Guest Post By: Matt Billas
Throughout my childhood, I loathed exercise. I was contemplating this on a recent bike ride, go figure, and I came to the conclusion that much of that hatred stems from two underlying issues:
Childhood Definition of “Exercise”
Growing up, exercise was synonymous with team sports, namely co-ed soccer, and CYO (Catholic Youth Org.) basketball; I detested team sports! They solely represented a means to let others down, to not contribute my fair share, to fail. I still have vivid, haunting memories to this day of scoring an ‘own’ goal in soccer, letting the ball squeak by me as the goalkeeper, getting called for traveling in basketball, and missing a foul shot. If participating in ‘exercise’ could only bring discomfort and anxiety, no wonder I hated exercise.
Heat and the Genetic Lottery
I don’t sweat. No, I’m not joking. I literally don’t sweat. Imagine playing soccer on a 90-degree day or running up and down the court in a stifling gym. Dehydration and exercise are like oil and vinegar. I chalked up my difficulties with exercising to my own inabilities and lack of toughness. Later in my mid-20s, I discovered the underlying issue was a genetic disorder, Fabry disease, which among many side effects carries with it the unfortunate consequence of clogged pores that prevent sweating.
My relationship with exercise quickly changed when I entered high school. My parents thought I needed some type of extracurricular to keep me busy, so I found myself "signed up" for cross country. I had never run in my life outside of play, but it was a way for me to “meet people'' and “engage in a healthy habit.” I certainly questioned that rationale the first day I laced up my trainers and found myself running miles on a 90-degree July evening. I’m surprised I didn’t flee then or worse, pass out. But it turned out that my initial reluctant participation in cross country was one of the best decisions in my life. Finally, I was accountable to myself and not others. I learned competitiveness in terms of besting my own times and racing against others. I learned mental toughness and endurance to persevere through those last miles. And in the process of developing a lifelong habit and passion, I found myself on a team with a wonderful group of people, some I still call friends.
Fast forward several years to my late-20's. My relationship with exercise had remained generally positive. I was certainly no longer in my athletic prime; running a few days a week tops versus every day and competing in community 5ks every so often. After getting married I engaged in various physical activities such as swimming, biking, hiking, and yoga among other household activities like yard work and cleaning. Things were rather status-quo until this most recent year.
Then life happened: diagnosis with a genetic disease, increasing anxiety, exacerbating OCD tendencies, pressure from work, a persisting stress fracture that inhibited my running for multiple years, and of course, a global pandemic. Mix it all together and you have a perfect recipe for a mental and physical breakdown manifesting ultimately in an eating disorder defined by hyper-attentiveness and compulsive exercising to retain some last element of control in an otherwise chaotic life.
Exercise became habitual, a daily routine. When I missed out on it, even just one day, I became irritable. Vacations and visits to family were planned around hitching my bike to the car and ensuring allotment of appropriate time for morning exercise. There were cases where I became anxious just contemplating missing out on exercise due to a break in routine or the lot handed to me by mother nature on a given day. To highlight one extreme case of what a disordered mindset can lead to, picture me on my bike at 5 AM at the onset of a snowstorm struggling to even maintain balance among snow-covered roads and gusting winds; it happened. I planned my day and life around exercise. I justified it as a means of getting outside, leaving me time for mindfulness and reflection. In reality, it was a crutch, my attempt to maintain some last element of control. I continually pushed myself harder. Extending my distance and mileage on a bike ride; increasing my pace and distance when I was able to run again.
A year subjected to this compulsion accompanied by increasingly disordered eating habits led me to the brink of disaster. Calories in, calories out; it’s simple math. When calories out (exercise) accelerates and calories in (disordered eating) decelerate, something must give. Math bit me in the butt; I found myself at a low physically and mentally, hospitalized after a seizure, diagnosed with an eating disorder, and ultimately needing help on all fronts to fight back and recover
Eating disorders have many overlapping drivers and can be characterized by similar behaviors or patterns, but at the same time, to turn toward a loathed cliche, if you’ve seen one eating disorder, you’ve seen one eating disorder. My hope in sharing this post is to spread more awareness to the wide gamut of eating disorders. We strive to find commonalities in life with others, with the purpose of realizing we are more similar than different, and that we can lean on others with like experiences for support and empathy. At the same time, it is important to recognize we are all unique individuals as well. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to an eating disorder. To the extent that others (e.g., family, caregivers, friends) recognize this as well ourselves, the better equipped we are to fight back, to lend a hand to others, to recover.