In the depths of my Orthorexia, I was running up to 40 miles a week.
I would turn up late to sixth form because I had to wait for my Dad to go to work before I could go for a run, and once I was out, I couldn’t stop. 6-mile runs became half marathons, all ran on an empty stomach before breakfast. Upon my return I would eat only ‘safe’ foods- fruit, vegetables and little else. My ‘fear food’ list however was extensive. It even included drinks. I feared consuming ‘liquid calories’ and I would throw my orange juice out of the window when my parents left the room.
Despite arriving to college/sixth form late, I’d try and leave as soon as possible so I could get home to complete a 2-hour abs workout. I would get off the bus several stops early to walk the remainder of the journey home, because on top of the 40 miles a week I was running, I also had to walk at least 70,000 steps a week (10,000 steps a day.) I prioritised health and fitness above everything else. I would even threaten to commit suicide if I wasn’t allowed to run. That is how addicted I was. If I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t see a point in living, let alone eating. It was the only thing that mattered to me.
I can vividly remember being on a family holiday in Turkey. We were on a boat trip for the day, but due to my exercise addiction, the thought of being unable to exercise for a whole day was unbearable. I had to be exercising. I would go to the toilet every so often and jog on the spot, counting to 500 whilst I did so.
As a result of my grueling battle with Orthorexia, I was sectioned at the age of 16. I was transferred to hospital via ambulance where I spent 3 weeks on a general ward. The doctors and nurses, although trying their best, did not understand eating disorders, let alone the largely unheard of ‘Orthorexia’, therefore I ended up losing more weight whilst in hospital.
My weight was dangerously low. I had to be given ‘Fortisips’ (high calorie drinks) to have alongside 3 meals and 3 snacks a day. I was on strict bed rest, having to be wheeled to the toilet (which was only 20 meters from my bed) in a wheelchair. I was also threatened to be tube fed. My heart rate dropped to 28 beats per minute on a few occasions, and at these times I had to be hooked up to cannulas and drips in the early hours of the morning, ECG pads stuck to my skin. Just like every other muscle in my body, my heart was becoming increasingly weaker.
After 3 weeks on bed rest in my local hospital, I was transferred to a specialist eating disorders inpatient hospital where a bed had become available. I spent 7 months there, at Riverdale Grange in Sheffield.
Whilst in hospital, I was referred to a specialist bone clinic to have a scan so that any long-lasting damage could be ruled out. Unfortunately, it could not be ruled out, and I was diagnosed with Osteopenia, aged just 17. Despite having been in recovery for almost 3 years now, my bone density is still incredibly low, putting me at increased risk of fractures. This, coupled with my still absent menstrual cycle, means that I am unsure as to whether I will ever be able to have children as a result of the turmoil I have put my body through.
Although medically I am allowed to run again, I know that due to my predisposition to over exercise, running is not an option for me. I cannot trust myself, perhaps in the same way that an ex-alcoholic cannot trust themselves to drink alcohol again, despite them promising they will do so ‘only in moderation.’ Because of this, I have quite literally had to ‘find myself’ again. My whole identity before was based around running. It is what everyone knew me for. Rediscovering myself was, and is, hard.
The trigger behind my eating disorder was running. I joined an athletics club but never felt good enough. Despite turning up to every session and giving my everything, I was still coming last in races. I decided that the only way I would ever improve, was to change my diet. And doing so did help me improve, in the short-term. I was winning races, placing in the top 50 in the UK at 3K on the track. I had finally cracked that sub-20-minute 5K I had so desperately been pining for. My running finally felt as though it was starting to come together, when in fact, my whole life was falling apart.
My condition was considerably worsened by social media. Following lots of professional athletes on Instagram, I would obsessively look up to what they were eating and how many miles they were running. Even though they were at least a decade older than me, I wanted to do at least what they were doing, if not more.
My coach was unaware of the struggles I was facing because I was seen as just being a ‘dedicated athlete’, trying her hardest to make her Olympic dream become a reality.
With hardly any coverage of Orthorexia in the media, it is unsurprising that my battle went unnoticed for so long. My hope is that by sharing my story, I will be able to raise awareness of Orthorexia and help other people struggling seek early intervention.