Ramblings on "enough"

Despite being the end of December, today was unusually balmy (near 60F!). As such, I spotted an unusual number of runners out today. Many of these runners were just using one of the many trails available, or the bike lanes, or whatever. And as I drove past, I realised with a jolt that I was jealous of them. After all, they were burning calories while I was sitting in my car like a Lazy Fat American™. Even more than that, they were getting the wonderful endorphin high that I so often find myself craving. The runners and other "exercisers" seemed somehow so much more virtuous than me, that if the Candid Camera crew snuck up on them, they would get a high-five and a pat on the back, while health officials would only shake their heads at me.

(Have I ever mentioned that those Ambush Makeover deals on talk shows scare the living crap out of me? I am terrified that I am going to be stopped and someone is going to play Tim Gunn or "What Not to Wear" and tell me how horrible I dress. I am also abnormally paranoid when I'm in a public eating setting that some journalist is going to pop up like a jack-in-the-box and ask me if I know how many calories I'm currently eating, and then I will be seen on national TV with my dinner plate. Scenario B says that I will be seen on national TV kicking the guy's ass, followed by a Central Booking mug shot.)

I am currently allowed moderate exercise by my treatment team. Usually, I ride my bike several times per week and just enjoy myself. This is good. But I still feel incredibly guilty when I compare my psycho exercise regimen when I was living in DC to what I do now. I'm aware, on a cognitive level, anyway, that I was exercising way the hell too much, and it led to my relapse and all sorts of other bad things. Yet the guilt remains. I have tremendous anxiety about the wide variety of "exercise recommendations" given out by almost every health agency and advocacy group around the world, and how almost none of them agree. The numbers that seem to stick in my head are the highest number of minutes people are "supposed to" exercise each week. I do less than that, and so I worry what people must think of me when they hear I only exercise X times each week.

This is where The Therapist will usually stop you in your long, rambling monologue about how disgusting you are for not following the guidelines and ask you to come up with a powerful! positive! and affirming! statement about exercise and your eating disorder, such as "Today, I am Choosing Health," or "Every step I run is one step further from recovery." Which may very well be true, but I've always wanted to grab The Therapist by the shoulders and scream, "Who the f*ck are you kidding? I want to be out exercising right now!" And so it goes.

I often wonder if alcoholics feel the same way when the virtues of red wine are touted all over the place. For me, anyway, it feels like the universe is having a little laugh and the joke's on me. Exercise is GRRRREAT, quoth the world, usually in Tony the Tiger speak. And all I can do is shake my head and mutter, "You really have no idea, do you?"
Maybe the exercise feeling I miss the most isn't the weight loss or the endorphins as much as it was that it quelled the anxiety that I was just another Lazy Fat American, that I wasn't complying with the guidelines from "health officials," that if anyone inventoried my life, I wouldn't have to worry about being criticized. That excessive exercise made me feel virtuous, like I was doing what I was "supposed to," and I was just waiting around for someone to give me a gold star. I wanted people to approve of me. I remain terrified of criticism, and I figured if I could just do everything "right," whether it was eating or exercise or cleaning my apartment, then no one would ever criticize me. I would finally feel good enough.

I want to know what "good enough" really is. I want some quantitative standard to tell me whether I'm doing good enough. Life ain't really like that, though, and I need to let go of that "good enough" searching and understand that right here, right now, whatever I'm doing, is good enough.

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Anonymous said...

Hi, I've been reading for a while, and as a psych major with 2 years of anorexia recovery under her belt I enjoy reading your posts immensely! I think the topics you share here are so relevant and really put things into perspective for all kinds of people.

I relate a great deal to what you're talking about. Sometimes I feel crazy when I hear people comparing their exercise amounts, while my treatment plan is that I do X number of days of the week. Then you have the FDA and such touting the benefits of 30 minutes per day, etc...it's very overwhelming. Anyways, thanks for sharing, I definitely understand.

Kelly said...

Oh boy, as soon as I read the first couple lines of this post, I knew you were going to sum up how I feel a lot. I can run a LITTLE bit now, but nowhere near what I would like to do (since that got me nowhere good pretty quickly in the past) and I very, very much agree with pretty much every emotion you've expressed here. I used to be in cross country, and I can't even go to the meets anymore to support friends because of that.

Anonymous said...

I admit that despite being quite far along in my recovery, I still get anxious sentiments about how I really...don't exercise very much...or anywhere near as much as I feel I "should," or how much "everyone else is doing." It really is overwhelming how many different sources are constantly reprimanding that we "should be" getting an hour of activity in six days a week or whatnot when my idea of exercise is my day to day errands and lifting a couple of dumbbells for five minutes a few times a week.
Its especially overwhelming since I live in a county overrun by fitness and weight obsessed soccer moms who do every errand of their life in their lululemon spandex. Though I like exercising, I sometimes feel awkward engaging in it just because I'm still afraid my parents might misconstrue that as some sort of sign of upcoming relapse. Man oh man.
Sorry to ramble on, but definitely relating to your post!

Libby said...

I'm dreading the first of the year... the influx of "resolutions" that will hit me from status messages, blog posts, tv commercials, newspapers. It's almost like they're trying to say that if you're not dieting you're not trying hard enough. If only "they" knew!

Right now, I'm on 100% exercise restriction. Must let my body heal the stuff that's wrong, not spend its time recovering from the day-to-day. I totally get the guilt thing.

Wish I had the answers. But just wanted to let you know that I think I get this one!

Kim said...

