“Aren’t you scared of becoming too buff?” someone gasped at me during a dinner gathering the other day. I was almost gobsmacked. First, I was shocked that anyone could associate the word “scared” with “buff.” (As far as I am concerned, stronger is everything that I want to be, and becoming “buffer” is a side effect that I really can’t complain about ;D Plus, as an asian female, this feat is next to impossible...;) ). Then, I was horrified when I realized that this was probably the mentality of every other person at the dinner. Being quite safely cocooned in the accepting community of my box, I have to admit that it’s been a while since I’ve touched on the issue of body image and weight. Muscles = beautiful and strength = awesome had basically become a norm in my world, and it was almost disenchanting to realize that outside, many women are still suffering from severe cases of hulk-phobia.
I am always asked the question, "Why do you like running?" More recently I’ve also been getting the question, “How can I make myself like running?” The first question is not an easy one in itself, and although I know in every cell of mine that I absolutely love it, I still find myself at a loss for words when I have to come up with an answer. However, the second one puzzles me beyond compare and I normally find my reply peppered with incomprehensible giggles because I actually have no idea how to formulate a response. Since I find that I often express myself better in writing, I will attempt to use this post to organize my thoughts (though I can’t exactly promise full lucidity…)
I am fully aware that the motion of picking your legs up over and over again is a monotonous one for many people. The burning lungs, legs, and indeed every part of the body cannot ever be described as “pleasant” in anyone’s books, so I usually disregard using any physical references in the initial portion of my explanation.
Instead, I usually begin with comparing it to something that I know the other person loves, whether it be singing, dancing or playing an instrument. At the end of the day, it comes down to the feelings. Most of these deep core feelings are a product of familial influence, while some are cultivated through undergoing profound experiences. Either way, this course of maturation is best described with the phrase “to each their own”, or the fact that the development of interests is unique to every person.
However, these emotions can never be forced. Just as it is impossible that I will ever learn to like, let alone be good at ball games, one cannot simply be made to love running. A person can pretend to enjoy it for a short period of time for the sake of achieving another goal (impressing someone, getting fit), but because joy is not made a priority in any of these cases, the enjoyment becomes extremely short lived. The only way a love for something can be durable is if it IS the reason you dedicate time to an activity: while side effects are definitely attractive, nothing has quite the same holding power as pure passion for the actual activity does.
I once tried to make myself like basketball when my parents told me that it would help me grow taller. You would think that the incentive to grow a few inches might be a strong enough motivation to make a vertically challenged individual like myself want to play basketball every day for hours on end. But even though I would show up faithfully for training every week and stay for the full 2 hours, I found myself checking my watch every few minutes and hating that the time dragged on so slowly. Worst of all, because I had no real interest in playing, I didn't take the initiative to practice outside of training time, and hence I did not improve. And stagnancy, guys and girls, is the most deadly thing that can happen in the process of pursuing something. When you lose the motivation to push for something, or never had it in the first place, you get stuck in a time warp, a hamster wheel, where you are turning in endless circles and suffering but never going anywhere. To put it bluntly, you are wasting time.
I’ve seen people in the gym on the treadmill with a newspaper spread open in front of them and earphones plugged in, looking like they would rather be anywhere than there. They zone out from the activity at hand, looking for ways to distract themselves from the pain, then get off the treadmill when “the time is up”, relieved that they have fulfilled their “duties.” These are the moments when I want to ask, “Duties prescribed by who?”
I'm not encouraging you to give up when things get hard or when you get bored, but I am suggesting that if you view running as a mortal enemy and dread it like you dread owning up after you accidentally broke your mom’s antique Venetian vase, you should probably stop. This is probably surprising to hear, but if I believe anything, I believe that pursuits in life, whether it be playing a sport, playing an instrument or beginning a project, must originate from passion, be carried out with joy and continued with perseverance. This is an inclusive cycle, meaning that it will crumble if it lacks even one segment. If you had no zeal to begin with, you will not seek to improve, and without the incentive of progress, you will never experience accomplishment, and therefore you will not be stimulated to continue.
