My year on the couch

Hi, my name is Ben, and I am an exercise addict.

Let that line sink in for more than the initial laugh-inducing 10 seconds. Yes, exercise addiction exists. It even has a wiki page. In my experience it is a potentially dangerous, scary disorder that affects so many more people than you would imagine. It's an insidious voice that chips quietly but consistently away at your self-confidence, a compulsion that grows faster and faster until you enter the point where there is no turning back. I write this post for a few reasons. Firstly, I hate not exercising and I am still very much addicted to it. I miss it. Maybe this is a form of therapy. Secondly, I hope that if you recognise some of yourself in this story you can get it in check before it does the damage it did to me. It's a dangerous path to tread if you're not prepared. The majority of people are strong enough to know when to say no. If you're not, take heed. Thirdly, if you're going through the same thing as me, I want to give you hope and reassurance. It does get better and it can be beaten. Just not by me, yet.

Like most addictions, we do it to feel better. Unlike most addictions, exercise is actually GOOD for you. In fact it's fantastic, everyone should exercise within their limits as much as they can, because the health benefits are ample and wide reaching. My story began when I was very young. My dad got me in to running around the age of 7, and up until the age of 17 I ran almost every night. Fitness was fun, running was a challenge and it was something that made me feel great. I remember dad saying to mum once after a run 'I think there must be some primal need in humans for running. I feel so good after a run'. He was experiencing the 'runner's high'. A wonderful state of being where the brain is flooded with endorphins upon the ceasement of a satisfying exercise session.


I quit running for many years. From 17 to 22 I had no need for it, I'd burnt myself out. I was smoking and drinking, eating very poorly, but blissfully uncaring about fitness, muscle size, stomach size, heart rates, Vo2 max's etc etc. Sure, I put on a bit of weight. But I had a girlfriend, I was still fit enough to play cricket, and I really had no desire to strap the boots on and sweat up a hill, or lift. I dabbled occasionally in sit ups and push ups, but I was always so bad at them that these spurts of inspiration and motivation never lasted long enough for a six pack to emerge from behind the keg.

Progress report: 2007, age 18. 82kg. I'm on the left


On a fateful day in 2011 a therapist I had been seeing to deal with a few problems suggested it as a way to manage my symptoms without medication. It'd been so long since I'd made a serious attempt, and I was still smoking, but I figured I'd give it a go again. Now you're probably remembering your first foray in to this realm; a dreaded fortnight of chafing, blisters, sweat, tears and a horrid new feeling in your lungs that you're about to die. The first 2 weeks are always the hardest. Luckily, not so for me. I was swept up once again in the euphoria of it. The achievement, tracking my progress, the feeling of pushing your body to its limit, and the wonderful rush of drugs that my brain delivered everytime I performed well. It was a wonderful honeymoon, so good in fact that I was able to quit smoking cold turkey and, within 6 months was able to completely quit alcohol. Brilliant.


Late 2010, age 22, weight 85. My normal phase


Throughout 2011 and in to 2012 I added the gym to my regime. Never having been a particularly blessed man genetics-wise, I was very keen to pack a bit of muscle on my oddly shaped frame. I always had giant calves, like big slabs of meat hanging off my bones, but my upper body looked more like an uncooked spatchcock. Skinny, flimsy, floppy. Working out was like adding cocaine to heroin. It doubled my endorphin hit, doubled my euphoria, doubled my self-esteem. Everything was going great guns, and I actually HAD guns to speak of.

 Obsessed with stats

As someone who, excuse the pun, tends to run away from his problems, jogging and the gym became a sanctuary away from the intrusive thoughts, anxieties and low moods. It was my buffer against the world, and as the world became a scarier place I felt the need to continually strengthen that buffer. I'd found the perfect cure for mental illness! All previous attempts had failed. Alcohol had created a lifetime of problems: ruined friendships, ruined relationships and possibly sparked one girl to put some form of voodoo curse on me. It had also jeopardised my health and wellbeing, and my relationships with my family. Medications had only worked intermittently, and generally the bad outweighed the good in terms of side effects. Exercise was so far removed from the usual stereotypical coping mechanisms. You feel good doing it, you feel good after doing it, and the only hangover is sore muscles. You look great, you feel great, you're healthy and everyone compliments you.



 Late 2011. Discovered the gym. Sitting well within a healthy weight range, addiction is beginning..


