After a lengthy conversation with her parents, I now sat face to face with 18-year-old Robyn in what seemed like a stare off deathmatch. It had only been a few minutes since Robyn took her seat in my office and yet it seemed like an eternity. Beyond her acknowledging my initial greeting, she had not spoken a word. I needed an ice breaker and I needed one fast.
Robyn’s Mom had called the prior week and gave me some interesting background information on her daughter’s emotional struggles. From that conversation, it sounded like Robyn could be suffering from a mild case of Alexithymia. All things considered, working with a teenage female athlete with eating & emotional issues would be a challenging case. I hoped my past struggles with food combined with my education and competitive background would be just the right combo to bridge the age gap and help me connect with Robyn.
“So, Robyn, how are you?” “Fine” was her only reply followed by more silence. Undeterred, I asked my next question. “So, your parents tell me you’re a long-distance runner on your high school team. Can you tell me a little bit more about your running?” “Crickets” was the overwhelming response. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me.
From Robyn’s client folder, I pulled out several newspaper clippings and gently slid them across my desk for her to see. They were all from Robyn’s younger days when she first started running in junior high. She slowly reached out and picked up one of the articles. Then she took the second and finally the third. She didn’t say a word however I could see the tears start to well up in her eyes and begin falling down her cheeks.
I slowly placed a box of Kleenex within her reach and she took several. After a minute or so of quiet tears, she composed herself and commented: “These articles are from my first three victories back in 7th grade. How did you find them?” “Well, I just did a simple search on Google. So, how does seeing them make you feel?” “Sad” was her immediate response as she wiped her eyes again.
“Can you tell me why?” Robyn paused for a moment and then replied, “These articles are from a time when my life made sense…before things started falling apart.” I had obviously touched a nerve and decided to go in a different direction with my questioning for fear of Robyn emotionally crumbling again.
“So, Robyn, can you tell me how you got started with your running?” “Well, as a child growing up, we lived out in the country with no neighbors for several miles. I was shy, lacked confidence, never had many friends, and was always considered a nerd by my classmates because I got straight A’s.” “So, when did you start running?” “Well, my parents have always been runners, and one day during my 5th-grade year, I asked if I could join them. We only went a couple of miles but I enjoyed it and started running with them several days a week.”
“Soon I began to run on my own and ultimately fell in love with the adrenaline rush as the distances mounted. When I started junior high, my school had a running team that my parents encouraged me to join. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done because it finally gave me a social outlet, some much-needed friends, and recognition that helped with my lack of confidence. After my three wins in 7th grade, I went on to win a number of races in 8th grade and on into high school. Ultimately, I wanted to be an elite marathoner and compete at the highest levels…before everything changed.”
“So what happened? What do you mean, everything changed?” Robyn paused for a moment and I could see we were moving back into dangerous territory. “While I grew taller from junior high to early high school, my body didn’t start filling out until the summer after my sophomore year. I went from being tall, long, and lanky to quite full-figured. I didn’t get fat…I just got curves…and lot’s of them. Unfortunately, the more my body changed, the harder it became for me to run.”
“How did this make you feel?” “It was devastating” replied Robyn. “All my hard work seemed like it was for nothing. While I ran in my junior year, I didn’t win anything and it became increasingly difficult to run anything more than 3-4 miles. It wasn’t that I lost my endurance. It was just uncomfortable to run for extended distances with “these” (as she pointed to her breasts). Then to make matters worse, I wasn’t used to being ogled over by boys in regular clothes…much less in my running outfit. It was so humiliating to run with “these” (again pointing to her breasts). I grew up idolizing athletes…not fashion models.”
“Robyn, I’m proud of you for sharing about your running. I know that it brings up many raw emotions. Now can I have your permission to ask a more personal question?” Robyn paused before replying, “Well, I guess it depends. Go ahead and ask your question, and I will do my best.” “Fair enough. Robyn, your parents are concerned about your eating habits. Can you share with me why they might be worried?”
Robyn’s response was immediate silence followed by more tears. I couldn’t turn back now because her eating had to be addressed. I just hoped she would maintain her composure and be willing to share. After taking a moment to gather herself again, Robyn replied, “My parents have always been healthy eaters and I simply followed their example. When I started running and eventually competing, I became more intentional with my nutrition but it was never an issue.”
“So when did things change?” Robyn took a deep breath before replying, “When my body started really filling out, I tried to fight the changes by restricting my food intake. At first, it wasn’t a big deal, but as my body continued to grow and change, I became increasingly obsessive and compulsive in restricting my intake…and then it happened.”
“What happened?” I gently asked. “I had my first binge” was her soft reply. “I was getting so hungry and one day Mom brought home some cookies and ice cream for an upcoming party at her office. I was just going to have a little ice cream and a couple of cookies and the next thing I knew, I had knocked out a dozen or so cookies and about half of the gallon of ice cream. I just couldn’t stop.”
“And then what happened?” Robyn took in another deep breath and then replied, “I was so ashamed and embarrassed and vowed to never do anything like that again. I felt sick for a couple of days and then the discomfort finally wore off. Then it was back to restricting again and after a couple of weeks, it happened again. This time I purposefully bought some cookies and ice cream on my way home from school and ate them in the car…to hide it from my parents.”
