I've long insisted that I don't have an eating disorder, a claim that has always made me gleam with pride. It's the same way I will explain to people that I've never had a panic attack with near giddiness. I get that not having experienced these things shouldn't be a great thrill. But when you have a history of trying to shove cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, work, fantasy and whatever else you can find between you and your feelings, any rite of passage on the dysfunctional train that you skipped can feel like quite an accomplishment.
Lest the person listening to me boast about my non-eating disorder miss the true heroism we're talking about and not present me with the medal I feel I deserve, I make sure to include all the reasons why I feel I was set up to be plagued by food issues. Like: I took ballet for 12 years, throughout those oh so crucial formative years, and my teacher was one of those abusive teacher coach types depicted so well in movies--picture JK Simmons from Whiplash, make it a five foot tall woman with hair and have her force each of her teenage students onto a scale every week in front of the class before declaring them fat and you've got Miss Patterson. I also had a Grandma who always greeted me with a "You've gained weight" or "You look thin" in the ear before giving me a peck on the cheek. Oh and I grew up in Marin County, among a group of friends so riddled with anorexia and bulimia that when we gathered together to watch a Meredith Baxter-Birney movie about binging and purging, they all laughed aloud at how much of an amateur hour it was.
Still, my thinking around food and body weight isn't normal or healthy: I admire the bodies of women who may well be anorexic and analyze the size of my stomach every time I pass a mirror. When I eat something fattening, I can become convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I've just gained several pounds which are immediately visible. (I haven't owned a scale in years, having realized long ago that I couldn't have a non-obsessive relationship with one.) I have some intrinsic belief that extra weight should be hidden and marvel at women who can show theirs without shame. But does fucked up thinking mean I have a disorder?
Before answering, consider this: I exercise. Regularly. More specifically, obsessively. Usually six days a week, sometimes seven. More specifically than that, I plan my life around working out, rather than the other way around. This controlling obsessiveness is exacerbated by the fact that the only exercise I want to do is a dance class taught by a certain teacher I can only get to twice a week and another class that's offered fewer than 15 times a week. Call me the alcoholic who only likes Dom Perignon but can only get Dom Perignon under very specific circumstances so she forgoes other alcohol until she can.
This exercise rigidity means is that if I'm invited somewhere I'd really like to go anytime on Wednesday nights, Tuesdays or Thursdays before 8 pm, Fridays before 7 pm, Saturdays between 11 am and 1 pm or Sundays between 11:30 am and 2 pm, I say no without even allowing the person inviting me to finish the offer.
For my immediate family, there's nothing unusual about this. Both my parents, now in their 70s, exercise an hour or two a day. My brother is a former marathon-er. And my college boyfriend used to joke that Thanksgiving at our house probably started with, "Eat fast because we've got to get to the gym!"
Do I qualify as an exercise addict, though? According to a USC study, 15% of exercise addicts are also addicted to drinking, drugs and cigarettes. Hand up. And, says Consumer Health Digest, "in selected cases, former alcohol abusers and drug addicts shift to exercise to replace their past addictions." Um, yeah. We do some shifting. Over the years (and, arguably, currently), I've behaved addictively around everything from work and men to the Cabazon outlets and s'mores.
The s'mores thing leads me to my next point: This isn't about being thin--or not entirely. Not to state the obvious but you get thin by forgoing fattening foods and working out all the time only makes you hungrier. I eat plenty--much of it fattening. (I also, as mentioned above, have been known to beat myself up for it.) But when I was in my 20s, I was just as workout-obsessed as I am now but ate with abandon, was heavier and didn't even notice I'd put on so much weight until my parents let me know they'd found a nutritionist who specialized in weight loss for me.
Clearly exercise gives me one-on-one time with my two BFF chemicals, dopamine and endorphins, but I think I like the rush of anticipation more than the actual exercise -- in much the same way that the experience of doing coke often paled in comparison to the excitement I felt between calling my dealer and chopping the lines. And the after-effect, when my muscles tingle or even hurt? Bring it on. As the Drill Sergeant says, No pain, no gain.
And that's sort of my point: I think exercise, for me, is about the fact that if I'm not always trying to accomplish something, not always pushing myself to one extreme or another, I'll beat myself up. Even when I was an active drug addict, I wasn't out there living the life but holed up in my apartment, working on a screenplay, telling myself I was only going to do a couple lines of coke to get the creative juices flowing -- a plan which would have worked out better if I hadn't needed to follow those lines with two more roughly every half hour after until I was a jittery mess. I'm not great at doing nothing; I marvel at people who can sit around and watch TV in the middle of the day without feeling like they're the biggest piece of shit in the world. Don't even get me started on how impressed I am by people who can take naps.
By all accounts, the best way to determine whether or not your relationship with something is addictive is to figure out if it makes your life unmanageable. By this scale, I'm off the hook: I don't let it interfere with my work. I don't do any of that crazy Iron Man shit. I don't work out twice a day or for hours at a time. Still, I seek out increasingly challenging exercise (my first question at any studio or gym is, "What's your hardest class?") I've worked out when I was injured, knowing I was only going to hurt myself worse. I got seriously depressed when a bulging disc in my back caused a sciatica flare up that left me unable to work out for months. I've raced to exercise classes in ways that could have injured me or other drivers because I didn't want to be late. I've prioritized exercise over AA meetings, even when I was at the point in sobriety where meetings were necessary to save my life. Also, as a friend pointed out, my workout schedule frustrates the fuck out of people trying to make plans with me so I guess you could say it impacts my relationships.
I get that my relationship with exercise prevents me from knowing who I could be if I wasn't treating myself like both Drill Sergeant and recruit. I know that my thinking about what I eat and my weight is far from healthy. I'm sure that whatever feelings I'm keeping at bay when I'm working out and my friends are at the party I rejected should be processed. I could well be a much more emotionally healthy person if I could binge watch Game of Thrones in bed instead of sweating to Beyonce. But who says I need to find out?
This post first appeared on AfterPartyMagazine