Eating disorders affect more than 10 million women and 1 million men worldwide. In athletes, the presence of an eating disorder/energy deficit, loss of menstrual period (amenorrhea) and low bone density is collectively called the Female Athlete Triad. The Female Athlete Triad results from an imbalance in energy: energy in < energy out. Each of the conditions that comprise the Triad can exist alone. However, according to the Female Athlete Triad Coalition, an athlete suffering from one of these conditions is more likely to be suffering from two or three. It can affect runners and fitness enthusiasts of all levels. Each of the three prongs of the triad can have scary implications for a runner.
Recently, I caught a glimpse of an article in my hometown newspaper about a runner named Meggie Feran and her recovery from disordered eating. Knowing how important it is to raise awareness of the Female Athlete Triad, I decided I needed to interview Meggie to help us all better understand the condition.
I’ve actually competed against Meggie many times. We ran for neighboring high schools and then for two of Ohio’s many Division III universities, but it was post-collegiate running that introduced us to one another. We’ve fallen in and out of touch over the past five years so I consider it a privilege to sit down and interview her. Meggie is currently working towards recovery from eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia. She is a brilliant and charismatic lady and a published author with her book, To the Moon and Back, which recounts her 45-day stay at Remuda Ranch, an inpatient eating disorder recovery program.
What are some of the common misconceptions about eating disorders?
Before I started struggling, I always thought an eating disorder was a choice. I felt like it was selfish and self-centered and a way to get attention. I thought, “just eat!” It’s easy to think that. Now I realize, it is so much deeper. It’s not about the food. It’s almost about… punishing yourself because you feel like you aren’t good enough. I do feel the perception that it is a life choice is diminishing thanks to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) and facilities like the Center for Balance Living in Worthington with awareness campaigns and bringing workshops to college conferences
Also, eating disorders affect a wide demographic of people, not just young girls. Men and women. All races. People in every country, not just Americans. It’s not about the food or the thinness. It’s about wanting to be in control when everything else seems to be spiraling out of control. It seems so silly, even to say it out loud, but when you’re in that mindset, in your head, it becomes a habit. It is a mental illness. And the mortality rates of anorexia are the highest for any mental illness. And insurance companies won’t cover it.
What are some of your goals in writing your book and planning another edition?
I want to be able to chronicle the ups and downs of recovery. Full recovery is possible but it is a lot of ups and downs. I hope to one day have a family and hopefully chronicle the recovery process during pregnancy. Some of the women I’ve met through my recovery have struggled with eating disorders during pregnancy and that scares the crap out of me.
What is it like to put yourself out there through interviews, your book, and speaking at conferences?
When I first got back from Remuda, I talked at a few colleges during NEDA awareness weeks, but I think I tried to get into it too soon. I wanted to share my story but I was still struggling. I felt like a hypocrite. I had to take a step back. It’s taken a while to put myself out there. I wrote the book just to give to my family. But through talking to my therapist, I realized it might be really good for me to put it out there and be raw. I was worried about people judging me. I was worried it would affect me professionally. It was hard at first and I was very scared but it has been amazing. People are so supportive. There are some people who are negative but a lot of people think it is courageous. But putting your voice out there is a good thing if you believe in what you’re doing. I think if I went through this struggle, I might as well share it and learn from it and hopefully help someone else to recovery.
We recently issued a challenge to our readers to love their bodies for what they do, not what they look like. The crux of our challenge was to not be afraid to run shirtless in the summer heat. Do you have days where you’ve reached that level of self-acceptance, or are you with some of our readers still working their way there?
The body is so much more than just the physical appearance. With what I went through, I realized that the human body is amazing for what it can do. Runners experience this. You’re able to run 26 miles and the body just reacts and is able to get you to the finish line. I think with the society/media and pressures we place on ourselves, the physical body is what we focus on sometimes, but it is so much more. It’s your spirit. At Remuda, one of the challenges was to go one week without makeup because so often we try to hide blemishes or imperfections with makeup and it was really helpful for me.
In some of my background research on eating disorders, I read that these conditions are often about control or power at the core. What positive mechanisms have you found through recovery to give you that sense of control and power?
I used the eating disorder to try to control because I felt everything else was out of control. Once I graduated college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I felt pressure to figure that out, so I went to graduate school. I ended up hating the program. I ended up all over the place. I reduced my life to calories and exercise to have that focus and not have to worry about the big picture. And now, I can see that my life was so taken over by that obsession. Now that it is not, I can focus on positive things in my life. I am able to enjoy day-to-day things like going to work, being with friends and family, even the smallest things. When I was consumed by ED, I isolated myself all the time. I didn’t want to go anywhere because I was worried about eating or worried that people would judge me. Putting my story out there has helped me realize that the people who mean the most will always support me. Everyone has struggles and it’s ok.
