Sunday, July 15, 2018

Love My Body

They're etched into my mind like a scene from a horror movie that I wish I could forget but instead gets played over and over again; who it was, the look on their face, the sound of their voice, the words they said and how they made me feel - ashamed, worthless, fat.

I can remember every single time anyone ever commented on my weight or my body: "you've got a big tummy" , "as an athlete you should lose a few kilos" , "you're getting fat".

The rules started with "no sweets one month before the major championships". Then it became two months, three months, six months but I would always allow myself to eat them again afterwards. Each year, the rules got stricter and the list of forbidden foods got longer. I was already training as much as I could so I didn't understand why my body didn't look like the other athletes' bodies. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was what other people had told me they saw and suggested that I change.

Leading up to WOC 2016, my rules about food extended from the start of the competition season in April all the way to the final training camp in October. I allowed myself one day of reprieve after WOC ended but even then I still felt guilt about the rules that I was breaking. If anybody commented on my weight it was to say they were concerned at how small I was getting. All I felt was accomplishment because that meant that the rules I was forcing myself to follow so strictly were finally working. After that last training camp, I thought "well, this is my season break so it must be okay for me to not follow these rules for a week before I start training again". That week of eating as much of whatever I wanted turned into two weeks, one month, three months... once I had started, it was impossible for me to stop.

And so commenced a very fast downwards spiral into bulimia - binging and purging - and the tough climb back up.
Photo: Jaana Honkanen
I had to learn how to accept and love my body no matter what shape it's in. I had to appreciate my body for how strong it is, how fast it can run and that it enables me to do all the activities that I love. One of the hardest things was learning how to bring foods over from the dark side; to trust myself to eat the foods that I had considered "not allowed" for so long. I could never have just one piece of candy. I either had to eat none at all or, if I had one, then I might as well just eat everything.

The first time I ate lösgodis again (those candies you pick and choose from bins), I went with Andreas to the supermarket and carefully picked out two of each of my favourite candies. We then sat together in the park sharing in savouring the chewiness and the flavours. Andreas said that he had never seen anybody eat candy so slowly. To me, that was the greatest compliment.

I've learned to fuel my body with food and the only rule that I have is that there are no rules. Yesterday, I went to the supermarket by myself, I picked out two of each of my favourite candies and bought a tub of ice cream. And as I sat at home with my bowl of ice cream, I thought back to just a year ago when something like this was absolutely impossible. I felt the love that I have for my body and the appreciation for how far I've come. I cried eating that bowl of ice cream, not because I felt that I shouldn't be eating it, but because it tasted so damn good.

Yes, nutrition is a part of being an athlete and yes, it can be a part of competition preparation. Without the right fuel, the engine isn't going to get very far. There is, however, a line between where it is constructive towards athlete development and where it is destructive. Absolutely nobody, athlete or not, should feel that their body is not good enough or that their success hinges upon the way their body looks or a number on a scale. We are all so, so much more than that.

I am not a specialist in nutrition or eating disorder recovery. I had to reach out to a lot of different people to ask for help and to learn from them. These are my experiences of suffering and recovering from a very difficult relationship with food. If you are struggling with similar thoughts, obsessions and feelings, please reach out to someone - me, a friend, a family member, a doctor, a coach - for help. I promise you that the ice cream is better on the other side.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Comeback or Coming Forward?

The events of January as seen from the perspective of my psychiatrist:

Week 1: "I have no idea what I'm going to do after I graduate or how I'll be allowed to stay in Europe!" (wringing hands)

Week 2: " I had a phone interview yesterday and am going to Helsinki on Monday for a face-to-face interview!" (nervously bouncing in chair)

Week 3: "I got the job! I started working yesterday and am moving to Helsinki in June!" (eyes wide in shock)

It was a whirlwind few weeks to say the least and my psychiatrist could hardly keep up with these fast-paced changes let alone me!

Through a series of fortunate events, my Master's thesis super-advisor also happened to be involved in a start-up company - GlucoModicum. The company's vision is to develop a non-invasive glucose sensor to be used by diabetics. In my Master's thesis, I had already been working on a sensor to detect specific DNA strands so it wasn't a big jump to start working with glucose. In fact, the more I prepared for the job interview, the more I realised that this is what I had spent all these years studying for. If there ever was an opportunity to seize, it was this one!

As the interview turned from my experience as a chemist and towards when I could move to Helsinki, my head started spinning with the reality of the changes that were to come.

I had made a plan, you see. My plan was that I would take 5 months off running, in January I would find my previous joy and motivation for training and by April I would be in top shape and ready for a strong comeback at the competitions. During this time, I would also finish the experimental section of my Master's thesis and then leisurely write it in time to graduate in June.

