Earlier this week I posted an article about a very personal and difficult struggle for me. My hope was that by a shining a light on my own battle with an eating disorder, I would be able to help others see that they weren’t alone in dealing with this tragically common problem. Since then I have received the most heartwarming emails, including this message sent to me yesterday:
This week two family members called me fat and I cried several times and I vowed to stop eating. But after reading your article, I realized that not eating and throwing up whatever I did eat is not a good idea. Your article showed me that I need to stop obsessing over my weight and to be thankful that I am healthy. Thank you so much for changing my life.
I want to say thank you to all of you who have emailed me, commented, and have spoken out about your own struggles or the struggles of someone you know. My number one goal for this blog is to spark conversation about the sport and its issues.
As I have taken some time to think more about eating disorders within the sport, it’s really important to get the message across about how difficult it is to overcome this disease. If I had known the steep road that I would have to climb in order to regain my health, I would have asked for help a long time before I did. The thing about an eating disorder is that the more time a person spends living with it, the harder it becomes to escape the behaviors and attitudes they have developed towards food and their body. It is not something to take lightly.
I think a common misconception is that “just eating” is going to solve the problem; it doesn’t. Others think that not binging, purging, or starving for a matter of time makes the disease go away; it doesn’t. An eating disorder never goes away. It can, however, be managed after extensive therapy and understanding of why the disease developed. In addition, learning new, healthy coping mechanisms are paramount because they can be called upon where old eating disorder behaviors used to come into play.
The main thing that needs to be stressed to those who are toying with disordered behaviors, or those who may have developed a full-blown eating disorder, is that skating, sports, or anything in this world is not as important as a person’s health. When a person is fully engaged in the skating world, it seems like every competition, practice, or show is the most important thing in the world. It isn’t. I didn’t get help for my disorder sooner because there was always another competition, appearance, or something that I felt was more important than my health. Nothing is more important than your health. The longer a person pushes recovery aside, the harder the battle to happiness becomes.
Many didn’t understand why I quit skating. It was abrupt and occurred right before an Olympic season. Part of me was screaming. I had trained my whole life for the opportunity to make an Olympic team, and the idea of leaving the sport and what I had worked so hard for seemed ridiculous. Thankfully, I didn’t listen to that voice, and I began the hardest journey I could have ever imaged in order to reach the point where I am today. I literally had to train myself to eat again.
Now, for most of us, eating is a basic act. You get hungry, you see what’s in the fridge, and if looks good, you eat it. For someone who has an eating disorder and is struggling to recover, our relationship with food is nothing like that. I constantly had two voices in my head. There was one voice that was trying desperately to relearn one of the most basic human functions and listen to my body, and another that was shouting at me to either not eat at all or eat everything in my apartment. It was incredibly frustrating. I thought that by leaving the sport, my problems with food would immediately vanish. The reality was that my problems towards food began in the skating world, but they didn’t end there.
Imagine you suddenly forgot how to walk. And every time you take a step, a voice in your head is telling you that you can’t do it, that walking is bad, and you have to sit back down. It tells you that you will never be able to walk again, and although you know you walked perfectly for much of your life, with ease and without having to think about it, now relearning to walk was going to be the hardest thing you have ever had to do. This is how I felt towards eating. Facing each meal felt like I was about to skate my long program at nationals. The nerves, the fears of messing up, they were all there.
In addition to relearning how to eat, the loneliness that came along with the isolation of the disorder, and the loss of community when I left the skating world, was tough to handle. I had left my coaches, my friends, my career, and in many ways my passion. I had no idea who I was. My identity was this disorder. I felt so empty inside, and no amount of food would ever fill me up. I was so ashamed of what I was doing to my body, but because there was such a stigma attached to my behaviors, I didn’t feel like I could go to anyone for help. My family wasn’t around, and they didn’t appear focused on getting me help. I realized for the first time in my life I was going to have to step up and do something completely on my own.
After many failed attempts, I found a therapist with whom I worked once a week for a few months. It helped. I started to learn who I was away from the ice, and slowly, who I was away from the disorder. Even though things were beginning to become more clear, the behaviors didn’t stop.
I wouldn’t eat for a day. Then the next day, I’d eat more food than could ever seem possible. And then, of course, I would throw it all up. It was so shameful, and my body was constantly crying out for nurture and attention. I would throw up without meaning to–just laying in bed, vomit would come up. I was so used to living a life of structure and activity, that without skating and the constant need to move my body, I would embark on daily, self-imposed workout sessions. With a lack of nutrition and the constant workouts, my body only started to rebel even more. I was gaining weight despite not eating. I felt completely out of control and alone.
Thankfully, my sister reached out and saw what I was doing to myself. I moved to Wyoming to live with her for a bit, but I still struggled daily with the basic act of eating.
While in Wyoming I also started to realize what I had lost to the disorder and began to form an identity away from the ice. Many of my friends were skaters, and after having spent twelve years in a world doing virtually the same thing every day, this new way of living was so confusing to me. I literally had to redefine who I was as a person, not just as “Jenny Kirk the skater” or someone with an eating disorder.
Finally, after two more years, two surgeries, multiple baby steps and one-day-at-a-times, I have found comfort in who I am and how to eat. I still see a therapist once a week. I eat when I’m hungry, and I stop when I’m full. At times I have some random eating disordered thoughts, which come up when I’m in certain situations, but I’m much better. I lost almost six years of my life to the disease and its subsequent aftermath. However, I’m much stronger than I was six years ago, and I have a greater understanding of who I am as a person. I have never blamed skating for the disorder, and although I had to spend some time away from the sport, I now am able to look back on my time on the ice with great happiness and pride.
This disease is not to be taken lightly. These skaters who are struggling, or those who feel like there’s nothing wrong with what is going on, need to understand that this problem doesn’t just “go away.” No one told me what was going to happen to my life once I stumbled down the dark road of an eating disorder, and no one told me the amount of time and strength it was going to take to recover. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease, and only 30-40% ever fully recover. (DMH) And being fully recovered still means this disease will always still be there. It’s like being an alcoholic; there is always the potential to fall off the wagon. I consider myself lucky to be one of those who has recovered, but let me stress: Ruining your body and health in order to compete in a competition or to achieve a certain image is not worth it.
The sport has to take notice of what is going on, and skaters have to take responsibility for what they’re doing to themselves. It needs to be addressed that there is no one-size-fits-all for a skater’s body. Keeping the awareness out there and continually speaking out against what is so prevalent in order to take the shame away from the issue is vital. Skaters must know that they’re not alone and that the consequences that come from this disorder are not glamorous or in any way fun.
In addition, eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and they affect a wide range of people. As I wrote in my last blog, I was in no way a candidate to develop this disorder. I was thin, healthy, and no one had ever told me to lose weight. But still, I couldn’t escape the disease. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, and many people fail to reach out for help because they feel that they aren’t “thin enough” to really be sick. There is no such thing as “thin enough” or “sick enough.” If you think you may have a problem, whether it’s overeating, under-eating, over-exercising, or just plain feeling weird around food and your body, it’s important to reach out and get help. The road to recovery is a long one, but once you make it to the other side, the rewards are endless.