When Sacrifice Goes Too Far
When I was young(er), I pinned sundry inspirational quotes around my tiny, lavender painted bedroom. The quote at the top of my mirror was the oft-cited Prefontaine quote, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” You've probably heard these words a time or two or ten. Funny how even the most profound words lack meaning when they become prolific enough.
I like quotes because I like words, and the words I pinned around my bedroom were all in the vein of, "Do today what other's won't, so tomorrow you can do what they can't." The Prefontaine quote specifically spoke to my innate and incredibly strong drive toward perfection. It feels good to accomplish things, right? And perfectionism is often a direct line to accomplishment.
So, when I discovered a knack for running fast, I decided I’d rather sacrifice anything rather than sacrifice my “gift.”
In the running community, sacrifice is brought up often and lauded as a key to success. To be truly good at something, we are told, requires giving up some things. For me, those things started out simple and objectively harmless: giving up soda, or not staying up all night so I’d be well-rested for track practice. These types of sacrifices were never a bad thing, but my personality is extreme. I know this, and so avoid things like heroin or meth because I’d be the worlds most addicted addict.
When I set out to do something, I generally don’t care what sacrifices need to be made, so when I was told that running fast required sacrifice, I sacrificed with gusto. In the name of running fast, I went to bed early and pushed myself hard. I gave up sweets indefinitely. My friends learned not to invite me to sleepovers, because they knew I would leave early to go run. I over-trained and under-nourished, blaming nutrition when a race didn't go well because it seemed like an obvious and easy fix.
Food is something we can control daily, and I controlled with minute precision every item of food that passed my lips. Soon, I decided that simply controlling food wasn't cutting it, so I slowly and purposely sacrificed major food groups.
"Sacrificing" food is just another way of dieting, since diets inherently restrict or ignore certain "bad" food groups. First, I stopped eating sweets. Then I stopped eating bread, red meat, and anything “processed.” Then, I stopped eating. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental disorders, but I refused to acknowledge I was suffering from one. My disordered brain thought I was simply making a sacrifice.
Anorexia can be a slow burn. Rarely do we wake up one morning and decide to stop eating. It is a complex mental illness that slowly tears away happiness, confidence, joy, friendship, life. What can begin as harmless experimentation can snowball into a full-fledged mental disorder. As my list of off-limit foods grew and I shrank, I learned the dangerous lesson that physical hunger is nothing my mind can’t overcome, for a while.
Runners, especially women, are extra vulnerable to developing eating disorders. Like it or not, we live in a world that fixates on women's appearance and ascribes undue importance on the size, shape, and sexual appeal of our bodies. That pressure is simply exacerbated by sports in which the ideal physical size is smaller. This is a reality as undeniable as the sky is blue, and the type-A personalities of athletes makes us incredibly susceptible to eating disorders: researchers at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences found that about 47 percent of elite female athletes in sports that “emphasized leanness” had clinically diagnosed eating disorders compared with 21 percent of women who were not elite athletes.
To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. For some of us, that means training hard and training smart. Not letting unimportant things distract us from our goals. Not letting unimportant people tell us what we can or cannot do. For many of us, sacrifice means physical hunger. Taking up less space. Shrinking, in the name of being better. Denying our bodies nourishment with the belief that if we deny ourselves enough, if we sacrifice just a bit more, a bit more, a bit more, we will reach whatever goal we've set our sights on. We will be whichever version of ourselves seems most happy. Some of us would rather die than let go of that version of ourselves. Sadly, some of us do.
P.S. I wrote this blog with the mindset and unique perspective of an eating disorder. Sacrifice is often a necessary stepping stone to achieving the things we all truly want, whether that be health, financial success, or strong relationships. Most healthy people would not consider starvation a sacrifice, but a culture that espouses self-denial as an applaudable trait is nothing if not triggering to many young runners. We can be an all-or-nothing cadre, and sometimes, the sacrifices we're willing to make do us immensely more harm than good.
P.P.S. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.