“You Can Never Have An Eating Disorder That Isn’t ‘Serious Enough'”

Charmaine is an undergraduate at the University of Bristol reading International Social and Public Policy. When she’s not running, you can probably find her in climbing gyms, the mountains or some corner of Bristol. If she’s not outdoors, she’s probably cooped up with a book about the human condition, a social issue or someone’s adventure. All things aside, she believes in sharing and connection. We are all walking libraries, connected by the power of stories for the empathy and understanding that they can foster.  

NOTE: Eating disorder behaviors mentioned.

2017: An Innocent Diet Journey

For the bulk of my teenage years, I struggled with disordered eating. I was a competitive athlete in Triple Jump, and failed to perform during the 2017 season. That prompted me to go on a weight loss journey, with the innocent desire to improve my performance. I thought that if I weighed less, I could ‘jump further.’ 

I started off by eliminating certain food from my diet and tracked every food item I consumed. Knowing cardiovascular activity was known to help with weight loss, I started running. As the numbers decreased on the scale, I became more motivated. I decreased my calorie limit every week while increasing my weekly mileage. 

After four months into my diet, I became severely underweight and my periods stopped. I was constantly cold, and when I walked the whole world moved on without me. I morphed into someone I could barely recognise. I withdrew socially from everyone and could go a day without speaking to anyone in school. I’d hit the bed thinking about what I’d have for breakfast the next day and be woken up by incessant stomach growls throughout the night. I’d scroll through endless recipes on healthy eating, and scrutinise the nutritional value of every food packaging that passed through my hands. I knew how many calories an egg had, or which brand of tuna had the lowest calories. I’d have a meltdown because my mother bought white bread instead of wholewheat, or because there was rice on my plate. I sat on the bus with my phone buzzing, simply because I had no energy to even reply a text. 

2018: Silent Killer

When the people around me started to suspect something, I would play smart and increase my food intake. But I’d make up for it by exercising more, and that kickstarted my whole binge-eating restricting cycle. Because I had been restricting for so long, whenever I started eating, I’d lose control and stuff loads of food down. Feeling guilty after, I’d lock myself up in the toilet purging everything out. If it wasn’t purging, it would be going to the treadmill to try and ‘sweat’ everything out. After a purge / exercise session, I’d weigh myself to make sure I weighed the same as before. Continuous cycles of these led to immense dehydration and large gulps of water, but I’d throw all of them up afterwards because I simply couldn’t stand the feeling of fullness in my belly. 

In my head, a day of ‘victory’ would entail eating, running, and then going on a purge. Running became an ‘entry pass’ for me to eat, and when I felt that I didn’t earn enough ‘rights’ to eat, I’d overcompensate by purging more. At my worst, I would vomit out blood. Whenever there was a break in between lessons, I’d make a dash for the toilet. 

This was in 2018. I was in my last year of secondary school. I was the captain of the Track and Field team, and my performance for the 2018 season improved. Besides, I was excelling academically and chairing a fundraising committee. Everything seemed to be in order. I regained some of the weight I had lost, and no longer looked as malnourished. I was eating a little more. Yet deep down, I craved to go back to my lowest weight. I’d have panic attacks after eating. I’d look back at old pictures and tell myself I wasn’t skinny ‘enough’. I’d keep some irrational food rules for the ‘safety’ they gave me. I stuck to my running routines out of fear that my weight would skyrocket if I stopped. Running became a psychological crutch, and continued to be for the next three years. 

2019-20: Not Here Not There

When I graduated from secondary school / junior high, I made a mental note to myself to start junior college / high school on a fresh page. I was determined to graduate without having purged in any of the school toilets. I was determined to work towards recovery. 

I joined the school’s cross-country team without having clear intentions. I wanted to challenge myself but subconsciously knew that it would also be a good way for me to burn calories. In short, I was in denial about running being a psychological crutch. 

Objectively, I was significantly better. I never went close to my lowest weight and was relatively healthy. I had a good social life in school and could go as far as to say that those two years were the best years of formal education. I had supportive friends, supportive teachers, and thrived. I learnt lots, and grew lots. 

