First, I just want to say thanks to everyone that responded to Part 1. I received a lot of wonderful messages and feedback. This is not something easy to talk about, but knowing I have your support has made me feel good about my decision to write on the topic. If you have not read Part 1, click HERE.
Getting My Life Back
So, I made it my goal to gain muscle and improve my health. I had been severely underweight, and after my time at the eating disorder clinic I had gained about 10 lbs.
So I was sitting around 135 and still severely depressed and unhealthy. I had no energy, libido, confidence, social life, or hobbies. I continued to study a lot because school was the only thing I felt good at. I received a lot of recognition and praise from my professors, and it was the only thing that made me feel good about myself.
As I mentioned in the previous article, I got very interested in nutrition around the time I entered the clinic. I also began reading a lot into resistance training because I knew I needed to gain weight, but I wanted it to be “healthy weight”. From what I was reading, lifting weights was the best way to gain muscle.
The material I was reading made me very inspired. I was reading stories about guys who were very skinny and packed on a lot of muscle doing this or that program. There were a ton of resources, but a lot seemed very focused on gimmicky marketing and false promises – they only seemed to care about selling me something.
Luckily, I stumbled onto John Berardi’s “Scrawny to Brawny” book. I did not buy the book right away because I was afraid it was another scam. Instead, I began reading a lot of John Berardi’s articles online. He was very similar to me – he had been scrawny and put on a bunch of muscle by eating a lot and training hard. He also has a PhD in nutrition, and his nutritional philosophy resonated with my own – focus on whole nutritious foods.
His message was exactly what I needed to hear: Eat a lot of good, clean food and train hard to gain muscle.
The idea of being able to eat healthy and gain muscle sounded great to me so I bought the book.
There were only two problems. First, I had two knee surgeries on the same knee, and they were both unsuccessful in improving my pain and function. Second, I was born with only one arm, and therefore, did not think I could perform many of the big, compound movements (i.e. squats, deadlifts, barbell presses) that Berardi was recommending to put on muscle.
So, to overcome the first problem I read a ton into knee rehab. I eventually found Mike Robertson’s “Bulletproof Knees“, which is a great resource for anyone dealing with knee pain. Robertson also placed an emphasis on strengthening certain muscles with resistance training to improve knee pain and function.
After my second surgery, the doctors had given me free reigns to perform strengthening exercises and told me that they could be beneficial, but the only ones they had me try were leg extensions, lunges, and leg presses.
I had joined the local YMCA to try out these exercises, but, out of the three, I could only perform leg presses pain free. I later learned that my lunge execution was terrible, which is why it caused pain. As for the leg extension machine, I would not recommend it to anyone – especially someone with knee pain.
Berardi, along with Robertson, were huge fans of squats and deadlifts, but the doctors had never mentioned those to me (they probably assumed, for good reason, I would not be able to perform them).
I decided to go to the gym and try to squat. Unfortunately, I could not back squat because of my arm, but I found out that I could front squat without pain. You have no idea how excited I was!! I could finally squat, which according to everything I was reading was the best mass building exercise of all time!
So, equipped with my squat routine, I was no longer afraid to pound some good food. I followed as much of “Scrawny to Brawny” as I could. There were still many exercises that I had to swap out, but I slowly found ways to do most exercises.
I eventually bought a hook for my right arm to hold dumbbells and cable attachments and later bought a truck strap to hang over my right shoulder for deadlifts.
I loved it!! I now had a hobby that took my mind off studying and food. I also loved the challenge of lifting weights. I always had a goal with each session and looked forward to it. My knee pain was also slowly starting to improve although I still had to stay away from some exercises because of pain. And I was gaining weight! This was during my senior year of undergrad – 2008.
When I was not in the gym lifting or in class, I was reading and learning more about the body and how to optimize health through exercise and nutrition. It was all fascinating to me – I loved it.
I ended up going to grad school because I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My professors were trying to convince me that I should go the PhD route, but I went for the master’s first.
During the summer between my first and second year of grad school, I decided to go visit Mike Robertson’s gym (IFAST) on the north side of Indianapolis. The prices were pretty steep for a student, but I was very passionate about learning more and getting my knee even better. I also knew Mike and Bill Hartman (the other owner) placed an emphasis on getting people stronger, which I definitely wanted.
I ended up meeting Mike and signed up for a 2 week free trial at the gym. Long story short, I became a member at the gym from summer 2009 to summer 2010 when I started an internship at IFAST (I had just graduated from my masters program). After the internship, I was brought on full time as a coach where I still am today.
During this time, I have put on about 35lbs (currently 170), have zero knee pain, and feel great. I am also probably the happiest I have ever been. I have wonderful clients and have found a purpose in life that I am extremely passionate about – helping others achieve a healthy and happy body through proper nutrition and sufficient exercise.
Now, I do not want to make it sound like I just got over my eating disorder as soon as I started lifting weights. I was no longer starving myself, but I was afraid of fat gain and struggled more and more with my body image. I battled with an irrational fear that if I did not lift or eat well then I would get fat.
