Chapter Fourteen: I’m Not Anorexic, I’m An Athlete

Content warning: discussion of eating disorder behaviors.

Fight training is serious shit. It requires an incredible amount of discipline, both in and out of training sessions. My trainer, who had been an amateur fighter for years, put together a training plan for me, which included weight training on top of the six sport-specific training sessions I was doing each week, along with a rigorous meal plan.

I’m short, only 5’3”, which isn’t a good thing in combat sports. Short means short reach, which means that it’s harder to land punches and kicks. My trainer told me that if I wanted to be competitive, I’d likely have to drop a weight class or two since the women in my current weight class, 165 pounds, were almost guaranteed to be taller than me. He suggested I’d have a better chance in the 125-pound weight class.

I was in no way discouraged by the suggestion to drop forty pounds. In fact, it was an added incentive. I felt I’d gotten way too fat since I had gotten sober and was itching to lose a few pounds. I had no doubt that I could make it happen. If there was one thing I really excelled at, it was exerting precise control over my body.
Of course, I neglected to tell my trainer that I had a history with eating disorders. I honestly didn’t believe it was relevant.

I threw every ounce of effort I had into creating the perfect combat athlete’s body. I cut my caloric intake as instructed and stuck to a high protein, low carb diet. Whenever I did cheat on my meal plan, which happened occasionally, I could easily assuage my guilt by reflecting on how much I was exercising. I started taking CrossFit classes to address the weight training portion of my training plan, which meant that I was at CrossFit classes in the morning and martial arts classes in the evening three days a week. On my light days, I was just at martial arts classes in the evening. Then I started adding yoga classes on my light days to ensure my muscles were being properly stretched. And sometimes I added in a run to improve my cardio.

Before long I was working out two to three times a day, eating not nearly enough to support that much physical activity, and, consequently, seeing the exact results I desired. I was getting the reactions that I desired as well. People praised my weight loss just as they’d done when I lost weight for the first time in high school. They also praised my discipline, which felt even better. I’d always wanted to be someone that people envied. Every time I heard, “I could never do what you’re doing, working out so much and eating so well,” or “I wish I had that kind of discipline” I would bow my head shyly and mutter “Thanks,” but on the inside, I was exploding with pride. I thrived off the attention and validation.

Not a single person, including my trainer, suggested that I was working out too much or that I was losing weight too fast. All I heard was adulation.

After a few months of this rigorous training plan, my trainer suggested that I was ready to enter my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition. Initially, I was a bit nervous because I was hovering about five pounds above my ideal weight class, but he assured me I’d be fine.

The week before the competition I was introduced to weight cutting. I had to cut salt out of my diet for the entire week so I wouldn’t retain as much water. I wasn’t allowed to eat anything not specifically on my meal plan, which had been cut down to pretty much chicken breasts and vegetables. I had to drink at least a gallon of water every day, until the day before the competition when I wasn’t allowed to drink any water at all. For eighteen hours before the weigh-in, I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything.

I woke up the morning of the competition starving, dehydrated, a mix of irritable and terrified. When I finally made it to the scale I weighed in at 121 pounds. I’d lost almost ten pounds in a single week. The elation I felt when I saw the number on the scale, when I saw the tangible results of all my discipline and hard work, was equivalent to any high I’d ever had. The empty stomach helped too.

I ate all the food my roommate had packed, pounded a Pedialyte, and waited for my name to be called. When it finally was, I found out that there were only a few women competing that day and there wouldn’t be any weight classes. For a moment I was upset that I’d put myself through all that extra work to drop the last few pounds, but the pride in the number on the scale was enough of a balm.

I ended up losing all my matches that day, but I didn’t care. I had proven to myself and my trainer that I was fearless and infinitely capable. I had what it took to make my body into a fighting machine.

For the next five years, my life was devoted to combat sports. When I started dating the man who is now my husband, I actually told him that combat sports would always come first and that if he wanted to date me he had to figure out a way to fit into my training schedule, which wouldn’t get any less rigorous. I switched dojos to one that focused more on competition, one that had a loose fight team and personal trainers who had coached people to wins. I worked with a fighter there who was getting his degree in nutrition to hone my diet even further. I took one-on-one lessons before class each night, which meant I was at the dojo two to three hours a night.
I ate less and less, trained more and more and earned a reputation as a tough girl — a reputation I’d wanted to have ever since I was a child. No one can touch a tough girl. No one can hurt a tough girl. Tough girls are invincible.

