We’re back, with part two of eating disorders awareness week; the support team. Parents, teammates, coaches, teachers, friends…you have the most important job of all. We need you. We need your strength, your cheering, your compassion, your patience, your unconditional love. But you might need a few tools and tips along the way as well, and that’s why we’re here right now with Eating Disorder Awareness week!
Again, I’d like to kick this post off with a Brave Enough book excerpt that will hopefully help to explain some of what is happening around an eating disorder. It can be nearly impossible to understand what is happening inside the brain of someone struggling with an ED. While it was happening to me, I certainly didn’t understand it, either. Hopefully talking about our experiences can help provide some insight, while recognizing that everyone’s experiences are a little bit different and unique to them.
“I began to make breakthroughs. Besides my therapist meetings, my parents were actively trying to help me. My mom bought me the book Life without ED by Jenni Schaefer. This extremely well-written book is about how one woman declared independence from her eating disorder, and I highly recommend it for people struggling with an eating disorder and anyone close to them who wants to understand what they’re going through.
Schaefer likens having an eating disorder to being in an abusive relationship, which is very much what it is. In many abusive relationships, the victims think they need the abuser. The victims are not willing to leave because they’re too scared to think about what it’s going to be like without the abuser. It’s a really good analogy because with an eating disorder the one thing you think you need the most is the one thing that hurts you the most. It might kill you someday. While you’re in the relationship, you don’t believe it’s really going to kill you. Because that only happens to other people. You don’t think it will ever happen to you. Your marriage, your relationship with this eating disorder, is fine. You think you have it all under control. Nothing bad is going to happen.
I continued to have private sessions with a therapist outside of our group sessions, and this time I met with a new therapist, Angie Scott. I instantly clicked with her. She had this air of warm, caring calmness about her, and for the first time in private sessions, I truly believed that I could share everything I felt and thought.
These intimate, raw conversations turned my life around. They helped me separate who I really was from who I was with an ED. Angie was very motherly, and her aura reminded me of one of my grandmas. She helped me gain the tools to cope with the stress of being a competitive athlete. Using symptoms was currently the only tool I had in my toolbox, but Angie helped me figure out that I had many other, less self-destructive ways of dealing with stress. Every week I practiced a new tool, such as taking my dog outside to play when I felt the urge to throw up, calling a friend, or watching a show that would distract me. I had no idea at the time, but the tools Angie gave me during those sessions at The Emily Program were ones that could help me throughout the rest of my life. Most important, Angie helped me figure out my struggles weren’t about the food and that it wasn’t all my fault.
Before I met with Angie, I thought there was something wrong with me, that if I was just a better person, I wouldn’t be struggling with an eating disorder. As a result of this assumption, I felt shame and embarrassment that caused me to not act like myself. I was always such a truthful child that I never had a curfew. My parents just trusted me to use my judgment and come home at a reasonable hour. And I always did! I was so intense with my ski training, so focused on school and getting into university that I never considered staying out late, partying, or lying to my parents about anything. However, when my eating disorder came along, I found myself lying for the first time in my life. I became a different version of myself.
My eating disorder took a strong hold, and from there on it did whatever it had to do to survive, like a parasite that’s taken over its host. Lie to my parents, saying I wasn’t hungry at dinner because I’d already eaten? No problem. Be angry with my parents for trying to talk to me about my eating disorder? Piece of cake (figuratively speaking). Cry irrationally and become overly emotional at the smallest things? Of course, that’s what happens when you’re trying to function on, shall we say, less than optimal nutrition. Whenever someone was trying to help me, my immediate instinct was to push the person away, even if a small corner of my brain was still crying out for help. The larger part of me that was controlled by my eating disorder was terrified of accepting help of any kind, so taking any steps whatsoever toward recovery was like dragging a ball and chain behind me.
I’ve always been such an intense person, and that’s been an incredible thing for my ski career. My ability to focus in on one thing and stay on task until I am finished is simultaneously my best and worst character trait. And my eating disorder absolutely thrived on this intensity.
“Genetics loads the gun,” Angie explained. “Environment pulls the trigger.”
I learned through the experts at The Emily Program that bulimia is a mental disorder. Much the same as alcoholism, depression, or anxiety, it’s something you feel you cannot stop. It’s part of your genetic makeup, and you’re predisposed to suffer from that condition. If you’re someone who is predisposed and at risk for an eating disorder, it’s likely going to surface at some point. It might surface very early if you’re a super type A athlete in a really stressful situation, or it might surface much later in life. Maybe it’ll never surface, or maybe it surfaces quickly, and you get treatment and you get better fast. Or maybe it takes a long time. It’s different person to person and case to case.
