Breaking the Cycle of Anorexia

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For the majority of the nation cycling over 1000 miles from John O’Groats to Lands’ End isn’t exactly an easy ride. So when I decided to train to take on this challenge I didn’t quite know what to expect. Something that made the challenge slightly harder is the fact I am an eating disorder survivor. Yet whilst I am a survivor and feel confident in my recovery, there are times and factors that make it slightly tricky at times.

One of the hardest aspects of the hospital was not being able to exercise. Eating but not exercising was terrifying

I developed anorexia when I was 12 years old, hiding it from those around me for 4 years. It became my dirty secret and was everything to me. A huge part of my illness was wrapped up in exercise. I felt this need to constantly be working out and if I wasn’t, I was left with incredible guilt. The anorexia controlled my every move although back than I didn’t see it like this. She reassured me when I was upset, she stopped me eating certain foods and she gave me a real sense of achievement when I did as she wished. The problem was that as my weight dropped she set me new goals, but when I got there they were never enough for me or her. I had to keep going to make her happier so I could feel that achievement again.

Hope VirgoEventually four years after meeting (what I thought) was this incredible best friend, I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I spent the next year of my life recovering. The focus was on learning about food, opening up about my feelings and talking about exercise. Even as I entered that mental health hospital, I didn’t think anything was the matter with me. I thought everything was fine and that people were trying to take away this amazing thing that made me feel so good.

A few exercises in hospital helped me realise I needed help and needed to focus on recovery. This included a process where I had to draw how I pictured myself and then someone would trace around me. I remember when we first did this, the image that I drew compared to the traced image was ridiculous. I realised at that point that something wasn’t quite right with my brain and that I needed to change it. Throughout my year in hospital I also had to focus on why I wanted to get well. I had to realise that anorexia was not my friend and the false feeling of invincibility that she gave me was wrong. I had to recognise that all the things I wanted to do with my life wouldn’t be possible unless I stopped listening to that anorexic voice in my head.

Life in hospital was hard work with set meal times and daily weigh-ins. You had to find strength to keep going even when the weight side of things seemed to increase so much faster than the mental side could cope with. I had to learn to talk about how I felt, remove all emotion from food and find other ways to express myself. It was unbelievably hard. For me, one of the hardest challenges was not being able to exercise. It was terrifying eating but not exercising as I watched my weight go up. I struggled at times to stay motivated but kept telling myself that if I got through this I would get my life back.

Towards the end of my admission I was allowed to go for a run.

Just twenty minutes but I will never that feeling as my feet hit the floor, bouncing up with the wind on my face as I gathered my breath. It felt incredible and so freeing. I loved being back exercising and learning how to do this in a healthy way. Since being discharged, I have had to make sure I use exercise in the right way. I have a tendency every now and then to push myself too hard or take on a challenge so I have to be careful.

Six months ago I decided to do something other than a running challenge (I wasn’t sure I would ever beat my marathon or half marathon PBs). As cycling is so fashionable, I chose to cycle from John O’Groats to Lands’ End. What I seriously underestimated was how much food cyclists need to eat! When I began training it felt like a minefield, trying to listen to my body when it was hungry or recognise that if I did a long cycle and couldn’t stop thinking about food, then I probably needed to eat something.

Hope Virgo - Sporting HeadsBut I knew that I didn’t ever want to become unwell again. I planned, I trained and I talked a lot in the run up the challenge. I felt very prepared and ready to take on the UK and throughout the 13 days I found the eating surprisingly okay. I didn’t over think it (other than one night when I was in Glasgow and I panicked about how much pasta I had eaten after a 110-mile day) but other than that it was good. I felt relaxed about food and I felt able to keep eating and pushing myself further along with it. I was surprised that my brain wasn’t beating me up about eating more food, but I didn’t mind as I knew this was for the best.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the aftermath.

The nagging relentless voice telling me I should still be exercising this much, telling me that I would put on weight with my eating. It was frustrating and it still is. I’ve been back for two weeks and yes my brain is slightly in overdrive at times. I am still pleased I did the challenge but now it is about managing my recovery and being back.

Anorexia has a tendency to creep up on you and try to suck you back in to living life with that voice in your head. You must never ever let it, it just isn’t worth it. I manage these thoughts in a few ways:

  • Exercise: this helps me change my thinking and makes me realise that exercise can be good for me. It is about fuelling my body the right way and training in the right way. When I feel like I am starting to hate exercise or feel guilt for not going, I know something isn’t quite right. When this happens I normally write myself a plan and use the knowledge of training from when I had a personal trainer
  • Challenging myself: it is all too easy to let the anorexia dictate what we do and tell us that we shouldn’t be eating something. That’s when you start to skip things, exercise a bit more and overtime as the anorexia increases, the recovery bubble shrinks smaller and smaller. So for me it is about pushing myself. Before JOGLE I said I would challenge myself with food once a month but since coming back it is about committing to a challenge a day. Whether it is something big like a scary meal out, or something small like having a slightly different lunch option. It helps to normalise my recovery and to learn to trust myself further.

Hope Virgo - Sporting HeadsJOGLE was hard, a challenge with lots of ups and downs… one day I cried constantly because I was struggling so much with it. But I am so pleased I did it and I am so pleased that I was able to change my understanding around food so that I could fuel in the right way. What helped me the most is the realisation that if I didn’t fuel right I would physically not be able to cycle and ultimately fail the challenge.

Food really is fuel and if you don’t eat right, your training and your races will go wrong. Don’t let that eating disorder voice tell you any different.