When an Athlete Develops an Eating Disorder
One of my fondest memories from college is of early morning rowing practice. In darkness and silence we ran three miles from campus to the boathouse. Besides the occasional car that drove by, the only sound was the steady strike of feet on the pavement. Teams of eight marched their boats to the dock and set off on a moonlit river for a warm up. We powered through drills as the sun came up, pushing and pulling to our max potential. It was a magical rhythm, this harmonious momentum we created with our bodies, the oar and the water.
Crew was by far the most physically and mentally demanding sport I had ever participated in. I was the stroke for my boat and intensely driven to be a powerhouse rower. In grade school and high school I played soccer, softball and basketball. I excelled at all three sports and was named MVP most years. My ambition was perfection, to score the most, win the most and please my coaches and teammates. I practiced hard and played even harder. I prided myself on having a reputation for being aggressive. I craved the sweat, physical exertion and glory of athleticism.
In my sophomore year of college, my drive for athletic success was challenged in a new and fierce way. The bar was raised, and me being me, I was determined to surpass it. During an afternoon rowing practice, as we rowed by the dock my coach shouted, “I can tell how hard you work by how much your body changes.” I remember upon hearing his words I slammed my legs and pulled the oar as hard as I possibly could. I had a new mission to master: I had to literally alter my body’s shape and size to prove myself.
Before college I did not have a hyperawareness of my body. I was an average size and comfortable in my skin. I was successful on the playing field with the body I had; I could box out with the best of them. The thought or fantasy of changing my body never occurred to me until the day I heard those very damaging words.
If my body was now the marker of how hard I worked and the depth of my dedication to my team, that could only mean one thing — I had to shrink. And that’s exactly what I did. That single statement unleashed a vicious, relentless and life-threatening eating disorder.
One year later I resigned from my position as president of the crew team and gave up my seat in the boat. I was too weak from 12 months of systematically restricting my caloric intake to continue rowing. I blamed my resignation on needing to devote more time to my studies. Still unaware I had an eating disorder, I continued to eat less and less and overexercise. I went to the gym several times a day to undo the little bit of food I allowed myself to eat. My workouts were militant, driven by a deathly fear of gaining weight.
By the time I was diagnosed with and hospitalized for anorexia nervosa my diet consisted of chicken broth and instant oatmeal. My vision was blurry, I could not concentrate, my chest hurt with every heartbeat and I could barely walk across campus due to dehydration and malnourishment. My hospitalization in 1996 was the beginning of a lifelong recovery journey from a disease that just doesn’t let up.
Many athletes have similar stories about how training and dieting regimes triggered their eating disorder. This scenario is especially common in the wrestling, boxing, football, gymnastics and dancing communities, where body shape and size are directly correlated with performance and success. For those of us genetically predisposed to an eating disorder, such body-centric messages can influence and encourage dangerous behaviors that snowball into full-blown and fatal eating disorders.
Twenty years and a few hospitalizations later, I continue to use my therapeutic team for support. Above all other tools, however, yoga has been a source of steadiness and empowerment in my recovery process, leading me to become a yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders.
Although not a cure, yoga is a powerful healing tool for managing the daily challenges of recovery. In my personal experience, yoga has improved my relationship with my body and offered a safe outlet for physical activity, reconnecting me with my natural love of being athletic and active. The rhythmic movement and deep breathing calms my mind and allows me to listen attentively to my healthy voice, which for so long was muted and overpowered by my eating disorder.
The practice by its nature builds physical strength, which boosts my self-esteem, leading me to feel strong and steady emotionally and mentally as well. Unlike competitive sports, yoga is not goal and performance oriented. There is no finish line, scoreboard, or championship. The only pressure we experience is that which we place on ourselves. Yoga holds the space for us to study our habits, reactions and behaviors without having to be perfect or make the cut.
After years of being numbed out, yoga has also brought sensation and feeling back into my life. My hunger cues have returned, and yoga has taught me how to hear them again. The practice has also taught me how to connect from the inside out, to know myself deeply and to value myself for my innate personal traits and values versus the size of my body. I connect with my resilience in warrior poses, courage in crow pose, grace in dancer’s pose, openness in triangle pose, peace in camel pose and support in child’s pose.
In truth, healing from an eating disorder is hard and ongoing. My yoga practice is my anchor, my safe space, and my direct line to my personal power and truth.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.