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What I Want to Tell My Younger Self and Others Struggling With an Eating Disorder

Heart pounding, lungs straining, legs shaking. I looked up to see my time. I did it. I finally made it.

I was about to be the poster child of the underdog success story. I was going to raise eating disorder awareness through running. I was the sick girl that lived in the hospital down the street for so many years, and now I would be running college track at the school of my dreams.

The acceptance letter came — and so did heart complications. My doctor told me I had to defer a year, so my scholarship went to another athlete. Disheartened, yet determined, I went to plan B. Besides, running in my hometown would be just as sweet.

Then the stress fractures came. And heart complications again. And then a broken bone, an unexplainable illness, torn ligaments, surgery, another broken bone. A broken heart. Shattered dreams. Plan C. Plan D. Frustration. Broken heart. Repeat.

“I need consistency.” The famous last words of every college running coach I spoke to. I had the times. I had the talent. I had the work ethic. I didn’t have the health. Train. Injury. Rehab. Cleared. Repeat.

Today, I was sitting in the doctor’s office six weeks post surgery waiting for the sweet, sweet phrase I’ve been told a million times. But instead of “You’re cleared to run!” I was met with, “Looks like you’re not healing like we had planned. It’s nothing you’ve done, your body just doesn’t heal like I would expect someone your age to heal. You’ll need that same surgery on your other shoulder, too. And about your knee, that’s going to need surgery at some point in the future.”

OK, I get it. I have some health problems and I can handle that. I’ve dealt with complications from my eating disorder for well over a decade so I know the drill. I rest a bit and then I’m good to hit the road doing what I love more than almost anything in the entire world. Plus, I have some races planned that I really want to do so I’m motivated to do physical therapy.

“Caley, I don’t think you get it. Your body is permanently damaged and that’s very apparent. Your body can’t heal and it’s extremely susceptible to injury and illness. You can’t run. Not now. Not for a long time, if ever. Not the way you want to run, at least.”

I’ve been here too many times. My eating disorder has wreaked havoc on my body and the consequences will continue. I accepted this the hundredth time I was told I couldn’t do something because of my health.

But this time is different. I feel a sense of responsibility. Something is wrong.

There was so much that cultivated the onset of my eating disorder. If I were to blame myself for something I had no control of, my life would be miserable. However, I believe change comes from taking responsibility where it can be given and I admit that I have had many wrongs.

Where did I go wrong? I went wrong by believing thinness equated to faster 10K times. I went wrong by believing a strict diet would help me perform more competitively. I went wrong by comparing myself to others. I went wrong by placing success over happiness. Most importantly, I went wrong by not believing in me.

My niece told me she wants to be a “fast runner” like me. I cringe because I don’t want her to be anything like me. Not the me that was starving to run faster. Not the me that was over training because I thought that would give me an edge. Not the me that has lasting damage on every major organ in my body. Not the me with an eating disorder.

I can’t change my past. I can’t rewrite my story. I can’t change our societal noise that screams thin is better and working to exhaustion is the only way to get ahead. I simply can’t do that.

I didn’t even know what I was doing. How would I have the power to change our cultural script?

I can’t. But I can start a new narrative. I can share my words and hope that my voice is louder than the voices my sweet niece and every other young person is hearing today that says they are inadequate. The voices that lie and say that beauty is something one must work for. I wish I could go back to the young Caley and tell her she is enough just the way she is. I would smile and say she is beautiful and wonderful and deserves to be fed, in every way: spiritually, mentally and physically. I would tell her to not worry about food and exercise, or anything for that matter, because worrying will get her nowhere and she deserves to be at peace. I would warn her that everything she is doing to run faster today is ruining her body forever. Unfortunately, I can’t go back. However, I can tell my niece. I can tell you.

To all the young Caley’s in the world: don’t listen to the voices of the people that know nothing of your worth. You are everything you need to be in the world this very minute. A first place ribbon means nothing of your inherent value. Do what you love the way you love to do it!

I wish you all the happiness. Although, I love you far more than that. I wish you the wisdom to know and understand that beauty is far more than what we see and understand. Beauty isn’t only happiness — it is so much more. So most of all: I wish you experience and change, learning and acceptance, joy and sorrow, appreciation and frustration. I wish you a life full of growth. I believe that beauty is the evolution of all the things that make up living and you will find that one day, too.

My eating disorder ruined a lot of important things to me. It ruined my competitive running career. In contrast, my recovery gave me so much more than I could ever imagine. My body is amazing and so is yours. Perhaps I will defy the odds again and do something amazing with running — my body is like that. And maybe I won’t. Either way, I know I will be fine because there is so much more to love about myself than my ability to run.

Dear young Caley, my sweet niece, and every listening ear: please remember less is not more. You deserve it all.

Follow this journey here. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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