Using the bike as an unexpected champion for eating disorder recovery
As cyclists, we fill our Instagram feed with post-ride breakfast, coffee and donuts. But what happens when the food in that pretty picture becomes unhealthily tied up with self worth.
Statistics tell us one in 24 will suffer from an eating disorder. Play that out; how many people were on your bunch ride this morning, or at your post-ride café, or in your office? You come across ‘us’ every day, but you won’t necessarily notice. Despite the stereotypes, we blend in and look just like you. And I know, because I’m a statistic – a one in 24.
I had my eating disorder for 20 years, and it existed in waves of intensity throughout this time, the worst being my early-20’s when bulimia was a daily ritual. Looking back, I see how the illness consumed my mental energy and self-esteem; a relentless pursuit of an ideal. I lost a lot of weight, for which I received constant approval – propelling the illness forward. It skewed reality; I believed it provided the calm and control I craved, and when I received commentary I’d lost too much weight, I took this as praise. Eventually it became hard-wired into my brain as a coping mechanism and measurement of self-worth.
Even now, when I consider myself largely recovered, it weasels its way into life occasionally. It always comes with feelings of failure and shame that go hand-in-hand with an eating disorder. That’s because this isn’t a diet gone wrong, or a lifestyle choice – it’s a mental illness. And one that’s common. One-million Australians currently have an eating disorder. Fifteen percent of women will suffer at some stage in their life, and men don’t escape; 25 percent of sufferers are male.
But surprising things happen … I bought a bike, took the leap to lycra and cycling became an unexpected champion in my recovery. To be fair, recovery isn’t as simple as just jumping on a bike. I did a lot of work, particularly through Eating Disorders Victoria, but I do wonder where I’d be without cycling. Pre-exercise life, I held rock-solid assumptions I’d never even ride on a road and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would ride up hills, or how. It looked really hard! Fear and insecurity dictated what I could – or couldn’t – do in life.
Fast forward to now, and climbing is where magic happens. I love the exclamation mark of achievement at the end of every climb, which overlays with life. The first time I rode the painfully steep Victorian climb of Mount Baw Baw, I spent weeks saying to myself ‘hell yeah, I can do [insert life activity] because I rode Baw Baw!’. But its more than that, when climbing I find a connection and stillness within myself that’s missing in everyday life. I crawl into my head and meditatively watch the world tick by, one pedal stroke at a time.
With cycling, I’ve learnt to trust my body, and in doing so reshaped my relationship with it. No longer is it this thing to fight or be disappointed in; nor a two-dimensional assessment of self-worth. My body is strong, complex and capable and the enabler of positive experiences. It takes me on long chatty rides, has given me a love of early mornings, a community of exceptional people; it propels me up mountains and along roads throughout the world.
That’s the glossy brochure version of how cycling has made a difference, but it’s not always that easy. I’d be foolish to pretend there’s not another side to cycling, and how my mind works that I need to keep in check – body-image.
Focusing on what cycling gives, rather than how we look in lycra
I believe there’s an aspirational body within cycling. It’s super-lean; which relates to the obvious power-to-weight benefits, but also bleeds into aesthetics, and cultivates an image of what a cyclist looks like. It’s the body we see time and time again in the peloton, and the reason we all know riders who’ve existed on nothing but chicken and broccoli to nail race weight.
For some of us this can be messy because ‘that’ body just isn’t physically or emotionally available. Every time I hear something like ‘if you drop 5 kilos, climbing becomes easier’ I have to be careful. Sure, I want to climb faster, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of chasing a body that is never going to be mine.
And when I’m honest, despite everything I love about cycling I still feel the burden of not possessing one of ‘those’ bodies. Fortunately, my coping mechanisms have improved and (most of the time) I refocus on what cycling gives, rather than how I look in lycra.
Which leads me to why I openly talk about my eating disorder. I became tired of beating myself up, and realised what I had was an illness and not a personal failure; I could face the world strong and proud because of my experience. In opening up, the one thing I know for sure is that – whilst my experience isn’t everyone’s – it is definitely common within our community of cycling.
The other thing I’ve learnt; we all have super-powers through our words and empathy. Any time you talk to someone about their eating disorder, or other mental illness you help that person feel connected and ‘normal.’ That’s really cool.
That’s why I created the 7 Peaks 7 Days Ride which we started on Sunday. The premise is seven people, seven peaks, seven days, seven stories and one cause. Any cyclist living in Victoria will be familiar with the 7 Peaks challenge, but for those of you who aren’t its a challenge to take on seven of the state’s key mountain climbs across Victoria’s alpine resorts over a cycling season. We decided we would do the 7,000 metres of vertical ascent in seven days instead.
But it’s not just for fun, it’s about taking our love of cycling and giving back. We are raising money for Eating Disorders Victoria, and perhaps more importantly, we want to start conversations to raise awareness.
Want to help? Donations are awesome, or simply read the stories our riders have shared around eating disorders and start a conversation. Or, come ride with us, because giving back doesn’t get much better than riding your bike.