It’s a story I’m not necessarily proud of, but at the same time, I am proud because it’s my journey and I’ve come a long way. Besides, if my experience can help just one soul out there, it’s worth the vulnerability of exposing this to the world.
So here goes nothing. Put your seatbelt on, because this one is quite the ride.
For the past ten years, I’ve been slowly killing myself.
Weapon of choice? Kale and running shoes. No, really. This is true. The ironic part? I thought I was the healthiest human in the world. I was toned, I had a six pack, I never skipped my 5-mile daily run, and I did crunches and push ups every night before I went to bed. I ate heaping piles of vegetables and devoured berries, bananas and apples daily.
People told me I was skinny, and complimented me on my ripped arms and quick WOD times in crossfit. I could beat the guys at pull-up contests and I could hold a plank for 6 minutes straight. I was known as the fitness girl, and I was unstoppable.
Occasionally I would wonder if I was pushing myself too hard. That maybe when I had a sinus infection or a pulled muscle I should skip my morning workout routine, but I was addicted. I was addicted to the rush of pushing myself physically and mentally, and I liked how I looked. I was comfortable with the number on the scale and I secretly felt proud of myself when I turned down a piece of cake because that meant I was healthy.
My mind was sick.
I hadn’t had a natural period since I was 14, but I’d been on birth control for years, so I figured everything was fine.
I began to have horrible digestion issues and was diagnosed with IBS and SIBO. Of course I didn’t correlate this with my low weight and malnourished body. Instead I restricted further, cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar, all processed foods, believing that these were the culprits behind my gut distress. Things only got worse.
When I went off birth control and didn’t have a period, I got my hormone levels tested. My blood work came back reflecting the levels of a post-menopausal woman. I was 22. I was advised to get a DEXA scan to test for weakened bones because of the lack of estrogen in my body. That’s when I learned that I had osteopenia. If I didn’t do something to improve my bone strength, I would have osteoporosis at the ripe old age of 30. I was devastated and scared. I heard that weight-bearing exercise helped strengthen bones, so I increased my exercise, jogging the track while carrying 20 pound plates. I truly believed I was helping myself to heal.
I was able to sustain my rigid lifestyle for those 9 or 10 years, but then, at 23 years old, my body hit a wall. I started to have chest pain, weird heart palpitations. I wasn’t sleeping well, my hair was thinning, I was anxious, stressed out and very unhappy.
And I wanted a baby.
But turns out you can’t make a baby when you’re infertile. “Fitness” had robbed me of my fertility. Instead of a baby I had six-pack abs, osteopenia and hypothyroidism.
After some Web MD-ing (I’ve gotten too familiar with that website) I diagnosed myself with hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) and started researching. HA occurs when your hypothalamus (a region of your brain) senses that your body doesn’t have enough resources to keep living. This can come from overexercise, under-eating, mental stress, or a combination of the three. In order to help you survive, your hypothalamus shuts off your reproductive organs, slows down your thyroid and down-regulates your metabolism. That way your brain and heart have enough energy to keep you alive.
Our bodies are so smart.
In my research, I learned that in order to reverse HA, I needed to make my body trust me again. I needed to gain weight and stop exercising. I needed to let my body have what it had been craving for years…food and rest. And lots of it.
I’m a very determined person, so I told myself I could do this. I sat on my bum and ate ice cream for two months. I cut all exercise besides walking and yoga. I gained 20 lbs. It was hard.
But I started to feel good. I had energy. My heart palpitations started to disappear. I felt a freedom I hadn’t felt in years because I was no longer a slave to my morning workout routine. I no longer planned my day around my workouts, instead I did yoga if I wanted to and if I didn’t feel like it, I’d skip that day.
It was hard to watch my body change. Good bye abs, hello cellulite. My clothes didn’t fit anymore, and I felt huge. But occasionally I would get a glimpse of my now slightly curvier body and think “hmm, this is how a woman is supposed to look.”
(Note: these are the two and ONLY mirror selfies I will ever publish to the internet, so…ya. Don’t judge.)
