You could say that everything has changed for Toos. “Four years ago I would have been knocked off balance by a compliment like ‘healthy full face’. I didn't think I deserved to look good. That was one of the many rules I followed while I was ill. But I like hearing it now. I had a lot of rules: it had to be cold at home, the shower couldn't be warmer than 28 degrees… so many crazy things.” Between the ages of ten and eighteen, Toos fought a bitter duel with the forces behind her eating disorder: an exaggerated sense of perfection and a fixation on rules.
Toos van Gool | Master's of Mechanical Engineering and System & Control | Home town: Hooge Mierde | Running | Cycling | HMVV Dames 1 | E.S.Z.V.V. Totelos |aged 22
Her eating disorder was triggered by a regular health check carried out at her primary school in Hooge Mierde. “I was ten years old and the health service nurse said I was two kilos too heavy for my height. My insecurity and perfectionism were strong enough that I wanted to get rid of those two kilos. Once I reached my target weight, I built in a buffer, so that on December 5th, Sinterklaas, I could nibble on 'pepernoten' (traditional Dutch gingernut cookies, ed.). But I kept putting off the date when I'd allow myself to start snacking again, so scared was I that I'd end up back over my target weight. In just four months I had dropped my weight to an unhealthy level with my obsessive approach.”
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Toos speaks eloquently and frankly about her eating disorder. But even now, after a decade of self-reflection, she doesn't have all the answers to her questions. She still has her doubts about what was really happening to her. At times all she can offer is an honest, ‘I just don't know’. “I didn't recognize my condition as an eating disorder right away. To me it was a game; I was in a game zone. Beating the scales assuaged my longing for perfection and gave me feeling of satisfaction. It had nothing to do with how I looked; I never thought I was too fat. I didn't even know what calories were; if an apple weighed more than a Mars bar, I'd snack on a Mars.”
“Even more bizarrely, I actually loved food. At my nana's I used to eat bowlfuls of mushroom soup. I think I mainly had a problem with compulsion, and the eating disorder was secondary. If a dietician gave me a list of what I had to eat, I'd follow it to the letter. As soon as I had to deviate from the list, I couldn't handle it. Four sandwiches meant four sandwiches - not a bread roll or a mini baguette. I had some kind of autistic fixation. Even though my target weight had naturally increased during adolescence, I kept wanting to get back to the target weight set at the school health check.”
“That's why I sometimes think if only they had said to me at the time, ‘Toos, be reasonable, forget that target weight and start eating again,’ things might have gone differently. Of course, I did lie about not eating and I was deliberately trying to lose weight, but I never stuck my fingers down my throat and at home I continued to eat everything on my plate like a good girl. Nor, in the beginning, was I being deceitful about food or compensating for whatever I eat, like a lot of girls were doing in the eating disorder clinics. Those clinics were ironically where I learned some bad habits, like that you can use food to negotiate. That you can compensate for eating by doing sport.”
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For Toos, compensating was like falling off a log. At one meter forty-five, she might look like a fresh spring twig, but she has the strength of a giant sequoia. The only limit on her sporting activity was the number of hours in the day. Injury and tiredness are alien concepts to her. “As a child I was always outdoors: skating or playing ice hockey on the lake at Zwartven, cycling cross-country in the woods, and of course playing soccer for HMVV. I was even scouted by the national soccer federation (the KNVB, ed.) but with being admitted to clinics so often it was difficult for me to show what I was capable of.” And it didn't stop there. These days she cycles in the sandy Kempen region, plays indoor soccer at E.S.Z.V.V. Totelos and runs every day, covering the distance of a half marathon, at least, in a week.
Don't be surprised if you ever come across the name Toos van Gool in a medical manual. She won't be listed in the contents under ‘sport addiction’, but under ‘defying medical laws’. While her body was begging and craving for recovery, Toos carried on with her explosive bursts of energy. In nature reserve Het Beleven you could have spotted a wiry, angular jogger with its ribs sticking out and visible collar bones; almost a diagram of the body in motion. When it comes to banishing pain, she is the uncrowned queen. “It was one of my rules: three hours' exercise a day, at least. While I was ill, sport was both my rock and what was killing me. It hampered my recovery but at the same time offered me distraction during periods of deep depression. Ultimately sport and studying saved me, and gave me my third ‘S’.”
