I felt almost like a batter in the MLB. I imagined a player preparing to step up to the plate, performing a needless ritual that included the kicking of feet, wringing of hands, spitting, adjusting wrist wraps, and more, as if luck was brought on by movements unrelated to the current objective. At least I’m not as bad as Nomar, I thought, and I’m certainly not going to spit in the gym. I clasped my hands together briefly, took a deep breath, and then ducked under the bar, positioning a load of 210lbs across my pinched shoulder blades.
Up, off, take a step back. I found a spot on the wall for my eyes, and descended – hopefully to parallel – with the heaviest weight I had ever squatted.
Don’t pause don’t pause don’t pause, my mind screamed, remembering how often I failed by simply not going straight back up. The reminder worked: I pushed through my heels as if I were trying to move the ground itself, and managed to bring the weight back up. I stepped forward and racked the bar.
My feeling of triumph was soon overcome by the feeling of nausea. My peripheral vision went fuzzy and dark. I knew this sensation, as it had become more frequent during my lifting sessions. Fortunately, the squat rack was in the corner of the gym, and I was able to put myself against the wall and slide down into a sitting position. I bent my knees, attempting to get blood flowing back to my brain. I would’ve liked it if the feeling that I was about to faint came from lifting heavy weight, but the reality was that bulimia and training as a powerlifter weren’t especially compatible. It was a truth I often denied outside of the gym, the eating disorder telling me, Hey! You’re still making progress, right?
Sometimes, the thoughts were darker in nature: You want to die anyway, don’t you? Why care? Why try?
My passion for lifting weights was the culmination of many factors. Growing up extremely obese and uncomfortable with my body, lifting gave me the ability to transform myself into a healthier person. For a time, I thought it had even helped me escape my disordered eating patterns of the past, where I went through alternating periods of restriction and binge eating. Another benefit of my newfound hobby was the strength that came with training, both literally and figuratively. Exercise for the purpose of getting stronger was so much more motivational than endless cardio and watching the scale. In the figurative sense, it was a way of opening myself up, being vulnerable in a manner that contained more bravery than I thought I was capable of: I let myself be the fat girl in the weight room.
Most important of all, lifting represented a way for me to truly remove myself from my past. Not just the disordered eating I battled with, but the general baggage of my childhood too. For one, my mother and step-father didn’t care about health – the fact that I was obese and that my sisters were both overweight didn’t inspire them to make any dietary changes. Very rarely, my step-father “made” dinner, often ribs or hamburgers with no sides. It was much more common to see fast food on the table. We lived on a constant rotation of pizza, KFC, Chinese, Boston Market, Taco Bell, and some local wing joint. Our fridge contained no fruit or vegetables, or even fresh meat, and the cupboards were filled with boxes of macaroni and cheese and Hamburger Helper. Our freezer was stuffed to capacity with frozen chicken fingers and gallons of ice cream.
Meanwhile, when I tried to talk to my mother about my weight, she would tell me to go outside and play more often. If I were more active, she said, I could eat whatever I wanted. It wasn’t her problem that I was so lazy.
Seeing my father was often worse, especially when I made him angry. I could still remember being in the bathroom of his apartment with him, his hand wrapped around my arm, shaking it so that my upper arm painfully jiggled. “Disgusting,” he had said, his face contorted in a fury I didn’t understand. “If you keep this up, only black men are going to want to fuck you.”
I was twelve years old.
My particular upbringing provided many reasons for me to hate myself. For a time, lifting weights made me forget that I spent most of my life thinking that my body was an object of contempt.
And then bulimia entered my life, pushing its way to the forefront of my day-to-day in an amazingly short period of time.
My struggle with bulimia started around the same time that I began training as a powerlifter. Previously, I only lifted dumbbells, but had made good progress aesthetically. It was time for me to move on to a gym with barbells, I realized at a certain point, because I wanted to be genuinely strong.
It was around this time that I began going to William Paterson for nursing, while also struggling with a living situation that was less than ideal for me. School work was hard to complete at home for a number of reasons, most of them related to living with Scott and his parents. My boyfriend didn’t have a good sense of when I needed time to do my work. His mother watched a child that was under one for most of the day, and then fed the entirety of her large family (including her adult children) at dinner time, meaning it was fairly boisterous in the house until close to 7pm. Scott didn’t believe me when I said that his mom was drinking and constantly made excuses for her erratic behaviors, which at times involved interrupting us constantly while trying to complete our respective work. I also rejoined the clinic I worked for previously, adding over twenty-five hours of work to my week. Under these circumstances, I experienced intense stress.
Meanwhile, it was incredibly important to me to keep myself hitting the weight room. In a way, my bulimia became tangled with my use of the gym as a way to avoid my feelings about the current state of my life. I coped by switching to a program that had me lifting six times a week. I began to add cardio to the end of my already long sessions. If I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my anxiety at the time, I would’ve realized that this was the source of my very sudden experience of binging. Exercise became a necessity — I was determined to burn off the 5,000+ calories I consumed once or twice a week. I was falling down the rabbit hole of exercise bulimia, but was not mentally able to comprehend what I was doing to myself.
When I had to exercise less due to work, I began vomiting to purge calories while sporadically hitting the gym. I was getting heavier as my binges became more frequent, even despite bringing the food back up.
Embarrassingly, I tried to maintain the image of someone who was healthy and strong. My instagram was filled with pictures of me at the gym, and plenty of before and after shots that demonstrated my progress from obese or overweight to a “fit” girl. At times, I felt guilty. In a way, I was a fraud, sick on both the left and right – bulimic in one, a young binge eater in the other. Yet the validation was important to me, and in all honestly, important to my eating disorder as well. If people thought I looked good and strong, how bad could I really be?
Sitting against the wall in the gym, people looking over briefly with quizzical expressions as I hung my head between my knees, made me realize that I didn’t need to feel this way. I didn’t want to. I loved powerlifting. And it was only getting harder and more dangerous for me as I fucked with my electrolytes or made myself overly dehydrated, the consequences of my numerous daily purges.