The following has been excerpted from “Training on Empty: A frank memoir of an elite runner who nearly perished from anorexia” by Lize Brittin. Copyright © 2015 by Liz Brittin. Published on Smashwords and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
My name is Lize. This is the story of my life. This book is meant to give people an idea of what led to my anorexia, how I survived and how I began to heal. Eating disorders are a common problem among competitive runners, especially young women. Unfortunately, there is no grand formula for getting well, no 12 steps or going cold turkey. However I do believe there is a way out of the darkness. Each person must create his or her own path to recovery, but perhaps reading what I went through will offer some hope, inspiration and ideas to help others create a path to wellness. I tend not to do things half-assed, so taking anorexia to the extreme was almost predictable. As bad off as I was, however, I found a way back to balanced health and wellness. And if I recovered, there is hope for many others.
Some people might find aspects of this excerpt triggering. I wrote my book before that concept was understood and accepted in the general public. I now put warnings on any blog posts that may contain triggering content or images. Hopefully anyone who reads “Training on Empty” will be left with a better understanding of eating disorders and a sense of hope that recovery is possible.
With a few more road races under my belt and countless hours of training behind me, I ran the race of a lifetime, a race that was dreamlike in nature and left me in a heap at the top of the mountain. I collapsed into the arms of race officials, hyperventilating and nearly passing out as my foot crossed the line, setting a new women’s record for the Pikes Peak Ascent in Manitou Springs, Colo. Two hours and thirty-nine minutes after I had started, I became the youngest women’s winner of the 13.3-mile races to the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak, and shortly afterward, I was placed on a stretcher and given oxygen, my legs aching and my chest burning. I was smiling, though, knowing I had reached my goal.
Race officials were alarmed at my thin appearance and, perhaps with me in mind, established a still-standing rule that nobody under the age of 16 could enter the race. They were convinced that the race was too grueling. As for me, sitting on top of the mountain with my biggest victory yet, I had no idea that soon I would be heading over the edge. It wasn’t my young age that was alarming; it was the illness that was slowly swallowing my life—one that would continue to torment me for many years to come.
How did I get here?
“An illness is like a journey into a far country; it sifts all one’s experience and removes it to a point so remote that it appears like a vision.” — Sholem Asch
On an exceptionally cold February night in 1997, after a series of seizures, I was rushed to the hospital with chest pain and shortness of breath. At the age of 30, I weighed 80 pounds. I wasn’t expected to make it through the night. However, to everyone’s surprise and amazement, including my own, I pulled through. It was obvious that I needed help, but since none of the nearby eating-disorder treatment facilities had any openings, I was moved to the hospital’s cancer unit for three days in order to stabilize. I found it disturbingly ironic that I was surrounded by people fighting for their lives, while I was slowly killing myself.
Starvation is considered one of the most slow and painful ways to die. The body can last a long time without food. Typically, people who starve themselves don’t die from an actual lack of food, but from related complications. As the body starts eating itself to keep the brain functioning, muscles and organs begin to atrophy. Organ failure or a heart attack is a common end for anorexics.
The entire time I was in the hospital, I was prodded, probed and tested. I was hooked to an intravenous saline drip in order to regulate my electrolytes. I slept in short shifts, a few hours at a time throughout both the days and nights, taking Tylenol for the excruciating headaches that manifested as my body fought for equilibrium. I ate even less than I had been eating before hospitalization, and I was exhausted from all the blood draws and tests being performed. The longer the lab-rat routine continued, the weaker I became. At one point, a nurse led me to a shower where, after just a few minutes standing on my own, my legs started to quiver beneath me. Once the fastest high-school athlete in all of Colorado, there I was, unable to even stand on my own two feet. I sat down on the shower’s built-in bench and cried as the water splashed over my skin.
After the third day of tests, the doctors told me they wanted to keep me in the hospital a few more days to run even more tests. I was no expert, but the problem seemed pretty obvious to me: My body was malnourished and completely depleted. In short, I was too thin. More tests, it seemed to me, were not going to reveal anything more about my condition, so I threw a minor tantrum and was released. Sleep-deprived, emotionally spent and bruised from all the IV’s and other needling, I headed home. The freedom of merely being outside in the fresh air after three solid days of being stuck in the hospital was overwhelming.
There are people whose lives are complicated by some kind of addiction all around. Many of these people are in denial or accept their addiction as part of who they are, often adhering to the adage, “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” There are others who live with the agony of knowingly operating below their true potential, yet are unable to change. They are intelligent and honest, open about their self-inflicted enslavement, yet completely frustrated by their inability to stop their self-sabotaging behavior. However, there are a lucky few who see beyond their addiction, finding both the courage and the astounding strength to break free from their addictions and jump full force into the unknown territory of recovery.
