Worthwhile, whatever shape you are

L9P Community Post: Julia Werth

I sat nervously on the edge of a hospital bed, hands tucked under my thighs, lips pressed together, swinging my feet back and forth, hoping.

Please say it isn’t broken. Please, please, please.

It was my first week of college and instead of getting comfortable with the enormous library (or finding new running paths as I would have really liked to do), I was becoming a little too well acquainted with the campus infirmary.

The doctor came in. He had a resident with him. He let her take the chair while he leaned up against the counter, keeping his eyes level with mine. For some reason, this small gesture made a huge difference for me. I suddenly felt a bit more relaxed, like whatever he asked me or told me would be okay.

My feet after the first full year of running fracture free (August 2015).

“Hey,” he said. “so, I took a look at the x-rays, and I think you’ve got another fracture.” Instinctively we both looked down at my foot with it’s terrible sock tan from months of summer running.

I nodded, swallowed. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. I told myself again and again, trying to believe it. I tried not to think about my goals for the upcoming track season or how I would traverse the mile-wide campus on crutches. My throat was burning, the back, always swollen and sore, throbbing with the weight of tears.

“Can I ask you a question?” the doctor said as he glanced down at his notes, taking me by surprise. I couldn’t quite remember what I’d told him the hour before when I’d come in, limping, complaining of acute pain in the top of my foot. I must have mentioned the four other stress fractures I’d had during high school, and definitely that I typically ran over 30 miles a week. I probably said something about my lost period (I’d had maybe one in the preceding two years) and maybe that I was lactose intolerant?

But this wasn’t anything I hadn’t told any doctor before. And they’d never been able to make anything of it. Broken bones and amenorrhea weren’t dangerous for girls who weighed over 150 pounds after all.

I nodded.

“Have you ever made yourself throw up?”

“Yes,” I said without even a quaver in my voice. The paralysis didn’t hit until after the truth slipped out.

Running my third half marathon in Indiana (far right). Distance running has become my best weapon in the fight against bulimia.

He didn’t break eye contact with me despite the resident’s startled expression and fidgeting. Her reaction, I would soon learn, was far more normal than his.

“Is this the first time you’ve ever told anyone?” he asked. I nodded, unable to speak anymore. Was making yourself throw up not normal? How come nobody had ever said anything before? “That’s really brave of you,” he said. “Don’t worry, we are going to get you help.”

The following months were a blur of doctor’s appointments, tough conversations, studying (I was determined to not let anything affect my schoolwork) and longing to run again. I saw psychiatrists, psychologists, dietitians, a family practice doctor, a gynecologist and continued to see the sports medicine doctor as my fracture slowly healed. With their encouragement (and by sheer necessity in the case of my roommate) I had one painful, awkward, and often tearful conversation after another.

The first one was with my dad. I had told him I had a problem with food over the summer, but I don’t think the severity of it had sunk in with him. This time, as I cried for over an hour into the phone and told him that for the first time in over a year I had gone three days without purging it hit home. After my dad, I told my roommate, then each brother (individually). Others came more slowly, a few friends in my hallway, one cousin.

My family have become the best supports I could imagine. I’m not always good at telling them I need help, but they are always good at offering it when I finally ask.

Each time felt like I was revealing this monster within me. I was terrified that these new friends would reject me or my family wouldn’t believe me. I didn’t want them to think I was gross, or silly or, worst of all, lying because I wasn’t thin enough or pretty enough to have an eating disorder.

The hardest conversation of all I continued to postpone and postpone. Parents weekend came and went without me saying a word. I had gone nearly 30 days without throwing up and rehearsed what I needed to say over and over with both my therapist and my roommate (god bless her).

It wasn’t until mid-October when my cast was off, I had slowly started running again, and I went home for the first time since starting college that I was able to tell my mom.

I remember she was standing in the kitchen (peeling a carrot per usual) and I was sitting across the room at the table wearing my newly found UConn soccer scarf.

“Mom,” I forced out.

“Yes sweetie?”

I looked up from my clenched hands, knuckles no longer raw, into her familiar face. This was hard. My mom had been my dieting buddy, my exercise buddy, the biggest encourager of my weight loss and elimination of food after food from my diet. She had flourished under our efforts — completing her first 5K and sticking to the USDA myplate plan flawlessly. I, on the other hand, had gone overboard on the restricting until I boomeranged the opposite direction and found myself an hour later with my hand down my throat and vomit everywhere.

Running has given me the best friends and means of distressing that I could ask for. This is after my fifth half marathon and our fourth together.

Not throwing up after each meal was hard. Trying to believe that I wasn’t too fat to be worthwhile was hard. But telling my mom that I was bulimic, that I had a mental illness, that I wasn’t perfect, that I had sort of known all along why my bones were breaking and why my period had stopped and why my voice was hoarse, why I was so often light-headed and why…I cleared my throat again.

“Mom, I’m bulimic.” Her horrified expression followed by stammering and dozens of questions was more than I could handle. My only answer was relentless crying.

The years that have followed since that day have been full of tears. There have been many painful conversations, a good deal of misunderstanding and a slow return of trust, but my mom has stuck with me every step of the way, even when it hurts her too.

Recovery isn’t easy, it isn’t a straight path. It isn’t once and you’re done. It has many dips and turns. It can be hardest on the people who love you. It has obstacles you’d never imagine, and it has periods of longing for who you were and what you were before anyone ever asked if you ever made myself throw up. When nobody knew that I was being controlled by an eating disorder then I didn’t have to fight.

Fighting, I’ve learned, is better than giving in. And running has become my best battle weapon again. It’s given me a way to destress, to make friends and to accomplish goals I once dreamed impossible (i.e. if I can run a marathon, I can do anything).

These four years have also brought smiles, laughs, and a new openness I never had before. I can say the word fat without crying (most of the time), I can talk about eating and running without feeling like I’m being challenged, I can joke about the hard parts of recovery, I have found a voice that helps others fight their own and often similar demons, I’ve learned to ask for help from my parents and complete strangers (some of which turned into my best friends and boyfriend), but above all, I’ve learned that despite my body shape and my mental illness and choosing to run for fun rather than competition, I am loved and worthwhile of being so.

And so are you, whatever shape you come in and whatever pace you run at.

After my second full marathon, I had some surprise fans.

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