Most of you will be aware that its Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illness and they can affect anyone. No matter who I am working with athletes or non athletes, it never ceases to amaze me just how brutal and punishing an illness it is.
This year for EDAW, Anorexia and Bulimia Care have set up the campaign, A change of gear, where we are looking for your support to join us, make a noise about ABC and share your experiences.
We are very lucky that we have such great ambassadors - one of these Holly Rush, a marathon and ultra marathon runner for the GB team on several occasions has agreed to share her story - all that is left to say is Thank you and we hope it helps.
I was lucky enough be bought up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Somerset, this may be some peoples nightmare but for me it was simply idyllic. My father was a Gamekeeper and my mother shared her time between looking after me, the copious amount of animals we had, tending her garden and early mornings milking at the local dairy farm. My early days were always spent on the go, helping dad around the farm, messing about with my pony and walking through the woods with the dogs. Structured exercise was never a part of my life or my parents. We just lived a very outdoor active life, full of fresh air and simple things. Food was something we enjoyed but it wasn’t a major part of our lives. We ate a lot of wild game (obviously), fresh veggies (usually swede and kale that dad had pulled out of the ground an hour before dinner) and dumplings (stews were a big part of our lives) and drank gallons of raw milk or water. I don’t remember any processed foods in our house…may be the odd digestive biscuit but as a result I didn’t have the remotest of sweet tooth’s. In fact, when asking Mum the other day about what I actually ate as a child, she reminded me that she kept a huge jar of sweets that friends/relatives gave me that I barely touched (this sounds remarkable now…considering my sugar love affair). I hated sweet fizzy drinks or squash and always favoured water or milky tea. I did however have a very healthy appetite and could easily polish off anyone’s leftovers, something I still have no trouble with today (mum used to say I had hollow legs).
At the age of 8 my parents split up and my mum and I moved out of the farm and into a tiny house in Wells, not far from the farm but into a city….which was a big change for me and something I really struggled with. I saw my dad every day after school at the farm but I missed my freedom to roam and spend time with the animals, my life in Wells was good but again this soon changed when my mum met my stepdad and we moved again. Moving in with a ready-made family was tough but also really exciting. We had all been friends since I was very small but this new set up was set to be a real challenge for everyone concerned. By this time I was 12, still very active with my riding but I wasn’t remotely interested in organised sports as such. Food was just a normal part of my life and not something I really paid any attention to.
Not long before my 18th birthday I made the big decision to follow my boyfriend to London, looking back this was a major turning point in my life. I got a full time job in sales and marketing and starting earning some decent money. Life in London was just extraordinary……after dinner drinks, take away, boozy work pub lunches. All this with little activity came at a price and that was inability to do up my jodhpurs, however this still didn’t seem to bother me enough to do anything about it until I went to watch a work colleague run the LondonMarathon. I remember it clear as day…it was 1996 and it was blisteringly hot. I stood outside a pub near the Cutty Sark and proceeded to quaff down several pints of Stella interspersed with a mega burger whilst cheering on the runners. I had watched the race on telly but never live and I remember being surprised at the number of ‘ordinary’ people running……old, young, thin, fat, fairies, bananas, gorillas and copious amounts of rhinos. I can’t really remember if the beer was talking or I genuinely meant it but I ended up promising my mates I was standing with that I would run the marathon the following year for charity. Clearly I was terribly unfit….I had never taken part in a race before, let alone go for a run, I was 19 and about to start university but I was determined to give it a go.
By December I had contacted an animal charity, got a golden bond place and joined a gym. The charity had been kind enough to send me a rough training plan and organise a few get together days for other runners. This was hilarious as I had no idea of what to wear, what to eat etc. but I bumbled through with the help of others (remember this was before google…..). I entered Bath Half marathon as my first race which went without a hitch but also helped establish that running in rugby shorts and socks don’t make for a comfortable ride (chaffing hell). The marathon itself went better than expected….I made the start line which was a miracle, although it peed it down with rain (which again resulted in lots of chaffing in the most unglamorous places!) I ran the whole way and crossed the line just under 4hrs with a big relived smile on my face. All my family came to watch and we all went to the pub afterwards to celebrate. I genuinely think they all thought that would be the last time I would do something so crazy and go back to my normal ways…….and I guess that’s also what I thought too but things didn’t turn out that way. I’m not sure what happened but something turned a switch on in my head.
