How Fitness Found Me: Overcoming an Eating Disorder

by Nicole Swickle

As I write this article, it’s difficult to put the words “eating disorder” to paper — and even more painful to admit that I had one out loud. But let’s call it what it is.

I was a sophomore in college with a story similar to many girls my age. I wanted to be thin. Specifically, I wanted the thigh gap, gaunt cheekbones, and defined collar bone.

I grew up in a household filled with love, but no family is perfect. Every morning I watched my mom weigh herself. It was always before breakfast and she was always undressed. The scale became a part of my morning routine at a young age. At some point over the years, it became an addiction and a number that would determine my self-worth. 110 lbs was my magic number.

Sitting around the dinner table at night, I remember my mom would make frequent comments on the food on her plate. It was always something to the effect of “I’m going to be good and not eat that” or “I’m going to be bad tonight and have dessert.” While I know she didn’t mean any harm, her words were etched into my thoughts far beyond my childhood years.

It was during my second year of college that I discovered laxatives, or as I called it “juice.” One night, my roommate and I downed an entire bottle of magnesium citrate before hitting the beach the next morning. We wanted our stomachs to be flat.

While that experience might have been one-and-done for her, it was the gateway drug that would become a five-year addiction for me. At the time, I didn’t know I was developing an eating disorder. It was one day, one binge, one release at a time. Soon it would become my new normal.

I was a regular at the self-checkout lane at the grocery store in Tampa, FL. It was my safe space to purchase laxatives without fear of judgement from the cashier. To me, it was like buying a pregnancy test. That embarrassing feeling you get when you step up to the counter and you can’t look them in the eyes. I soon learned that I could eat whatever I wanted as long as I used the “juice” as a quick fix. I’ll spare most of the details, but I had it down to a science. If I took laxatives by 7pm, I could make it to my 9am class the next morning without feeling sick. First, it was one bottle a day. Then two.

Compliments started rolling in from family, friends, and guys who had never even noticed me before. For the first time in 22 years, I was thin. I had the thigh gap, the cheekbones, the clavicle lines, and the flat stomach. I believed I looked the way a woman was “supposed” to look.

As time progressed, I hit a plateau drinking magnesium citrate. My body began to become immune to it after a full year and over four hundred bottles consumed. Today, I can’t help but think about the physical toll I was putting on my body as well as my pocketbook. It makes me almost as sick as the laxatives themselves. In an effort to stay thin, I began to pull more levers; throwing up and taking Dulcolax pills. First, it was three pills, then five. By age 27 I was binge eating daily, consuming 1-2 bottles of “juice” and taking thirty-five pills a night. Every. Single. Night.

One night, I remember feeling more sick than usual. I was living alone in LA, bent over in the shower at 2am, unable to breathe. I was heaving, dizzy, and actually thought I was going to die. I sat on that shower floor crying my eyes out. I was fresh out of a 7-year relationship, new to LA, and as uncomfortable as someone could be in their own skin.

I must have done a decent job of hiding it in my professional life because no one ever brought it up. When I visited my family in South Florida, my mom knew something was off but didn’t know how to approach me. God, I wish she did.

I wanted to get help, but I didn’t know where to start. I had been following a health and fitness coach online for some time and I finally sent her a message on Facebook. We met up for coffee in Santa Monica and took a stroll around the block. When she asked me what was going on, my eyes instantly welled up with tears. She could see the internal hurt written all over me. I told her my story — every page of it. She hugged me and I melted in her arms. For the first time, I felt seen and heard, and she would later become the person in my life to help me through this journey.

We went grocery shopping together. She taught me how to cook properly for myself. We worked out in a park together three days a week. We talked on the phone at night and texted throughout the day. She taught me gratitude and the importance of inner work. When I slipped up and fell back into my old patterns, she taught me grace. Just writing this makes me emotional because I didn’t recognize the massive strides I was making at the time and the impact she had in saving my life until I was healthy and removed from the thick of it.

I had no intentions of falling in love with fitness. My goal was to fall back in love with myself. It sounds cliché but bodybuilding found me. It reminded me the value of consistency – which transcends all areas of my life. It taught me the power of showing up for myself and practicing opposite action on the days I don’t want to get out of bed. Some days, my goal is more about stepping foot in a gym then it is lifting heavy. It’s a silent pinky promise I made with myself and have never regretted.

Looking back on the last three years of my life, I’ve learned that people will have an opinion no matter what you look like. When I was heavier, my brother called me thunder thighs. When I was thin, I was told to go eat a burger. When my muscle mass went up, I was criticized by my ex-boyfriend for my broad shoulders and my friends for not drinking/eating “normal.” What’s the definition of normal anyway?

I’m writing this from my apartment in Nashville – a place I’ve dreamed of living for years. It’s 2020 and I’m three years into my self-love journey. Some days I feel like I’ve come out on the other side. Other days I feel the need to delve into therapy, meditation, podcasts, you name it. I’m currently prepping for a bodybuilding show. You know, the ones where you’re half-naked on stage with stripper heels and a Willy Wonka coat. I’m doing it because it’s the definition of uncomfortable for me and forces me to push past my fears.

My growth has constantly derived from looking fear in the eye, running from it, turning back around, and taking micro-steps at conquering the bullshit voice in my head.

I wish 22-year-old Nicole knew what she knows now, but the truth about overcoming is that you know when you’re ready to make a life change. Everything in your heart points you in that direction and you find the courage to move through it.

Making my mess my message and sharing my story with others so they feel less alone has been the greatest gift of my life. Soon, I’ll be taking the stage in a shimmering bikini, attempting not to walk like a baby deer in heels. And while the average spectator might see a self-indulgent fitness girl, I see a relentless fighter who continues to fumble but refuses to fail.