The environment I was in, one with a lot of stress, brought everything to a head. Let’s face it, high school is stressful for almost everyone. And the stress I was under with school, skiing, violin, AP tests, and applying for college is what pulled the trigger on my loaded gun and set me off into an eating disorder. It’s hard to explain how much this knowledge helped me let go of some of the intense guilt and shame I felt. All along I’d been thinking I had a behavior problem, that I just wasn’t strong enough to not use symptoms, that I was a bad kid. Learning that I hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve this helped me start to have compassion for myself.
Stress was at the root of my bulimia. So, Angie set out to help me handle stress, because I had never known how to deal with it well. Now, I know that when I’m really stressed, I can call my mom and talk it over. I have a sports psychologist I can hash it over with. I can talk to my coach, Cork. I can talk to a teammate. I can talk to my boyfriend, Wade. I can go for a walk. I can do yoga. I can watch Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. There are a million tools in my toolbox now because Angie helped me put them there. I’ve also learned that if you just need to be sad, that’s OK too. You can be sad! You can be anxious. You can be worried about something. You can be nervous about a race. It’s human, and if I learned anything at The Emily Program, it’s that I want to let myself feel the whole range of incredible emotions we humans experience.
I was always such a happy-go-lucky kid. When I was eighteen years old, a time when everything was going right for me, I felt that I had no right to be nervous or anxious. So, I didn’t know how to deal with stress and adversity. Angie changed that. She helped me figure out that life is about facing and channeling that stress. We would talk about everything in life and talk about symptoms and what my eating disorder was doing to me. She would break it all down to the smallest box to find the truth.
Two weeks into my residency at The Emily Program, I felt that I was beginning to heal. I started to see things more clearly from the mental health and emotional side of things. But I still needed to conquer the next stage.
I had to keep the food down. I still didn’t want to eat.”
Sometimes, the person you care about who is suffering from an eating disorder might simply need someone to listen to them, but not necessarily try to understand or explain why their disorder doesn’t make sense. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that we need to “just eat, damn it”. But what we really need is for someone to listen to what’s scaring us, what’s stressing us out, what our fears are, even if they don’t make sense at all. It’s ok to say “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I care about you a lot, and I want to be here for you”. That support and unconditional love goes a long, long ways.
The good news is, you are not alone. You have resources!
- WithAll’s what to say campaign, “What to Say” equips youth coaches with ways in which to talk with their athletes about how to create healthy relationships with food and their bodies. It’s free, and it’s an extremely small time commitment that can save an athlete’s relationship with themselves. Check it out here: https://withall.org/
- They also have a really helpful sheet with steps you can take if you’re concerned you have an athlete with an eating disorder, because we know this is scary and hard to approach. Check it out here: https://whattosaynow.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/WTS-Coaches-Get-Help-Update.pdf
- The NEDA website: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
- Under the header “Help and Support” there is a “find treatment” button to click that brings you to a map of the US, so you can find a treatment option nearest to you.
- Coaches, it’s a great idea to have names and numbers of licensed therapists and nutritionists on hand, so taking the time to explore this website and find options near you if your program, school or University doesn’t have a RDN (registered dietician nutritionist) or counselor on hand.
- In order to find treatment, the site https://www.findedhelp.com is pretty incredible. You can search by location and type of care, but also by your insurance provider.
- I also recommend the Emily Program, not because I’m an ambassador for them, but because their treatment program literally saved my life. They also have a lot of helpful resources on their website, so take some time to play around and learn more. https://emilyprogram.com/
- The Work, Play, Love podcast with Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas. Everything they do is great, but specifically their podcast #63 “Mary Cain, Creating A Healthy Team Culture, Eating Disorders, Performance and Nutrition, Picking a Program”. Starting at 19 mins, Lauren and Jesse dive in depth on the eating disordered culture around running and what needs to happen in order to change it for the better. I thought their remarks were right on the button, and I recommend this as a great conversation starter for athletes on teams and as food for thought for coaches.
- The PeaceMeal podcast, by the Emily Program. They discuss topics around eating disorders, body image and how society plays into this, along with inspiration recovery stories. Their podcast Episode 2: Eating Disorders 101, can be especially helpful for anyone looking to understand a little bit more about what exactly these disorders are.
- ROAR by Stacy Sims. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it to female athletes and coaches of female athletes. The premise is that “women are not small men”, and should be given training and sports nutrition options that reflect a Woman’s unique physiology.
- Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer and Thom Rutledge. As mentioned in my book excerpt above, this book uses many different analogies and yes, even humor to help explain what it’s like to have an eating disorder, and offers many helpful tools and inspiration to fight against it.
