Why I CrossFit (with a lengthy discussion about body image issues and disordered eating)

A friend recently asked me, “why do you CrossFit? what motivates you?”  Good question.  On this, my 4th week of completed CrossFit programming, it seems like a good time to answer that question.

Originally, I “worked out” as a form of punishment.  I’ve written before about my food and body image issues (See my post on compulsive overeating and my many posts on sugar addiction here and here and here.)  I hated the way my body looked.  I believed I was defective for being overweight and exercised as a way to FIX that.  I joined a gym and tried various workout routines that my friends were trying.  I started running.  I went to the gym every single day.  And I hated every single minute of it, because in my mind, it was a form of punishing myself.  Punishing myself for being the way that I was.  Punishing myself for eating.  Punishing myself for eating a cupcake.  Punishing myself for not being thin enough.  Punishing myself for not being enough.  Punishing myself for not being worthy of love.  Punishing myself for not being worthy of my own love.  Given that terrifically negative and depressing mindset, it is no wonder I hated working out.

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At some point during my recovery process, I became “Paleo.”  I eliminated gluten from my diet.  I started cooking whole foods that were grain and dairy free.  I began feeling better almost immediately.  I originally started eating Paleo because of thyroid problems.  At a doctor’s appointment post getting clean and sober, it was revealed that my thyroid numbers were way out of whack.  Uh oh.  Here we go again … 

My thyroid problems had originally begun 7 years prior to getting clean and sober.  I had been diagnosed with Graves Disease in 2005, but that was during the height of my self-abuse and I did not treat the disease.  I basically played doctor on myself and decided I would ignore it.  Since the major “side effect” of Graves Disease was weight loss, despite eating whatever you wanted, it was no surprise that this appealed to my sick spirit and eating disordered soul.  I finally had what I had always wanted: a disease that allowed me to eat whatever I wanted, and still lose weight.  BINGO!  Why on earth would I treat that?!?!?  Combine that attitude with a general vibe of self-destruction … well, you can guess what happened.  NOTHING!  My doctor warned me then that if left untreated, I would eventually “burn my thyroid out,” and ultimately it would stop working effectively, if at all.  What?  Nonsense, doc.  Of course, I completely ignored that and/or figured I would worry about that later.  After becoming super skinny, of course.  Thyroid burn out, be dammed.

And I did lose a lot of weight by not treating my Graves Disease.  However, because I was also treating my self so poorly and pouring tons of booze and chemicals into my system, when I look back on pictures of myself during those “Graves Days,” I am HORRIFIED.  I do not even have any of those photos.  My best friends from DC posted one from a Halloween Party they had on Facebook and I immediately begged them to take it down.  I look like a sick skeleton.  Almost non-human.  Yes, I was finally SKINNY (for me, anyway), but I was “dead behind the eyes,” and looked SICK.  I was sick.  I looked how I was.

By not treating my Graves Disease, I also ended up exactly where the doctor told me I would, with a burnt out thyroid.  Hence, no great surprise, once clean and sober, to find out that my thyroid numbers were “off.”  I went to see an Endocrinologist who confirmed that the autoimmune condition I never treated (Graves’ Disease) was back, but now, the “side effect,” was that it would be very difficult for me to lose weight, no matter how carefully I monitored my diet, because my thyroid was basically non-existent.  Ouch.

For a woman just out of rehab, finally 100% clean and sober for the first time in 29 years, but still with ALL the underlying emotional baggage, and absolutely zero idea of how I would ever get better, this was not a good day.  I was able to acknowledge to myself that I had done this to myself, by not treating my Graves’ Disease, but instead of viewing that with compassion as a bad decision made by a very sick girl, I was furious with myself and found this yet another reason to punish myself.  And punish myself I did.  I binge ate and beat up on myself for weeks.  Eventually, I hit “the Google” and became OBSESSED with reading about thyroid conditions and weight loss.  Torturing myself with heaps of contradicting information and scary statistics.  BUT, while in this obsessive research phase, I kept coming across the benefits of eliminating gluten.  Because of all my body image issues, I was DESPERATE to lose the weight I had gained during my last relapse and while in rehab, and, therefore became desperate to eliminate gluten.  And I did.  The gluten elimination eventually led me to Paleo.  And it was there that things slowly started to get better.

