Most of us are trying to change something. Get better at that. Move there. Earn more. Drive less. Give up that habit (…again). And so on.
Then, at the end of the year we scoop up all the energy we have left, fuelled by our frustrations, and sketch a shiny new list of things we’re unhappy with and bold life changes we vow ourselves to make. New Year, New You, and all that.
2019 brought lots of change for me. One of my first New Year goals was moving out of home from Cheshire to Kendal in Cumbria. Moving house is often quoted as one of the most stressful life events – and now I see why. Flying the nest was not so elegant as an eagle taking flight; more like a drugged goose with no direction. Being able to run in the fells alone, watch sunrise from magical mountain vistas and discover real independence in the birthplace of Kendal Mint Cake, quickly assured me I’d landed in the right place.
I’ve also had to readjust to the idea that my biggest achievement this year isn’t climbing Everest, raising thousands or completing another huge physical challenge – but coping with change.
*NOTE: the following may include triggering experiences for others currently struggling with eating disorders*
Sometimes change isn’t always so obvious and we get disappointed not to see instant results, especially in a world where we can get most things with a swipe of a finger on our mobile phones. And to quote Mark Twain: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times”.
Changing my environment was also the fresh start I needed to recover from mental health challenges, especially another episode of depression and the eating disorder, bulimia.
There’s so much more to eating disorders than weight or appearance. They grasp for control in every aspect of life. Your daily internal dialogue goes something like this:
“Maybe I’ll run an easy 10km tonight. Or should I run in Ambleside, so I can stop off at that bakery on the way back? Then again, I already had 50 grams of sugar in that cake at lunch (because I brought my scales with me and hoped nobody noticed), so that’s a no-go. To be honest, I should really rest as my foot hurts, but family are taking me out for lunch tomorrow and I’m probably going to over-eat. As for my long run, I need to bring enough sports gels when I’m running four hours. But with all that sugar how can I possibly enjoy a treat when I get home?”
Routine trips to the supermarket for ‘ten minutes’ often took an hour, walking down aisles several times and repeatedly putting a pack of biscuits on the shelf again – it’s too risky I’ll binge on the whole pack in one go. When away in cities for work the eating disorder had a field day, overwhelmed by the new food opportunities; trawling restaurant menus and Facebook pages, obsessively planning this mighty food bender. Ignoring the cravings was futile: I could barely concentrate on getting work done until I gave in. It didn’t occur at the time that this was all a very natural physiological response to being underweight.
I had started NHS therapy sessions, which meant driving 180 miles home to Chester and back each week. Ironically I was sometimes late for my appointments for collecting a sugar fix on the way back. My therapist tried various approaches and she often spoke about finding a ‘reason to change’, which instantly struck a chord. At the same time, the Lakes provided natural therapy as I flirted with fell-running, which was a totally new world to the road running I was used to. Suddenly the times and paces became obsolete, and instead of finishing in the top 1-5% of smaller races, I was frustrated to be in the top half. To keep motivated and a sense of progress, I had to change my targets to simply enjoying the new experiences for a while.
Earlier in the year I was speaking in Bristol, and as usual, more pre-occupied by food than what I was there to do. A morning tempo run would have been better spent playing chess. Running away from the problem finally caught up. I’d had enough of being a slave to cravings, calories and calculations. That night I went to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Such a place was unthinkable. The bulimia panicked; “what on earth are you doing?!”. Rebellion felt disgusting yet thrilling.
The next day the world hadn’t imploded by over-eating. Instead, I experienced a clarity of mind that I’d almost forgotten about, a fresh awareness, and renewed energy that had been suppressed in a haze for months. That weekend was the Delamere Montane Trail 10km race – and I won. It was hardly Boston Marathon, nor a gathering of elite athletes. But it was a race against bulimia. And it brought the realisation that the lack-lustre performance was not lack of ability or effort, but a lack of petrol in the engine. And without fuel, it could only go so far. The exhausting daily battle to hit my daily calorie target had stolen so much energy that it was unreasonable to expect the usual achievements and output. Losing valuable time and opportunities was immensely frustrating – but like any setback, can only be used to drive us forwards.
This was my reason to change.
With this reason, the other steps started to stick. Often the smallest changes make the biggest difference, like changing daily routines, putting myself first, planning meals less rigidly, and knowing what to avoid. There were plenty of peaks and troughs, but that reason to strive for something better keeps us going when we feel like giving up.
Christmas was the major test. It’s the time of year where excess is permitted and justified, all in the name of festive cheer. We’re surrounded by a minefield of triggers from Christmas dinner and office parties, to Reindeer-shaped boxes of saturated fat. Albeit usually with genuine intentions, many people think to ‘feed you up’ and give presents in the form of sugar – which is a bit like buying a bottle of Jack Daniels for an alcoholic.
As 2019 comes to close, most of us look back at what we’ve achieved this year. Mine looks pretty unextraordinary – if only compared to usual. Smart goals need to be measurable, and specifically, I had to get through Christmas without an episode. Ticking that one off has probably been the most significant achievement of the year. Building a healthy foundation is like building a base camp – without a strong foundation, you’ve got nothing else to hold things together when you make a push for the top. And the eating disorder in my rucksack was only weighing me down.
Now it’s freed me to find the next goal. 2020 will be a comeback year with a new challenge planned for the Spring, that’s equally bonkers as the previous. After 300,000ft of ascent in my legs this year, my legs are ready and now my mind is ready to follow. Keep tuned!
We can write down as many goals and promises as we want, but lasting change only happens with a strong enough reason to make it. Whether you want to change your job, move house, complete a marathon, stop smoking, become vegan, quit Facebook, learn French or cycle to work every day in 2019 – go for it!
Don’t forget to start by asking yourself: what’s your reason to change?