highest point it had ever been in the fall when my severe restriction was met with a period of complete loss of control in the form of elaborate binges each night. My mood and motivation to live plummeted and by the end of 2010, I was coming to a place where I could finally realize that I had indeed relapsed into my eating disorder. In that moment, it seemed as though it had suddenly happened though as I mentioned, I can see now that I had been in a state of relapse for many years. I used my desire to continue racing as an excuse to leave my position with Cannondale but in truth I wanted to return home to Northern California where I hoped that I might find some stability and be able to reach out for the help that I needed in order to get my life back.
I nearly left Northern California to start the pattern all over again in San Diego on New Year's day of 2011, but something kept me here. I think that I recognized deep down that if I left, I would stand no chance of getting the help that I needed and that my urge to run away was truly my eating disorder attempting to survive. So, I stayed. I moved to Folsom and found a therapist and began to see her 2x per week. I thought that I was doing all that I needed to do to get my life back in order and even made a commitment to myself to stop cutting in the form of a new tattoo. I was still in denial about just how sick I really was and just how deeply rooted my disorder had become.
I was fed up with cycling in January of 2011, but still felt the need to exercise compulsively so I began running. I began running with the aerobic engine of a world class endurance athlete and the capacity to withstand impact that comes from years of participating in a non-impact sport. The result was a broken heel after two weeks of punishing myself with my new activity. I didn't realize it then, but this broken heel would be the catalyst for my eventual decision to seek out treatment for my disorder once again.
I walked on the broken heel and continued to ride my bike for 3 weeks before it became swollen and discolored and I finally went to see the doctor. A few days later, I my right leg was covered in the first cast I had ever worn and my activity level went to absolute zero. I recall having mixed feelings about the cast and the crutches. On the one hand, I saw it as an opportunity to finally be safe from my compulsive exercising for a little while and on the other hand, I felt worthless and disgusting for being able to do absolutely nothing with my time except work, watch T.V., and eat. I responded to the cast initially by restricting my food intake heavily as I knew that my body would inevitably respond to the lack of activity by gaining weight but this severe restricting was eventually met with the overwhelming urge to binge, just as it always had been in the past. This time, my thinking became very black and white. After I gave into the urges the first time, I decided that having a cast would be the perfect opportunity to binge and purge to my disorder's content, hoping that maybe by not fighting the urges now, perhaps I could get it out of my system once and for all.
I made the decision to give up the fight. I see that now, I see that I fully gave myself to the disorder for the first time since I was a freshman in high school. Through all of the behaviors and all of the patterns that had gone on since my first treatment, there had always been a healthy voice fighting for my well-being, sometimes winning the fight and resulting in brief periods of remission, but often being overpowered by the self-destructive voice resulting in periods of relapse. For the first time in a long time though, I fully gave in to the disorder, completely ignored my healthy voice, and convinced myself that this was simply the type of life that I was destined to lead, so I may as well embrace it.
I spent the better part of those six weeks on crutches completely involved in my disorder. I distinctly recall enjoying what I was doing during this period. I lied to my therapist every time I saw her and embraced and engaged in my disorder every chance that I got. My binges became more elaborate and my technique for purging became refined. I was living only for the instant gratification that came with this sort of disordered behavior but as the days passed, my guilt and shame began to grow. I realized that my weight was increasing rapidly and I came to hate my behaviors each morning but made no real efforts to change them each night. I remember thinking at the time that my 'healthy' response to my newly embraced lifestyle was to restrict entirely throughout the day and live on Trident and diet pills until I could engage each evening. I realize now that my disorder was doing damage control as a way to protect itself and ensure that I would continue to engage. My weight reached it's highest point ever while I was on crutches and I knew that a caged beast would be released as soon as the cast came off.