Heidi is one of these lucky few. I met her shortly before I wound up in the hospital. Over time, she became my mentor and my friend, my counselor and my inspiration. Radiant and strong, Heidi is the kind of person who lights up the room when she enters, a goddess if there ever was one. Her compassion and wisdom go far beyond the realm of what is considered normal in this world. I was immediately drawn to her.
When she was young, Heidi was bulimic. Over time, she forced herself to throw up so much that the acid from her stomach began to irritate her esophagus. At one point, she vomited so much blood that she nearly died right there on her bathroom floor. As she lay with her head on the floor, half passed out, Heidi decided she didn’t want to die, that there had to be a way out. And just like that, she stopped binging and purging. It’s almost unheard of to have the bravery and the will to do something like that, but Heidi had an idea that a brilliant destiny and a better life were awaiting her. She became one of the few women I know who fully beat an eating disorder. I know a lot of women in various stages of recovery; a few have found a way out. Heidi is one of these few.
It takes a magnanimous human being to see the potential behind the illness in a person. Without Heidi, I would have been lost. Her guidance and love helped me find my own path out of addiction and away from the trappings of anorexia. It was a long time before I got even a little bit better, but Heidi helped open my mind to the possibility of getting well, and that was a necessary first step. Once released from the hospital, I started meditating and reading books on spirituality, something that had been missing from my life for years. I opened up my mind, exploring auras and the occult, and I became fascinated with energy and the correlation between intention and manifestation.
As a runner, I felt it was necessary to picture myself running well in a race the night before and anticipate that what I imagined could become a reality. The idea was that events would unfold as I imagined they would. Facing a challenge of a different sort, I began to understand how the power of positive thinking could be applied to other areas of my life. Unfortunately, while these new revelations were of great benefit to my soul, I hoped, they did little to improve or correct my self-destructive patterns, and I was still restricting my caloric intake and exercising for incredibly long periods of time each day.
Before I became anorexic, I was at least a somewhat well-rounded child and engaged with the world. I painted and drew, cooked, read books and watched movies. By contrast, my life became very limited and myopic once I became anorexic. I don’t recall doing much of anything once my weight became so abnormally low. I also don’t recall exactly when it was that I effectively stopped being in the world. I was isolated, except for a few select friends who could tolerate the sight of me, and I had dropped all hobbies and interests from my life. Many anorexics are utterly lost in their illness; they no longer have a sense of who they are, what they like or what ignites passion in their hearts. Even at a devastatingly low weight, I spent days on end exercising even though I lacked any real strength. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed.
I also spent my time anticipating the two small meals I allowed myself every day—one in the evening, one late at night. With hunger, time seems to pass more slowly, and because I would allow myself to eat only at certain times, so much time was wasted waiting. I was too hungry to throw myself into a book or engage in anything that required too much thought or energy, so I waited, watching the clock but trying not to be too obvious about it. Occasionally, there were days on which I would eat more normally and even some days on which I would binge, but the guilt was extreme and often very hard to handle. At the time, I couldn’t see that those days on which I ate normally were what my body, mind and spirit craved. At what point in my life had I had lost balance?
Anorexia, for me, was somewhat of a “frog-being-boiled-in-a-pot” situation, a slow evolution in which I subconsciously managed to ignore the water heating up around me. For those not familiar with the term, it is in reference to a study done in which two frogs are placed in different pots of water. In one pot, the water is boiling. Naturally, the frog jumps out in an instant. The frog in the other pot, on the other hand, is put in warm water first, and the water is gradually heated to a boil. In this case, the frog will stay put until it is boiled alive. With any addiction there typically comes a point at which the addicted person becomes aware of how bad things have become. This is the point where she might ask, “How did I get here?” or “How did it get this bad?” The answer, of course, is that these things don’t happen overnight. Getting to a low point—or as addicts put it, “hitting rock bottom”—takes time. It’s by taking many small steps toward insanity that the sane become insane, just in the same way it takes many small steps by the guru to achieve enlightenment.
Despite never quite having a sense of what was normal growing up, I didn’t cross the line into severe illness until I was a teen. I didn’t just wake up one day with a full-blown eating disorder; it became part of my life so gradually I didn’t realize it was happening. My desire and determination to change happened in an instant, but the disorder took hold slowly. Over time the illness took over, and I realized somewhere along the way that I was stuck. It was too late to do anything, so I stayed the destructive course until eventually my body forced me to stop. And it nearly killed me.
For more information about eating disorders and how to get help, check out the National Institute of Mental Health website, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website or call the NEDA hotline at (800) 931-2237.
For more information about “Training on Empty” and additional writing from author Lize Brittin, go to her blog site.