Climbing Away From Anorexia

How rock climbing and motherhood saved me

I'm hanging upside down in the air, three stories above the ground, clinging to a faux rock ceiling and preparing to lunge for the next hold. I press off the wall and leap for it but can't grasp it. Swinging back forcefully, chalk bag bouncing against my leg, I laugh. My husband shouts up, "You almost had it that time. Again?"

"Sure," is my quick response.

Last year, I would have never imagined that my postpartum belly and stretch marks would be gone, replaced with defined abs – and even more incredibly, that I'd barely notice these changes because I'm having so much fun at the rock climbing gym.

Yes, I'd achieved a fit body before but never while enjoying it and never without obsessing about it. Which is why I am so grateful that, after everything I've been through, I found a way to be good to my body and myself.

Using anorexia to gain control
When I dropped out of college to combat a deep depression, my closest confidante and friend – my mother – was determined to help me to overcome it by exercising and cooking healthy meals together. But only weeks into our new routine, she went to the hospital with a life-threatening brain aneurysm. An operation saved my mom's life, but when she woke up from surgery, she didn't know who I was. She seemed to recognize me after a few days, but it took her months to be able to speak and communicate again.

I was devastated and felt like my world was completely out of control. So I took control of what I could – food. I started having only an apple for lunch, and maybe a bowl of soup for dinner.

The 30-minute lunch breaks at my Victoria's Secret job made it easy to substitute coffee for food. I felt so mature, riding the escalator in my black suit, hot Americano in hand. I felt proud of my disorder. It gave me a sense of accomplishment when everything else was a struggle.

And I exercised obsessively, without feeling even an ounce of enjoyment. I put on music to drown out the treadmill while I walked for hours with tiny weights in hand. My sternum and collarbone grew prominent. In the shower, I checked my arms for any "squish" when I bent them. It ruined my day if I found any.

The next five years fluctuated between extreme food restriction and not caring what I ate, usually combined with joyless exercising. Then I got married, and several months after the wedding, I was pregnant.

Pregnancy brought no relief
Finally I had a chance to ease up on myself and embrace cravings. Society never expects pregnant women to be thin and sexy, so for once I thought I could just enjoy food without anyone noticing me or my body.

Wrong. Being pregnant invites objectification even more than being a sexy woman walking down the street. All conversations started with a look at my belly and the question: "How far along are you?" My grandpa joked that I needed to stop eating so many combo meals. My grandma said I looked healthy, not "too fat" like other women. My appearance was public property, like a celebrity stalked by the paparazzi.

It didn't help that my midwife was extremely wary of weight gain. I cried when she told me to start tracking my diet in a food log. "She wants me to analyze every little thing I eat," I ranted to my husband. "She's basically asking me to be anorexic again!"

My husband chucked the food log into the trash and helped me think in terms of doing my best to eat healthy – but not beating myself up when I didn't.

Motherhood changed my focus
Two months after giving birth to my daughter, my weight stabilized somewhere around 130. During my college years, seeing 130 on the scale would have launched me into another deep depression. But now I found my approach to my body changing.

When I was a teenager trying to make sense of my mom's aneurysm, my energy was focused inward where it found all manner of things to critique. Now my energy flowed outward, toward my daughter and doing things I loved – painting landscapes, writing, revisiting old friendships, and sharing newfound wisdom with other new moms.

In the summer of 2013, that same open-hearted outlook brought me to a climbing gym for the first time. For two hours, I worked to complete a boulder problem (a path on one of the shorter walls with just a few holds). At the end of that first visit, damp with sweat, I had done it. And I had been so absorbed that I didn't think about the time, or my stress, or even how my body looked – I was just focused on completing a task.

Rock climbing changed my body image
And that first single-minded pursuit opened up the world to me. I approach climbing with the attitude that my health and happiness are far more important than my physical appearance, and I do not leave the gym thinking in terms of calories burned or pounds lost, but in routes conquered and new techniques learned. Above all, I leave with a sense of self-worth triggered by my strength alone: a sense of pride not related to my looks.

Some habits are residual. I still check my silhouette in the mirror, and I weigh myself on occasion. Sometimes I even do that elbow fat check in the shower. But the internal commentary is different. If I notice I've gained 2 pounds, I don't rack my brain thinking how it happened.

I just think, "Hm," and go ahead with my shower because I'm not going to let 2 pounds make me feel more inadequate now than I felt five seconds ago. It's completely irrational, and it's brainpower I could spend on something more important, like writing the next Great American Novel, or making a new art project with my now 2-year-old daughter, or figuring out how to ascend a new route at the climbing gym.