Emily’s story is her own, but it is also part of a larger chorus about the struggle of running at St. Olaf. She’s tough and she’s wonderful, and I’m so glad that she asked me to share her fight with you. Also, I hope she doesn’t mind I stole the awesome pic from her Facebook page, because it is the picture of a woman who’s unafraid.
That’s my intro, and now the rest of this is all her:
Apples and Collarbones, and the Omnipresent ED
“I don’t really eat apples anymore. Their sickly-sweet smell gives me nausea, bringing me back to the days when they were a “treat” after lunch, a lunch I’d waited five hours to eat. Back then, there were rules for everything—when to eat (five hours in between meals), when to exercise (every day), how long to exercise (until you were exhausted), and when to sleep (as much as you could). It took me a while to get there, to that place.
“There” was junior year of high school, when I honed in on my high school’s 400m dash record. “There” when I realized that cutting dessert in the name of shaving seconds off my time actually worked, “there” being pacing my team through workouts, always a step ahead, slingshotting around that second curve faster than I thought possible, “there” being “I feel dizzy, it’s probably nothing,” “there” being losing circulation to my outer limbs as my body slowly starved itself, “there” being the gaunt curve of my collarbone that jutted out in distaste for the skin it covered, “there” being an irritable wreck at all hours of the day, “there” being brushing my dull-colored hair and watching it fall out in clumps, “there” being waiting five hours just to peel the skin off a damn apple and feign satisfaction.
I remember my eating disorder (ED) because I thought it was diagnosed backwards—my technical diagnosis was ED-NOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), the grab bag for folks who fail to fit squarely into anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or others in the DSM. I showed a combination of symptoms across the board. People kept asking me what the hell was wrong, but I couldn’t explain it to them. I wanted to be the best; wasn’t that worth it?
I remember the tingling trepidation as I entered St. Olaf Track and Field, knowing the team’s reputation of dogged determination and dinner plates heaped with spinach, one tiny chicken breast, and an apple. At that point, I had already traced the roots of eating disorders through my extended family – a genealogy of self-restriction and starvation – and knew I was gambling with my mental health as I did so.
To bring my weight up and convince myself to eat again, I told myself that if I wanted to reach my peak performance, I needed to properly fuel my body to do so. It’s technically an accurate statement, but it only put me in a new cycle of exercise dependence. Now, in order to justify eating anything, I had to exercise to “balance it out.”
The fact that the running culture at Olaf seemed to quietly accept this sort of dependence only fueled my new habits. You quickly learned the runner’s hierarchy of needs—exercise came first, then a small plate of leafy greens and small protein portions just palatable enough to be vaguely satisfying before settling in for long hours of studying. There was always a reason to starve—you just had to want it enough.
This kind of thinking had served me well as a competitor, but alongside my ED, it bared its teeth when I barely hit 97 pounds on the scale.
At this point, most folks I knew experienced depression alongside their eating disorder, a shadow side occupying the fringes of rules, naked collarbones, and syrupy apples. But my therapist, wise as ever, recognized my discombobulated ED as a symptom of deeper distress and worked to heal that divide through high school and college. Though slow, that method worked.
The ED symptoms remained, but I blended right in at Olaf, where so many around me practiced habits just borderline enough to be considered sane, all in the name of discipline. My haphazard plan worked for a while – I brought my weight up, my skin grew to cover the jut in my collarbone, and the circulation returned to my fingers. Halfway through college, I ran the most intoxicating race of my life. I remember waving the conference heat sheet in my coach’s face, desperate to know how the hell I was supposed to strategize in the second heat of the 600m dash when all six of us were ranked within one second of each other. She shrugged and said, “Get out fast and hang on.”
You don’t come out of blocks for a 600m. I remember jogging up to the line and crouching over awkwardly at the “On your marks” and waiting for the gun. When it went off, so did I. From lane five in the indoor track, I made the cut at the 200m ahead of the other runners. I remember literally running like someone was chasing me, mostly because I was terrified of being passed before the finish line and humiliated.
In the end, I ran through the finish and doubled over 20m past it, unsure of why my coach and teammates were shrieking in my ears. I looked up at my coach and then at the scoreboard, which flashed two sets of numbers to my dizzy eyes. The score shattered my previous PR and landed me in the lead, which I held even as the final heat of the fastest runners took their marks.
As much as I can still taste the sweaty, salty victory from that race, I also remember the wicked jolt of coming down from that high a week later, when I cleaned my locker late one night and did not return to track again. Despite my apparent “success,” I was very unwell mentally and emotionally and couldn’t face my teammates, the same ones who had surrounded me, screaming, a week earlier when I crossed the finish line in a most unlikely victory.
I had slowly, painfully reached the conclusion that I would never be free from my ED. Even after years of competition and finishing the best race of my life, my depression clawed at me with the same urgency as my hunger. I knew that the only way out was the way in, back into my ED and why it was happening, which I couldn’t do while pretending I was sane and healthy.
A few days later, after the outdoor season began and I worked out late at night to avoid any runners I knew, I ran into Rachel Dean in Fireside. I knew she was a distance runner and I remember being afraid that she, like others, would wonder why I couldn’t just muscle through it, keep calm, run your intervals, show some goddamn stamina and discipline. Instead, I remember sitting down to someone who understood exactly what I was doing and praised me for my decision.
I explained that I wanted my body to rest, needed to take a step back and heal my habits before they became too permanent, to go back into therapy and rest from competition (perhaps permanently), and she completely understood. I left that conversation feeling hopeful.
That point was, by no means, the end of the story, and won’t beleaguer you with too many details. Many of our stories contain heroes who confronted us when we were too starved to think straight, mothers who shrieked in our faces and threatened to take away college if we didn’t “get our act together,” friends who helped us face our self-harm, visible and invisible, soft-spoken young women named Anna who manned the Suicide Hotline on cool March evenings, siblings who made clear that they give zero shits about how fast we run, as long as we give them back their sister.
I can say that with ED and depression, my greatest life challenges have become cyclical in a hypnotic, almost comforting way. When you know you can’t beat something into submission, there is an opportunity to ask how you can live with it and learn from it.
I know I will technically spend the rest of my life in recovery. I don’t mean to sound dramatic – it’s merely a vocalization of what I know to be true. I’ll never “crush” my ED. I’ll never fully be in remission, free from relapse, free from dragging myself through a run even though my ankle is throbbing, free from shedding hair and collarbones and the claw of hunger, the apple suddenly not falling very far from the tree.
I was lucky enough to face the 97-pound demon while I still had the wherewithal to do so, before the habits wore ruts into trenches in my mind. However, the competitive running environment at Olaf was not conducive to conversations about ED, mental health, and overall holistic well-being. It’s a tough balance to strike, holding a competitive edge while creating scaffolding and services for struggling athletes to access and use, but one St. Olaf desperately needs.
It’s one of the reasons I wrote this piece, to carry on the stories Rachel and Emma wrote, to add yet a third underline to this narrative that ED has a terrible, special hold on runners, particularly runners at Olaf.
This culture is one that will not lessen by muscling through it, head down, throbbing ankles and stress fractures and hearts aside. The only way to go is in—into the uncomfortable conversations, into the lifelong ramifications of ED, into the ways we can strive to build a culture of female runners who have a healthy relationship with food and exercise rather than a contract with it.
Just as I felt after I spoke with Rachel, this dialogue continues to give me hope. It is possible to deconstruct and build a new culture of runners at Olaf, but that will be impossible if we carry on with business as usual. Don’t let the voices and stories of your alumni go unheard. Grab the heat sheet, march up to the starting line, and throw down the gauntlet.