I was right. The cast came off on a Tuesday and I was in San Diego and on my bike on Wednesday. My binging and purging came to an abrupt stop and I immediately began to wage a new war against my body. I fought my body ferociously in the months that followed the removal of my cast with a restricting and exercise regimin that would see my weight drop more than 30 pounds in 3 months. The relationship I had developed in the early part of the year immediately fell apart on an emotional front and work once again simply became the thing that I did in between bike rides. I became moody and irritable and recognized at some point that my body occasionally needed more food than I was giving it which led to one or two binges weekly. These binges were different though, they were at restaurants, with friends, in plain sight, and only after I felt I had earned them by over exercising for the entire day first. Once again, I was fully involved in my disorder and fully unaware of it. In fact, I felt at the time that I was doing myself a favor and living healthfully for the first time in a long time. I rationalized my restrictive lifestyle by telling myself that it was far healthier than binging and purging each night. I see now that I was settling for what felt like the lesser of two evils, though at the time I was convinced that I had my life under control for the first time since I began working with Cannondale.
I don't remember exactly when it happened, but at some point I once again gave into the urge to binge in private and to purge it immediately afterwards. I found myself living somewhere between Anorexia and Bulimia, restricting and exercising excessively most of the week so that I could justify 2-3 evenings without any control at all. I kept my struggles hidden from everyone around me, including my therapist and my thoughts became ever more suicidal as the days, the patterns and the behaviors drug on. I had come to terms with the fact that I no longer had any desire to race. How could I? If I decided to do that, it would mean that I'd have to begin to take care of myself again and I found myself becoming quite comfortable in the pain and misery that had become my world. My rides got longer towards the end of summer; I was searching for that feeling that came after a 24 hour race, that feeling that it was finally okay to relax and to let myself just be for a little while, but it never came. 10 hour solo road rides with only 9 powerbars to sustain myself and somehow it still wasn't enough. I began to wonder if there could ever really be an end to all of this.
I began to feel trapped once more. I began to feel trapped by myself, began to convince myself that maybe I was simply not meant to be happy or to function properly in this world. I began to feel like I had removed everything that could be causing my behaviors and yet, they remained. I had nothing left to take away from myself, nothing left to use as a scape goat for my unhappiness. I was beginning to realize that I could never run far enough to leave myself behind and it felt as though there would never be any way to truly seperate myself from my desire to destroy myself. My girlfriend left me after months of my complete emotional uninvolvement in our relationship and I felt for the first time ever as though my disorder had truly taken something away from me. I realized at that point that I was no longer in control of my life, that there was a distinct difference between what I really wanted to do and how I really wanted to behave and what I actually found myself doing and the ways in which I saw myself behaving. This person that I had become was not me, and I was living a life that I hated.
I stopped seeing my therapist and stopped taking my meds as everything in life came to feel pointless. I felt that I had finally allowed myself to realize that I was sick and that there was no hope of leading a healthy and happy life for me. I was depressed, miserable, isolated from the world emotionally, but never ever truly alone. I didn't want to run anymore, my demons were not ever going to be left behind and I was coming to accept that for the first time. I had not wanted to live for a long time, but for the first time I came up with a plan to kill myself and went to bed on October 2nd fully intent on carrying that plan out. I woke up on October 3rd with an ultimatum instead. I did not want to go on living the life that I was living, but I wanted so badly to believe that another life still existed and so I decided that I would either committ myself to recovering truly for the first time ever, or I would carry out my plan to end it all. I knew that if I had any chance of actually carrying out a plan to return to treatment, I needed to call the one person in the world that I knew would make it happen.
Everything that has happened since then is another letter entirely, but I will tell you now that I went back to treatment on October 4th and that I will be graduating from the program on January 25th in a very different place mentally, physically, and emotionally than I have ever been in before. I think having written all of this, that it's very fitting that I chose to do so now, being so close to moving on to the next step of my recovery. In writing about where I have been, I can see just how far I have come in this process and it's' incredibly helpful in times when I'm questioning exactly what recovery is or what it means to be able to see where I am and recognize that whatever recover is, I'm most certainly doing it with every day that passes.