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HomeUncategorizedClaire Purnell: Moving Towards Mental Wellness

Claire Purnell: Moving Towards Mental Wellness

One of the group fitness studios where I teach dedicated this entire week of classes to Mental Health Awareness. As instructors, we were encouraged to focus on breath work, community, teamwork, positivity, and other mentally beneficial cues. This concept, moving your body to improve your mental health, has become incredibly significant in my life. 

My relationship with myself; mind, body and spirit; has not been an easy journey. I was a competitive ice dancer for many years. I started skating at age 3, and spent my childhood at the rink before and after school. My identity has always been centered around being an athlete, and with that, I’ve always put a fair amount of my worth in my accomplishments, my body, and how coaches and judges perceive me. 

I started getting more serious about the sport at age 13. My worth became dependent on my success, how far I could push my body, and how proud I could make my coaches. Like dance, gymnastics, and artistic swimming, figure skating is an aesthetic sport. Not only did our bodies need to be strong, quick, coordinated, balanced, and graceful, we also had to be thin and lean with long lines. At 14, I became dedicated to conditioning classes and giving my 110% to every on ice session so I could be constantly improving my athleticism, stamina and speed. However, I did not fit the ideal skater’s body image and when I realized I would not have success until I did, I took matters into my own hands. 

Sophomore year of high school as a female is not the easiest. Social media was becoming louder and louder and I would find myself spending hours scrolling on instagram, looking at other girls’ bodies, how many friends they had, and how happy they looked. I would stalk girls I competed against and wonder how they were able to stay so small. Eventually, I’d pull myself out of that screen and get out of bed only to look in the mirror and feel my stomach drop. I looked so different from everyone I was constantly studying on my tiny little screen. 

It happened fast. At first I was just subbing grilled chicken sandwiches for hamburgers; and then suddenly, the aimless scrolling turned into hours of research on pinterest and google: “How to drop 10 pounds FAST”, “Low calorie foods that keep you fuller longer”, “Burn 500 calories with this 30 minute workout!”, “What is My Fitness Pal” … Download My Fitness Pal.  I was shrinking quickly, self-harming regularly, losing myself to this disorder but I was getting the validation I craved. I was proving to my competitors, judges, coaches, and followers that I would do whatever it takes to be worthy and successful. People noticed and many, including judges and other skaters, complimented me.

I wish they knew what it looked like behind the scenes. They would have seen the 6:00 a.m. wake up calls on days before school that we didn’t have practice where I would sneak down to the basement and do a 1000 burpee challenge or run three miles. This sneaking around resulted in MyFitnessPal allowing me 300 more calories that I would never even let myself think of consuming. I wish they could have seen me ruin every relationship I had because I had lost myself to this evil voice in my head. I wish they would have noticed that I never smiled or laughed the same way I always had. The way depression was eating me alive. All they see is the exterior. The physical image. Just like social media.

When I quit skating it was mostly because I could not keep going down the same road with the same demons and dark clouds over my head. My biggest fear for so long was getting injured and having to quit skating. I never thought it would be something I chose. Quitting skating meant I would no longer be an athlete, which meant I would lose my identity, my worth and everything I had worked so hard for. 

But at  18 years old, I realized I had to get out and I had to start over. I had to discover who I am and who I want to be without this sport. I had to learn how to find worth in other things and not validation from others. Four years later, I am still learning these things. 

My eating disorder recovery became much easier once I quit skating. It became easier when I started college. Even with some relapses due to comparison and being new to alcohol, it was still much easier than trying to recover while still skating. My relationship with exercise had some tough stretches and then some better ones. I was learning how to ride the waves of life and finding who I was beyond my sport. I’ve been on this journey to heal the parts of myself that found value in my body and the success it led me to, as well as learning how to live for myself and not for the approval of others. 

I have this theory that our mental battles all stem from the same root cause. It seems to me that anxiety and OCD really just come from fear. Depression comes from feeling unworthy. Insecurity comes from comparison. It’s not always the same for everyone, but I’ve found there are many commonalities among people who are fighting battles in their heads. 

For me, the best thing I have done in my recovery – for all mental illnesses I have faced – is addressing the root cause head on. When my anxiety starts to overwhelm me and I feel like I can’t breathe I ask myself, “What are you scared of?” For me, most of my mental battles come back to a similar theme: I am scared of not being good enough. I am scared no one thinks I am worthy . This realization has helped me more than anything else to calm myself down.

Another huge healer for me is movement. I think the best thing I did for my relationship with movement was to become a fitness instructor. I know you must think that is counterintuitive. The summer before I started teaching fitness, I fell in love with spin classes. My favorite part of skating was always the music and moving my body to a beat. I’ve also always been a sucker for performing. With spin, I felt what it was like to workout because it felt good. I could close my eyes and get lost in a song in that dark room with a community of people who were moving their bodies for the same reason. I found instructors who inspired me and brought light into my life. I wanted to make others see this too.

My mission as a fitness instructor is to make people fall in love with movement and from this, fall in love with themselves. This week of mental health themed classes has shown me that this has been my method of teaching all along, teaching people to move their body because it feels good. Asking people why they are increasing their running speeds and if it comes from the right place. Getting people to check in with their relationships with their mind, body and spirit. 

I found a brand new way to identify my worth. For so long it was what my body looked like, how people viewed me and my body, and how I could use my body to succeed in the eyes of others. Now, I find my worth in how I can use my body to feel good about myself in a positive way. I can listen to what my body is asking and use my mind and my spirit to tend to that. I find worth in helping others move for their full selves instead of just because they feel as though they should exercise. My healing came from creating unity in my mind, body and spirit.

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