I flicked the light switch on an eating disorder
Illustration by J.O. Applegate
The stench is sickening but fuel for the monster inside. He’s been brought to his knees, head over the toilet, one hand keeping him up. The other hand? Just outside his mouth, grasping the spoon. He’s found the skinny long stem ones work best for his tiny throat. He calmly relaxes, forcing it deeper down his throat. His gag reflex has been harder to come by in recent days. Finally, he feels it coming. A few splashes of vomit hit his face and arms, but a sly smile crosses his face. His thoughts go to skinny, fast, and dancing on the pedals uphill. He knows what he’s doing is twisted, but it’s not a disorder, he tells himself.
Why you ask? Because he’s in control and can turn it on and off like a light switch. It’s quite the contrast. The switch allows him to be in the light despite the dark path he’s headed down.
I have an eating disorder.
There, I said it. But more importantly, I’ve come to terms with it.
Somewhere down the line between letting go of a childhood dream and pursuing a new career path, I lost any sense of reality. I hid my disorder from everyone quite effortlessly. People who thought they knew me didn’t. I’ve always said ‘I’m an open book,’ but on this, I was anything but that.
No, I am not a professional cyclist or was anywhere close to being one. I’m merely a journalist whose love for a sport and sense of community sent him down an extremely dark path. Bulimia. Anorexia. I checked all of the boxes during an immensely troublesome couple of years.
It’s taken me years to dig out from rock bottom, but I finally have and am ready to tell my story in hopes that the cycling community can learn and change the brutal underlying culture in this sport. I wrote that opening paragraph three years ago. That’s how difficult this has been for me.
Where it all began
I’ve always been petite, skinny, and active. I’ve never been a video game player, always preferring to play outside. And, with a significant age gap between my older siblings and me, I learned to entertain myself. I became a loner of sorts from a young age. I’m confident and comfortable around people I know, but I am not one to put myself out there. Thus, this is where it all began.
From an early start in life, I didn’t necessarily pay attention to what I ate but more to my physique. Most of the men on my dad’s side of the family are overweight, and all their body fat goes directly to their belly. A gene I most certainly inherited.
I began following cycling in 2003, age 9, and began racing amateurly in 2007 at 13. Yes, I got into cycling at the perfect time in America. We were the best. The hysteria surrounding Armstrong was unreal, and I soaked it all up.
I’ll note that I was never at all good at bike racing. However, I fed off the suffering and going the extra mile and doing the additional interval. I had an addiction to the process. That process would soon include needing to have an eating disorder as well. I was only ever an amateur cat. 4 racer, and my last race was in the spring of my sophomore year of college.
When I stopped and my racing ability are relevant because I didn’t hit rock bottom until many years after I had let go of racing.
My first real introduction into eating disorders in cycling was through a podcast Mike Creed did with Brad Huff. I listened to it in the fall of 2014, my sophomore year of college. I was getting back to serious training and preparing for the upcoming race season in the spring.
Creed and Huff discussed the latter’s bout with disordered eating and mental health issues and how he overcame them. However, there were jokes and laughs about pro cyclists having eating disorders and only eating a salad after a big training ride throughout the conversation.
Hell, my takeaway at the time was that if everyone’s got one, then it’s not a bad thing to have one in the first place.
Now, I fully understood at the time that I was never going to be a pro, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to live like one while in college. During that spring was the first time I watched what I ate and began weighing myself regularly.
In the spring of 2016, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and had a hell of a time. I brought my bike over, did a bit of riding, a bit of studying, and immersed myself in Italy’s culture. Pizza, pasta, and gelato. What’s better than that?
That spring was the first time in nearly a decade that I didn’t worry about being fast on the bike and doing intervals over the winter and spending countless hours alone on the trainer.
And that was OK.
However, when I got to Boulder for a summer internship with CyclingTips, things changed. It was to be the summer I dreamt about – covering the sport I loved and riding my bike in one of the best places in the U.S.
But a haunting twist was on the horizon.
Flicking the Light Switch
I was way out of shape and super slow when I arrived in Boulder. I needed to get in shape fast if I wanted to have fun dancing around the mountains. Five-hour rides are a helluva lot more fun when you’re fit than when you’re not. Being unfit gave me anxiety. I had never weighed this much in life or been this slow on the bike. I didn’t know what to do.
So, I flicked a light switch.
I went from 62 kilos (136lbs) to 52 kilos (114 lbs) in a month.
However, I didn’t stop eating. I ate whatever I wanted. Extremely unhealthy food, I might add. Pizza and ice cream for dinner? For sure.
Within 20 minutes of finishing, I was at the toilet, puking that trash out of my system. That was dinner.
We all remember our first time. Mine was James’ house. Yes, that James. The global tech editor for CyclingTips James. I was dog sitting for him.
I dipped down to about 111lbs that summer, and I wasn’t riding all that great. Could I hang with my friend group? Yeah. Could I smash it? No. I didn’t have any anaerobic power at all. I’d drop all the weight, and for about two weeks, I’d be flying as my body freaked out and tried to figure out what was happening. Once it did, it went into shutdown. I could ride steady and do a five-hour excursion in the mountains, but there was no punch there at all.
However, all of this got blocked from reality. I was in so deep that I couldn’t acknowledge that I had gone so far off the edge. I continued down this dreadful path of eating whatever I wanted and forcing myself to puke.
In August, I went to cover the Tour of Utah. I didn’t ride during those two weeks reporting on the race, but I still ate whatever I wanted and puked it up. I also set a rule for myself not to eat after 6 pm. That meant skipping dinner.