I can say with quite a high degree of certainty that one’s relationship with running, and indeed any sport, is either one of love or one of hate (kind of like whether or not you like durian :P), and rarely any in-betweens. This is because the only reason that people can stick to an activity that causes them pain at times is because it keeps giving back. That’s just how humans work - we are egged on my rewards and only commit when we can see that our efforts are paying off. We are hardly ever willing to sacrifice if we know that we will not receive acknowledgement or results in return.
If you get one message from this post, I hope that it was something along the lines of “I should be doing something I love.” Just because a lot of people enjoy an activity doesn’t mean that you must. Even if your goal is “just to get fit” doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your happiness to achieve it, and the two NEVER have to be mutually exclusive. You have to remember that although mental health doesn’t have the same concrete measurement as physical health, the mental drive is what will ultimately preserve your determination and is definitely equally, if not more, important.
For those of you who are unhappy with the answer above (“but you said that the love for running can be developed!”) and seek to keep trying to find that vigor for running, my best advice is to stay present. Take out the earphones, stop watching cartoons and heck, get off the treadmill and go find a trail. Stop trying to distract yourself and stop thinking of running as a torturous activity. Yes, that means feeling the screaming of the muscles and the sharp shortness of the breath, but it also means feeling the wind brushing across your face and the breeze combing through your hair and the liberal cycling of the legs and the sturdiness of the ground as it passes beneath your feet. Enjoyment is a bed of roses: it is luxurious and beautiful, but it is also populated with thorns. In the end, it is up to you to decide whether you would really be able to ignore the thorns enough to revel in the roses...
A word of warning before you start reading: this post may drown you with clichés and cause you to experience the "chicken pox skin" sensation that usually occurs when award speeches about how people succeeded because they "believed in themselves" and "never gave up" are delivered. *Cue shudder* But I'm not here to give you an empty pep talk and I promise that the clichés I use will (hopefully) have their significance in expressing something.
My friend once said to me, “If you keep telling yourself that you suck, you will always suck.” In other words, if you keep believing that you can’t do it, you really won’t be able to.
“She just broke her promise - that’s such a meaningless cliché”, you might be thinking, “This is the ‘believe in yourself’ talk all over again.” And that’s exactly what I thought – I simply didn’t buy the concept that the mind could, at any point, take charge over the powerful and mysterious rein of the body.
But my eating disorder changed that. My mind assumed royalty as it ignored my body’s pleas to feed it, to stop hurting it, to let it rest. The dreams that had seemed so achievable and that I was so excited about moved more and more out of reach as the noise of the media and my surroundings seeped into my brain, adding on to an ever-expanding list of expectations. This was no “to-do list”, where I could easily tick off items and feel accomplished afterwards. This was a list of demands, where I had to finish a given list of items before I could feel release - a feeling that would only last until I realized that it was almost time to start worrying about what I would have to do the next day. What I once did for the sole sake of passion became a never-ending quest to please my mind, the influence of which I had so underestimated.
You might be amazed to hear that in the midst of all this mental and physical torture, I thought that I was doing something good for myself. I had always been taught to reach for the stars and to keep going until I had collected not one, but a bag full of the glittering gems that we granted our wishes upon. In restraining my whims, forcing myself to work my body to the point of exhaustion and even controlling my basic human desires such as eating felt like success to a girl who had heard from so many magazines and TV shows that in order to be "healthy and fit", she had to "stay focused", "train hard" and "count calories."
I wanted to be everything every magazine suggested would lead me to the "perfect body" and "a happy life" - but instead of following just one meal plan or one exercise routine at a time, I tried to follow every single piece of advice I read or heard about, and ignored all the parts that I didn't want to listen to. This meant that I did the HIIT workout from one magazine, as well as the swim intervals from another, plus the toning workout from the third magazine all in one day fuelled by nothing more than a protein shake because I had learned from the fourth magazine that ingesting protein (and no fat or carbohydrate) was the only way to get lean (disregarding that the magazine only said to follow the plan for 1 week, of course). In a world where extremities were the only choice, I had it ingrained in my head that the more I did, the better the results.
