For our third installment of Body Image Week, we welcome Ambassador Sarah. Sarah bravely opens up and talks about struggling with an eating disorder. It’s a pretty powerful post and I know you are going to glean so much encouragement from it.
This blog post was fairly easy to write, but difficult to share. Which is exactly why I needed to. Let’s talk about mental health, let’s talk about body image, let’s talk about what happens when you are no longer in control. Vulnerability is where you really become human.
I’d love to tell you that hiking and the outdoors cured my eating disorder, which plagued me for over six years in my mid-20s. However, like most (OK probably all), mental health disorders, it can’t be packaged quite so nicely with a pink bow and a tiny little box.
But what I can tell you, is that when I am out hiking, summiting mountains, climbing rocks, exploring and adventuring, I have learned to finally appreciate all my body does for me.
I have learned to listen to my body instead of listening to the negative voice in my head. Recognizing that my body can still go on when I want to quit or listening to know when I actually need to stop, feels like healing, after many, many years.
On the trail, my mind is often struggling, my body is struggling, but they are working together to conquer what is ahead. I’m no longer caught in the vice grip of what society tells me a woman “should” and “shouldn’t” look like. I only have this body, these legs to carry me and my mind to tell me to go and we are one. And we can get to some pretty amazing places.
Despite this, I admit that even today, when I tighten that strap of my backpack or my harness across my lower abdomen, the critical voice is there. It says, “you are too fat”, “you should be more in shape”, and “you don’t belong here”. “You should have a flat stomach and thin muscular arms. You should look more like the women you see on social media. You need to be…less”. But…I tell it to be quiet, because I belong out here more than anywhere. I am more. I exist in the quiet in between. And I am filled up again. I know my strong legs will carry me up mountains. My lungs will breathe the fresh air. My mind will keep me safe, with food, water, and shelter. Experience and wisdom back me and that is all that I truly need.
Looking back, I never thought I would be someone to have an eating disorder. I remember when I was growing up, I used to watch the after-school specials or movies about eating disorders, and knew how dangerous and unhealthy it was. Although I recognized that there was so much pressure, especially for girls, to be thin, I was naturally the “thin” one and never really thought too much about weight until my late teens.
In college, along the shores of Lake Superior, I started to hike and rock climb, but after college, I had definitely gained some weight and wasn’t super active. I was living back at home in North Dakota and working a job that was hopefully temporary while I tried to figure out my life. I missed college, the north woods, and longed to feel a sense of purpose. One day, in the winter of my 24th year, I decided to join a gym, eat less junk food and be healthier. These are healthy choices, right? And, I lost weight. All my friends commented and said how great I looked. I felt great. My naturally obsessive personality wanted more. I started running and working out every day for at least an hour and a half. I longed to be out west where I had been to on a road trip the previous year. I applied to do AmeriCorps and set out with a car stuffed full of my belongings that summer and drove 1,500 miles west to a city I had never been to.
After a wonderful year in AmeriCorps in Portland, Ore., where I biked to work, hiked or planted trees all day, worked out, ate healthy, I lost even more weight. I cut out more things from my diet, but always still ate three meals, just all very low calorie items.
Then, after spending another year in a city I loved, without the identity of AmeriCorps, family, or college behind me for support, I felt unbelievably lost once again.
Exercise and structure and control became my obsession to fill the dark spaces.
I wrote down everything I ate and recorded all my workouts. For a period of about 6 months when I worked a temp job, I would get up at 4:30 a.m. to eat a bowl of bran flakes, walk to the bus stop, get off early from the bus to walk more blocks, go to the gym for an hour and half, walk to my desk job where I would go three times a day to deliver mail up and down the stairs, walk on my lunch break, eat a sandwich at my desk, go to the gym after work for at least an hour, walk to the bus stop, get off early to walk home, eat dinner, eat cereal alone in my room, go to bed at 8:30 and do it all over again.
If I went outside to hike, it was mostly to burn calories, to lessen the guilt and anxiety of living. The woods no longer offered peace. Nothing did. I felt lost, alone, broke and disappointed in what my promising life had become. Lots of years passed, six years to be exact. I went back to Minnesota to Minneapolis for two years where mostly the same pattern occurred. Then I went to grad school back in North Dakota. My family sort of fell apart. I almost fell apart.And anorexia followed me all of those places and all of those days.
I knew that I was too thin, but still felt physically healthy, despite my desire to want to cover my bony legs and arms.
I kept thinking that if I changed where I was, I could feel better and get back to a normal healthy weight. But geography isn’t enough to save you. Gone were the days of sitting beside Lake Superior in college or hiking in the north woods and feeling that all the pieces were going to come together. I was constantly grasping at straws as the obsessions became stronger, and I became thinner, and life felt more and more hollow. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know how to really live.
I eventually was able to get student health insurance in grad school and see a psychologist and doctor who specialized in eating disorders during my last year of grad school when I knew my options were limited. I was tired just going up stairs, I was cold all the time, and I was always hiding under baggy clothes, as if everyone couldn’t already tell I wasn’t OK. I couldn’t keep going to school if I didn’t seek professional help. I managed to evade in-patient treatment despite the many discussions with my doctor of how it would be the best option and how I was severely underweight and how my heart could give out at any time. I was ready for help, but it was incredibly difficult to accept it.
I left therapy sooner than I probably should have after graduation since I no longer had health insurance. Being diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa is still something I very rarely talk about, still feeling a bit shameful and weak, as if I should have been stronger. But this is ridiculous.
Our struggles are what makes us human. Each story matters. The road back to health was not easy or short, but it’s road worth being on.
After grad school, I adopted a dog named Millie who keeps me feeling sane. I moved to Ohio. I found a career, new friends, and started to get back to yoga to feel in tune with my body. I found hope, health and eventually I have gotten back to the place that truly feels like home, Oregon. Hiking, rock climbing again, and now, even mountaineering (even though it terrifies me), are the things that motivate, inspire me, and make me feel whole. The community I have found with hiking and climbing friends make me feel like I have a place to belong and a voice to share my experiences with others.
Backpacking for the first times since college (pre-eating disorders days) I still find it hard to choose foods that are low volume and high calorie when I built a life around the opposite.
There is no better realization of how food and water are fuel than when you backpack or climb mountains. You aren’t going to have a good climb or hike if you are depriving your cells of what they need.
Feed your body and it will feed your soul.
There is still so much pressure on women to be thin and conventionally beautiful, even in the outdoor industry. It’s easy to feel bad about yourself if you compare yourself or your life to all the shiny photos on social media. But when I am with the mountains, the trees, and rivers, all of that quiets. The stillness and grandeur of life overrides all that noise and I feel at peace. Worthy. And so alive. There are lots of things I wish I would have spent all those years in my twenties doing, such as dating (I never really got past the first few dates, because that would have meant changing my routines), or climbing mountains, or starting a career. But I try not to believe in regrets and instead try to learn lessons from my experiences.
And this is what I have learned: we are all different and beautiful as nature intended, no matter what the size of pants you buy.I belong out with the tall trees, rocks, and mossy trails. And so do you.
Your body is the only thing you truly own. It is the only thing you are the true caretaker of. Be gentle with yourself and take on the challenges ahead. Strap on that backpack, put on those hiking boots and maybe even some crampons, and see where your marvelous legs and thighs will take you. Keep walking. The shadows are left behind and the sunlight greets you on the mountain. Be kind, be encouraging, introduce someone new to the outdoors and teach them how to be steward of the earth. Spend less time worrying about how you look and more time looking outward. Hike like a woman.