First grade was a big year for me.
I went to a new school, began playing soccer, and fell in love with the sport immediately. But the rest of my life felt like complete chaos, and so I clung to soccer.
By third grade, I started developing an eating disorder. I would show up to soccer practice early to sprint around the field wildly, certain that constant motion was somehow vital to my existence. At lunch, I would often pick at my food, and I began refusing to eat meat. I told my parents that I was a vegetarian, and their resistance to the idea only made me want to do it more.
By fifth grade I was playing five sports: soccer, basketball, track, dance, and karate. I loved the constant activity, but soccer still had my heart. There was something so liberating about running with the ball at my feet and getting stuck into hard tackles that I didn’t get from my other sports. Even still, I begged my parents to let me do gymnastics and volleyball, pleaded with them that I just wasn’t doing enough.
For some odd reason, they did not agree.
Due to my hectic schedule, I suffered my first overuse injury at just ten years old- a trend that would continue with few breaks for the next decade. I had to take time off from my sports to heal, but it didn’t quite work because I didn’t understand what time off really meant. I had no concept of what sitting still really was. In sixth grade, I established what I refer to as an exercise quota, the self-imposed amount of exercise that I was required to meet each week. By seventh grade, I was waking up every day at six thirty in the morning to run three miles before school, and I was playing an hour of soccer on my own time after soccer practice each afternoon. I suppose this is when I realized that my behaviors weren’t normal, because most twelve-year-old kids have very different priorities…
However, at a very young age I had settled on being a sports cliché: a Division One scholarship would be my ticket out of my broken home. This was a tricky concept though, because no one really knew that I was growing up in a broken home. My parents worked hard to hide it behind the picket white fence, large salaries, and my own sport accolades. The facade was tightly constructed, and although it masked the pain it did not completely erase it.
My mother was verbally and emotionally abusive. She often told me that she hated me, pointed out the many ways that she was better than me and reminded me that she couldn’t wait until I moved out of the house. My dad watched this happen and said nothing. Even worse than his silence, he started sexually abusing me in secret when I was six years old. Nobody had any idea, and it didn’t stop until I was twelve. I have no idea what caused it to stop, and while I am incredibly grateful that it eventually ended, I was already deeply traumatized and too ashamed to tell anyone. Somehow, I had convinced myself that it was my fault, and I had deserved it, so I kept my mouth shut and continued pursuing perfection.
Each year, more rules were added, more miles needed to be run, more steps had to be walked. All of the sudden, I was in high school, and I had to start lifting at the gym. My body was changing and I hated it, and so calories were added to the meticulous logs. As a freshman in high school, I was deeply entrenched in my eating disorder and yet somehow, at the same time, I was completely unaware of it. At the team dinners we had for soccer twice a week, I did ridiculous things to get out of eating. I made up a cheese allergy, and then I jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon so I could get out of eating bread and pasta because I was terrified of carbs.
When I was fifteen I developed orthorexia, meaning that I had an unhealthy obsession with trying to be as healthy as possible. The foods that I allowed myself to eat were severely limited, I would stay late at practice to run extra so that I could be the most fit player, I would prioritize practicing soccer on my own time over doing homework (and then cry about not having time to do homework late at night), and I pretended that everything was fine. My six pack and label of vegan athlete made me feel superior to everyone, but I was only able to maintain my facade as the ultra-healthy vegan athlete for a year or so before my body broke down. The lack of nutrients and variety caused me to start bingeing in secret, which brought on a great deal of shame. Each time I binged I promised myself that it would be the last. It never was. I was still desperately trying to be perfect, but in truth, I was falling apart.
Like most things related to my eating disorder, the bingeing only got worse over time, as did the compensatory behaviors. I would run, and run and then run some more to make up for the great sin of indulgence, and then I would make a shiny new plan of restriction.
This continued until college, where, to my delight, my dream of being a Division One athlete panned out. I went to The University of Northern Colorado, and initially loved the atmosphere and my new team, but it didn’t take long for it to turn sour. Not a single day passed without me having flashbacks of the abuse that I suffered as a child. Unsure of how to handle myself, I simply fell deeper into my eating disorder. My eating disorder and PTSD effectively ruined my time at UNC. I was supposed to be living my dream, surrounded by amazing girls and living independently, but I was spending all of my free time counting calories and fantasizing about how I would kill myself to distract from the terrible flashbacks.
For a year, I ate a salad for lunch and dinner every day and exercised non-stop. My teammates recognized my odd behaviors, and made comments about how I was probably addicted to exercise, told me to stop running so much, and made fun of me for only eating lettuce. These comments fueled me in a terribly warped way. In the spring of my freshman year, I strained my left hip flexor badly and refused to take any time off. Every day, I ran through the pain, convinced that I was only making myself tougher. I also lost my ability to sleep; most nights, I was clocking in somewhere between two to four hours, and my struggles with mental health became more obvious to those around me.
