"Anything worth having doesn't come easy. It's an ongoing process. There may never be a definite end. Those demons could be with me forever and I have accepted that. However, I have the choice each day to get up and fight them and win."
By Emma Rogers - Hidden Valley (VA) High School, Class of 2019
Everybody has a story. We all go through trials and tribulations; that's life. Running has been a part of my life for a while now. Unfortunately, so has something else: an eating disorder. My eating disorder developed as I tried to excel in the sport I love. I wanted to be on my high school's varsity team, so my eighth grade year I watched the upperclassmen and took notes. I realized that the fastest girl on our team ate extremely healthy and I contributed her speed to this. I wanted to be fast so that had to be the answer. I remember a few months into my "clean" eating, I felt guilt over eating a cookie. You should never feel guilty for eating a cookie (or any food for that matter). Unfortunately, at that time I mistook that guilt for will power, which only led to me spiraling further down.
In a way, I got what I wanted: to be on the varsity team. I also now had an unhealthy relationship with food, myself, and running. Any friendships I had disintegrated. I was faster, but I wasn't happier. If anything, I was the most depressed and hopeless I'd ever been in my life. Eventually, I got to a point where I could no longer physically run -- I was just too weak. I couldn't turn things around until I sought help from professionals. The ones I loved -- my family, friends, coaches -- all wanted what was best for my health. Not for my running -- not for my aesthetics -- but for my health. It has taken me over five years to come to terms with that. At the end of the day, if your body and mind aren't healthy, the rest doesn't matter. You aren't living your best life to its full potential if mind and body are not well.
Over the last five years, I have seen six therapists. My first therapist got very ill and was unable to see me and I relapsed. My parents sought out a new therapist who I met with three times before she announced she was moving out of town. The third one, I just didn't click with. My fourth therapist asked me to tell her what I eat on an average day, and when I finished, her first words were, "Wow! That's a lot!"
Yeah, I left that one, too.
I began seeing my fifth therapist in the summer before my senior year and probably got the closest I had ever been to recovery. That spring, she released me from therapy and said that if I felt I needed to talk with her, she could do that but we didn't have to meet regularly. I didn't see her again until January of this year. At my first appointment back, I talked to her about my first semester of college and how I started to fall back into old unhealthy behaviors toward the end. I was open and honest and answered her truthfully. I wanted to know if she had any advice for coping with stress, as that is one of my triggers. She insisted that stress wasn't the problem and that she thought going into a residential treatment program was needed. I left frustrated.
My next and last appointment with her, she kept insisting that I should go residential. I told her that I really didn't need to, that I wanted to go back to school and compete and live a normal, non-interrupted life. In the end, my hand was forced when that therapist sent a letter to the Dean of Students regarding my health. My school did not think it was best for me to return to campus until I had received treatment. After a few weeks of figuring out where to go, I arrived at McCallum Place in St. Louis, Missouri. Here, I met my current therapist, who has saved me. Not only does he specialize in eating disorders, but he's also a sports psychologist. Over the last few months, thanks to him and my treatment team, I have been able to start to recover from my eating disorder.
I chose McCallum Place for one reason: their Victory Program. The Victory Program is an eating disorder treatment program tailored to athletes to recover and return to the sport they love. They treat any kind of athlete -- runners, dancers, skiers, etc. This program saved my life. I met other athletes who could relate to what I had been going through. When I was healthy enough to begin exercising again, I had people to workout and run with. As much as it breaks my heart to know that so many people struggle with this, it showed me that I was not in this alone.
While at McCallum, I learned that there are over 40 factors that contribute to an individual's athletic performance. Weight is just one factor. Height plays a role, too. So does work ethic and mental toughness. The list goes on. My point is, a person isn't solely fast or slow because of their weight. It's much more complicated than that. It's an individual's workouts, years of experience, and attitude that help shape the athlete they are. I have learned this the hard way. For too long, I have been focusing on my weight, and it's become detrimental to both my physical and mental health. Due to years of restrictive eating and overdoing my running, I have osteopenia, which is the beginning stage of osteoporosis. No one warned me that eating less and exercising too much would do long-term, sometimes permanent damage to my body. I became weaker, not stronger. My heart, which is a muscle, shrunk and started to cause problems. My mental health suffered. I became anxious around foods and depressed if I wasn't running. All this damage just to be a better runner.
I feel like I've been holding myself back unintentionally. I'm not ready to hang my running shoes up just yet. If fighting and beating this eating disorder means leading a more fulfilled life, I'm in.
So, how does one conquer an eating disorder? Recovery and growth. It's not easy. Anything worth having doesn't come easy. It's an ongoing process. There may never be a definite end. Those demons could be with me forever and I have accepted that. However, I have the choice each day to get up and fight them and win. For too long, living has taken a backseat. I've been surviving, not thriving. Every waking hour, my head has been consumed with numbers and nagging thoughts of not being enough, not deserving of love and care. Living with an eating disorder isn't really living, it's clinging on for dear life. Anyone can, and should, know a world, a life, that isn't dictated by food and trying to control everything.
Running has been taken from me too many times because of my eating disorder. Whether it was injuries, burn out, or being physically unable to run, there has always been something. I feel like I haven't been able to reach my true potential in this sport I adore. I feel like I've been holding myself back unintentionally. I'm not ready to hang my running shoes up just yet. If fighting and beating this eating disorder means leading a more fulfilled life, I'm in. I often wonder who I would be if I had never developed an eating disorder. Some days I wish I could go back and change things; lead a different life; eat the darn cookie. But then I wouldn't be who I am today. Some days I want to close my eyes and pretend everything isn't real, just a bad dream that I'll wake up from. It is real and I have made it this far. I am not done fighting.
Emma is a 2019 graduate of Hidden Valley High School in Roanoake and a current student-athlete at the College of William and Mary. She was a three-time Class 3A champion in the 3,200m, and her Hidden Valley program won states in cross country in 2018 -- the same year she was the state's individual runner-up in that classification. If you would like to reach out to Emma, you can find her on Twitter @emma_rogers2000 or on Instagram at @emro12