Bulimia is sneaky and a liar. It constantly forced me to do irrational things out of fear, desperation, and panic. It enslaved me; therefore, I led a double life. By day I trained for triathlons or rowing and grew my career in fitness. But later, despite my efforts, the Jekyll to Mr. Hyde came out and often with a vengeance.
As someone who has exhibited every type of disordered behavior with food, I can attest that none are desirable. Generally speaking, eating disorders are physical manifestations of psychological issues. Bulimia, however, held an extra layer of physical and psychological torture for me. The experiences and reflections shared here are my own, and I do not speak for everyone. It’s important that we listen to each individual uniquely and provide an environment that encourages openness.
There is no specific ‘body size’ for a bulimic. Personally, my body was connected to self-worth, and deeper Trauma. A bad day could be debilitating. But, over time and many miles of Ironman training, I learned to respect myself and needs. It was hard, and I failed more often than I succeeded, but ultimately the body’s requirements prevailed. Specific factors that helped me recover included endurance sports, my passion for competition, and the power of many coaches.
Today, I’m sharing my story to help others, through awareness and understanding. I’m also writing this article to say regardless of your weight, age, gender, race, fitness, socioeconomic class, and menstrual cycle, you can have disordered eating habits and you deserve to be taken seriously.
I’m reaching out to those who fall into any spectrum of disordered eating, or ‘disorder’ for that matter. You are not alone, and your feelings and fears are valid. There’s an additional message for our entire community: If you are the trusted ear someone chooses to confide in, please just listen. You do not need to solve their problem. Listening means a lot. Afterwards, refer to a resource such as the one listed in the article. Understand how difficult the topic may be to verbalize, and how much courage it takes to come forward. It’s an honor to be chosen and trusted with the info.
Warning: Potentially Triggering Content.
“Ashley, we found vomit.”
These are the words that made my heart sink for 20+ years.
Caught. Exposed. Horrified.
On the way down to the ground, to hitting bottom, you feel like you’re flying. Nothing seems wrong. But the reality is you’re falling, not flying. Eventually, you smack the ground. People have said, “you have to hit rock bottom to really recover.” I wanted to be good at school, career, rowing, and then triathlon. The reality was Bulimia kept me from success in all of those areas.
I couldn’t see what was wrong. Regardless of what was happening in my life, I did not see the damage I was doing to myself as my goals drifted further and further away from me.
I was an Undergrad Resident Advisor nearly removed from housing. Why? A custodian found evidence of my behavior. Imagine walking into that meeting. Rowing was my passion but I couldn’t make weight reliably as a lightweight rower, with the weight fluctuations. The eating disorder turned my absolute passion into a ball and chain. I rarely went out with friends. Alcohol had “too many calories” or I “felt fat”. I was in law school, which I left after the first year because I couldn’t live alone and take care of myself. These instances kept piling up, one after the other, yet I couldn’t see the problem.
Additionally, there were a few hospitalizations/inpatients. This ranges from treatment centers to locked units to near death.
Still, I didn’t think anything was truly wrong with me. I “didn’t belong there”. The multi-day stay in the ICU didn’t even change my behaviors.
When I look at pictures now vs then, I notice a couple differences in myself. My face was always puffy and looked like a bad night out. On a deeper level, my eyes had no light. Scrolling through my old pics, I can see when the joy died. Alternately, I can see the stages of recovery, and where light emerged. No one else may see this, but I do. I used to look at pictures and evaluate if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on how my body looked.
Now I decide based on my smile, and the light in my eyes. This is what a picture should capture.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
When my brain was on the eating disorder channel, it was like listening to a radio station that had static mixed in. I could hear the song, but there was always a little something in the background.
That ‘something’ was a cruel and berating internal voice. It was irrational and illogical, and dictated my mood and actions. At times, it was debilitating. I can remember not even being able to bike, because my shorts didn’t fit right. At the time, it felt like pure failure and worthlessness. I couldn’t see each pedal stroke as progress towards my goals, because I was overcome with self-loathing. Additionally, the cycle was self-perpetuating, because this hatred sparked greater disordered behavior. Long sessions without fuel, or just lying-in bed unable to even go outside, embarrassed for myself.
The rest of my life went on concurrently, and it’s unlikely anyone knew I had this internal conflict. The difference now is like biking into a headwind vs tailwind. Everything can move forward with less effort.
