It's not about vanity, but rather trying to escape a reality.
Most nights I lie in bed, ready for an escape from myself, yet a constantly streaming video loop of everything I ate, how I exercised, and the activities of my day won't stop playing in my mind. I pause. I breathe. I try to relax once again.
As if jumping into fast forward, another streaming video loop of everything I want to eat tomorrow, how I want to fit in every possible moment of exercise, and how the activities of my day might interfere with either of those things won't stop playing in my head. I roll to the other side, my overtaxed body as uncomfortable as my overtaxed mind, and I try to relax once again. When I'm not exercising (even if I've already exercised that day), I'm consumed with anxiety about my next workout. Will something come up and make me miss the gym? What about holidays when the gym is closed? How can I sneak in just one more long walk?
It has spread like a virus over the last few years: an extra walk here, another workout DVD there. Minutes at the gym have morphed into hours. Everything else in my day has become organized around my workouts, and taking a day off because I'm sick or injured is never an option. Exercise has become the disease, even as it disguises itself as the cure. If I don't have it as an escape, then what's left to hold me together? Working out feels like the only way to calm myself, but as soon as I leave the gym or finish a walk, the whole cycle starts over again. Over the years, my family has stepped in. I've seen a therapist, and I was even in treatment a few years ago. As you might have guessed by now, I also suffer from depression and OCD. I'm a highly-educated adult woman who knows the risks of this behavior and yet I can't stop. Over-exercise is a unique disease. Anorexics are often told to their face that they're too skinny and that "real women have curves," as if being a woman can be defined by a size on a chart. But over-exercising is the eating disorder everyone wishes they had. As a society, we're told over and over that it's essential to exercise, which it is, in moderation. That's what makes it so easy to keep this addiction a secret; it's not as obvious as walking around under the influence or lighting up a cigarette. You can continue to feed your addiction under the guise that you're just being "healthy," even when you're anything but.
I not only have to fight the obsessive thoughts in my head but also the "more exercise is better" messages I receive from the media every day. What those who praise or judge me don't know is that this disorder has never been about vanity. I hate how I look because I'm underweight. I wish I was strong and muscular. But I'm not. All I want is my next high, and each workout is based off one thing: fear of being alone in my head, of having my safety net taken away.
It's not that I don't want to break the cycle. But for me, exercise has become a drug. It's a way to cope with everything else going on and numb out the pain I might feel. It truly is an addiction, one I cancel plans over just to get my fix. I fantasize about not caring anymore, of being able to sleep in without guilt or spend a day on the couch without panicking about when I'll fit in my next workout. I wonder what it would be like to "have the problem" of not wanting to go to the gym. It still feels very far away. Yet I know I can be stronger than this.
I can pause, I can breathe, I can break the cycle I'm in.
I can tell my story so as to give up a piece of the secrecy that keeps me sick.
Because no, you don't want my problem. And frankly, neither do I.