"I don't think that I should run anymore... I'm not saying that I will never be able to, but for now, I think this is the best decision."
These are words I never could have imagined hearing from my daughter. She was the fastest runner in her grade. School records and victories were not beyond her reach. She had hopes of running for years to come and, given her abilities, her future was looking bright. Club track led to summertime running — which led to school cross country.
But then came the eating disorder.
Whether it was triggered by genetics, environmental factors, an increase in running — or a combination of all three — remains unknown. What was known is that, somewhere along the way, my daughter’s running transformed into something much more intense than a fun extracurricular activity.
Anorexia and compulsive exercise
As her eating disorder progressed, it slowly crept into every facet of her life. Over time, almost all of her thoughts and actions were tainted — and driven — by anorexia. Along with severe food restriction and other signs of anorexia
came an increasing, insatiable need to exercise — to move and burn calories in any way possible.
Her “leisurely” jogs bordered on sprints. She would push and push until she was on the verge of collapse. She would sneak in more exercise (while unsupervised), finding any way imaginable to continually be moving.
Her eating disorder began overshadowing everything in her life. It had intertwined itself so completely into her running that her involvement in the sport became extremely unhealthy.
Learn more about compulsive exercise in athletes.
When we admitted her into the eating disorder treatment center
, I had this naive hope that she would be cured upon discharge. I hoped that she would jump right back into her old life, running included.
Imagine my shock and disbelief when they told us that there was a good chance running could no longer be in her future. I was dumbfounded. I was doubtful. And I hoped beyond hope we would prove them wrong.
Over time, she completed her inpatient treatment for anorexia
and returned home to the care of her outpatient team. She was progressing along the path of recovery and slowly integrating back into her life. Of course, her health was the number one objective, but there also remained an underlying goal that she would eventually return to physical activity.
To run again was a strong incentive that helped her through those early days in recovery.
Learn more about excessive exercise and eating disorder treatment.
With time, she improved enough to be able to participate in school P.E. classes, and she even tried out for the basketball team. As the basketball season neared completion, talk of school track was front and center with her dietitian. She was doing well in her recovery, and we all decided this was a safe venue for re-introducing the sport.
I had always envisioned her first race back on the track as a monumental event. I would cheer for her over the fence and be in tears as she sprinted towards the finish line. But it wasn't like that at all.
Was I proud of her for reaching this milestone and achieving her goal? Absolutely.
But, instead of being filled with overwhelming happiness, watching her run again made me sad. She struggled to keep up, and was nowhere near where she wanted to be. Watching her run felt like just another reminder of something the eating disorder had taken from her.
The season went on and she improved. We had lots of discussions about being happy where you are and not comparing yourself to others or to yourself before the eating disorder. She never was thrilled with her performances, but persevered until the end of the season. And even though she couldn't yet compete at the level she was accustomed to, she had a desire to keep running.
We reached a decision point as the school year ended. Schedules for the next year were being formulated, and sports camps for the summer were confirmed. She was on the path to move forward with cross country as she transitioned into high school, and everything we were planning was geared towards that idea.
But one night my husband and I checked in with our daughter, as we occasionally had been doing, to see how she was feeling about her recovery. And she broke down.
Unbeknownst to us, her eating disorder thoughts were increasing in strength and were becoming harder to keep at bay. When asked why she thought this was the case, or when she noticed the thoughts becoming louder, it all came back to physical activity.
Hanging up her running shoes… for now…
We came to realize that her eating disorder was intertwined with her athletics. Basketball — and then track — were the avenues her eating disorder was using to work its way back to the front of her mind.
Talk, tears, and, eventually, prayer led my daughter to come to this conclusion, on her own:
running was not something she could balance simultaneously with recovery at this time.
This was — and has continued to be — a tough choice for her to stand by. Watching her friends and classmates compete while she stands on the sidelines is anything but easy. But she chose — and continues to choose — recovery. And, at the end of the day, the benefits from that very important choice will far outweigh any victory or personal best set on the track.
Identify the signs of compulsive exercise.
While I knew this decision was very difficult for her, what I didn't anticipate was how hard her choice would be for me. Growing up, my husband and I both had spent most of our hours outside of high school on the track, soccer field, or wrestling mat. We found a large part of our identities and confidence growing up through our sports. And we always had envisioned that, for our children, it would be the same. If she couldn’t run, we wondered, how would our daughter find her way?
I had to go through my own period of mourning after she made the choice to stop running. I was not mourning the loss of our child, thankfully, but I was mourning the future I had assumed she would have a future that involved cross-country meets, track races, and victories. What I am coming to find, though, is that with this choice, my daughter is beginning to write her own story.
Her story is not a story that is driven by parental hopes or athletic successes. But, most importantly, her story is not a story driven by an eating disorder.
As I have begun to let go, allowing my daughter to have this freedom to find her own way, I am seeing her blossom into something so much more beautiful than I ever could have imagined when we began on this journey.
She is discovering who she is and what brings her happiness and fulfillment. And with each new choice and turn and direction that her life is taking, I am finding that her future is hers to create, and it is still looking very bright.
Sunnie Gruwell resides in Houston, Texas with her husband and six children. She graduated with a teaching degree in health education from Brigham Young University, but is lucky enough to be able to stay home to raise her kids. Her faith and religion are very important to her, and the strength that comes from those beliefs has helped her family make it through whatever trials they have faced. She has immense gratitude for the life-saving treatment her oldest daughter received at the Eating Recovery Center, Denver, and recognizes the extremely important role that caregiver knowledge and education play in the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders. Her continued support for her daughter reinforces the reality that recovery is not a one-time event, but a journey. She currently serves on the Recovery Ambassador Council and feels grateful for the opportunities this has provided to share her story with others. She admires the strength, resilience, and growth her daughter has shown as she battles her eating disorder, and greatly appreciates ERC for equipping her family with the tools needed to feel empowered in their fight.
“Successful mothers are not the ones that have never struggled. They are the ones that never give up, despite the struggles.” -