During this time it never occurred to me that I was doing the same things I’d done in college when my eating disorder was at its worst. I told myself that I was eating over 1,200 calories a day so I couldn’t possibly be restricting. I told myself that every minute of my daily workouts was essential to achieve my goal of getting a fight, so it wasn’t the same as compulsively exercising.

I didn’t have an eating disorder. I’d gotten over my eating disorder in college. I was an athlete, and the fact that my entire life was consumed by obsessively monitoring my food intake and engaging in workouts was just part of the deal. My excessive and rapid weight loss wasn’t unhealthy, it’s what all combat athletes did. My preoccupation with always dropping another weight class wasn’t really about weight loss, it was about making sure I had the advantage once I got in the ring. I didn’t have an eating disorder, I was an athlete.

The “I’m an athlete” mantra that justified my eating and exercise habits also allowed me to ignore the fact that I was no longer training because it made me happy. In fact, training was making me miserable. There were times when I would pull into the parking lot at my dojo and sit in my car and cry because I didn’t want to go in. I was tired. My whole body ached. I wanted a break. But I was an athlete and athletes don’t take breaks.

Then I started to get injured on a regular basis. I threw out my back every few months. My elbows hyperextended dangerously every few weeks. I tore a calf muscle.

I would take a week or two off from the dojo to rehabilitate, then head right back. I learned to ignore the pain, just as I’d learned to ignore my hunger and fatigue. My body was an obstacle to achieving my goals. I controlled my body, it didn’t control me. So I’d pop some Ibuprofen and Tylenol and go back to training, regardless of whether I was healed, which I never was. My body became a collection of nagging injuries that I chose to leave unacknowledged.

Eventually, I tore the muscle that connected my hamstring to my glute, but by that point, I was so used to ignoring my pain that I didn’t take the injury seriously. I figured I’d pulled a muscle. I popped some pain relievers and continued to train. For six weeks. Until I literally couldn’t walk.
As I sat in urgent care, the doctor told me that the torn hamstring connector had aggravated my piriformis muscle, causing sciatica. I casually asked when I’d be able to train again because my first fight was in a week. She stared at me, dumbfounded and said that she’d be sending me home on crutches. It would be weeks of physical therapy before I could even set foot in my dojo.

I was crushed that I’d be missing my first fight, but reality still eluded me. I had another fight scheduled for a few months out. I figured I could track down a physical therapist who understood my commitment to my sport, one who would rehab me quickly so I could get back to training in time for a proper fight camp. I did, and we got to work at healing the injury.

As the weeks of being away from the gym passed, I began to worry about my weight. I didn’t want to take a fight at a higher weight class, so I needed to maintain my weight, which was a much more difficult task now that I wasn’t working out three or four hours a day. The fact that my wedding was five months away also factored into my weight concerns, which became all-consuming.

I started obsessively tracking and severely restricting my caloric intake, eventually going on a completely liquid diet. I honestly didn’t think I was doing anything unhealthy. I needed to keep my weight down for competition purposes. Of course, looking good in my wedding dress was an added bonus, but the real reason was the fight. I was an athlete, dedicated to my sport. And I was doing what I needed to do to win.

In hindsight, I’m always amazed at the power of my denial. I really believed that my behavior around food and exercise was a manifestation of dedication and discipline. I really believed that I was healthy and sane. I really didn’t think I had relapsed.

I’ve heard many times since I got sober that one of the hallmarks of addiction is that the addict uses the substance or engages in the behavior even though they know it’s harmful. When I was drinking and using, I didn’t think that my substance use was harming me. I wasn’t sick from my use. I’d never OD’d or landed in the hospital. But in the end I was miserable enough that I knew I couldn’t go on living the way I was living, so I got sober before I killed myself.

A couple of months after my injury — a couple of months in which I ate almost nothing and continually stalled my injury rehab from going overboard with exercise — I was finally able to see that food and exercise controlled me the same way that drugs and alcohol had. And I again realized that I was so miserable, I couldn’t go on living the way I was living.

I was an athlete, but I was also anorexic. So I decided to get help.

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This Body Of Mine

A collection of personal essays exploring how my experience of my body has shaped my identity and my spiritual, emotional growth. Written by Robin Zabiegalski.