It is this realisation that can be the most dangerous. In mid 2012 I stepped my regime up. I'd injured myself earlier in the year due to a lack of stretching, and running with my injury aggravated it to the point I could no longer walk. I had to stop. So I cycled instead. Once I got back in to running, it quickly escalated. 5km runs became 10, 10 became 15, 15 became 20. I only took 1 day a week off, the day I played cricket. The rest was devoted to pounding pavement and pumping guns. I added stretching to my regime as well, and at the height of my addiction I was devoting around 5 hours a day to exercise. Every day would be the same. I'd wake up, have a black coffee, go for a run, usually around 90 minutes but always over an hour. Then I'd stretch for an hour in my warm down. Then at night I'd work out at home in my gym for an hour, followed by another hour of stretching, followed by half an hour of either extra ab work or extra leg strengthening work. 5 hours a day, 6 days a week. My results became the stuff of legend. I'd use an app to track my runs, and post up pictures of my weekly stats. The kilometres racked up. 40 in a week was good, then it became 50, 60. One week at the peak of my powers I managed a 90km week, as well as not missing a single day of gym work and playing 2 full days of cricket on the weekend.

 Tracking took it too another level, everyone could see my progress. The compliments were toxic to the beast

I never acknowledged a problem during these stages. People saw it as crazy, but my justification was always 'there are people out there running 160kms a week! I'm just an amateur'. And with exercise, the more the better, especially in the eyes of your peers. Having a six pack, having a good body, being the fittest bloke at your sports club, all of these things feed this hulking beast that lives inside you, that grows infinitely stronger with every run, every compliment, every article you read on the brilliance of exercise. You don't care that you're avoiding going out with friends because you need to get a work out in. You're just dedicated.



 The peak of my powers. I actually had an arm. Early 2012.

Some warning markers for me were:
1. I had members tickets to the cricket one day, and to get the best seats we needed to be there around 7am. So I woke up at 4:30 and went for a 10km run.
2. Playing cricket one day, I was in the outfield praying we would lose quickly so I would get home in time to go for a run before I had to start my weights routine.
3. I could NEVER walk. My legs were always in constant, agonising pain. Stairs were brutal. Each run became harder and harder. Instead of hurting for the first km, it'd be the first 2. Then the first 5. Eventually my body screamed at me to stop, but I'd just scream back louder and keep running.
4. I thought about exercise 24/7. I was always contemplating my next work out, planning it in my head. Planning a running route, calculating how many kms I had run that week and how many I would need to get to my target. Working out how long ago I had done my arms and whether it was too early to do them again.
5. I started weighing myself every single day, then more than once a day. The numbers were falling, my muscles were getting more defined.
6. I lived in constant fear of injury, yet paradoxically I would run and lift through incredible pain.
7. I couldn't miss a work out. Period. No matter what was going on, I had to get home to lift or to run. I couldn't go away on holidays unless I could run and there was a gym nearby.
8. The longer a day went on when I hadn't had my run, the worse I felt. Racing thoughts, panic attacks.




The weight began to fall off. From a high of 85 I dropped steadily down to below 70 in an 8 month period. I was able to eat whatever in the world I liked. I would eat litres of ice cream and yogurt a night, tubs of hommus, kilos of chicken schnitzel drenched in cheese. I developed a binge eating problem that resulted in me only eating once the sun went down. My body began to eat itself, began to implode. By November 2012, my life was entirely ruled by exercise.

I'd gone from decent to grotesque in a matter of months. I completely lost control of myself, my body and my life. Late 2012


One morning in December I made the decision. I knew it was coming. For weeks things had deteriorated. I hated running. Despised it, obsessed over it, thought of nothing else. I ran as soon as I woke up because I couldn't bare to think about it all day. I'd finish, and relief would flood over me knowing I wouldn't have to put myself through that for another 24 hours. I was pushing myself harder and harder. 12kms was the absolute minimum for a run. If I didn't achieve that in less than an hour, I'd feel this overwhelming sense of failure that would sit with me till I rectified it. That morning, I sat on a chair at 7am listening to David Bowie's Heathen. And I sobbed. Sobbed like I hadn't for years. My dad came down and asked what was wrong, and I told him I just couldn't do it anymore. I felt completely trapped, I was so strongly compulsed to run yet my body was so weak and tired that I'd be crying in pain every step. I spoke to my psychologist, and that is when we decided to cease exercise indefinitely. It was January 2013.
 