Yet at the back of my mind, I still had unresolved problems. I was unable to go a day without physical activity, and could never order noodles without requesting less. I’d study in school till late and lie to my friends that I had dinner at home just to avoid having to order food delivery (because I couldn’t bring myself to finish one serving of food). Whenever I had a ‘bad’ run, I’d convince myself that it was because I had eaten too much and ‘gained’ weight, then punish myself by eating less post-run. After festive periods, I’d set my mind to a period of restricting and only allowed myself to consume one meal a day. 

But because I’d often compare to my state two years ago, I’d convince myself that I was ‘fine’, and that my condition wasn’t serious enough to warrant any help. To make matters worse, I was performing in training and competitions, so that reduced any incentive to fix my disordered eating patterns. Throughout lockdown, the lack of movement worsened my condition. I’d be so consumed by the calorie tracker on my Garmin watch that if I didn’t burn a certain amount of calories, I couldn’t eat or had to go for a second run to ‘earn my food’. 

2021-22: Meandered Silence

In 2021, for many other reasons, my mental health plummeted to an all-time low. Feeling extremely out of control, I turned to eating as a way to regain control. My innate strive for excellence also led me to sign up for the national development squad as I wanted to take my running to higher levels. Needing to hit workout timings led to my fixation on numbers in all areas of my life again. Eventually, I relapsed. 

I started restricting more again by skipping meals whenever I could, just to feel hungry. Yet, I often failed and would mentally beat myself up for being weak. I’d subconsciously draw comparisons to my abilities to restrict in 2017, and embark on vicious cycles of self-blame and self-hatred. To make up for my inability to restrict as much, I would engage in massive amounts of exercise. Despite already having club training at night, I would still wake up early in the morning to run or swim, then boulder in the afternoon. My days would revolve around physical activity, and any lack of them would make me highly anxious. This eventually led to a bout of overtraining syndrome — sleepless nights, loss of appetite and chronic muscle aches. Yet, because I never dropped to my lowest weight, I would as usual convince myself that I was ‘fine’, and dismissed any thought of seeking professional help. 

This went on for the next 1.5 years. Although 2022 was arguably better — with me engaging in healthier exercise habits and mindsets  — some thoughts still lingered. There were days I would stop myself from eating proper meals because I wasn’t ‘active enough’. Even while training for my half marathon, I’d subconsciously reduce my food intake on rest days because I wasn’t ‘exerting as much’. 

2023: Now What?

Looking back, I wished I learnt that you can never have an eating disorder that isn’t ‘serious enough.’ I wished I learnt that you don’t have to run to eat. I wished someone saw through my disordered eating habits, and pulled me aside to check-in.

Recovery is a spectrum, and one that I have been hovering on. The good days have slowly been outweighing the bad, and I have been at my healthiest mentally. I am learning to be kinder to myself — to know that there’s nothing wrong with rest, and nothing wrong with going a day without physical activity. I am learning that there’s a balance between discipline and self-harm; a balance between pushing and punishing. 

I’ve entered the Copenhagen marathon with one aim — to preserve the integrity of running. To run not for the numbers. To run because it reminds me of what my mind and body are capable of. To run because it reminds me of the journey I’ve been through. And run because it has shaped me into the person I am today. 

Strength in Numbers

To all the runners out there, may we always find the strength within us to fight off the demons — to run because it makes us feel alive, and run because we want to run. To eat because we are human, and rest because we are human. To find the courage to seek help, to cull the silence and wield mental fortitude in the right ways. Mental fortitude can be power, but power in harm, when wielded in the wrong ways. 

And to all family, friends, coaches and supporters of runners, may we all be the right pillars and carry the right intentions. To be careful about words said — to avoid comments on physical appearance, or comparison using numbers. To teach athletes that effort is relative, and to enjoy the process. To ensure identities and worth do not revolve around running. To celebrate and not worship success. To flag out the red flags, and make them green. To provide shelter, safety, and solidarity.

Male or female, black or white, rich or poor — may no athlete around us have to suffer in silence.

With love and solidarity.