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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

For some people, the gym is a haven. Community. Release. Movement.

For others, the gym is a nightmare. The treadmills scream. Five more minutes. Turn the incline up a notch. Pick up the pace up, girl, it doesn’t matter that you might collapse.

The gym is full of people with bodies that look better, perform better and exist better than yours, and you can’t turn away because there are mirrors everywhere. Mirrors that seem to only reflect fat, dimpled skin and every other insecurity you’ve ever had.

It’s a veritable funhouse of distortion – a gateway to whispered conversations with yourself in the changeroom shower when you’re through. You suck. You’re stupid. Everyone hates you.

I was one of these people.

The gym, for me, was always about the extreme pursuit of thinness. A place where skinny prevailed above all else and eating disorders could roam freely. Sometimes, I used to catch someone’s gaze in the mirror and see myself reflected back: the hollowness, the paleness, the sunken eyes. I know you. I know what you’re doing here. You’re just like me.

The problem, of course, wasn’t the gym.

Once an eating disorder has its hooks in you, it finds the holes in your life – the ones where despair, insecurity and the absence of control live – and it burrows.

Lisa, you try too hard to get people to like you. Lisa, you buy too many clothes. Lisa, you’re too weird.

There, it rests and waits.

The recovery from something like this is no joke. It’s treatment. It’s a loving partner or friend. It’s constant upkeep and hard work. There’s an untangling that happens – a reordering in your brain that must take place to undo the old and make room for the new. To make room for food, joy, energy, life and all the other things an eating disorder will rob you of.

When my brain untangled itself – when I forced it to – I found healing in the most unexpected place: the gym.

I had been in recovery for more than a decade. I had carried three babies and birthed them and was eating enough to keep up with a trio of little boys and live my life to the fullest. And yet the disconnect between my mind and body was palpable. It haunted me the way my eating disorder once had: Why didn’t the outward appearance of my body reflect what I was feeling inside?

My mind had never been stronger – yet my body had never looked softer.

My husband is a firm believer in tough love. Yes, he held my hand through the tears I shed over old clothes not fitting right, and he tried to encourage me in all the right ways. But he’s also a solution-finder, a problem solver.

What about strength training?

He suggested it repeatedly and it brought me to tears every time.

Twelve years into my recovery, the association between dumbbells and the extreme pursuit of thinness was still so strong that even thinking of walking through those gym doors made me cry.

Especially with my new mom-bod.

Finally, at 10 months postpartum, feeling as recovered from childbirth as it was going to be, I went.

When you’ve had an eating disorder, you feel as if it’s written all over your face, all over your body. Because once, for a long time, it probably was.

But when you’ve recovered, it can be easy to hide what you’ve buried. And I think that is what scared me most – that returning to the gym would undo my recovery and bring back all the things that used to haunt me: the weigh-ins, the obsessive body checks and a compulsive inferiority complex. It didn’t feel possible to keep myself healthy and go to the gym.

But here is the difference: This time, I am not doing it alone. This time, I have something besides an eating disorder to accompany me.

Almost right away, I found people at the gym who somehow understood my history without me ever saying a word about it. I found a friend with four children who told me she loves jump-rope even though it makes her pee her pants. (“You should try it,” she said. “It’s hilarious.”) And I found a trainer who suggested that instead of focusing on getting leaner, I focus on growing stronger. When I told him I couldn’t step on a scale or do heavy cardio, he shrugged and said, “Cool. Want to learn how to do pull-ups?”

These two things – the unapologetic decision to choose movement over the perceived confines of a postpartum body and the idea that it was possible to think of growing my body outward by building muscle instead of inward by losing weight – are what transformed exercise for me.

I loved that working out could feel as good as skipping rope with your best friend on a hot summer day. I welcomed the idea of strength training as therapy – the repetition of counting reps and sets and the reward of seeing your body accomplish something it couldn’t do the week prior.

None of this is about the pursuit of thinness. Not even close.

Rather, these ideas centre themselves around the joy of movement and the comfort that strength can bring. They’re honed by friendships with people who understand, week after week, exactly what I need to hear.

For some people, gyms are a haven. Friendship. Recovery. Safety.

Remaining in recovery will be, for me, a lifelong pursuit. For now, I’ll be at the pull-up bar, locking eyes with myself in the mirror.

I know you.

You’re so damn strong.

Lisa Shoemaker lives in Oakville with her husband and three sons. She works full time as a writer.

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