Thanks to her perfectionism, Toos was having no difficulty keeping up at school, in the highest academic stream: pre-university education. “When I was eating nothing, school was a source of huge satisfaction because I could excel at it. Fortunately, given that I was a very keen student, my pediatrician and Pius X College gave me a massive amount of help during the periods I spent in clinics. I saw TU/e as a new chance. The week before my degree program I was two hundred grams (44 lbs) under what was considered a medically acceptable weight and they actually didn't want to let me start. But I said, ‘I have worked so hard for this, you aren't going to take it away from me!’ They gave me the benefit of the doubt and I started studying Mechanical Engineering.”
University life gave Toos the impetus to make a lasting recovery. “Right from the start of TU/e Introduction Week I thought, ‘So life can be like this too’. It is wonderful how people get on with each other here. I'd always felt different from everyone else, but here I feel accepted for who I am. They don't just see my height or personal quirks. I felt positive and made the decision that I wanted to work even harder at getting better and wanted to put on weight, so that I could go running every day. So far, I've managed that and since then I've also stopped making my odd compulsive movements, like swinging my legs up and down obsessively.
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Another impetus came from the Student Sports Center (SSC). “Central to that was sports teacher Lara Hofstra; she was the first person who motivated me instead of telling me I should do less sport. That felt so good! Initially I was quite cautious at the SSC; I was afraid that if I started taking the gym classes or playing squash, I'd feel a compulsion to do so every week and would fall back into my old habits. But it felt good, my gloominess quickly diminished and I felt happier and happier. At Totelos I even joined a group going on a winter sports holiday - my first vacation without my parents.”
Sport has continued to be Toos’s passion, but no longer with the compulsion she experienced while she had a eating disorder. “My body needs a certain amount of endorphins, but now I don't necessarily need to have three hours of exercise every day and I do a really good job of keeping everything in perspective. During a match, I still give my all, but I've stopped pushing myself to my physical limits. Sometimes I like to do sport alone, but I also enjoy going jogging with my mom. If I really want to use up my energy, I prefer to exercise alone or with people who are a little faster than me - which I had, for example, with the running group during my semester in San Francisco. As for soccer and indoor soccer, the social aspect is just as important as the competitive aspect.”
Toos's battle with her weight is now largely a thing of the past. “I hardly ever stand on the scales any more. As long my clothes fit easily, I don't mind what I weigh. My eating pattern is normal; at birthday parties I'll eat a piece of cake like anyone else, without any feelings of guilt. But I am on my guard any time I suffer a personal setback; that's when I have to make sure my weight doesn't drop below a certain level, because that may trigger my old behavior. That's why, for example, I'm still cautious about relationships. Any relationship breakup would be a hard knock. Besides, where's a guy who's looking for a smurf?” Toos says with a laugh.
Study and sport are currently the two areas Toos is focused on. “I am doing two Master's and am on track for cum laude. What comes next, I don't yet know.” One thing that's pretty certain is that she will stay in Hooge Mierde - the place she keeps returning to. It will be the title of Toos’ future (auto)biography, ‘Back to Hooge Mierde’, with the subtitle, ‘Against the tide.’ “It's a nice village. I spent a short while living in rooms in Eindhoven, but I missed Hooge Mierde a little too much. The freedom I have at home is a world away from a small student room on the third floor. And I like that I have my family living nearby, within a radius of a couple of kilometers.”
And what about that childhood dream of becoming a farmer? “When my father sold his farming company, I said, ‘Then I'll become a doctor and I'll marry a farmer’, but I think the TV program Boer zoekt Vrouw (which matches farmers with potential spouses) is hopeless. Still, I could always become an actress in children's programs; children can't work full time, but I can!” she says laughing.
Raymond Starke works at the TU/e Student Sports Centre, in the midst of more than 13 thousand sport card holders who frequently (or less frequently) do sports to their heart's content. Once every four weeks, he interviews a student or employee for Cursor on the topic of ‘the beauty and consolation of sports’.