Well, getting a job in January certainly put a twist onto those plans!

It was extremely difficult to transition from being a student to being an employee. As a student, what I did in the lab was for me and my education and it was enough. As an employee, I felt like I could never do enough, that I didn't know enough and the pressure I put on myself was immense. Thankfully, after enough positive self-talk, that has levelled out over time to a point where I can say "I don't know but I will try to find out" and I can finish off a workday with the thought "I did my best today and it was enough".

I love using what I have learned to contribute and be part of a project that is much, much bigger than me!
Photo: Jaana Honkanen

The whole comeback part has been a bit more complicated. I tried so hard to "come back"; to find what it was that I had before - the enthusiasm for training and the determination to excel in sport. I tried so hard to come back but eventually I had to, instead, try to let go. I had to come to terms with the fact that this just wasn't the right time; that by trying to come back, I would actually be going backwards. And that was the last thing that I wanted.

When I took a complete time-out in the fall, I had understood that I was in a very fragile position. I was in a lot of pain physically and emotionally but inside I had found this flickering but bright flame. And that flame grew brighter when I was outside, just walking through the forest and breathing in the fresh air. However, I knew that it was the type of flame that if I blew too hard it would flicker out.

I knew that if I were to continue moving forward, I would have to do something differently.

It started with focusing on my studies, it developed into starting this job as a chemist and it's turned into accepting that, right now, I just enjoy being active as a way to move my body and feel alive. I tried to follow a training program and I tried to imagine myself competing at WOC but it just wasn't right. It felt constricting and it felt scary and it felt too soon.

While I won't be competing at any international events this year, it has been important for me to try out competitions on a smaller scale and run for my ever-supportive club, Angelniemen Ankkuri. It's been frustrating to face the fact that I only have two speeds, walking and running, but running for my teammates inspires me to do my best no matter my physical shape at the moment.

Sometimes though, I still get really, really sad. Striving to be a world-class athlete has been such a steadfast part of my life for so many years now. Life changing decisions were made because I wanted to explore and improve in new ways. After putting so much into a sport, it's hard to take a step away from it all; not necessarily because I want to, but because I feel that it is a choice that I have to make in order to heal and to grow.

A 16-year old Emily competing at JWOC for the first time and
dreaming to, one day, be at the top of that international stage.

It is the art of letting go, of looking for a way forward rather than trying to claw my way back, of being honest with myself and open to whatever may be in store for me next. Usually, if I let go of my expectations, things turn out even better than I could have planned them myself.

Sometimes the grief has been overwhelming - while running, looking at a results list, watching an international competition, scrolling through social media - I am reminded of all that I do not have anymore. But I have to remind myself of all that I am other than an elite athlete: a Master's student, an employee, a healthy human being, an attentive friend, a supportive teammate, a loving sister and daughter...

It sure has been a tricky route to navigate so far but today was different than yesterday and who knows how it will be tomorrow.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Curiosity and Wonder

Just over one year ago now, I was incapable of orienteering without breaking down into tears. In the middle of the forest, alone with my thoughts, I would be overwhelmed by a wave of panic and despair. It was confusing for me since, for so long, orienteering had been my "safe place", the way that I could escape from the stresses of life. I kept pushing myself though, which lead me to the bottom of a depression where I didn't even know how to be alive anymore. At that time, I decided that WOC was so important to me that it was worth finding my way out again. I think that I believed that if I made it to that World Champs start-line and raced well, then somehow I would be okay again.

Photo: Jaana Honkanen

Looking back, I can see that it was the right decision for me to make at the time since it gave me motivation to climb out of the desolate place I had found myself in. I ate because I needed fuel to train, I visited psychiatrists, sports psychologists and doctors all because, more than anything, I wanted to be healthy at WOC.

It was a very constructive goal with many positive effects. However, it was also destructive in the sense that everything action I took was for WOC. I was so single-minded in my purpose that I had no wiggle-room, no room to just breathe. It was as if I had built myself a long corridor that lead all the way to WOC.  It had strong and sturdy walls to support me but there wasn't space to spread my arms and the air was musty and hard to breathe.

The panic attacks started happening again while orienteering.

Thankfully I did have those strong walls to lean on, my support network of psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. I made it to the start-line at WOC and raced with my whole heart but when it was over I still had the same negative feelings that would come surging up when I was left alone with myself.