After you recover from an eating disorder, it is hard to trust your body’s hunger signals especially when you are trying to gain weight. In my case, my body was starving for nutrients, however, my stomach had shrunk so much from undereating. Therefore, attempting to eat significantly more was not easy. I often felt sluggish and low in energy. This did not make sense to me at the time because my food intake was through the roof. Now I know it was because my metabolism had slowed down a lot to prevent me from losing more weight and because my stomach had shrunk so much.
I began dreading my meals – I was usually full from the previous one and did not enjoy them as much as I used to.
I am sure people that have tried to gain weight know what I am talking about.
So some days I would go back to my lower food intake and would feel much better. However, at the end of these days I would always feel bad – I knew down deep that this was not the solution. So I had many internal battles going on. I feared gaining fat, hated feeling sluggish and tired, and wanted to enjoy my meals again.
One thing that saved me was an irrational fear that I would starve if I did not keep up my food intake. I did not just think I would lose my muscle, I literally feared that I would starve if I did not eat often. This was a new feeling I began having during my recovery. If I went to class or on a road trip I would pack a lot of food with me for fear that I would be stranded without food for long periods of time.
The other thing that kept me eating big was my goal – I wanted to be bigger. I wanted back the confidence I used to have!
Another strange thing started happening – I began noticing other people’s food intake. It never bothered me, nor did I judge someone if they were eating “unhealthy”. What did bother me was when I felt like someone was restricting their food intake or not eating as much as they should – especially other guys. I would either think that they had an eating disorder or that I was eating too much and again question my weight gain.
I continued to stick to my guns and eating big, on the average. Like I said above, there were some days I would go lower, but the bad feeling I had after made me get back on track.
After several months these irrational fears and emotions began decreasing in intensity. I realized that I just needed an insanely high food intake and that it would not all turn to fat.
Also, I really believe all of the reading and education I gained from that on nutrition, exercise, and eating disorders helped a lot. I was able to rationalize why I was feeling the way I was and overcome my body’s signals, which had been thrown off from being severely underweight. In a healthy person, the body has complex processes that allow it to stay within a certain body weight range. After being skinny for several years my body had slowed its metabolism to a halt to keep my weight from going any lower. However, as soon as I increased my food intake, it revved up to keep my weight where it was.
I was also able to battle with my irrational fears and emotions by gaining more knowledge of my body. I knew down deep that I needed more calories than I was consuming, that I would not all of a sudden gain a bunch of fat if I ate a piece of pizza, and that other people may need significantly less food than me to maintain their weight.
Overcoming these mental battles has been a slow process, but the more educated I become and the longer I have been involved with training and lifting the better I seem to get. I now realize that it is fairly easy for me to maintain what I have.
I have come to realize that your gains and health are not going to wither by missing a couple of sessions here and there or going out for pizza and drinks with your friends. Time is too short to not enjoy life and relax a little.
Coming to this realization was probably the biggest benefit for me. I am such an obsessive compulsive person that I like to be on a strict routine. When I was struggling with my ED, if I got out of my routine my anxiety was through the roof. I am now much more at ease if this occurs.
I am still working on these things and probably will have to for the rest of my life, but I am aware of them and they no longer interfere with my life. I am very happy with where I am now.
Getting My Confidence Back
Once I reached a fairly healthy weight, people stopped harping on me about eating “clean” and because of this my fear of eating around others disappeared. I also began receiving more and more questions on how to eat better for health and fitness. I was no longer viewed as someone with an obsessive problem – people began seeking out my knowledge because I now appeared healthy.
This gave me a lot of confidence in myself – people seeking out my knowledge and knowing that I appeared healthy and fit to them. I also felt confident in my knowledge and ability to help others.
Being a strength coach at IFAST has also helped me build more and more confidence in myself. I enjoy helping others and feel like I am pretty good at what I do. I think having the ED has definitely helped me be a better coach. I understand that there is a lot more to health and fitness than “eat less and exercise more”. There are many factors that one has to work on to truly achieve a healthy and happy body.
If you are struggling with this condition or are on your road to recovery, then just be consistent with taking care of yourself. Eat a lot of good food, find things that you love, or used to love doing, and do them, and fill yourself with positive emotions. These are all way easier said than done, but you have to try. Some days are going to be hard, and you will have peaks and valleys, but keep pushing on. You can overcome it! Be consistent and seek out help if you do not know where to start.
To end, I want to say thanks so much to my wonderful wife Emme and my loving and supportive parents Larry and Patricia. Without you, I am not sure I would still be alive. I know it was just as hard on you, or possibly harder, and I am so thankful that you stuck with me. You were patient, loving, and provided wonderful support and guidance.
I also want to thank John Berardi, Mike Robertson, and other fitness individuals (there were many) that wrote good material and helped inspire me to get on track with my health and showed me the right direction to follow. I hope to be a guiding light like this for others who are struggling to find meaning, happiness, and health.
Lastly, if you are struggling with an eating disorder or think you are on the verge of one then seek out help and become educated on the topic. I am willing to talk to you if you are having trouble. I also plan to write more on the topic of overcoming food obsession and developing a healthy relationship with food and your body.
Thanks again for reading and all your support!