I almost gave up, multiple times. When it had been 6 months and still no period, I started to slip back into my old exercise routine, figuring it was too late for me to get my fertility back. I had ruined my body and now I had to pay the consequences for my decisions.
But just as I was giving up for good, I stumbled on a book called “No Period, Now What.” It was just the push of motivation that I needed. With the incredible support of the online HA community and the knowledge and motivation the book offered, I decided to go “all-in” for a few more months and see what happened.
I took a deep breath, and settled in for the long haul. No exercise. Minimum of 2,500 calories a day.
Rinse and repeat.
I’ve been facing this fight for 9 months now and my battle is not yet over. I still have to wake up every. single. day. with the determination to eat ALL THE THINGS and don’t stop till I’ve won. I know my body is waiting for me to get to its “happy weight”…the weight where it finally trusts me again. Only then will it give me my fertility back.
That day might come tomorrow, or it may come with another 20 lbs of weight gain. Only God knows my plan, so for now, I just wake up and try to face each new day with faith and a big bowl of ice cream. It’s so hard to be patient. It’s hard to trust the process and be ok with the weight gain. But I know it will all work out how it’s supposed to.
Looking back, sometimes I feel angry at myself for letting this happen in the first place. But then I remember it was all done in innocence. I never meant to harm my body. I had just compared myself to my “skinny” friends and saw photos of “fit” people on Instagram and told myself I wanted that. I truly believed I was living a healthy lifestyle. Oh how wrong I was.
True “health” and beauty are so much more than having 6-pack abs and wearing size 2 jeans. Who ever decided that was beautiful anyways? Just because society has put a stamp of approval on restrictive diets and skinny girls taking gym bathroom mirror selfies doesn’t mean that’s something we should strive for. I did strive for that and guess where it landed me? In the doctor’s office with weak bones, infertility and a disordered mindset of what’s healthy and beautiful.
Now I am the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. I kissed my six-pack abs goodbye months ago. I had to throw out my entire wardrobe and I canceled my gym membership. (For now at least)
But I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life, because now I am free. I no longer base my worth on how many calories I did or didn’t eat, how many miles I did or didn’t run or how my skinny jeans do or don’t fit. Now I value myself because I am a daughter of God and a wife to an incredible husband. I am meant to be a mom someday and that’s what really matters. I value and respect my strong body that is so, so forgiving and resilient. And I’m sorta thankful for the extra fat on my body because it means I am healthy, happy and full of life.
I’m not saying I’m done with “fitness.” Oh, heavens no! I will always love being active. Once my body is healed, I will continue to hike, run, lift heavy weights and rock climb. But now I have a much more balanced idea of what “fitness” looks like. It doesn’t control me like it used to. Now I see fitness as a luxury that I get to enjoy when my body is rested and properly fueled. Everything has changed for me. And for those girls out there who are struggling with a toxic mindset of what “fit” and “healthy” is, I pray things can change for you too.
I hope you can stop comparing yourself to photoshopped models and Instagram fitness accounts. UNFOLLOW THEM. Get them out of your phone, out of your head, out of your life. We need to stop forcing our bodies to conform to our idea of what beauty looks like. Instead, honor what your body wants. If it needs ice cream, eat the dang ice cream and don’t look back. If it needs a day, a month, a year away from the gym, honor that.
Throw your scale away and eat food. Lots of it. And please, by all means, don’t go down the road I did. I learned the hard way so you don’t have to. You are more than the size of your body! You are YOU, so love that, flaunt that and live the life God intends you to live, which I can promise you, is not one full of celery and treadmills.
About Sarah Romero
Sarah Romero is a personal trainer, food blogger, and HA recovery warrior! As she works through her own challenges, she wants to encourage women to accept and love themselves regardless of their size or looks. Sarah loves helping her clients become strong and healthy, without restricting or creating obsessive behaviors. You can follow her fitness journey on Instagram @fitforlifebysarah or head to her food blog Kiwi and Carrot to see what she’s cooking in the kitchen!