By Shalini Wickramatilake (originally published on the Renfrew Center’s Recovery Blog)
My life had been reduced to simple arithmetic. All I cared about was the tally at the end of the day of how many steps I’d taken, the number of miles I’d run, and for how many consecutive days I had exercised.
Nothing else mattered much— my health, my friends, my family, my job. My obsession was exercise, and the false sense of control, accomplishment, and calm it gave me. I had chronic aches, lightheadedness, excruciating muscle spasms, a plummeting heart rate, an inability to concentrate, and suffering relationships. But as long as I was running, everything was okay. As long as I was running, my anxiety could be managed. As long as I was running, I had something to be proud of. No matter how inadequate or stressed I felt, physical activity made it all better. At some point, I no longer had a choice; I simply had to run. The compulsion to move, to self-destruct, to succeed, to feel “normal”—whatever it was that my disordered brain said I needed—was too strong to overcome alone.
It came to an end in August, when I landed in residential treatment. The first few days in treatment were the hardest. After demanding that my body run so far for so long, being forced to sit still—essentially in withdrawal—was foreign, uncomfortable and painful. I could no longer run away from my anxiety, sadness, disappointment, or anger. All the emotions that I’d avoided for decades were allowed to surface without my interference.
So much of my progress in this early stage of recovery has been based on emotional tolerance. I stopped needing the running and my other emotion-driven behaviors because I learned that I can sit with the hard stuff. I’ve stopped avoiding difficult emotions, which has led to an increased tolerance for discomfort.
Over the past few months I’ve realized that the good things in life—the dog cuddles and lazy Sundays and belly laughs—happen when I’m sitting still. All that time I was trying to avoid my emotions by constantly moving, I was missing out on life itself. All of those days spent obsessing over steps and miles, I never knew that I would find so much joy in stillness.