Digging Up Pain

Written By: Helena Wu

Everyone’s world is divided into two parts: the one they care about, and the one they do not. With all the hubris of childhood, I staunchly believed I figured that out years ago. I was the soft-spoken loner who read chapter books for fun in kindergarten, skipped second grade, and avoided eye contact as I stumbled on my words amongst my new peers. Through brute recitation, I memorized 409 digits of pi in about a month to crush my rival in math class at a Pi Day competition in middle school. Apparently I was the only one who even went to that length, but a win is a win. I liked being withdrawn in a restless whirlwind of ideas and imagination in my brain. I was comfortable thinking of myself as a bookish, standout student, and my whole self-identity became invested in that. Fitness was part of the vast nothingness I could hardly care less about, until it suddenly, disastrously wasn’t.

Few experiences in the first half of my life were remotely athletic. If you suggested to 10-year old Helena that her path would eventually converge into competitive powerlifting, you would have been scoffed out of the room. It was wholly unthinkable; in retrospect, what changed that seems like a cruel trick of Janus. Sometimes I wonder: if I was at least taught to approach training in a healthy, progressive way, would my adolescent years be different? Would I still have succumbed to the disordered eating, OCD, and anxiety attacks that possessed me for years?

Even though I passed that point in my life – I thinkI hope – it is an unspoken shadow that few have noticed lurking beneath me, following my every step. The people I know are demarcated into two crowds. Half of them know me as the once-industrious nerd who spontaneously became obsessed with running and working out, and effectively dropped out of the academic rat race. The other half know Helena, the girl who deadlifts a lot and practically lives in the campus weight room, who just happens to be the type of person who, for example, would be annoyingly nitpicky about grammar.


I had no time to reconcile whatever my change was: a coming of age, a finding myself, or a questionably inevitable onset of OCD and anorexia athletica. A stupidly unimportant Presidential Fitness test in seventh grade triggered it. Even though I barely did physical conditioning, I could muster passing performances in every event except for the half-mile and mile runs. It humiliated me that I had to stop and wheeze my way through the latter and barely escaped doing the same for the former. While licking my wounds, it came to my attention that I sucked because I was not aerobically fit. I knew nothing about improving aerobic performance. That epiphany led to an interest in improving overall fitness. Everyone said exercise was good for you, but how, and why?

When something matters to me, I hurl my entire obsessive, perfectionist mind at the problem. Especially then, before self-torment and anxiety wore me out, that was exactly how I approached the remedy to my flaw. The key, I determined, was to lose weight, run, and exercise a lot. I restricted my intake, and as for the latter, women’s fitness and running magazines would surely be the panacea to my ignorance. Out of some unfound shame, I hid these magazines in the basement, where I devoutly repeated bodyweight circuits several days a week after a run.

Goldfish crackers and Pringles chips in the afternoon were replaced with an apple, or nothing at all. Gradually, I worked up to leaving my entire portion of white rice at every meal untouched. As the child of Chinese immigrants, I had eaten rice since my toddler years. My rejection of it in the quest to become healthier was a symbolic disavowal of when I was unenlightened and unfit. I was leaving the worse version of myself behind. This also meant no more hedonistic soy sauce-smothered or stir-fried food.

I ran every day for over a year. Before school, I would vigorously ride my bike around the neighborhood to compensate for the lazing about that the school day foisted upon me against my will. In class, I started to stand up at my desk whenever the teacher wasn’t looking, because I needed to be as active as possible in every waking moment. During an entire three-week summer school course, I even managed to never sit down during the entire day, standing during class, all meals, and free time. More than once, that almost invited disciplinary action. I didn’t enjoy the obligation to run every day, to never sit down – literally – and relax, but the mental insecurity and torture that resulted otherwise was excruciating.

Soon, I could think of nothing else. I could not be bothered to study. I used to be proud of my memory. It was once an ordered, tidy shelf of categorized knowledge. In the worst days of OCD, my mind could not focus on anything but exercise. The arbitrary, never-ending checklists for every single hour, hour after hour, tormented me. I could not remember lessons or systems, and it became impossible to pay attention in class.

I could think of nothing, which scared me a little. As a child, I used to daydream to pass the time. Now a single, all-consuming goal puppeteer my every action and thought. I needed to run every day. I needed to eat less so I could stop being so fat, so my thighs wouldn’t wobble every time I set down my feet. I needed to never sit down or be perfectly still because if I did, that was the dangerous beginning of physical deterioration and sloth.

Falling Apart

Too much was upended. I can’t remember every detail, maybe because I don’t want to and I blocked it out, maybe because I lost too much of myself as I grappled with compulsive exercising and anorexia for nearly five years.

