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By Gina Paulhus
I am a personal trainer. I get lots of compliments about my fitness level and my appearance. Most people seem to think it comes easily to me and I am just lucky.
They couldn't be farther from the truth.
Sure, I will admit that I enjoy working out. I also admit that I enjoy the taste of healthy foods. Maintaining my weight nowaways is not a big deal for me.
But it wasn't always like that.
I was definitely a bona-fide sugar addict as a kid--but what kid isn't? I think I took it a little further, though. I would sneak family size containers of snack foods into my room and polish it all off--sometimes multiple times a day. If I happened upon some spare change, the first thing I'd do is buy a bag of donuts all for myself, eat them as fast as I could, and hide the bag so that no one else would know. I remember crying when dinner was served just a few minutes later than usual. Food seemed to be there for me when nothing else was going right--and when no matter how hard I tried, I felt like I was disappointing someone.
As I became a teenager I figured out that my two loves--food and people-pleasing--were in stark contrast to one another. So I did my best to keep my weight down in spite of this food obsession--I compensated by engaging in compulsive exercise. I am talking up to ten hours a day on the days I could get away with it. To make things more interesting, I also had a warped idea of what weight was appropriate, so I alternated between 'successfully' starving myself into extreme thinness and 'failing' to do so and putting weight back on, all the while keeping up with the compulsive exercise. Unless people were continuously pointing out how skinny I was, I felt that I had to keep driving my weight lower no matter what it took.
As I entered college I started growing tired of this weary routine and experimented with making myself throw up. I figured out how to do it fairly quickly and just like that I dove headfirst into the rabbit hole of bulimia. Not exactly an enjoyable way to spend the better part of your 20s. Luckily I was able to overcome these disorders--first the anorexia, then the compulsive exercise--but bulimia was what took me the longest to overcome. I remember looking at overweight people and being jealous of them. Jealous that they could stand themselves to the point that they allowed food to stay inside their bodies. How I longed to be able to allow the food to stay inside my body. Over time I was able to keep food down occasionally, and my weight did in fact go up--to the tune of 60 lbs. But I still sometimes succumbed to the urge to make myself throw up. On the outside, to most people I probably seemed completely fine. I certainly tried to hide it. But things aren't always as they appear.
For me, an eating disorder in any way, shape or form wasn't really about food at all. It was mostly about me finding the only thing I could come up with that would calm my racing thoughts and help manage the immense pressure I placed on myself on a daily basis. I found that developing a regular practice of yoga helped me learn how to manage my thought process so that I didn't feel this urge to 'escape' life by overeating--at least not as strongly. And if I did once in awhile, I was able to move on and not force myself to compensate with unhealthy behaviors. As my mindset improved, I started sleeping better. I stopped letting things bother me so much. I was able to cry again--something I couldn't do at all when my eating disorder was at it's worst.
I work as a personal trainer, so naturally I encounter people all the time who need help managing their weight. The exercise part is pretty straightforward--give clients a program, encourage them, and keep an eye on their form. However, the food piece--that urge to overeat until your stomach hurts, until your brain goes numb, until the rest of the world fades away for that brief moment and you forget everything that is wrong--can be harder. You forget everything until the binge is over, and then everything, including and mainly YOUR SELF, feels so horribly wrong that sometimes you wish you weren't even alive. Because living with self hate is not really living at all.
So, I get it. I get the fact that it's a natural human coping mechanism, especially in today's society, to overeat. To choose the wrong foods. To go for convenience, for taste, for the easy way out. To mindlessly graze through the day, figuring 'you'll start again Monday.' To decide you'd rather numb out than actually live, even just for this one moment when it's just all too much to stand. Whether your drug of choice is food, or alcohol, or actual drugs, no matter. The abuse of all of them are all signs that you have lost your way.
I help people deal with these things as a personal trainer, but I also volunteer as an eating disorder mentor. I do this because I had a very special mentor myself who helped me recover. This mentor was there for me and believed in me during times when believing in myself seemed like a truly absurd proposition. I had several other mentors in my life who helped guide me in finding out why I wanted so badly to run from myself and what I needed to change about my life so that I wouldn't feel the need to escape anymore. I needed to learn to forgive myself when I messed up. I learned that it's OK to have needs and ask for help. Most of all I needed to find and use my voice, and realize that even if everyone did not like it, agree with it, or hear it, using my voice was the only thing that was going to heal me.
I had been waiting for a few people in my life to love me in a way I so desperately craved, and it wasn't happening. But no matter. I needed to love my Self, even if no one else did.
In the past, I was so desperate to attain the love of others that I forgot to love myself--and that was the one thing that was going to make things OK. At first I did it for my mentor, because he wanted me to get better. But then, as time went on, I wanted to get better too.
Several important people in my life have recently 'gone public' about their struggles with food, substance abuse, and mental illness. I also have some family members and friends whose lives are affected right now. Seeing others share tales from their darkest days led me to feel driven to share my story as well. I am ready to share it widely in the hopes that more people will see that we truly are all human and everyone has their own struggles. I believe that if we find some answers for our own personal struggles we need to pay it forward to hopefully help pull someone else along who might need a little boost.
I truly believe that my eating disorder could have cost me my life if nothing had changed, but because I was willing to keep fighting and try to find a way out, I escaped the cage of a life it had me locked into. I stopped waiting around for certain people in my life to convince me I was worth it. I decided I was worth it. I decided to take the self destruction I had been engaging in and use that effort towards good. I woke up one day and decided to make a different choice.
I also want to share the message that you never know what might help things 'click' for you no matter what problem you're going through or how long you've been dealing with it. Please don't give up if you still looking for your answer. I remember reading stories like these and thinking, 'She's different. She can recover. I can't.' I'm here to tell you--
YOU CAN. I ALWAYS COULD. I JUST DIDN'T KNOW IT YET.
As long as you keep looking for your solution, and help out others who might be able to benefit from your experiences in life, everything is just as it should be. You aren't supposed to be fixed right now--you're just supposed to try. It's OK to be a work in progress. It's OK to mess up as long as you dust yourself off and try again.
You are not alone!
Even though life is a lot better for me now than it used to be, I need to stay on top of things. Nothing is ever guaranteed and there are no permanent fixes. Just one day at a time.
And be careful about feeling 'jealous' of someone who seems like they have it all. I guarantee you, things are not always as they appear.
I will be posting a series of articles describing in more detail how I worked on recovery step by step and what helped me to overcome my battles with food. Whether you're a binge eater, have anorexia, or just struggle to stick to a healthy food plan, you will probably find the articles helpful. Stay tuned!Click here to read more about me.
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Great work, honesty Very Brave! Proud of you! Go Gina XOXO PS Ginger is saying paws up from heaven :)
Gina! I am so very proud of you! I have known you since you were a teenager. Beautiful always, I never knew you were fighting this struggle. I am so sorry …
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Thank you for sharing this with those of us who are still in the grips of a disorder.