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When I read about the Paleo lifestyle, lightbulbs immediately went off.  Not only does the Paleo diet eliminate gluten (and therefore could possibly help me lose weight, I thought, or “cure” my now under active thyroid), but it provides an explanation for many of the health problems I was facing, including my raging sugar addiction.  It also made sense to me on such a deep, gut level, that it was impossible for me to ignore, and surely annoying for anyone close enough to me to hear me constantly blab about it (which I did).  The Paleo diet adopts an ancestral style of eating.

For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors survived by hunting and gathering.  They did not have grocery stores or drive-throughs or all the modern packaged convenience foods we are bombarded with.  They had animals and plants.  They hunted animals and gathered plants and lived on those REAL FOODS: meat and animal fat and vegetables and the occasional discovery of a berry or two.  Our ancestors lived that way for a long time.  Much longer than we have now had processed foods and drive-throughs and grocery stores.  And they were not overweight.  They did not have diabetes.  There were no obese children.  It just made sense to me.  Of course we should eat the way we had evolved for tens of thousands of years, instead of the way we had been eating in the just hundreds of years since the development of agriculture and farming communities, and the last 100 years of processed and packaged and convenience foods.  When I thought of how my grandparents ate and how my own father was raised, even, it was much closer to a paleolithic template than the way we eat now.  My dad was raised by parents who did not have much money.  But they had a little “farm” where my grandfather grew and raised vegetables and rabbits.  They hunted birds and ate those birds.  They ate rabbit.  They ate the vegetables from his garden.  They could not afford processed and packaged convenience foods.  When I ask my dad about those days, he remembers being very fit, and that the obese person was something that he did not remember seeing.  Maybe at a circus there would be the “fat man” on display, but it was such a rarity that it was a circus display.

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It is not that way today.  I do not need to give you all the statistics and point out the obesity epidemic in this country.  We see it all around us every day.  Many of us live it.  I’ve lived it and struggled with it most of my adult life.  I am still struggling to break free from it.

All of this to say that I embraced Paleo and became such a nut about it that I joined a Paleo Meetup Group, read countless books and blogs, listened to dozens and dozens of Podcast episodes, and basically became a total Paleo geek.  Within just a week of “going Paleo,” meaning eliminating all grains, dairy and processed foods from my diet, I felt like a million bucks.  I had energy out the wazoo, my skin problems cleared up, my allergy and sinus issues resolved themselves, I was sleeping better, and generally felt a positive mental boost, as well.  I was hooked.  It was this that got me to start this blog.  When others noticed the changes in me, specifically the energy boost, they asked for tips on incorporating Paleo into their own lives. I started this blog primarily to put those tips in one place.  It has since evolved into much more (pun intended … ha!).

So, what does any of this have to do with CrossFit?

One cannot become a total Paleo geek without hearing about CrossFit.  There is a natural tie in between CrossFit gyms and the Paleo diet, thanks to Paleo Godfather, Robb Wolfe, who introduced Paleo through his CrossFit gym, and formed the link between the two.  His book, “The Paleo Solution,” is the unofficial “Bible of Paleo,” (per me and, I’m sure, thousands of others).

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After hearing about CrossFit so much through my Paleo sources, I was eager to try it.  But I was AFRAID.  I looked at CrossFit blogs and videos on YouTube and web sites and I saw SERIOUS ATHLETES.  These people were FIT and lifting heavy weights and doing gymnastics.  I was so far from that level of fitness it was unfathomable that I could do it too.  Despite reading blog posts where people once totally out of shape like me were saying that they tried CrossFit and found that they could in fact participate and loved it.  “Not me,” said the negative voice inside me over and over again, “I can’t do those things, people will laugh at me,” etc., etc.

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Instead, I continued to “punish” myself with mindless workouts at the gym.  And I continued to be pretty fearful of taking risks in life, in general.  I was eating well and feeling so much better.  I was clean and sober and beginning to look at the things that caused me to abuse myself in the first place.  I was getting healthy emotionally and spiritually and physically.  But I continued to struggle with body image issues.  My disordered eating was almost non-existent thanks to Paleo (except for my struggles with sugar, as mentioned above, that I am still working on), and that was making  a huge impact on my life and well-being, but I did still see exercise as something I “HAD” to do — as punishment.  Until an episode of one of my favorite podcasts began to change that mindset.

As I said, when I first began Paleo I devoured books, blogs and podcasts about it, and one of the podcasts I love the most is the Underground Wellness Podcast with Sean Croxton.  The day my attitude towards exercise began to change was when I heard an episode  he had with Dr. Thomas Cowan, who wrote a book called “The Fourfold Path to Healing.”  In it, he talks about exercise as a remedy for depression.  I had heard this theory before, but not quite in the same way he explains it.  He says, “when we set out to heal our emotions, the most appropriate starting point is the realm of motion – movement and exercise.  This is because the way we move is dictated by how we feel.”