After the initial…..praise and adoration of completing the marathon people stopped asking how I got on and could I show them my medal……I started to become quite down and withdrawn, not something I saw coming. I decided to keep training and upped my gym visits to everyday (I was still quite nervous about running outside so tended to do most of my running on the treadmill) whilst keeping an eye on how many take away I was eating and drinking less beer. Within 12 months I was back on the start line with a half pb of 1hr 26 and over a stone lighter…..I ran 3hrs 14 (around that…..I can’t actually remember but I know it was under the 3.15 champ start time). I was over the moon but determined to go faster…all this training had changed my body so much and so quickly, this only equated in my mind that weighing less meant more training and refining my diet even more. By this time I had already binned all snacking and take aways and had increased the time I spent in the gym daily. After the marathon things only got worse. I was spending up to half my day in the gym and if I couldn’t do that I would come back in the evening to expend more calories. I was obsessed with the calorie number on the machine and set myself ridiculous targets that I had to hit before I was able to eat dinner. Calories were counted at every opportunity which was incredibly tiring and frustrating…..something that would have been alien to me when I lived at home…..even now I can tell you how many calories are in 100g of oats or a fun sized Crunchie (this never leaves you no matter how recovered you are). I tended to eat a very calorie restricted breakfast…..avoid lunch or have a cuppa soap or a very small bowl of cereal and then eat a normal dinner in the evening as I didn’t want anyone in the flat to notice I wasn’t eating properly. Obviously my weight was dropping rapidly….I had gone from 10st to now 7.5st. I was running faster and felt good wearing tiny clothes but I was desperately unhappy inside, I had split up with my long term boyfriend, I was struggling at uni (because I spent most of my time in the gym or slept through lectures) and I was totally skint. This all culminated in breaking my foot in a local half marathon just 6 weeks before London Marathon…….I was devastated. Stupidly I didn’t correlate the fact I wasn’t eating anything with poor bone health……my periods had stopped over a year before and not only was I now super stressed I was deeply unhappy. I cross trained like a women possessed and ran the marathon 6 weeks later…..I finished just under 3.15 again but hobbled the last 10k in sheer agony. I spent the next 6 weeks on crutches in a fog of depression. The following two years continued with yo-yoing between stress fractures and trying to finish my degree. During this period of starvation and over exercising I flirted with making myself sick after meals. Depriving myself from food was taking its toll, deep down I loved food and the social aspect it brings to life was missing, I wanted to eat with friends or go out for dinner and let’s face it I was starving but this only made me feel shit afterwards so purging seemed the only option. This is when I realised it had all gone too far, I felt disgusting. I had lost the reason I started running, I had lost my innocence with food and I had become someone I hated. I went to see my GP and unloaded everything on her…..to my surprise she said she had been waiting for me to come and see her as she had red flagged me months ago….…it was a relief.
My bone density was now in the osteoporosis range and my periods had been absent for 8 years. I went for counselling and treatment at my local hospital and with the help of my course tutor I took a year out from uni to go home and recover. I took a long break from competing (5yrs) and actually moved back to Bath to work after completing my degree. It was here that I met my coach and now husband who helped me get back to training and competing at a healthy level.
So where am I now. Whilst I don’t think you can ever truly get over disordered eating I do think you can learn to love yourself and appreciate that there are so many other important things in the world to open your eyes too. I love food, I love running, I love sharing both these things with friends and the people I love. I don’t ever want to be back in that mind set again, I would rather be a normal size than thin, starving and unhappy.
I hope that anyone reading this who sees some similarities does something about it now…….having osteoporosis has seriously affected the way I train and the constant fear of a little niggle being another stress fracture. Food is not the enemy, the way you feel about and see yourself is the key.