In the Beginning
I was 13 years old when I discovered the numbing quality of hunger and began what would become a very long battle with an eating disorder. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but somewhere along the trajectory of my life from childhood into adolescence, with changes to school, friends, my family, pretty much everything, I decided that hunger would be my source of control, my of with driving force.
Before I chose hunger, I was an anxious kid. I was anxious about my parents who, divorced since I was 1 year old, seemed to always be fighting: anxious about grades, germs, not fitting in, being weird, being a tomboy, not looking like the other, beautiful, girls around me. I felt wrong in all the worst ways.
My New Coping Skill
Once I chose hunger, I could forget about all of that. because my entire focus was on figuring out how to be small, how to lose weight, and how to be thin, I stopped caring about everything else. I became sicker and sicker, and, to my joy, my friends and family started noticing. My mom and dad were scared, my friends were envious and afraid, and I was miserable.
I believed I were just a little smaller, if I could just disappear a little more, then everything would be okay, safe, and protected. There was never any end-point for me. What started as a desire to lose weight became an illness I had no control over, an illness which I can look back on and see for what it really was—my last ditch effort to control myself to such a degree that no one would ever think to hurt me again. I believed that by destroying myself physically, I could protect myself emotionally.
But, as anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder knows, this doesn’t happen. Losing weight doesn’t magically solve your problems, nor does it make you happy. Yes, there are healthy ways to lose weight, and I believe now that listening to your body and giving it what it needs to perform its best is incredibly important, but this was not a diet.
What began as a desire to be hungry, to fit in, became a desire to die.
I’d thought that losing a little would be enough. But there is no “enough” with an eating disorder. There’s no finish line, because you can never accomplish what that needling little voice is screaming into your ear. For that voice, there is never enough hunger; there is never enough weight loss; there is never enough discipline, because you still exist.
My Own Little Hamster Wheel
My health deteriorated to the point where I was sent to a program when I was 16 years old. I appreciated it there, and I learned a lot, but when I got back home I still wasn’t ready to stop listening to the voice. I immediately went back into my disordered behaviors, in the following four years going through cycles of bulimia, restriction, binge-eating, and using drugs to change my weight.
Giving Up or Giving In?
Every effort I made was towards assuaging that awful voice in my head that told me I still wasn’t doing enough, that told me something was still wrong with me.
I had come to terms with the irrational belief that this was just my life, that I would just accept that this was how I always felt, that this was my path in life, that this was who I was going to be. I thought that because my eating was a little more “normal” that I was fine. In truth, I was replacing my eating behaviors with drinking and drugs. I decided to go back to an outpatient program on the island of O‘ahu when I was about 19 years old.
A little more than a month before my 20th birthday, my team of therapists and my nutritionists decided I needed more help. Unlike my 16th birthday, I decided spending my 20th birthday in yet another program was truly going to be a celebration. I would overcome this, finally.
I had 3 months of incredibly difficult emotional work under my belt, and years of struggle in my past. It was time to stop listening to that terrible voice and start listening to myself. The program on Maui changed my life.
More Work to Do
I returned home readier than ever to become my healthiest and best self, but I immediately black-slid. I dropped back into old habits as if I’d never left them as soon as I left the structured environment of the program. But, I persisted, and with the help of so many people, I made small strides. After many more ups and downs, however, I could keep pushing forward, to today.
Hunger and Surfing
What does this have to do with surfing, you might ask. Well, in the beginning of this journey, I chose hunger. I chose to deprive myself of nutrients and calories. I had no energy, I didn’t want to go out, to play in the ocean, to hike or dance or swim. All I wanted to do was be hungry. What surfing taught me, among other things, was to choose a different kind of hunger. I slowly started to crave life, to be hungry for growth and self-improvement rather than a body I could never get and a life I didn’t really want to live.
Once I got the help I needed, I had to change my whole perspective on myself, my relationship with food, with friends and family members. I started to feel hungry for all the things my hunger had made me numb to. Hungry to go to college, hungry for catching waves, hungry for hikes, hungry for quality time with my family and friends. I might have gained weight, sure, but I gained my entire life back, too.