Today, I count myself incredibly lucky that I never dipped into bulimia. But at the time, I saw that as a shortcoming – because I was too much of a wimp to do anything and everything within my power to reach my goals. I was not strong-willed enough to get myself below 100 pounds. At 115 pounds, I lost about 10% of my bodyweight in maybe two and a half months, but the failure of not achieving anything beyond that, of not being satisfied with that, frustrated me like a thorn in my side.

Aside from that unprecedented weight loss, I developed hypothyroidism and enlisted an endocrinologist for the first time in my life. My energy was flagging and my thyroid hormones were unbalanced. I lost my period for months on end. One day, I suddenly noticed that I could feel the bony edge of my sacrum jutting against my skin. I was aware of these things, and my parents’ concern annoyed me – I was never an ill child! Why were they digging into my business now? I knew the answer: they were worried – but every question they asked probed deeper and deeper into the painful truth, and for a long time I slinked away like a wounded animal into the shadows.

The evidence that something was wrong was all right there in front of me. I couldn’t accept it because that would imply that my exercise and eating regimes were not healthy. But they had to be; I had meticulously devised them, and I had to follow them because they were right, even though I finally passed the Presidential Fitness test. I had to follow them until I became fit enough to satisfy my standards – which clearly were moving goalposts, or maybe just the teasing of a sadistic bent of my mind, because I had already met my initial goal. The pact I made with myself just wasn’t going to end.

Standing Up

In eighth grade, in the middle of my spring track season, ominous heart arrhythmias brought my parents to seek the advice of cardiovascular specialists. Even though the heart rate monitor I had to wear was under my shirt, unseen, the cold sticky substance tingling my chest and sending a chill to the tips of my fingers, it still felt like a pariah’s badge, a scarlet letter of shame. Fortunately, the cardiac issues turned out to be a naturally low heart rate, but maybe one that was exacerbated by chronic caloric deficit.

When I almost checked into an outpatient eating disorder clinic, I was angry at myself, my parents, and the emotionless doctor who asked me screening questions. Whether it was real or not, I felt them judging me and I bristled under that scrutiny. Today, I know that was projection from the small part of myself that didn’t want to be obsessive-compulsive and incessantly anxious anymore. The clinic only did not admit me because I refused so adamantly.

It was an insult to be taken to see psychological therapists, but at the same time I could not be trusted to handle my emotions or thoughts anymore. I could not connect with any of the psychologists. Within the first five minutes, I would break down into a shameful waterfall of tears, consumed with self-loathing and the burning desire to hide my face inside myself. It took months to find a therapist who I could eventually stick with.

I remember that first meeting. She refused to treat me unless I actually sat down and visibly relaxed for the entire session. Her ultimatum almost made me walk out the door for the umpteenth time, but today I am eternally glad I stayed. For the first several weeks, the tissue box never escaped a session unscathed. She guided me to ask the questions that would help me find my values. It took years – and still takes time. I stay in touch with her to this day. Some things, you learn, might never disappear.

That was one of the things my mental illness boiled down to: an extreme overreaction to a new priority. Part of the way I inherently operate is analytical and obsessive, and that drive was partially responsible for early academic success. It can certainly be an asset. But I never learned how to manage it when turning my attention to an interest outside the scope of what family and school life had taught me. A novel stimulus came along, and my doggedness morphed into an all-consuming, self-destructive inferno.

Today it’s only a glowing ember.

Stand Strong

Not every disordered eating or exercise pattern starts in this way, but there is a common thread of obsessiveness – a perceived imperfection that leads to self-loathing. The physical toll might eventually be corrected. You can regain weight, rebalance hormones.

Part of the pain is that you can’t get back who you once were.

Then you wonder – do you even want to?

I, and every other person who ever developed an addiction to exercise, who ever developed an addiction to starving themselves, who ever developed any addiction, would never wish a similar experience on anyone. It is mental prison. The emotional baggage is immense, the mental scarring permanent. Those trainers, therapists, family, friends, pets who help us hold unpayable debt of gratitude. Not everyone makes it out.

I did not want to remember any of this. I do not want to think of myself as incomplete, as failed, because sometimes I associate those connotations with my experience – even today. But when I came to Complete Human Performance and mingled among this team of coaches and elite athletes whom I respect so much, I eventually learned that even the “greatest” have suffered. When Alex wanted to start a week of focus on these invisible challenges, I realized that maybe it does not help myself, or anyone else who will ever interact with me through writing or in person, if I try to deny that I had OCD and anorexia, leading to generalized anxiety. He and so many other coaches, athletes, writers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professionals, and human beings have accomplished beautiful things and bloomed after their own ordeals.

They didn’t put the suffering behind them and try to blot it out. Instead, they tried their best to learn from it – and not alone, either.

You untangle this tight, tight knot one twist at a time, and when you find a thread you’re not sure how to untie, you ask for a helping hand. That’s how it works, and that’s why people remember their struggles with mental illness, whether fitness-related or not.

Nothing is shameful unless you believe it is, and every knot can be untied.

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