But the body is not a machine. The way it works cannot be calculated by simple math - eating less calories does not necessarily mean that you’ll get skinnier faster, nor does doing more exercise necessarily mean that you’ll get fitter faster. The body has a mind of its own - it needs to be pleased before it will do what you want it to do. You can follow guidelines that support the general well-being of the body, but you simply have to go by feeling to appease your own body’s unique desires.
Going by feeling is definitely easier said than done, and to this moment I still cannot claim that I can do it. I can kind of tell when my body is annoyed and what kinds of signals raise red flags, but it is often still very difficult for me to determine the solution to the problem. What I can say for sure though is that there is no universal formula to “the perfect body” let alone “the perfect life.” Just because the skinny actress of TV looks is photographed smiling like she is having the time of her life doesn’t mean that she isn’t sometimes plagued with self doubt. In all honesty, YOU, my friend, not the svelte model nor the flawless actress, are the true lucky one. While they are pressured to look good and have to hide their insecurities all whilst tabloids and the paparazzi mercilessly attempt to poke them out for public discussion, YOU have the luxury of choice, of feeling good on your journey to whatever you are aiming for.
I am in no way saying that I enjoyed having an eating disorder, but I can say with certainty that I learned invaluable lessons from it and acquired life skills that I would otherwise have missed. I think that can be said for every obstacle that we overcome in life and is embodied in the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." The determination that once meant blindly stringent control transformed into a zest for my sports and life in general - the tight hold that I had on my goals that had once been a hazard to my life became the mental drive that powered me through the sprint finish of a race even when my legs were burning and that kept me awake during a particularly boring topic in math class.
I finally saw that I had been reaching for the sun instead of the stars all along - and like Icarus, had been put to shame by challenging an omnipotent power.
Sorry if you have been reduced to a shuddering mess due to my use of clichés, but I hope that you kind of understood what I've been getting at. And when you actually think about it, aren't clichés only cliché because they were repeated so many times? And if something was repeated so many times, it MUST mean something, at least to some of us, right? Maybe I really should be using the them more mercilessly from now on...
Time is really the only thing that can make a tangible difference to a situation: it can turn a child into an adult, a mind yet to be touched by pain to one that is marked with battle wounds and trauma into neutrality, or if you’re lucky, gratefulness and joy. During my trip to China in the past week, one that I embarked on 2 years ago, provided me with the opportunity to experience the deftness of the hands of time: going to the same place, with mostly the same people, doing similar tasks allowed me the chance to make a direct comparison between who I once was, and who I have become.
Two years ago, I went on a 4 day trip to Shang Chuan Dao, an island on the Southern Coast of China for a geography field trip, carrying a luggage full of food not because I loved it, but because I couldn't bring myself to eat any of the "unhealthy" food that I anticipated would be served at the restaurant in the hotel we were to be staying at. Two years ago, I was mortified when I so much as touched a piece of “restricted” food with my fingers, in fear that the oil would soak into my skin and increase my calorie count. Two years ago, my head of year had to monitor my every move, making sure that I would eat my meals and my "required" snacks at the allotted time slots, and ensuring that I wouldn’t be driven to compulsively exercise in my room. Two years ago, I ran the 6km beach compulsively every day several times during my time on the island because I felt like I was getting "fat". Two years ago, I cried ballistically in my room with my roommate by my side because there was 0.001 grams of trans fat in my can of salmon that I hadn't noticed before I ate it. Two years ago, my trip to the island was filled with tension and anxiety, and I came back to Hong Kong noticeably more emaciated and more mentally traumatised. Two years ago, I dreaded the aftermath that would surely ensue upon my arrival back home: the incessant call of my mind to move around in a desperate effort to "burn it all off", the clandestine crunches that would be done on the cold bathroom floor, the dramatic cutting of food that would leave my stomach pawing at me, to the point of feeling like my insides were scraped raw.
