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The balance of power.

"If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space.

Anyone who has ever tried to embody these words, as a philosophy, is most likely aware of two things: thrill and danger. Thrill can come in the manner of extreme sports, daredevil challenges and risks that leave you feeling exhilarated. But when the philosophy manifests itself as an eating disorder, the outcome can be deadly.

I have struggled with anorexia for the past 30 years. The concept of "taking up space" as a negative entity began for me at 13. Poised on the brink of puberty, living in a body that was changing without my permission, I attempted to take control and stop the forces of nature by denying my body the nutrition it needed to evolve into adulthood. Taunted throughout childhood for being fat, it seemed like the perfect time to stop taking up so much space. I was going to call the shots now. Taking control, I reasoned, was somehow going to save me from a transition I was not prepared for.

Taking control--what a paradox that concept turned out to be. What started as me controlling what went into my mouth, down to the last calorie, quickly turned into a nightmare. Contrary to my belief system, I was no longer in control of my life; I was held captive by the eating disorder, which had taken on a soul of its own. Anorexia had me in its clutches; I had given it power over me, and it was making all the rules and decisions in my life. It dictated what I ate, how many sit-ups I did every night and how I planned my social activities to avoid eating in public. I began a slow descent into a hellish trap, from which there seemed to be no escape.

As my body became thinner, the scope of my life narrowed accordingly. I was living on the edge: the edge of life and death, in a world of punishment and denial. Any attempts at intervention from family and friends fell on deaf ears. Anorexia had become my only friend, the only thing I could count on. It didn't matter that I was no longer in control; I just knew I had to follow the rules. The mere thought of deviation was too terrifying to even consider.

Not surprisingly, a career in the fitness profession seemed well suited. It was an opportunity to burn more calories, while at the same time being in front of a mirror monitoring my body. I became a certified group-exercise instructor. As I gained experience, I quickly expanded my class schedule. Before long I was teaching 19 hours a week, while still consuming the minimum. My students and co-workers would occasionally comment on my appearance, but since I seemed to have so much energy, nobody really felt there was a problem.

By my late 30s, the eating disorder had such a stranglehold on me that my health began to decline. I fought to continue teaching, but in spring 2000 I was forced to enter a residential treatment center for around-the-clock care and monitoring. Acknowledging that I had to surrender control was terrifying. However, being fed through a tube was a defining moment for me. It was then I realized anorexia was winning the battle and I was going to die if things did not change.

After several months of treatment, I began the painful process of re-entering my life--a life very different from the dangerous one I was accustomed to. This new life centered on consuming sufficient calories and severely curtailing exercise expenditures. At first, I was only allowed to teach two classes a week, which seemed like torture. Despite the treatment and counseling I received, on positive body image, nutrition and self-acceptance, old demons began to resurface. I found it difficult to adhere to my food plan if I wasn't allowed to exercise as much as I desired. In an effort to stay fit without teaching too many classes, I turned to weightlifting. At least, I reasoned, I could put on some lean muscle mass and keep my metabolism high.

The following year, I focused on strength training. Slowly I noticed an increase in energy. I could actually see some muscle definition on my previously stick-thin arms. Others noticed the changes as well and offered positive support instead of expressing concern as they had in the past.

As I continued lifting weights, my mindset began to change. Knowing I needed protein to feed my developing muscles, I kept track of what I ate and set calorie goals each week. Instead of purposely skipping meals, I consumed protein shakes and protein bars in an effort to preserve the muscle I worked so hard to attain. To some, it probably seemed as though I traded one obsession for another. However, I am healthier now than I have been in years and enjoying the challenges of pushing my body in a stronger, more positive direction.

Recently I have been thinking of entering a bodybuilding or figure competition. This would require a lot of work in the gym, as well as ample and carefully planned nutrition. I have become devoted to this endeavor because it has made me aware of the need to feed my body, not just to survive, but to safely and adequately build muscle mass. And more importantly, for the first time, I accept what I see in the mirror rather than seeing a body needing to be punished into emaciation. I have the power to affect change in my size through muscular strength and definition. The balance of power has shifted; this time I truly am in control, and the feeling is exhilarating. I will probably always be on the thinner side of "normal" in most people's eyes. However, I am no longer living on the edge. Rather, I am strong, confident and proudly taking up space.

Where to Get Help

If you, or someone you know, struggle with disordered eating, the following organizations offer information, support and treatment alternatives.

Academy for Eating Disorders

(847) 498-4274

Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center

(858) 792-7463

Eating Disorders Anonymous

Harvard Eating Disorders Center

(617) 726-8470

International Association of Eating Disorders

(800) 800-8126

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders

Helpline: (847) 831-3438

National Eating Disorders Association

(206) 382-3587

Helpline: (800) 931-2237

National Eating Disorders Screening Program

(781) 239-0071

Cathleen Kronemer, a microbiologist and AFAA certified group-exercise instructor, runs a kids' fitness company in St. Louis, Missouri, where she lives with her husband and two children. She can be contacted at
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Title Annotation:Forum
Author:Kronemer, Cathleen
Publication:American Fitness
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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