Books by athletes who have survived serious eating disorders, as well as books about EDs presented from a clinician’s point of view, are not in short supply; I’ve read a number of them, and among them have been several well-written, informative, and deeply engaging pieces of literature.
Training on Empty breaks the mold in important ways, and thus presents itself as a genuinely fresh addition to the genre. As I noted, there are personal accounts and there are didactic tomes by medical professionals and other therapeutic types. Brittin, on the other hand, has seamlessly confined a frank and often terrifying personal memoir with a text that explores the psychological, medical, sociological and even spiritual aspects of a range of related illnesses that affect over ten million young people and adults in the United States alone. And critically, she writes as someone who has truly “been there”: She is an unusually accomplished distance runner who at age sixteen set the record at the Pike’s Peak Ascent, one of the preeminent mountain races in the world. She was a two-time finalist at the Kinney (now Foot Locker) National High-School Cross-Country Championships, placing seventh as a senior, and as a college freshman was the runner-up at the TAC (now USATF) Junior National Cross-Country Championships.
In terms of style, Brittin is a straight shooter without being melodramatic, a wordsmith who can turn a phrase without overreaching. “Training on Empty” includes mention of youthful pharmacological and sexual interludes, and descriptions of a tumultuous and sometimes tortured upbringing, but these are presented only to the extent that they help explain their contribution to Brittin’s progression down a diseased path that very nearly ended in her death. By far the most gripping angle, for want of a better term, of the book is Lize’s in-depth description of what it was like to be her own relentless and brutal tormentor for so many years. The fear, the resolve, the pathological ideas and plans and actions that few people could ever conceive of, the relentless hours spent both training and maliciously wounding herself — the way she presents these, particularly in the later chapters when she describes her post-collegiate life in hell, is literally enough to bring a grown man to tears. Yet that’s not the important thing. What is amazing, what sells Brittin’s story – the horrific details of which are far from unique – is that she got well. In reading her account, there are various points at which one expects the book to conclude with the admission that she wrote and submitted the entire thing from within the confines of a psychiatric hospital or medical ward. That she is not only alive but functioning on a better-than-even keel is why people need to read Training On Empty.
Put in metaphorical terms, it’s one thing to write, glass in hand, about being a blackout gutter drunk; it’s another to give vivid, uncompromising and clearly valid descriptions of camping out interminably at death’s door and then describing the way out of that terrible place. This is what Brittin has done in a way I don’t believe many people are capable of. Not only have relatively few people been to the depths that she has, but only a distressingly small fraction of those who have truly recover, and in that group, precious few have the ability or the willingness to put pen to paper and offer their accounts as possible solutions for others suffering from the same poison-ugly problem.
Brittin enchants the reader by interspersing her own story with interludes that include interviews with notable figures in her life who have been privy to her struggles — fellow elite athletes, her own mother, respected running coach Bobby McGee, and others. Even poetry makes an appearance, as does the role of holistic care in healing from anorexia. The foreword is written by Lorraine Moller, a four-time Olympian and the pinnacle of class and thought. Reading the book is like watching your favorite television drama and actually having the commercials be entertaining and memorable in their own right rather than obligatory interruptions.
Brittin, notably and humbly, promises nothing in terms of results. While she has spoken at local high schools and made other overtures aimed at reducing the incidence of her own type of suffering, she matter-of-factly acknowledges that a sea change in attitude is about the only thing that can lead to recovery. At the same time, she describes just how to set up the right conditions. It’s truly titillating as well as exciting.
Yes. Yes, you can get better, and this book proves it. And the author unabashedly reveals what’s needed in order to ensure this.
It would be wrong to simply cheerlead unconditionally, as even the most compelling stories include questionable elements in their telling. True to stereotype, Brittin minimizes her own talent, going to some lengths to portray herself as naturally slow, an awkward and workmanlike runner with an overly clipped gait. As someone who has been around the top levels of the sport for a long time, I can say that this is most likely overstated self-deprecation.
Yet at the same time her downplaying of her talents and accomplishments implicitly adds weight to her work: Anorexics, as Brittin herself ironically notes, are magicians when it comes to seeing the absolute worst in themselves and denying the positive attributes evident to others. So in going overboard here, Brittin offers readers a window into what helped make and keep her sick in the first place, both in her thoughts as a teenager and the way she relates those thoughts even today.
If you’re sensing at this point that I most vociferously approve of this book, you’re catching on. At $5.99 it’s a steal and it can be downloaded in a variety of formats, so there’s no reason not to bite. Even if you aren’t personally affected by an eating disorder and have never run a step in your life, you’ve emerge from reading this captivating memoir more ready to do battle with whatever mental malice-makers might be making the rounds in your days and ways. I guarantee it.
– Kevin Beck