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Wow.  After hearing the podcast, and reading his book, I began to look at exercise as movement and to see it differently — as a way to make me feel better emotionally.  I was in early recovery at this same time, and in a lot of emotional pain.  I had always struggled with a general depressive state, which was only made so much worse through my self-destructive tendencies.  I loathed the idea of taking medicine to solve my emotional problems, and because of my self-destructive history, I was limited in the kinds of medicines I could safely take without abuse, anyway.  However, after reading Dr. Cowan’s work, I began to see MOVEMENT AS A WAY TO IMPROVE MY EMOTIONAL STATE.  My relationship with the gym and exercise changed from that point forward.  I began to look forward to my workouts.  They were no longer sessions inspired to punish me for being a bad eater or bad person, but instead, they were simply tools to boost my emotional state.  I even stopped dreading my training for running 5Ks with my new circle of sober girlfriends, and relished those sessions as “food for the soul.”

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Despite this new attitude, I still did not enter a CrossFit box for another year and a half.  During the second year of my recovery, I kept meeting people who did CrossFit.  These people raved about how they loved it, and how it changed their bodies and their outlooks on what they could do with their bodies.  They all told me that I could and should do CrossFit.  But I didn’t.  The fear was still too great.  Until 4 weeks ago.  4 weeks ago, I met yet another person who was wearing a tee-shirt of the CrossFit box I was thinking of joining.  We spoke about it at length, and he too raved about that box, and told me I could do it as well.  And now I was ready to start believing that maybe I could.  

So, what had changed?  Everything, basically.  I was now 2 1/2 years into my recovery journey and had faced and dealt with a number of my demons from my past.  I had done things (like run 5Ks) that I feared and survived, and even thrived.  I was growing and evolving (pun intended, again), in ways that I was proud of.  I was still struggling with my weight, and had gained back 15 of the 30 pounds I had lost when I went Paleo and began training for my first 5K, but even with that weight gain, I felt fitter than I had been ever before — fit emotionally, spiritually and physically.

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Most of that probably due to my spiritual work and growth, including the realization that I am a writer, and how essential writing is to me being me and being in love with my life.  I had also just acknowledged that week, that, despite all the amazing changes I was making, I was still “acting out” in negative ways in the “love life/dating/romantic” area of my life.  I made a decision to completely stop dating in order to look at those negative patterns, and when I made that change, there was nowhere else to focus but entirely on me.  I began to see how fear was still controlling so many aspects of my life.  So, when I was yet again approached by someone who was toting the joys of CrossFit, I was ready to face my CrossFit fear.  I went home and sent the email to the box I now belong to, and the rest is history.

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I am not going to lie.  I was filled with fear before entering the box for the first time.  I am fortunate that I was able to convince a friend to go with me, and that helped me walk into those doors for the first time.  I am learning new ways to move that are completely foreign to me.  I am learning the CrossFit language which was completely foreign to me (and I still am learning and re-learning: WODs? Cleans? Snatch? What?!).  But, what I am really learning is that I can do things that I thought that I could not.  I am learning that the only thing keeping me from the life I want is ME, and the bullshit thoughts and stories I tell myself!  It was a bullshit story that I was not fit enough for CrossFit.  There are people at every level of fitness who CrossFit.  At my box there are serious athletes and people in amazing shape, and then there are people like me who are at the beginning of their journey to fitness.  It is a unique fitness environment that I have never experienced before and could have never imagined — the coaches and owner know your name and address you, everyone supports each other no matter what level they are at, and there is a bonding among all the participants when the workout of the day is revealed – sometimes a bond of joy and sometimes a bond of dread and fear.  It has now become a favorite part of my day.  I check the website every morning to see what the WOD (workout of the day) is, and then watch YouTube videos, that explain these workouts.  I talk about CrossFit incessantly to friends and family, and feel a tremendous sense of pride for knowing that I’ve once again conquered myself.  It may have taken awhile, but I faced that fear and have grown from it.  Clearly, it is about so much more than just a workout for me.

So, why do I CrossFit?  Because I want to.  And because I can.

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8 responses to Why I CrossFit (with a lengthy discussion about body image issues and disordered eating)

  1. […] before about my struggles with weight, exercise, dieting, and running (see posts here and here and here).  This is not one of those posts.  Although it is about running, it has little or nothing to do […]

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