So what have I learned in my year off? I guess the best lesson has been the strength and power that addiction can wield. Despite swearing physical activity off until I return to a healthy weight and a healthy mindset, I have dabbled many times. I began running again around May, but quickly gave that up as my weight dropped alarmingly. I then attempted for 2 weeks to get back in to the gym, but I wasn't progressing because of the weight I had originally lost. I couldn't put it back on. As I write this, I am thinking about what incidental activity I can engage in tomorrow.


Life for an exercise addict is hard. For one in recovery, it's damn near impossible. The world is full of experts telling us to eat healthy, to manage portion sizes, and above all else to involve ourselves in physical activity. There is not a single mention in press or amongst friends or strangers or in any circumstance of the dangers of addiction. It's like trying to recover from alcohol whilst everyone around you drinks and the government publishes public service announcements encouraging you to drink. Your nose is rubbed in it every single day. Ads, friends, family. My dad is chronic for it, he runs incessantly. My mates all talk about their work outs and their best times and how far they managed on the weekend.



Try perusing your local rag rack and count the number of times diet, exercise or body is mentioned on a front page


It can also breed a much more sinister beast. An eating disorder. I won't delve in the murky underworld that houses this horrid classification, but it's a dangerous path to tread. More so than the injuries, the ruined social life, the ruined work life and the mental anguish that being addicted to exercise can bring, if it develops in to an eating disorder that is when the real, life-threatening danger becomes apparent.

I don't write this to scare you. I would say 90% of people who engage in physical activity do so in a safe and extremely beneficial way. Exercise is brilliant, it truly is. If you can stomach it, do it to your hearts content. Just be aware of the warning signs that things might be developing further. And if you're like me or you can relate to my story at any stage, I can't promise you like I did at the start that it will get better because I haven't experienced that. My mind is still disordered, it believes that as soon as I achieve a certain goal weight we will dust off the barbells and get back to work. I just have to keep tricking it I guess.


Comments

  1. Hey Ben. Found you by the news. You're a great writer. Thanks for sharing your story. I'm going to stick around and try a few recipes. Hope you're well. C

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    1. Hey Ms Smack, thank you so much for dropping by! I hope you enjoy the recipes :) Happy cooking!

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  2. I came across your blog thanks to news.com.au. Congrats on keeping up the fight to be healthy. I fought an eating disorder for years, and the mental anguish it causes can be unbearable. Stay positive, focus on having a future that you can enjoy :)

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    1. Thank you so much Skittle19! If you fought an eating disorder you are one of the strongest people in the world, it's something you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy. Incredible strength! Keep fighting, and thank you very much for dropping by!

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  3. Thank you for your courage and honesty, Ben!
    This is exactly why I created a program called "Destructively Fit: demystifying eating disorders for fitness professionals." (www.destructivelyfit.com)
    It's time we begin to more actively address the ubiquitous issue of eating disorders in the world of fitness!
    Thank you so much for doing your part with such grace!
    Best to you always,
    Jodi Rubin

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    1. Jodi what an awesome program! People find it so difficult to recognise the warning signs, especially in sportspeople who are expected to have a certain body type. It's a dangerous environment sometimes that can breed this kind of thing. Congratulations on making a huge difference in peoples lives, let's keep up the fight!

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  4. So much respect!! It's a brave thing to acknowledge you have a problem and then take control. I can admit that I've been going through the same thing for about 2 years and am getting better but most days it's a battle. It's motivating to know that other people with the same 'trapping' thoughts can get through it and come out stronger on the other side. Thanks for your honest words!! Good vibes xo

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    1. We can all get through it, but what a battle it is.. Congratulations so much for recognising that there is a problem and taking steps to change your life for the better, that is sometimes the most difficult part. I'm sorry to hear you're still battling, but also impressed that after two years you haven't given it. We have to fight it every day unfortunately. Thank you for dropping by and taking the time to read, I really appreciate it.

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  5. Hey Ben, thanks for sharing your story. I think that's really brave. I have actually had a really similar experience this year - normal exercising led to excessive exercise, a related eating disorder and scary weight-loss. I'm supposedly on the road to recovery now, but as you mention in your blog - it's a pretty tricky thing to put behind you. Thanks again

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    1. I agree, it's very difficult to move on. It's crazy how quickly these things can develop, yet how long it takes to fully rid yourself of them. I'm delighted to hear you're on the road to recovery. Every day will be a battle, but over time we win more than we lose and eventually we can look back on this time and be truly proud of how far we've come.

      Thanks for dropping by and replying, it means a lot to know there are others out there struggling through the same thing.