Even if you foster the most incredible team culture with the best body positivity in the world, you may still have athletes with eating disorders. I was one of them, and I had the most caring coaches in the whole world. This is not your fault! But there are some things you can do to help them out, because we know you care about your athletes as humans as well as athletes.
If you’re scared to talk about it with your team at the start of the season, bring in an expert and be present for the conversation. Let your athletes know that there are many resources available to them and let them know that they can come to you at any time.
Meet with an RDN (registered dietician nutritionist) and have a chat with them about how to talk to athletes about food and fueling during training, and then you have someone to refer athletes to if you feel something is not quite right.
Focus on process oriented goals, not outcome results. Make sure your athletes know that you care about their work ethic, their presence on the team, and their mental game more than what number is next to their name on the results page.
If you see an athlete who appears to be showing some red flags of an eating disorder, it’s ok to ask them about how things are going. Ask them if they’re doing ok emotionally, if they’re stressed, if they are doing ok outside of sport, since there is likely something triggering their eating disorder. Offer to give them resources (maybe your school has a RDN or counselor they can meet with), or point them in the direction of local eating disorder specialists.
Lastly but perhaps most important: do not ever tell your athletes they are fat, to lose weight, or say that they are “too big” for their sport. I repeat; don’t do this. Ever. This can only cause harm. If your athlete comes to you asking about how to safely drop weight for their sport, refer them to a registered dietician nutritionist or helpful resources like the book ROAR by Stacey T. Simms (this is for women specifically), or sit down to have a conversation with your athlete if you feel knowledgeable and comfortable doing so; with awareness that a type-A athlete may take what you say about weight loss and run too far with it.
Your child’s eating disorder is not your fault. Just as it is not their fault, it is not yours, either. But there are some ways in which you can help your child build (or re-build) a healthy relationship to food and their body.
When it comes to athletics and results…your most important job is to make sure your kids are happy, healthy and enjoying sport. Ask about how their day was or what they learned/worked on, not what result they got. Ask about their goals. Ask about what they learned today, or if practice was fun. Because sport, in the end, is supposed to be fun!
Think about the words you use to describe yourself or how you talk about your relationship with food in front of your kids. I am forever grateful that I never once heard my Mom say “these pants make me look fat” or “I’m being ‘bad’ and eating french fries today”. If she wanted the french fries, she enjoyed a normal portion of them, and as a child I saw that all foods could fit into a healthy life. My parents never made comments about my body or my shape, but I did receive comments from my Dad like “way to go! You were really hammering up that hill!” or my Mom saying “wow Jess, it looks like you’ve put a lot of hard work into your double pole technique, good job!”. It was never about how my body looked, only about what it could do.
Of course, I still developed an eating disorder anyways because it was hard-wired into me, but without this guidance and examples of self-care and confidence from both my parents, I am sure my eating disorder would have sufficed much earlier and with more disastrous results. In short, treat yourself with the same kindness and love that you treat your child, because they’re always watching. I say this with the full and complete knowledge that I’m not a parent and have no clue how hard it is, and I’m sure I will make many mistakes down the road! But hopefully this will not be one of them, because it is so important to show with your actions and words that it’s ok to accept and love yourself the way you are.
Look for ways to foster an open culture on your team where concerns can be shared and openly addressed. This goes beyond eating disorders! School is stressful. Life is stressful. Dating can be fun (but also, stressful). Talk to one another. Listen to one another. Have one another’s backs.
What I love about our environment on the US women’s team is that I feel that no matter what the topic is, I can have a productive, safe and interesting conversation about it with my teammates. I know I won’t be judged, and I’ll have another viewpoint to consider. The fact that we can talk about body confidence and pressure from racing with one another takes away the strange influence something seems to hold when it’s made a taboo topic. By bringing it into the light, we take away some of its power.
Some ways to start this culture include but aren’t limited to:
- Have everyone watch Mary Cain’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, read Lauren Fleshman’s op-ed piece, then talk about how a healthy culture in sport is important and relevant to your sport while you’re all on a long training session together.
- I’ve had teams send around my Body Issues blog post as a conversation starter as well, which you’re welcome to use to get the conversation going on how you want to create a safe space to talk about the hard things.
- Have everyone listen to Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas’ podcast (listed above) and discuss those topics covered as a group.
- Most important, get together as a team and brainstorm about the type of culture you want to create. What kind of things do you value as teammates? What does being a good teammate look like? Write down your “team culture document” so you all have a copy to look back on now and then.
In summary, although I desperately wish there was a “how-to” book for exactly how to support someone who is struggling through an eating disorder, it’s going to look different case to case and person to person. But in my experience, offering your unconditional love and support, compassion and being available to check in with your person is incredibly helpful. This is likely the roughest period of their life, which can take its toll upon you as well. Thank you for standing by them, and for being so strong!