Things kept spiraling out of control, until my entire life was revolving around my eating disorder, and I finally admitted to myself that I had a problem. I was bingeing in secret at least once a week, and restricting between those binges. I confided in my best friend and my sisters, and assured them that I would get help. I intended to get help, I really did. But then the thought of stopping became too overwhelming, and I “accidentally” learned a new trick. I finally mastered purging.
I started self-harming, drinking six cups of coffee a day, refusing to go a single day without running, I limited my calories to a thousand each day (well under what any adult needs, let alone an athlete), and if I ever exceeded that number, I stuck my finger down my throat until I was seeing stars. I became incredibly suicidal, and decided to transfer schools; it was obvious that UNC was not the soccer program for me. I didn’t make the travel rosters, and on weekends that my roommate left, I would spend Friday and Saturday bingeing and purging up to six times a day, and running whenever I could muster up enough energy. On Sundays, I wouldn’t eat; I would just drink some green juice and go for walks around campus because I was usually too dizzy to actually run at that point. I knew if things didn’t change, I would kill myself.
I was desperate for a change of scenery, a new team and a chance to start over, and I think I also wanted a chance to run away from myself. I settled on Cal State University, San Bernardino, and prayed that I would find a new Lindsay in California. But it turns out the old adage is true; everywhere you go, there you are. My eating disorder and suicidality followed me to California and I was at my breaking point. Seemingly out of options, I scheduled an assessment with an eating disorder treatment center. I felt confident that I would not actually qualify for treatment; surely, my eating disorder was not that bad.
When I went in for my assessment, I was floored when the therapist that I met with told me that she recommended me for the Partial Hospitalization Program as soon as possible. It had only been six months since I had come to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder, so for someone to validate that it was actually quite serious and worthy of treatment seemed ludicrous. Despite my fears, I agreed to begin treatment. I was scared shitless, and my life felt as though it had been turned upside down, but I started making some big changes. I confronted my dad about the abuse and he admitted to it. I told my mom and sisters and they were understandably shocked and devastated. I committed to getting healthy, challenged my veganism, working through my trauma, and learning how to be more powerful than my eating disorder.
I spent four months at the treatment center, and when I graduated, I was in a healthier place than I had ever been in my entire life. I was exercising in moderation, following a meal plan consistently, and I was actually happy to be alive again. I was not cured from my eating disorder, because eating disorders are not that simple- you cannot just undo twelve years worth of torment and damage in four short months. But I was better, I was happier, and I was working to be healthy every day.
Life was honestly really good until my beloved dog, Olive, was attacked by three other dogs and killed just three months after I left treatment. When she died, a piece of me died with her, and suddenly I could not think of a single reason why eating was important. I started self harming again, began substituting food with coffee and diet soda, and started abusing my medication so that I could sleep to numb out the pain. When I couldn’t handle the starvation anymore, I started bingeing again; copious amounts of food that came up with splatters of blood. I was always dizzy, and I nearly passed out a few times, but I didn’t actually care. In my mind nothing mattered- all I wanted to do was die. I wrote a suicide note, and I planned my demise.
It was now November, two days before my twenty-first birthday, and I was certain that my life was completely devoid of meaning, and that there was no point in continuing on. I called my sister so that her voice would be the last one I heard, but a funny thing happened instead. When she picked up the phone, I heard my hollow voice ask, “Kayla, what would you do if I died?” I wanted to make sure that she would be okay after I was gone. She choked on her words, explaining to me that she could not imagine a world without me in it.
Her response saved my life; the day that I nearly killed myself ended up being the day that I decided to save myself. I called the treatment center, told them I had relapsed and needed another assessment. The next week I was back in treatment, still suicidal, depressed, anxious, and highly attached to my eating disorder. As I write this, I am still in treatment, because I refuse to let this illness be the end of my story. For thirteen years, I have had an eating disorder. I have struggled with bulimia, orthorexia, OCD, PTSD, depression, anxiety, self harm, and suicidality. These things are a part of my story, but they do not define who I am.
I am determined to keep going because I am certain that there is more out there for me. I’ve fallen in love with the soccer program at CSUSB. Going to practice every day reminds me why recovery is worth it. It means the world to me that amidst all the chaos of my life I have been able to continue playing the sport I love. When I’m at practice, my eating disorder does not exist, and that is a beautiful thing. For those two hours, I do not care about calories or body fat percentage or any trivial things like that. When I’m with the team, I’m focused on being the best version of myself, for me and for them, simple as that.
To anyone else going through a similar battle; I want you to know that you are not alone, and that there is hope. Just because you are an athlete that does not mean that you have to be brave and strong all the time, it is okay to be vulnerable and to ask for help. To my younger self and anyone else who needs to hear this message; your struggles are not a sign of weakness, and you are absolutely worthy of love and support.