Jessie Diggins: Facing my Fears and Finding Recovery
**This guest blog was written by Olympic gold medalist and eating disorder recovery advocate, Jessie Diggins.
I sat down today in the lobby of our hotel in Ulricehamn, Sweden, to talk with a local newspaper journalist, mostly about ski racing. But at some point in the interview, she asked me about why I decided to share my history with an eating disorder, as I knew -and hoped -she would. Most reporters want to know why I would ever want to share my story, but that’s an easy answer. I want people struggling with disordered eating to know that there’s always hope. That recovery isn’t only possible but closer than they might think, and that contrary to how it feels in the moment, you can not only survive without your eating disorder as a crutch in professional sports…but you can thrive without it. My story is proof that the eating disorder I once turned to in order to try to race faster did in fact hurt my career short-term, but it didn’t ruin my life, and my racing took off once I got healthy again. The harder story to tell is what it was really like, 9 years ago when I was too scared and ashamed to even admit that I had a problem.
Don’t you think it’s high time the shame, secrecy and stigma surrounding eating disorders disappears? When you feel that you may be judged for having one, you’re much less likely to reach out for help. What if we can create a world where eating disorders are treated the same way as a broken wrist – you realize you are hurting, you ask for help, you receive medical care and you heal? It may take time, it may not be an instant fix, but there’s no embarrassment or shame associated with it.
I talk about my history with an eating disorder not only for the young athletes I know who are reading this right now and thinking “wait…that’s ME”, but also for their parents, coaches, friends and teammates who are trying to figure out what it might be like to actually have an eating disorder. For those who are trying to find empathy and figure out what’s going on in their head…here’s what was going on in mine.
The crazy thing is, sitting here today, it feels like a lifetime ago, and it’s easy to forget the feelings of panic, anxiety, fear and shame that followed me around on a near-constant basis.
But when I sit and think back to 2010 when I was picking up the phone to call the Emily Program and get treatment, it was the scariest thing in the world. It felt like my life couldn’t possibly go on without my eating disorder. It also couldn’t go on WITH one, either.
It’s alarming how quickly it spiraled out of control. I went from not caring what anyone thought I looked like in my early high school years (as evidenced by my daily uniform of baggy track pants, old cotton t-shirts from one race event or another, running shoes and a hair tie on my wrist) to thinking there was no way I would ever look cool, pretty or skinny but suddenly worried about it. At this point, that just makes me a normal teenager. Those people who say “high school years are the best of your life!!!” are nuts. Don’t listen to them.
No, the scary part was that I went from feeling a little insecure and staring to use some disordered eating habits (going for a run after dinner even when I’d already trained that day, deciding certain foods were “off limits”, never using butter or salad dressing, etc.) to a full-blown eating disorder very quickly. My thoughts rapidly turned into “I can’t possibly get through this week of training without my eating disorder”, and I only saw a future in which I was living through the lens of disordered eating. Despite the fact that I had lived 18 years of my life without it, my eating disorder had become my new life sentence.
I was scared that without my eating disorder, I would immediately get fat and slow and wouldn’t race fast again. I was scared that without it, I wouldn’t make the National Team. I was scared to go into a recovery program, because I worried I wouldn’t be able to train enough. I was scared that if my club team knew I had an eating disorder, I’d get kicked off the team. I was scared that boys wouldn’t like me if they found out. Worse still, I was scared that they WOULD like me.
When you believe that you are not worthy of love because you don’t love yourself, you immediately question anyone who tries to show you love or support. I thought the people who were trying to help me get better couldn’t possibly understand that without my eating disorder, I was nobody.
But here’s the thing – only a year earlier I had been confident, sure of myself and positive that I could have a successful future in anything I chose to do without needing an eating disorder. So surely I could get back to that stage, right? Somehow, going back to “being normal” had become a scary unknown for me. How would I ever do “normal” again after I’d started living like this, treating my body this way? I needed more than just my half-hearted resolution to do better and take care of my body…I needed professional help.
There’s no way around it; deciding to seek help and recover from an eating disorder is a terrifying prospect to the person who’s actually IN the disorder. On one level, you know that you can’t possibly go on living like this and that you need help, but on another level you hear your disorder whispering in your head “but you’re nothing without me! You can live your life with me, and it’ll all be fine” and you’re scared to move forward. Let me tell you…it’s hard, but recovery is absolutely worth facing all those fears head on. It seems like an obvious statement, right? But when you’re in the middle of an eating disorder, deciding to ask for help can be the most terrifying first step. That’s why it’s the most important one! I couldn’t believe how accepting, warm and welcoming the Emily Program was the first time I stepped in the doors after making the phone call for my appointment. It didn’t have the look or feel of a doctor’s office at all, and I never felt judged for needing to be there. I found acceptance for who I was and that was exactly the confidence boost I needed to decide to start moving forward with recovery.
What I didn’t realize was that healing from an eating disorder wasn’t an overnight fix. What a bummer, because I love simple and tidy problem solving! But with eating disorders, there are no quick solutions, but rather a long process of figuring out why you’re there in the first place. For me, it was never about the food or my body in the end, but about trying to be perfect and feeling like I wasn’t good enough if I didn’t do everything in my life 100%. I had to realize that I was worthy of love and good enough the way I was, before I could stop trying to control everything in my life.
Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. There were many days when I thought “no way is this worth it” because going through all the emotions and facing your eating disorder head-on, challenging your ingrained ways of thinking about yourself, your body and food, is scary. But I was fortunate to have an amazing support system around me and over time, the process of making friends with food (and myself) got easier and easier. The stretches of time between my little slides back into my eating disorder got farther and farther apart. I began to remember how much fun life can be when you’re not obsessing over food and how to get away from it, and just enjoy the people around me. My relationships became more meaningful, and I became truly happy again, not the fake happy I had plastered on my face to pretend everything was ok. Fighting for myself in recovery remains to this day the hardest work I’ve ever done, but also the most important thing I’ve ever done.
So if you’re someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, as crazy as it sounds, I can promise you this: it doesn’t have to be this way forever. It can, and it will, get better if you seek help. Although it may seem impossible right now, you’ll be so glad you stuck with it if you work towards recovery and getting healthy again! Getting your life back is absolutely worth the fight.
— Jessie Diggins