09/25/2014 01:15 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

When Exercise Becomes an Addiction

Most nights I lie in bed, ready for an escape from myself, yet a constantly streaming video loop of everything I ate, how I exercised, the activities of the day won't stop playing in my mind.

I pause. I breathe. I try to relax once again.

As if jumping into fast forward, a constantly streaming video loop of everything I want to eat tomorrow, how I want to fit in every possible moment of exercise, how the activities of the day might interfere with either of those things won't stop playing in my head.

I roll to the other side, my overtaxed body as uncomfortable to be in as my overtaxed mind, and I try to relax once again.

When I'm not exercising -- even if I've already exercised that day -- I'm consumed with anxiety about my next workout. Will something come up and make me miss the gym? What about holidays when the gym is closed? How can I sneak in just one more long walk?

It has spread like a virus over the last few years: an extra walk here, another DVD there. Minutes at the gym have morphed into hours. Everything else in my day has become organized around my workouts, and taking a day off because I'm sick or injured is never an option.

Exercise has become the disease, even as it disguises itself as the cure. If I don't have it as an escape, then what's left to hold me together? Working out feels like the only way to calm myself, but as soon as I leave the gym or finish a walk, the whole cycle starts over again.

Over the years, my family has stepped in. I've seen a therapist, and I was even in treatment a few years ago. As you might have guessed by now, I also suffer from depression and OCD. I'm a highly-educated adult woman who knows the risks of this behavior, and yet I can't stop.

Over-exercise is a unique disease. Anorexics are often told to their face that they're too skinny and that "real women have curves," as if being a woman can be defined by a size on a chart. But over-exercising is the eating disorder everyone wishes they had.

As a society, we're told over and over that it's essential to exercise, which it is -- in moderation. That's what makes it so easy to keep this addiction a secret; it's not as obvious as walking around under the influence or lighting up a cigarette. You can continue to feed your addiction under the guise that you're just being "healthy," even when you're anything but. I not only have to fight the obsessive thoughts in my head but also the "more exercise is better" messages I receive from the media every day.

What those who praise or judge me don't know is that this disorder has never been about vanity. I hate how I look because I'm underweight. I wish I was strong and muscular -- but I'm not. All I want is my next high, and each workout is based off one thing: fear of being alone in my head, of having my safety net taken away.

It's not that I don't want to break the cycle. But for me, exercise has become a drug. It is a way to cope with everything else going on and numb out the pain I might feel, and it truly is an addiction, one I cancel plans over just to get my fix.

I fantasize about not caring anymore, of being able to sleep in without guilt or spend a day on the couch without panicking about when I'll fit in my next workout. I wonder what it would be like to "have the problem" of not wanting to go to the gym. It still feels very far away.

Yet I know I can be stronger than this. I can pause, I can breathe, I can break the cycle I'm in. I can tell my story so as to give up a piece of the secrecy that keeps me sick.

Because no, you don't want my problem. And finally, neither do I.



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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.