Recovering from an eating disorder was long, confusing, and frustrating. It was work. At one point, I’d say Bulimia was a sign of weakness. Now, having clawed my way out, I’m going to rephrase. It provided me with unique strengths that few can understand. Like many things, the key to progress was consistency, and not perfection. It is actually a fitting lesson, given I’d chased perfection through disordered eating. The truth? Perfection is a fallacy. Now I am a coach myself and tell this to my clients often: “Progress over perfection. Forgive, move on, and continue.”
HELPING OTHERS: The signal in the noise.
If any good can come from these experiences, it’s that I have a unique experience and viewpoint to help others. As a coach, I adopt a ‘whole person’ approach to facilitate change. In my own journey, I employed the same strategy.
One specific method was leveraging PASSIONS to help myself and accept help from others. Working in fitness my whole life, I’ve learned the POWER of words, and momentum of language. I knew how to motivate others, and I used those skills on myself.
- I was fed up with feeling horrible about myself, and underperforming
- I had support and purpose directed towards sports
- I took additional courses in sport and nutrition, delving into specific focus areas
- I looked into nuanced communication, and how people understand
- I applied this to my life and to my work
Now, as a coach, I help others:
My primary focus when working with others is to do so with an open mind and the knowledge I have from not only my education, of course, but also my own personal experience. I offer the following to avoid others landing in the same trap I had for so long:
- provide support and understanding
- establish communication centered around things that are important to them
- help them believe in themselves and that change is possible
- assist them in challenging old methods that didn’t work, and applying alternate processes
What’s the point?
Well, I want you to know that wherever you are, we get places one step at a time. Don’t worry about the end, just take today’s step in the right direction. If you need support, there are a lot of people who find complete joy out of helping you get from A to B. It’s tough, but in my opinion, living with this disorder and trying to manage two very different lives was no longer the way I wished to spend my life. There are many resources out there to help us get through, but importantly are the people directly in your life; your support, your tribe, your loved ones.
Pay it forward
I couldn't have made progress without help along the way. A coach is someone who brings you where you want to go, when you can’t get there on your own. (For real, that’s the origin of the word. A coach. Like a horse carriage. A coach brings you from one place, to another). I had a lot of great sports coaches, from college straight through present. Mostly, I was defiant, but it all added up eventually. Everyone helped. You may not realize the power of your influence. It may not be immediate, and you may never even be told. But one person helping another can make a difference.
Where do we go from here?
As coaches, athletes, and leaders in the community, we need more education and understanding. We also need the right people in roles that can move the dialogue and the culture, in this and MANY other areas. We are barely scraping the surface of understanding, but scraping is how we get to the next layer.
I want to highlight some influential actors that helped me on my journey. Notably, I did not accept help for most of these attempts. However, every single coach and person that acted was part of my recovery, and I am eternally grateful. It was the combination of all experiences that pushed me over the line. Specifically: In college, the AD, Assistant AD and Dean of Students: all took proactive measures. Thank you. As an athlete, my experience with any coach or trainer that noted strange behavior was supportive and positive. Even as a lightweight rower, high performance was always the goal from my coaches. As noted at the outset of this article, Eating Disorders are physical manifestations of psychological issues. My current coach, Kurt Perham Head Coach at PBM Coaching, is beyond phenomenal and truly exemplifies the definition of a coach. To Kurt, and the others who helped me save myself, I am eternally grateful.
Knowing how important their actions and their care has been in my recovery makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs for those their truths and help support them through it, please say something.
- Eating Disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses. Every 62 Minutes, someone dies from an ED. (Eating Disorder Statistics. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (NAANAD). Published online, no date.)
- Athletes and Eating Disorders: Athletes are more likely than any other population to develop an Eating Disorder. Johnson, C. Powers, P.S., and Dick, R. Athletes and Eating Disorders: The National Collegiate Athletic Association Study, Int J Eat Disord 1999; 6:179.
I Challenge You To Create Waves: A small ripple creates a tidal wave. Here’s my ripple. What’s yours?
If you or someone you know is having issues, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association. Go there for resources, or to talk, text, or chat. (800) 931- 2237 (call or text) or https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline to chat.
Ashley Blake, MA
USAT-1, USAC-3, USRowing-2, USMS-2