How Olympian Jessie Diggins Found Freedom From An Eating Disorder
While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In mindbodygreen's new series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations.
As a kid growing up in Afton, Minnesota, I spent most of my time outdoors. I experimented with several sports, had a great experience at school, and was surrounded by amazing friends and a loving family. I had, basically, a perfect childhood—which is why it was hard to accept that I was struggling with my mental health.
My experience living with an eating disorder.
After trying my hand at several sports in high school, I officially became hooked on cross-country skiing. Over time, winning was no longer enough: I needed to win by a minute and beat most of the boys.
I was so dedicated that I ultimately chose to defer my college enrollment and pursue skiing as a career. This decision changed everything for me. The sport went from fun-yet-competitive to something I was staking my whole future on. I began questioning whether I "looked the part." Was my success as an endurance athlete dependent upon having an incredibly small, lean body?
A few weeks after graduating high school, I started engaging in symptoms and behaviors of bulimia. What started out as wanting to look a certain way for my sport, in hindsight, was clearly a coping mechanism for stress, pressure, nerves, and any other feeling I wanted to numb.
The bulimia seduced me into thinking it would help me manage those feelings. Over time, however, it convinced me I was nothing without it, that I had no willpower on my own, and that I would never be successful. Deeply entwined in this abusive relationship with my eating disorder, I lost sight of who I was as a kid—back when it was OK to feel all of my big, scary emotions and when I didn't care what my body looked like.
Seeking help & finding recovery.
Besides the fact that bulimia has some obvious outward symptoms of purging, my parents began to notice I was tired, I was moody, I was very clearly not myself anymore. I also had physical signs, like unhealthy skin, hair, and nails, bloodshot eyes, and other red flags
When they approached me about it, I was guilty, angry, and ashamed; my eating disorder was fighting for survival, so I lashed out. Despite my initial resistance, I eventually surrendered to my parents' concern.
The road to recovery looks different for everybody, and for me it looked like showing up to the Emily Program, an intensive outpatient treatment center, every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The group program made sense for me because it felt like being on a team. I was held accountable by the other girls seeking a similar goal of recovery, and my dietitians and therapists served as my coaches, guiding me through the healing process.
It was really important for me to realize this wasn't about me being weak, and it wasn't even about food—even though that was the outward manifestation of this mental illness—it was about control, wanting to be perfect, and wanting to avoid my feelings.
How I protect my mental health now.
Entering into the Olympics as a defending Gold medalist, there's all the pressure in the world on me—but I now have healthier ways of dealing with that pressure.
I meet with a sports psychologist every week to openly talk about my stressors and how I plan to manage them. In many ways I'm back to 14-year-old Jessie, who knew—without really having to think about it—there are other activities I can lean on to help me cope, such as meditation, going for a walk with a friend, journaling, or doing a puzzle. These, among other nondistracting tools, calm me so that I can process, rather than numb, my emotions.
Reminding myself that my worth as a person has nothing to do with my sport has also been liberating. Sharing this story and raising awareness, for example, does not hinge on me winning races or looking a certain way. There are many things I can do in life that make me feel proud of who I am that have absolutely nothing to do with how I look, how my body performs, or how fast I can race.
What I want people to know about eating disorders.
Sometimes people who very much need help get dismissed, even by primary care providers, because they don't "look" like they have an eating disorder. Well, eating disorders are invisible illnesses because they don't have a certain look. People of any age, gender orientation, race, height, weight, shape, and size could be suffering from one.
Most of the time changes in mood and energy, and a shifting of purpose away from the things that used to be important to you are signals—not just a change in appearance.
If you're hoping to support someone with an eating disorder.
Signs to look for: Isolation, changes in mood, irritable, withdrawn, worried, sad, anxious.
Approaching somebody with concerns about an eating disorder might be a challenging and sensitive process, but it could also save their life. If you're not sure what to say, start with their mental health, not their physical appearance. Here's an example:
Hey, I've noticed you haven't seemed like yourself lately; you seem sad or withdrawn. I'm concerned for your overall well-being. Would you be willing to talk to someone about this?
If you are struggling with an eating disorder.
There's no such thing as "sick enough." The sooner you can get professional help, the sooner you can turn things around and head toward recovery. Get help early: You are deserving of it.
And keep in mind, recovery is on a different timeline for everyone. You don't suddenly wake up with an eating disorder, and you can't just recover from one overnight. You may even relapse along the way, but do not give up! You're still ahead of where you were before you started seeking help.
As told to mindbodygreen's assistant managing editor, Abby Moore.
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A two-time Olympian, Jessie Diggins is the most decorated U.S. cross-country athlete in World Championship history: she is the first American woman to win the World Cup Distance title and the World Cup Overall Champion title, and she has earned thirty-five medals in World Cup competitions. In 2018, she won the Olympic Gold Medal and in 2021, she became the first American to win the prestigious Tour de Ski. Diggins is the author of her memoir Brave Enough.