I thought running 20 miles a day made me healthy – then I broke both my legs

At the age of 14 I was officially diagnosed with anorexia as well as OCD.

I thought running 20 miles a day made me healthy – then I broke both my legs
Pandora wearing a striped jumper, her head tilted, looking to camera and smiling
I thought I was getting better (Picture: Eva Pentel)

The consultant came into the hospital room and looked at me seriously. Then he said: ‘I’m afraid you have a stress fracture in your left tibia.’

Immediately, I burst into tears.

I have suffered from broken bones in my legs ever since I was a teenager, all brought on through a combination of over-exercising, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anorexia.

More recently, I thought I was getting better. Just the previous weekend, in April this year, I had been on a hiking trip to the Lake District with my friends and had managed to walk for over six hours, pain-free, for the first time in years.

Then, three days later I was skipping in the gym and felt that familiar ache in my left ankle. ‘It can’t be a fracture’ I told myself as I limped out of the studio in tears.

I’d prayed it was just a sprain or twist – but now an MRI scan had shown otherwise.

I was devastated.

I was just 12 when I had a nervous breakdown at boarding school. I’d always been very sensitive and suffered from anxiety, but this dark cloud suddenly descended on me and I felt completely alone in the world. 

I was haunted by existential questions such as: ‘Who am I? What is my purpose?’

After six months of experiencing multiple daily panic attacks, I was pulled out of school for a month.

Pandora standing in front of a body of water, wearing a black vest, blue running shorts and a yellow fanny pack.
I’d always been athletic (Picture: Pandora Morris)

That was when the OCD and the running started.

I’d always been athletic but suddenly, I found a new sense of escape and freedom in pounding the pavements. The hysterical panic attacks stopped and I thought I had discovered the perfect numbing tool.

By the time I was 13, I was running around 20 miles every day.

I ran before school, telling my parents I needed to train. But instead of getting the Tube to school, I’d run there too – and again during my lunch break, and then home again. I’d even escape out of my bedroom window to run after bedtime.

And as the exercise escalated, my food intake diminished.

In my mind, less eating and more exercise equalled better. It became a competition with myself. How little could I get away with food-wise and how much exercise could I do? I was living on a knife’s edge.

My mum would insist I ate breakfast before school but I would minimise my caloric intake. Food had become my enemy. The panic I felt when I was presented with it made me want to crumble into a million pieces.

My weight plummeted and my parents, friends and teachers at school started to show real concern. 

Pandora relaxing on a sofa, she's wearing a light grey jumper, her blonde hair is blow dried and she's smiling to camera
These tactics just kept me ill (Picture: Sophie Ziegler)

Through her own fear and frustration, my mother tried to force me to eat but every meal just turned into a shouting match and I would storm off having not touched anything.

Soon, she was left with no option other than to seek professional help for me and I was taken to an outpatient clinic twice a week where I would be weighed. 

At the age of 14 I was officially diagnosed with anorexia as well as OCD.

Needing to find a way of making my family and doctor believe I was gaining weight, I took measures to skew the scales. Obviously, these tactics just kept me ill. I just wish I had been caught out earlier.

I had my first stress fracture when I was 15 and it sent me into a complete tailspin. The pain was excruciating and, however hard I tried to run through my tears, however many painkillers I took, I just couldn’t.

That’s when I discovered swimming.

While on a family holiday in Cornwall, to get my exercise ‘fix’, I would plunge into the sea every morning. My parents were completely against it, but I refused to listen to them.

On the third day, as I got out of the sea, I collapsed on the beach with hypothermia and luckily was found by a doctor who called an ambulance.

When my fractures eventually healed I went straight back to the running and it soon escalated to excessive levels once again

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During sixth form we were allowed to use the gym and I began sneaking in there whenever I could – even if it was just to go on the cross-trainer for a few minutes. 

Every second I could be exercising, I would. I was banned from the gym in my last year of school when it was clear that due to my very low weight and my constant urge to be exercising, there needed to be an intervention.

How I got through my A-Levels I still don’t know but it’s that determination, obsessiveness and ability to hyperfocus, which has served me in some respects, as well as being my worst enemy.

Miserable, lonely and depleted, I just about survived at university. I didn’t drink alcohol as that meant letting go and losing control, not to mention the extra calories, which made me somewhat different.

Then came another stress fracture in my second year, which resulted in nine months on crutches. Not much fun, especially while navigating the snow in Edinburgh.

I had always been adamant that I would become a lawyer and so following university, I went to law school, then was lucky enough to be offered a job at a top firm.

BEAT

If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or at [email protected], for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment

However, I was still completely dominated by my OCD and anorexia.

One thing people rarely understand about anorexia is that you don’t always look completely emaciated and skeletal. My weight has fluctuated over the years.

I became very good at hiding it from acquaintances and work colleagues, never joining in with social gatherings that involved food. I lived through a haze of self-judgement and shame.

Three months into my new job, another stress fracture appeared and I went to see a physician who I said the words that would change my life:

‘If you don’t have a long hard think about your health, Pandora, it’s likely this disease will kill you.’

These words compelled me to check into a residential clinic where I spent the next seven months.

That was 10 years ago.

Was I cured when I left? No, far from it. Although this period gave me some space to reflect, I just wasn’t ready to leave my eating disorder behind.

Pandora sitting at a table, wearing a white t-shirt, with blonde hair, her head resting on her hand. The chair is wicker and the table a light wood.
There was hope that I could have a better life (Picture: Eva Pentel)

Within a year of being discharged, I was back to the same old habits. By the time Covid struck, I was in the worst state I had ever been in.

The NHS unit I was on the waitlist for was forced to close down and once again I turned to excessive exercise and food restriction.

Within three months, I had another stress fracture and it was at that point that I just could not see the point of carrying on.

Thankfully, my mum never gave up and found a clinic in the US, which we eventually managed to travel to. It was here that my real recovery journey began.

I felt heard and understood for the first time in 18 years of treatment. I had never been offered ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) therapy, which involved constant and repeated exposures to my worst fears while blocking the compulsions the OCD made me believe I had to do in order to survive. 

It was tough but nurturing, and slowly I started to see that it was possible to begin rewiring my brain.

There was hope that I could have a better life.

I might not ever recover fully but I am managing my OCD and my anorexia better than I ever have and I really hope I keep making progress. 

I am now equipped with a much better toolbox than ever before and slowly I feel a bit more confident. I am more social, better at imposing boundaries where necessary, and knowing what is good for me and what isn’t. I am also about to move out of my parents’ home which I never thought would be possible.

Last year I started a podcast called ‘Hurt to Healing’, where I discuss my struggles while interviewing others who have suffered with their mental health and experts who speak on an array of topics. 

It has helped me immensely in igniting passion and purpose, as well as making me and others feel less alone. 

It’s also grown steadily and getting a really positive response, so I hope it continues to offer people what I wish I had had sooner.

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