Last week, I visited the same island again, still with a TON of food in my luggage, but only snacks that I loved, rather than portable meals: this time I would enjoy the food provided at the hostel restaurant. Last week, I snacked when I was hungry, and licked the last bits of fried shrimp off my fingertips that I had eaten at dinner time, simply because I felt like it. Last week, I ran on the beach and focused on the soft sand, the moon that was still setting and the sun that was just rising rather than the calories I would have been burning. Last week, I did not mourn the loss of a morning run due to the approach of a thunderstorm by compensating with another workout in my room, and instead took the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the storm clouds rolling in. Last week, I chose to spend time with my amazing friends playing volleyball on the beach, running through the tumultuous waves and strolling on the seaside promenade rather than isolating myself in my room to work out or eat my secret “rations” of food, because I definitely wasn’t going to be silly one missing out on all the memories that were being made. Last week, I made lasting memories by spending quality time with my teachers and friends, and made the most of our last school trip together. Last week, I came back to Hong Kong with water blisters, smelly socks and a sweaty body, but also a heart filled with vibrant energy and a mind bursting with exciting experiences to blurt out to my parents. Last week, there was no “aftermath” for me to fret about, but rather, exhilaration in knowing that I had a friend’s birthday dinner to attend that evening.
Once I realized how happy I could be in relishing my experiences and making long-lasting memories that I would surely reminisce upon later in my life during this trip, it really hit me how sad it was for me to have “wasted my quota” 2 years ago. I can’t help but think about how much fun and laughter I blocked out when I was caught in my own, obsessively controlled world. However, I am nothing but grateful for being granted a second chance to correct this mistake of mine, and be at peace knowing that I have at least one set of beautifully crafted memory packages to keep in my mind forever.
In the end, time was really just the transient wind blowing: it was the initiative on the part of my family and friends to help the unconscious and waterlogged me take advantage of the high tide and bring me to shore.
Anyone who knows me will also know that I hate math. I hate all the graphs and diagrams and shapes. I hate having to memorize fixed equations and I hate that solving problems in this subject allow no space for imagination.
But what I do appreciate is its sense of structure and its straightforwardness. Unlike the language subjects where you could POSSIBLY coax some poor child into believing that Shakespeare wrote the Harry Potter series, there is no ambiguity as of what the right answer is. There is simply no way you can argue that a circle is not round, or that 2+2 = 5. I like to bend things around, so I always saw math as an extremely confining subject.
However, it did make itself of use to me at a time that I least expected it - during my recovery. What the mind lacks during an eating disorder is solidarity. There is no hard ground to stand on and all rational thought processes are suddenly chucked out the window, causing the mind to be swayed by the most nonsensical concepts (often made up by the person to maximally torture themselves - for example, a person might make up a ridiculous rule like not eating for 8 hours and trying to run afterwards for as long as possible would increase the endurance the most effectively) and for the person to feel utterly alone.
The problem with the mind is that it is so flexible - YOU decide how it works, which means that ultimately, no one can help yourself but yourself. On the bright side though, it can also work to your advantage when you realize that when you learn how to manipulate your own mind, it becomes stronger and slowly but surely, naturally unravels the knots in your mind.
An idea that had a huge impact on my final recovery epiphany (what really flicked the switch in my brain and made me realize that I could no longer live in misery) was that of having "long term goals." This meant asking myself what I was doing this all for, and how my actions would truly benefit me in the long term? My thought process looked kind of like this:
Obviously, each person's diagram will differ according to what the trigger of their illness is, but this is a general outline of what the thought process would look like. When I acquired the "skill" of utilising the tree diagram to organize my thoughts, I became aware that my motives to continue on with my mighty quest of self-control was ultimately for nothing. In my determination to get somewhere, I had become blind to the fact that I had forgotten where I wanted to go in the first place, and ended up heading to nowhere at all. Starving myself, over-exercising, obsessing over every detail of my life seemed to serve an important reason at one point in time, but when I started asking myself more follow up questions and dug deeper to see how this choice would contribute to my future goals, I realized that I would come to a dead end.