After the summer competitions, I didn't touch a map for 4 months. I still went out into the forest, though, and was able to see it through the eyes of just Emily rather than Emily the orienteer. I didn't have anywhere to go or any controls to find. I was free to wander and to explore and to play. Over the last two months I've slowly started training more and some of those trainings have been with a map. Some have been pure joy and others have had the twinges of the past panic. I kept trying though because I didn't feel fair that I couldn't do the sport that, deep down, I knew that I loved so much. I kept trying because I didn't want to let fear control my life.

To help, one sports psychologist suggested going back into the past and finding a memory of orienteering where there was no pressure, only pleasure. I ended up travelling back to when I was 12 years old at my first Canadian Championships. I had just learned how to read those brown lines on the map, contours. I can remember the feeling of awe as I looked at the map and it came alive with the ups and downs of the terrain. I can remember seeing every leg as a challenge of how to get around each of the hills and depressions. I can remember the curiosity I felt while navigating through the features and the absolute wonder when I found each control. I was 12 and I was just playing.

COC's 2004 in Whitehorse, Yukon. Long Lake comes alive!

If my mind wanders to competing at an elite level again while training, which it often does, I still feel the same panic building in my chest. But rather than let it take over, I stop and I relive those feelings of curiosity and wonder. I come back to the present and all of a sudden I'm living the training from a completely different perspective. I'm no longer in that long corridor to performing perfectly at WOC but out in the nature with so many discoveries to make. I can take the time to stop at the top of a hill and take in the view; I can make it into a challenge to relocate after losing contact with the map rather than feeling the pressure of "losing time". Today I stopped to listen to the wind as it tinkled through the frozen pine needles of the trees around me. The air was filled with the sound of a thousand wind chimes overhead. Today I was able to smile, to breathe, to play and to experience the sport I love with curiosity and wonder.

Photo: Jaana Honkanen

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Last spring, the very talented photographer, Jaana Honkanen, and I worked on a photography project together. In the beginning, I wrote that:

"For me it is a journey towards acceptance, compassion and love for myself just the way I am."

For five months, we documented all sides of what it was like for me to be an elite athlete: the sunny and the somber. I wanted to show the joy that training and competing gave me, but also the struggles that I was facing as my own expectations became higher and tougher to reach, including depression and bulimia.

As the project came to a close during the summer, we took this celebratory photo together as a way to  show the progress that we had made while still coming full circle.

The first photo of the series, taken in March 2017.
The last photo, taken in July 2017. And this time we
enjoyed the heck out of that ice cream!

Through this project, I had been able to face certain parts of myself that, previously, I had just tried to push down: the weight of expectations as well as body image and struggling against the power of an eating disorder. More importantly though, I was better able to see the good parts of me that shone through. I was able to see my smile as it was captured in a moment of joy, I was able to see that I am beautiful and I was able to see that I am strong.

I will be forever grateful to Janna for the opportunity to grow and to learn in this way. She helped me feel so comfortable while being in the focus of a camera lens and has been a loving support through all the ups and downs of the competition season.

Being able to love myself didn't happen overnight, however, and I have continued on this journey since then. I had pushed myself so hard and so far to be able to race at the World Championships that I was completely and utterly exhausted by August. Physically, I was injured, and emotionally, I was falling back into the old unhealthy eating behaviours just to try to cope from the stress and negative feelings in my body.

Despite feeling like I was failing time and time again, with the help of many, many caring people around me, I kept trudging forward on my quest to find self-love.

It came little by slowly.

One day it was having the thought:

"I don't want this eating disorder to affect my health negatively so that I can't be active and do the sports I love. I don't want to hurt myself anymore."

Another day, it while practising yoga when I came into a pose and actually smiled. I smiled because I could feel my body move, my muscles contracting and stretching, and my chest expanding as I inhaled deeply. I smiled because I felt good and because I had found a connection within myself that had previously been blocked off by a wall of toxic thinking.

And finally, it came over time when I reintroduced myself to Little Emily.

Little Emily
I have her taped on the wall next to my bedroom mirror so that every time I look at myself, I see that small, mischievous face as well. I make sure to tell her that I love her and that I would never hurt her. I tell her that she is absolutely adorable and that she doesn't have to be afraid. I tell her:

"I will take care of you."

The more I say those words to her, the more I am able to say them to myself, 20 years older but with the same smiling dimples and big ears.

Over time, I have been able to learn enough healthy coping behaviours that bulimia has become only thoughts as opposed to actions. I take it one day at a time but, when I look back over the last few months, I feel hope where there used to be none. It may sometimes feel like a long and gruelling journey, but when I am able to look within and feel love for who I am, then I know that it has all been for the best.

To see more of Jaana's photographs, visit her webpage and to see the photo documentary along with my written interpretations, visit my Instagram or the Emily project.