Gaining My Life Back
Surfing was integral to this process. The ocean had always been my safe haven, and when I was at my sickest, even the beckoning of shore-break couldn’t get me into the water. I was always too tired, hungry, or agitated to paddle out. Because I wasn’t giving my body the energy it needed to paddle, to stand up, duck-dive, and thrive, it was difficult to surf. I would sit in the line-up, hungry for food, hungry for comfort, and angry with myself for not catching waves.
Anyone who has ever experienced hunger of any kind knows that you can’t perform your best when you’re hungry. When you’re hungry, you’re distracted, your muscles are weakened from the lack of glycogen, you’re tired, and cranky.
I kept paddling out without enough sustenance in my body, wondering why I wasn’t improving, letting that little voice tell me it was my fault, that there was something wrong with me, that I should be able to surf regardless of not having enough, that being hungry for food was more important than anything else.
These negative thoughts were lying.
Yet I persisted, because the truth was in my love of surfing. It took a lot of time, effort, and self-reflection to get comfortable with giving my body the nutrition I needed before paddling out, but I’ve finally been able to do just that.
What this gave me was an opportunity to change my perspective once again. As I got more and more excited about surfing, being hungry for food was less and less important. My choices had to change, because my perspective was changing.
Healing from most addictions requires substitutions. If you’re quitting smoking, the recommendation to find new activities, anything from knitting to martial arts. If you’re quitting drugs or alcohol you have to replace those activities with meetings, or playing sports, or something else more positive.
Motivation for Joy
As with Mindful Drinking, I used surfing to see everything I said Yes to when I took care of my body. Once I decided that replacing my hunger with a hunger for stoke was possible, it pushed me to start taking care of my body even more, and to start loving and respecting what my body can do when I treat it how it needs to be treated.
Snacks had been off-limits for a very long time for me. I had to start changing how I thought of food once I started getting more and more into surfing. had to start seeing hunger not as the solution to my problems, but as a physiological need. My surfing began to improve even more, and instead of feeling slow and sluggish in the water, wondering if I should just head in already because I was too hungry, I could stay out in the ocean for multiple hours.
I could duck-dive better because I was stronger, paddle harder with more energy in my muscles, and stay out longer without being completely preoccupied with the thought of what to eat when I got home.
Surfing was not the cure to my desire for hunger and thinness, but after a long battle with my eating disorder, surfing has helps me push aside those negative beliefs about myself and my body and focus on what matters to me.
The Best Kind of Hunger
Being hungry for stoke meant being filled up, not with calories or fat like that little voice in my head told me I would be, but being filled with joy, with the present moment, with excitement and adrenaline and stoke and persistence.
There are still plenty of tough days for me. Some days, my body feels all wrong. Being in a bathing suit is especially triggering. I’m still afraid sometimes, of the changes my body has gone through, wondering whether I made the right choice to start taking care of myself, wondering if I shouldn’t go back to the hunger which I used to control my emotions and control my life. That little voice still yells at me, sometimes louder than ever, promising me so many things I know it will never give me, promising me that the hunger is the better choice, the right choice, and that I’ll be so much happier if I just chose hunger, if I chose to go back to my old ways.
Choosing to Be Full
But then another voice comes in. And this voice reminds me of paddling out in the early hours of the morning, or catching a wave in as the sun goes down. This voice reminds me that joy in the ocean is worth more than any false joy gained from a number on a scale. It reminds me of all the people in my life who I want to be present with, who I want to go surf or hike or laugh with.
This voice reminds me that there is so much more for me besides this hunger, and that there are so many more ways to be full—of life, laughs, love, singing, swimming, saltwater, sunshine, endorphins—besides being “full” of food. What surfing has shown me is what is possible when I take care of myself.
Some waves have carried me far, others have torn me down and made me get back up again. Yet, just as in life, I always get back up, whether it’s on my board or on my journey to recovery. I always get back up, paddle back out, and get ready to catch that next amazing wave.
All Images: @oceanlove_photo