In one city, the press corp stayed in a college dorm. It felt like home. I was still a college student, after all. So, there I was, a college student turned professional journalist, covering a sport with known disordered eating issues, making myself puke in a college dorm.
Of course, by this point, I had lost any sense of control. My muscles began degrading as my body looked for a way out of the dreadful spiral. I recognize this now, looking back on that time. At that moment, I told myself I was in complete control.
Repeating the Process
After going down a dark rabbit hole during the summer, I went back to school and went the complete opposite direction – no riding, no puking, but still eating whatever I wanted. My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer over the summer and her diagnosis messed with me mentally.
While in Colorado, I had channeled my mental instability over my sister’s diagnosis into riding – being as fast and as fit as possible on the bike, which probably exacerbated my disorder. I treated my illness like I do most things in my life. If I commit to something, I’m all in. I had to throw up after a fatty meal, and, in an entirely unimaginable messed up way, I garnered strength from making myself puke.
When I got back to school, I was lost.
A month after graduation in May 2017, I made the full-time move to Boulder. I was overweight again and riding terribly. I was very near the weight I was when I got to Boulder the year before, so I told myself I knew what to do.
136 lbs is not overweight
I locked in. A flick of the light switch and it was go time.
Throughout the summer, I dropped weight again – rapidly. As with the summer before, every morning, I would weigh myself and take note of how hydrated I was off my pee color. I was taking note of water weight.
I told myself I was doing much better this time. I was able to drop the weight without throwing up. Instead of eating whatever I wanted and then throwing it up, I merely didn’t eat. There was a difference, I told myself. The way I was doing it this summer was OK and demonstrated I didn’t have a problem.
Now, I wasn’t eating very much at all last summer either. But, any calories I did consume, I puked out.
The lightest I got that summer was 105lbs. For context, I’m a healthy 120ish lbs.
Summer turned to fall, which turned to winter, and I was riding a lot less, but this time instead of going back to eating, I continued not to eat. I wasn’t in college anymore. I was in the real world. All alone. Cycling was the community all my friends in Colorado were a part of. I had to stay somewhat reasonable on the bike even if I wasn’t riding. The best way for me to do that was to remain skinny.
Skinny = fast is what it’s all about in cycling, or what the culture seems to say.
Understanding I have a problem
Throughout this, I never fully comprehended that I had a problem. I lost the awareness that what I was doing and how I acted with food was abnormal. I didn’t see it as a problem because I was in control. I flicked the light switch on one summer, off one winter, and on again in the summer. Except now, it never went off.
I was able to hide this from everyone and, therefore, was never forced to face reality. That was until I had to interview a rider who had just opened up about her eating disorder.
Reality is undefeated. Everything will eventually catch up to you no matter what you do. Consecutive summers of a 20-30-pound weight swing and going into a deep dark place mentally were finally staring me in the face.
Professional cyclocross racer Ellen Noble revealed just before the national cyclocross championships in Reno, Nevada, in 2018 that she suffered from disordered eating during the summer before the 2017-18 season.
I interviewed Noble before those championships and discussed her disorder with her. Did she know I was suffering through my illness? No. Did I avoid writing about it when I wrote a story about hers? Yes.
I consciously dodged writing a story about her disorder, even though I knew it was the story I should write. It felt hypocritical to write about something I was dealing with myself. The report, done for Velonews, was rewritten by my editor. It was published and appeared how it should have been the first time, but my name remained on the byline.
I felt ashamed. My disorder was now affecting my job. For the first time, I understood I needed help.
You can’t solve a problem until you truly identify it as a problem. I didn’t do that, couldn’t do that, until I finally talked to someone and said the words “I have an eating disorder” out loud. It’s a lot more jarring admitting you have a problem to someone face-to-face then merely telling yourself inside your own head. But, it’s also freeing.
Days later, I confided in a mentor about my inside demons wreaking havoc for the first time.
I slowly began eating more and eating healthy. It was a long process of becoming comfortable with food again and I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t a few hiccups along the way.
I’ve learned to handle my disorder, live with it, and worked to overcome it. In a sport built on power-to-weight ratios, I know there are people out there like me. I’ve followed this sport long enough and been around enough juniors, college students, amateurs, and professionals to know this fact.
It’s well documented the problems in the pro ranks, but what about the amateur side. I’m living proof that this deep-rooted weight weenie culture in the cycling community can drive people who are nowhere near the professional level to places they never imagined.
I only truly overcame my demons when I left the sport of cycling altogether at the end of 2018. I took a job in daytime TV, completely out of my element, made new friends, and essentially started building a new part of me. I continued to ride and still hang out with the Boulder cycling community, but I found there is much more to life than cycling.
I found freedom.
Cycling had consumed me so much that even when I climbed out of the deep hole I had dug for myself, I wasn’t truly out of it until I left the sport completely. I became much more happy being outside of cycling. I was just a fan, a weekend warrior, and that was OK.
I’m back now, but I’m in a much better place. I had previous opportunities to come back into cycling full-time, but I turned them down. I didn’t need cycling anymore.
If I was going to come back to the sport that brought me to my knees, it was going to be on my terms and in a position I knew I would be happy in.
I want all of you out there to know you are not alone. I hope this is a wake-up call for cycling. We need to change. Having an eating disorder is a disease.
My light switch is now off. Sometimes it flickers, but when it does, I’ve learned how to deal with it and shut it down.
Mike Better is our Social Media Editor at CyclingTips. Eating disorder support and resources are available from NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association.