Lately, I've been experimenting with what's "good enough" for me, too. I have a great amount of anxiety (and a laziness complex) about the fact that if I listen to my body, I barely exercise at all. Cardio is definitely NOT for me. This is a fact. Still, it is hard for me to come to terms with this and not have guilt about the fact that I don't really fit the "recommendations." There is so much in the blog world about exercising, touting it as health. From my perspective, it's way overdoing it...but that's just me. I think I'm starting to come to peace with that, but it's definitely not easy.

Amy said...

There were a couple of hours today that were definitely way above good enough!

Unknown said...

It sounds like plenty of qualified people who know you and your health history are willing to define "enough" for you ... but maybe you don't really like the answer, so you're waiting for a better one.

"Better" being the one that feeds the endorphins and assuages the internal guilt and dialogue/monologue?

Even the media-infused recommendations of this-and-that generally end with a "check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program." The docs have weighed in on this one for you, but it's pretty sucky when the "benefits" of your sense of good enough don't outweigh/equal the negatives.

Maybe things will balance out with time learning to sit with yourself and pedal your bike at a pace deemed sane and better than the standard "good enough" for someone whose goal isn't to undo lazy Americanism but to recover from a life-threatening, life-sucking, serious illness.

I feel your pain and wish it was easier ... maybe the "lazier" we get, the less lazy we see ourselves as comparisons to our former selves fade.

Cathy (UK) said...

There's too much reality TV around. Gah, I hate programmes like 'What not to Wear' because I don't believe in judging a person on how they dress. I slob around in sweat pants most of the time - and in winter silly hats - because of COMFORT!

I understand what you write about exercise science and health messages. I was very sensitive to these when I first started to recover from anorexia because I was a compulsive exerciser and exercise was the biggest part of my ED. I was told I must stop to avoid another heart attack.

Having worked as a researcher in universities I have recognised that research in 'science world' is underpinned by a complex system of scoring brownie points for winning grants, publishing, disseminating research findings to the public (through mass media) and developing new theories. Journalists often pick up on stories that sound 'wacky' or like a 'breakthrough'.

One has to remember that we are all individuals - and that what suits one person's physiology often doesn't suit another's. Besides, there is no evidence that doing huge amounts of physical activity is compatible with good health. Rather, it carries with it a high risk of injury, over-training syndrome, immune suppression, CFS/ME and possible even premature death.

What's the best gauge of what is the right amount of exercise for you/me? It's how we feel. That phrase 'listen to your body' has worked for me. Following my own and others' crazy exercise rules never worked!

Hannah Siegle said...

Whenever I see people out there exercising I feel an amazing amount of guilt and longing that I'm not out there doing it too. I'm not allowed to exercise per my treatment team and while I have mentally adapted to this it is still hard to talk ED down when I see other people out there doing it. I have to constantly remind myself that what they are doing doesn't apply to me and that I am in a different situation.

I always had to feel like I was doing the most and "win" some crazy contest that only existed in my head. What was the prize? Isolation, loss, destruction, and a waste of 13 years. Evidence of it? Osteoporosis and rebuilding a shattered life and identity at 27.

Katie said...

I'm on a self imposed exercise ban at the moment - I'm taking more time than strictly necessary to recover from an injury, because I don't think I would have gotten injured in the first place if my exercise habits had been healthy for me. It's kind of terrifying and freeing all that once! Like Libby said, I am dreading the influx of adverts over January about new year's resolutions, health and fitness. I don't need to be told that I am unhealthy or lazy because I am neither, but the way the media/health professions portray it, given the amount that I eat and exercise I should be two or three times my size by now :P

Personally I'm most scared of Gok Wan. No way would I get naked on television. Ack!

CG said...

I totally get this. I also feel so bad that you were overexercising in DC and none of us had any idea. I hope you have a less public forum (if that helps) where you can write out and track these things...maybe it would help to catch it earlier next time? Sending lots of love and Christmas well wishes! CG

Bella said...

'I remain terrified of criticism, and I figured if I could just do everything "right," whether it was eating or exercise or cleaning my apartment, then no one would ever criticize me. I would finally feel good enough.'

This is how I feel about my ED... a major reason why I lost weight, I think. I felt like if I got thin enough, no one could ever, ever look at me and think I was fat. And I would prefer that to ever being able to be thought of as fat, by anybody. Fear of criticism, definitely.

Carrie Arnold said...

Wow! I am glad that this post resonated with so many people. Well, perhaps "glad" isn't the right word because it sucks that other people have to feel that way, too, but I think you get my point.

Right now, I bike several times per week. Nothing real strenuous, and it remains super fun for me. So as long as that continues, I think I'm okay in terms of activity. I would like to take a yoga class instead of biking one day a week, but I'm going to have to look into finances and classes to see if I can swing it.

And M? Your comment about "It sounds like plenty of qualified people who know you and your health history are willing to define "enough" for you ... but maybe you don't really like the answer, so you're waiting for a better one." was totally spot on. My team has defined enough for me, and I really think I need to work on being okay with that.

I Hate to Weight said...

i have to laugh -- it's freezing where i live and i wear about six layers of mismatched clothing just to stay warm. if anyone with a tv camera saw me........... that's it, i'm staying in forever!

i am a recovering alcohol. red wine was my drink of choice. it's the only alcohol that bothers me now (no problem when others drink beer, hard alcohol, etc, but if they're savoring red wine with a nice meal...ahhhh.) if i hear that red wine is good for the health, i really do know that it is not good for MY health.

i know exactly how you feel about being good enough. i maintain a very average weight, just so no one can ever comment that i'm one way or the other. i want to be just right. i tame my frizzy hair and wear nice make-up every day, so know one can think my hair is crazy or face looks awful.

great post. i'm really thinking now.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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