Everyone has their own way of breaking out of their illness, a life-changing realization that changes the path they’ve been following. For me, this was realizing that no matter how wonderful a goal seemed, harming myself and putting myself in a constant state of pain in the process of achieving it was certainly not the answer.
It came to me that I had to differentiate between short-term goals and long-term goals: those that were shallow and only served the purpose of momentary satisfaction and those that would mold the course of my lifelong passion. I found that I was giving up precious time to achieve a meaningless cause, time that could instead be using to work on a cause that would be more significant for the rest of my life.
The road to my future is a long one, so instead of fussing over a scrape acquired by tripping over a pebble, I should be thinking about how I can grow trees so that the path is a more pleasant one for me as well as for others whose journeys happen to meet with mine.
MORNING MUNCHKINS (I don't CARE what time of day it is - but I'm a morning person and I'm happy right now, so it must be morning in my world! ;D)
Just wanted to share some exciting news with you - I finally brought my parents into the box for a session! It may seem strange that I've been an avid crossfitter for a year now and still haven't brought my family to meet those who I view as my extended family, but that’s exactly what this post is for!! :D
As many past and recovering warriors will tell you, the graph of the recovery process is far from linear, and would probably look a lot more like a kid's first attempt at using crayons: it is a wobbly, zigzagging journey dotted with relapses and letdowns. It takes a long time to build the trust between yourself and those you care about, but only a split second to lose it. I see trust as a piggy bank: you spend the longest time filling it with coins and feel so accomplished when you finally fill it up, but drop it on the floor and then all that’s left are coins and broken pieces. The coins that meant perseverance and determination when they were used to fill up the space in the piggy are now no more than pieces of copper on the ground. You realize that even though the pieces of the bank are still there, you still have to find the glue and the time to patch it back together.
My demons would often mask the severity of the consequences in favor of getting their demands checked off - I would hide food in my closet without thinking about the possibility of my helper finding it while cleaning my room and sneak out of the house down to my clubhouse gym before my parents woke without considering that one day they might wake up while I was gone and discover my secret. I lied so much that sometimes I forgot what was true anymore - I was writing a biography for a character that I had made up, and I was forgetting how to write my own.
My propensity for lying meant that my mom basically had no trust left in me and for a long time after I crawled out of "the danger zone" (that is, being close to dying and still having to be watched every second to ensure that I wouldn't secretly exercise until I felt like fainting or skip a meal), she would still get super worried when I was a few minutes late coming back from the gym or if I came back with bruises and scrapes. Because she was still scarred from the times when I would really hurt myself, be in true pain and still put on a happy face, she would still feel uneasy reflexively when she saw certain behaviors that were reminiscent of those that would ring alarm bells in the past.
My mom sometimes still has a hard time believing me when I say I'm feeling great, and I still hesitate to tell her when I'm feeling sore or when I rip my hands and bruise my legs. I still feel like I'm being judged when I tell people that I have a stomach virus and they think that it might still be one of my "excuses." Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that these are responses of people who saw me struggle and deeply care about my recovery, and that they only think this way because they fear that I will fall back into the hole. I thank every one of them for creating such a strong support system when I needed it, and using every way possible to help dig me out of the pit.
However, I would still like to bring peace to the minds of those people by saying that I can now crawl out of that hole on my own. You might notice that I didn’t say that I am now completely out of the hole, and that’s because truthfully, I don’t think I am. I still have days when I get teased by my demons, when I feel like I have to work extra hard to remind myself that I don’t always have to be in control, that it’s okay loosen the reins. But I can safely say that the biography I write today is genuine and that I’ve definitely found myself again: today when I laugh and flash a crazy grin, my heart is smiling too.