“After that, the cycle continued where I would restrict for a week or so only to fall again. The harder I tried to restrict my eating, the more I lost control. It was easy enough to hide physically as I would often eat in my car but I knew my parents and my Mom especially was picking up on the change in my mood. The more I binged, the more out of control I felt, and the more ashamed I became. Any time I binged, I would withdraw socially and just want to hide in my room. I didn’t and don’t know how to stop and that’s why my parents reached out to you.”
“Robyn, can I tell you a little story?” She slowly nodded her head as she wiped the fresh tears from her eyes. “Robyn, there was a young boy who grew up “pudgy” and like you, he had few friends and was very selfconscious about his weight. In 8th grade, because he was such a strong swimmer, he had the great fortune to join his high school swim team. In a very short period of time, the boy was pudgy no more. Swimming five days a week at an average of 5,000 yards a day stripped the fat off his body.”
“Further, his swim coach had the team lift weights to get stronger and that changed the boy’s life. He only swam competitively for one year, however, the “iron bug” firmly took hold. He competed in his first bodybuilding show at 17 and placed third. At that point, his potential seemed great and yet it would be years before his next and final show.” “What happened to him?” Robyn asked. “Well, despite how hard he trained, he simply didn’t have the genetics to put on the size required to compete at any level beyond his one and only teenage show.”
“Unfortunately, in his quest to achieve physical excellence, his obsession caused him to lose control of his eating. For reasons similar to yours, he too fell prey to cycles of binging and purging through extra training and restricting his food. While he did compete again one time many years after his first show, the damage he suffered from failed relationships as a result of his eating was devastating.”
“So what happened to him?” “Well, I would like to say he learned his lesson and changed his ways sooner however it took “me” suffering left knee surgery, a torn left bicep, right shoulder surgery, and a failed marriage to wake me up from my delusions.” Robyn paused and then asked, “So the boy is you?” “Yes, he is and that’s why I’m sharing this story. Robyn, I see so much of me in you and it’s my hope that we can work together and cut your further suffering off as soon as possible.”
“What do you suggest?” “Robyn, as much as it hurts, God simply did not give you the genetics to be a distance runner at the highest levels. That doesn’t mean you can’t go on enjoying running recreationally for the joy and health benefits. You shared how much you struggled last year and you’re facing your senior year of high school. There’s no reason why you have to continue punishing yourself. You just need to find it in your heart to walk away from competitive running.”
Robyn sat silent and then finally asked, “Do you really think I can be happy just running for fun?” “Robyn, you haven’t been happy running for sport in over a year. What do you have to lose? By the way, your Mom mentioned that you want to go to medical school. Is that right?” “Yes, I do however my grades really slipped last year falling to a B average as I struggled with my running.”
“Robyn, the way I see it, your future is still very bright. You’ve been gifted with an intellect few have and you have your entire senior year to pull your grades back up to your normal standards. Running can always be a part of your life. You just need to make a little shift and then continue moving forward on the road to medical school.”
“So what about my binging?” “Robyn, your binging is a simple result of you overly depriving yourself in an attempt to fight your God-given body. It’s a common response for someone dealing with your circumstances so I want you to give yourself a break. I can help you get back to eating for health and to properly fuel your body for daily life…minus the obsessive-compulsive nature you’ve been struggling with. Further, your immune system will strengthen protecting you from getting sick so often.” “Is it really that easy?” “It can be if you’re willing to trust me.”
“So what’s our first step?” Robyn eagerly asked. “Well, I definitely have some thoughts, but first let me ask, are you really emotionally prepared to let go of your running team?”
“Honestly, I struggled all of last year and really don’t know how I held on. From what we’ve talked about, it makes all the sense in the world to walk away. It won’t be easy, however, it’s the right thing to do…and I know my parents will be pleased.”
“Robyn, I’m so proud of you! So, moving forward, when will you do your personal running?” Robyn was quick to reply that she loves running in the early mornings before the world wakes up. “Great. Well, as I said, your binging is a result of being overly restrictive with your food. What do you think about focusing for the next two weeks on having a healthy breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner?”
“That sounds simple enough” replied Robyn. “Exactly. I will never ask you to do anything complicated. I want you with high emotional buy-in to feel confident that you can accomplish any task, we agree for you to work on. Now, you know what healthy eating is so at this point, I don’t want you concerning yourself with counting anything. Simply have your three meals plus your afternoon snack and be mindful to eat healthy foods and we will meet again in two weeks.”
“Also, for the sake of daily accountability, would you be open to using a tool that I’ve shared with many of my clients? It’s called the ATE app and you simply take a photo of each meal. At the end of the day, I can go in as your “friend” and take a peek at your daily meals. I promise that you knowing that I will be looking at your daily efforts will help you make better choices. So, what do you think?” “That sounds pretty cool! I’m definitely willing to give it a shot.”
“Okay, then pull out your phone, and let’s have you download the app. I will make sure you’re good to go and then we can schedule your next session. Robyn, I’m proud of your efforts today. I know our conversation wasn’t easy and I promise you can do this.”
Closing thoughts for my readers:
Robyn is actually not one of my clients. In fact, she’s completely made up and was the topic of a recent case study I submitted for my Precision Nutrition Level 2 certification. And while not real, I see both women and men struggling daily with circumstances just like her. After eight months of Pn2 course work and many case studies submitted, there was something about Robyn’s story that resonated with me to the point that I wanted to share.
Best of luck in your journey.