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  6. Hi Ben

    I just wanted to let you know I find you completely inspirational - for both sharing your story and committing to change. With every word I read I identified signs in my sister and when I showed this article to her she agreed. It's so tough having addiction to something that society endorses!

    Thank you for allowing us insight into this issue and I really hope with all my heart you can find peace and joy with living without being addicted to exercise. You are a legend.

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    1. AB this comment has made my day. The overall goal of this is to raise awareness, and if it saves even one person from the mental anguish caused by this kind of thing it's a major success so I am so happy to hear your sister has navigated the trickiest part which is recognising a problem. I wish her all the best in her recovery, and she has a wonderful sibling in you who cares enough to help her so she'll do fine!

      Thank you so much for dropping by and commenting.

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  7. As I read your blog entry I just kept nodding along having experienced the same things when I was 15 years old. Now at 30 I have managed to keep it under control for the most part but I know that I will always have the tendency to over exercise when I get back into it.

    Thanks so much for sharing. It's often odd/hard/tiring trying to explain an exercise addiction to someone but you have done it in such an eloquent way. I wish you all the best.

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    1. 15 years!! Bloody hell you are strong! People don't get it a lot of the time, it's hard to convince people that something so good can be bad. I'm glad you recognised the problem before it got out of hand.Keep fighting as hard as you can. The fact you've managed to fight it for so long is inspirational for me, it proves it's something I can live with.

      Thank You

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  8. Didn't get to see this on the project but had a read.

    Scary thing is some of those thoughts and habits you mention are things I have recently developed. Your story above well put and makes it simple for boneheads like me to understand the implications of over exercising and over focusing on getting that perfect body.

    Good luck getting it back on track

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    1. Thanks mate I really appreciate your response! In the end we are the makers of our own destiny. If we are comfortable in our own skin, the 'perfect body' just doesn't exist. Everyone has a body, and every single persons is completely different and unique, so the perfect body is a myth that we have created with our mind. Unfortunately, the mind is one of the strongest tools in the world, and it takes a lot of training to overcome it. Lets hope both of us can move forward with our lives and not get hung up on the bullshit that our head tells our body to do.

      Thanks again!

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  9. Ben Ben Ben Ben. I read your blog and saw your story on project. We have a lot in common despite the fact I'm a woman. Over whelming sense of panic and guilt. It's paralyzing. Taken along time for me to recover and maybe I'll never be completely normal. Where I won't think about tomorrows gym session or run or swim or what ever I can manage. I'm so proud of you for trying to be better healthier person. The funniest thing is the more you face anxiety and addiction the less powerful it is. Like mind tells you a day off is such a huge huge deal. When in fact it's not. Means nothing. It actually makes your work outs better. Harder and stronger when u have recovery time. I can now run knowing the dinner I'm looking forward to and bread roll with butter because I learnt it. I never thought I would change but I have. You will too and don't be scared that easing up means you will be fat or not fit. You're in control not the addiction. Best of luck ben. Australia loves you just as you are.

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    1. Thanks Crystal. Unfortunately 'earning' food is something I have a massive issue with. I need to earn every morsel I eat, which means gym or the track. It's still something I struggle with every day, but I am glad you have recognised a problem in yourself and are now in a healthy place. Exercise is not something we should ever fear! It shouldn't control our lives. A day off is a day off, in fact I am sitting at my computer at 9am and writing this when normally I'd be walking or doing some form of activity and the thoughts and anxiety and guilt are screaming at me. We just need to stay centred and push past this horrible thing. Thank you for reading :)

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  10. Keep going.

    I'm still fighting. But I can safely say, even though I don't have many friends & hardly any support. It does get better. People like you, encourage brilliance in others.
    Recently, I've had a fall back. But I heard your story. Watched it. And I am trying again.
    My heart goes out to you brother, I genuinely thank you & wish you well.

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    1. Hey Jamie I sent you through a message on Google +. No Idea if you got it, I've never used it before, but if you need any help or just a chat please do not hesitate to email me at Theonlydjorkaeff@gmail.com. Here for you mate and thanks for reading the story

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  11. Ben, Tim Elliott here, from the SMH. I am doing a story on exercise addiction and would love to talk to you. Got a moment? my number 0419 370 651

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  12. I always had giant calves, like big slabs of meat hanging off my bones, ... biglotssofa.blogspot.com

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  13. Hi Ben. I'm a journalist working on a piece about eating disorders and exercise addiction. I would like to talk to you about including your story in my article. Could you email me at milesraymerworkemail[at]gmail[dot]com? Thanks. Miles

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