The trust between my family and me has come so far this year. I’m now allowed to go about my daily activities without being investigated by my parents: I can do skill work after training without fretting over whether my mom will call me and ask me where I am and my mom doesn’t have to ask my helper whether I’ve REALLY eaten my lunch. I felt that it was the right time to bring my parents up to the box because I feel like they now understand that even though training is tough, the sweat and blood I invest is nothing compared to the triumphs, happiness and victories that I get in return.
Watching my parents talk to my crossfit buddies and try the workout was like hearing a remix of my two favorite songs (I have really bad music taste, so you wouldn’t want to know what those are, but you know what I mean okkkaaayyyyy ;D): it was a dream come true and I literally giggled myself to sleep that night.
After the session, my mom said something that meant everything to me, "Those few years you would always pretend to be happy when you weren't and you would think I couldn't tell, do you really think I was that blind? But now I really see how happy you are here, and it's real."
Thank you, momma and dapi for getting through your first WOD, but more importantly, thank you for opening your minds and accepting my passion: I know how many shadows and memories you had to get past in order to do so.
Thank you to my Crossfit family as well, for being as friendly and welcoming as you are to me to my parents and allowing them to rest assured that I am well taken care at the box (and that someone will be there to rescue me if I accidentally drop a bar on myself, or make a glove out of sports tape for me if I rip my hands doing pull-ups ;D).
The piggy bank that I glued back together had slowly begun to fill with coins over the past year, but only today has it filled to the brim. There are cracks on the surface of my piggy, but who cares? It holds my coins just fine, and that’s all that really matters.
GOOD MORNING SUNSHINES!! :)
Not really morning now, but it's looking pretty bright around here, because I'm launching "Munchkin Mail"!! :) <3
One of the things that I found was lacking when I struggled with anorexia was that although there were psychologists and doctors all around me, there wasn't truly anyone who could relate to me. Even the best doctor I knew could only nod sympathetically as I told her my worries and fears, and draw from experiences with past patients to help solve my problems.
Although I am not a psychologist or a professional in this field, I feel that I can offer something that contemporary medicine can't, and that's personal experience. I don't have scientific phrases to throw at you, only honest words that I can share regarding what I went through.
Everyone's demons are of a different kind, but relief from knowing that someone out there went through the same black hole and actually managed to crawl his or her way back out is universal.
So whether you're still going through an eating disorder right now, or know someone that is, or are simply curious about a certain aspect of this illness, please do send me an email. I will be posting my answers on the blog so that all readers can benefit from your questions, but if you have a personal question that you do not wish to see posted, please specify that in your email, and I would gladly accommodate that.
If any current warriors are reading this, please know that you are certainly not alone. It may seem like no one in this world understands you, but if you're reading this blog, you can count me as one who does!
An extra little note:
Although my chinese isn't too good, it's communicable, so if you feel more comfortable writing in Chinese, send it all the same, and I will attempt to use all my Chinese powers (or consult someone to help me translate if I feel that I cannot fully express myself) to answer your questions :)
Before you eagerly begin reading this post expecting an uplifting and thrilling story about a munchkin that found its way home through a forest of tangled branches, let me first kill those expectations by telling you that I am the munchkin, and that the part about "finding my way home" is metaphorical. This post will tell you why and what inspired me to start this blog, and what I aim to achieve through it. Although this story is not as thrilling as the title suggests, it will hopefully be uplifting!
When I was told by my coach that I would have to eat more carbs (MAJOR fear food at the time) to train better and to gain muscle, I was shocked and quite afraid. Would it really become muscle, or would it become fat? Although I trusted my coach completely, I found it difficult to consume larger amounts of a macronutrient that I so feared - it took several reprimands before I actually changed my habits and started eating more carbs. It was pretty scary in the first few weeks but it ultimately paid off: I began performing better during training and I actually started to gain some weight.
(More far reaching) Hopes and dreams:
2. Expanding the general acceptance and understanding of eating disorders in Hong Kong.
Hello world! I'm Steph, and I am an aspiring clinical psychologist, avid advocate for eating disorder awareness, and bubbly human being :)