How do you cope with setbacks?
My fiancé, Sam, helps a lot. Dinner is still a tough time for me but having him there helps a lot. We make a point to sit down together and talk about our days. We focus on dinner as the time together and not the food. I try to eat with the group at lunch. I know if I am out with them, I’ll do it. But if I’m at my desk, its easy to say “I’m too busy” and skip a meal.
I talk to the girls I met at Remuda. They understand that recovery is not perfect and you have to give yourself grace. You have to allow yourself setbacks and not give up. I have to continue to go to therapy and see my dietitian. It’s really easy to think, “everything is good” but then fall back. It’s easy to find excuses like time or money but I have to make it a priority. I can’t live my life unless I get rid of this. I try to keep a positive attitude and do yoga for relaxation. Allow myself to not be so rigid with a schedule. Allow myself to have time to just “be” and not have the pressure to do anything at all.
What are some of your favorite meals or foods to enjoy?
I love Salmon. Sam is a really good cook and he makes teriyaki glazed salmon with rice pilaf. I also really love macaroni and cheese. I’m able to enjoy pizza and ice cream which used to be fear foods, with support. Sam really helps to redirect me. Sometimes we’ll go for a walk after dinner and not think about the food. It’s fine, you need to nourish your body. I also love peanut butter. Sometimes I battled with orthorexia, I was obsessed with only eating certain types of food. I had to eat certain foods every morning, afternoon, and night. I now listen to my cravings and allow myself what I need. I am more about intuitive eating and giving my body what it needs.
What is your running like for you now? Do you still find joy in running?
I’ve found the joy back. It used to be a chore. My day wasn’t complete unless I ran. I was a mechanism for burning calories. I was constantly calculating in my head how many calories I burned and how many calories I could eat. Now I have a dog and I will go for a jog with him and enjoy it. I do it because I want to. I haven’t gotten back into racing yet. With racing, sometimes my mentality falls back into the ED mindset that I need to focus on losing so I can run faster. While I was at Remuda, I wasn’t allowed to do any exercise. I realized that it’s ok not to do anything. I realized that I wouldn’t blow up. I really needed that. Sometimes I’ll do long runs but I am sure not to overdo it and I take in nutrition and do it for the right reasons.
I had done yoga a little bit before, but I was never able to completely relax. I felt like it wasn’t enough of a workout. But now I totally can relax and it’s a workout for the mind. I recently tried Yoga Therapy through a program called Rising Phoenix. It’s focused on questions about your recovery while doing yoga positions.
We’ve talked about your relationship with running and relationships with food. How have your personal relationships been affected by your struggles with eating disorders and your recovery?
My family and friends have been awesome through it all. Only my close family and friends knew about it beforehand. While I was in Remuda, they wrote me letters and were really great through it all. When I came back, it was like we didn’t miss anything. They still loved me. One relationship that has been hard has been a friend of mine that is struggling with her own eating disorder. It’s hard because I want to be there for her and help her but conversations with her can be triggering for me. She is in the book and she is ok with it but I am worried that it could hurt our friendship. I felt like I needed to share that piece because she is such a big part of my life. I hope that it will help her towards recovery.
What advice do you have for friends and family of someone who is struggling with an eating disorder?
I truly believe the person has to want to recover. You want to be there and offer support if they are the type of person who will react positively to that. But if they are in denial, they may shut down and push you out. My friend (see above) struggles with an eating disorder. Even as someone who is in recovery, I have a hard time finding the “right” thing to say to let her know I support her but also want her to be healthy.
What advice do you have for a runner or person starting to develop some controlling or rigid patterns of eating and exercise?
For anyone teetering on obsessions, I’d recommend going and talking to someone. You want to get help early on. I think if I’d gotten help early on, I would have been ok. I have a former teammate that felt that she was going in that direction and she ended up getting out of running because of it. You have to know yourself but also trust professionals because when you are sick, you can’t think rationally.
Salty Running has developed a manifesto, small phrases or mantras. Do you have mantras or phrases that help you?
One of my favorites is “choose recovery, choose life.” I used to be mad about it, but I try to remember “everything happens for a reason” and “struggles make you a better person.”
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers at Salty Running?
One thing I have learned is that it is all about balance. Black and white thinking needs to go. It needs to be gray. We all need to have balance in work, food, running, fun. It comes down to balance and it’s a great lesson for running, for everything.
I’d like to thank Meggie for interviewing with Salty Running. If you or someone you know is struggling with any part of the Female Athlete Triad, consider talking to a doctor, dietician, or psychologist about it. The NEDA website also has great resources for athletes and coaches. Meggie’s book To the Moon and Back is another great resource.
Have you experienced any of the conditions in the Female Athlete Triad? Are you a “black and white” thinker when it comes to food and running? How do you keep yourself balanced?