When I decided to do the posts highlighting NEDA this week I knew that this post had to be one of the ones I did. Throughout the week I’ve collected a couple of messages and emails from rowers and coxswains who have experienced, are recovered, or are currently dealing with an eating disorder. One of the biggest things that I hope you guys get out of this post is to realize that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing these issues. You aren’t the only one. Other people have faced and overcome them and if they can, so can you.
These emails have made me sad, happy, angry, encouraged, frustrated, uncomfortable, and a whole range of other emotions. It’s saddening to read about this but at the same time I feel a sense of pride for everyone who says they’re recovered, are in recovery, or want to recover.
Thanks to everyone that reached out and was willing to share their experiences.
“I think it’s amazing that you’re doing this so here’s my story. In the summer before 6th grade (I’m in 9th grade now) I stopped eating. I went from my healthy 130lbs to under 90lbs at my worst. I wore baggy clothes and no one even noticed. When I told my best friend finally she just said, “oh yeah sometimes I won’t eat for like 6 hours if I’ve just had a big meal.” She didn’t get it and didn’t help. Then in 8th grade I discovered rowing. The sport pushed me to regain my health and now I’m recovered completely. Rowing saved me from everything and I couldn’t be more appreciative. But I know my story is a lot better than a lot of people’s and I owe it all to the sport that gave me it all. Thanks again so much for doing this.”
“As a 5’7” rower who isn’t lightweight I felt a lot of pressure to drop weight from my coaches and teammates. “You either need to start eating less or throwing up more.” That’s what my COACH told me to do. Needless to say I have never been more disgusted in my entire life. The saddest part is that at the time, I listened. My coach finally got the message when I passed out just before weighing in. Luckily I’m now being coached under some more level headed people and am happily (and healthily) 10lbs over.”
“I used to row and I was always the smallest on my team (who didn’t race lightweight). My coach used to always tell me to eat heaps to try to gain weight to keep up with the other girls because most of them were 40lbs heavier than me. Now I’ve stopped but I keep over eating and I know I am and it disgusts me and I want to make myself throw up to get rid of the food but that disgusts me too because I should be stronger than that but I’m not. Sorry for telling you all this, I just needed to say it out loud to somebody.”
“I’ve been reading all your posts on eating disorders awareness and I want to tell you about my dick of a coach. Last season we only had one coxswain for 18 rowers so he made this girl who was 60kg (about 130lb I think) cox cause she was the lightest novice and for the first five months he was fine with it. Then about 3 weeks before the biggest regatta of the season for the novices he told her that she was too heavy as another girl (who liked to stir a lot) had been saying that it was the coxswain’s fault that they had been losing because she was overweight (it wasn’t, the girls were just lazy and didn’t have a good attitude). The coach then told the coxswain that she had to lose 10kg (about 20lb) in 3 weeks so she was pretty much starving herself and running in track pants and jerseys every day in an effort to lose weight which didn’t work because she was of a very athletic build due to being a swimmer before and would have struggled to lose weight.
There is also another girl who had to cox for similar reasons the season before that and got similar treatment from the coach but he stopped her from coxing about 2 months before the big regattas because she was “too heavy”. She transferred to rowing where she struggled due to being 6 months behind the other novices in terms of experience. About 3 months into the next season her parents pulled her out of rowing due to the fact that she had developed anorexia and they didn’t think that rowing would be healthy for her. Luckily she is alright now.”
“I rowed for three years before coxing and when I started I was about 116lbs, no muscle, and still growing. By the end of the spring season of my freshman year of high school I was 126lbs and an inch taller. I grew a few more inches, gained some weight, and by my senior year was about 140lbs. When an injury worsened and made me unable to row, I asked to cox. To make weight for my freshman year of college I started eating a meal a day, sometimes a meal every other day. I averaged out eating 400 calories a day. I lost a lot of weight but I think the stress on my body actually prevented me from losing some of the weight I could’ve lost.
It’s sad – part of me only regrets that diet because I could’ve lost more weight if I hadn’t stressed out, not because I acknowledge that it was unhealthy for me. It’s twisted. Even today, I struggle to put enough food on my plate at school and it’s a major lose lose situation: I hate myself if I put enough food on my plate because I think I’m going to gain weight and I hate myself if I don’t put enough because I’m falling back into old habits. Long story short: eating disorders suck. People who encourage unhealthy weight loss habits don’t know what rabbit hole they’re pushing someone into. And once you develop one, I’m pretty sure it will always be with you in one capacity or another.”
“I am a lightweight rower, and, at 5’6”, quite happily have a maintenance weight of around 125lbs. I also am recovering from bulimia. My disordered eating started a few years before rowing, and it was very on and off. It started as throwing up my meals, and varied from that, to starving, to over-exercising, and everything in between. When I got into rowing, and learned about weight categories, I saw no reason to try and recover when simply throwing up was a ‘convenient’ (and soon my main) way of maintaining my weight. Despite believing this, my weight has since ranged from 87lbs to 139lbs!
I started to recover when I was weighed (90.4 lbs) after fainting during training. I was dehydrated, starving, and probably smelled of ketones. My coach took me into his office and had a long talk, because a BMI of <15 is not on, no matter who you are. He knew a bit about EDs, and he saw how mine was destroying my rowing, not to mention my health and body. He offered to help, and I accepted. I won’t pretend it was easy, but I‘m so glad I did!
He started to carefully (but not obsessively) monitor my food, making sure I kept at least a protein shake or some small meal, and moved on from there. He’s not qualified, so he also made me get help from professionals, although personally I hated them. It was important I went, but the real help came from my coach and my team. I know the coach/ therapist situation is NOT the norm, but it works for us!
I‘m happy to say that today I am (mostly) recovered. Yes, the thoughts are there, and probably always will be. Do I slip up sometimes still? Yes. But my coach and I always keep an eye on my weight. If it changes madly, we discuss options. Thanks to my collapsing/ catastrophe and being very open with the crew (who were amazingly supportive, and I love then for that), a male openweight also came forward with disordered eating, and now he’s doing really well with recovery. We are proudly an ED-free crew, and we all know each other well enough that we could come and chat if there was ever a problem, and not just ED related.
EDs have no business ruining anyone’s life, so if you’re ever in doubt, talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a therapist. Catch your club barman, coxswain, partner, librarian, anyone you can trust. You won’t regret it. I promise.”
“I‘m a rower struggling with an ED right now and I thought I‘d share my story. It seems kind of silly to me, to already have this sort of issue, since I‘ve only completed one season. But the problem with rowing is that it consumes your life. You can’t get away from it so when trouble arises, you’re stuck with it.
For me the concept of being a “lightweight” really threw me off. When I joined the team I kept seeing all these varsity girls at my highly competitive club do weigh ins, we had this tradition of really fast lightweights going to D1 schools and all of a sudden I got this idea in my head that that is the only way I‘m going to get into a school. Currently, I am 124 lbs and 5’9″. The average 5’9″ girl on my team is at least 140.
I‘ve always been very tall and very skinny. When I joined my team, I gained 5 pounds, and that was fairly new for me, considering I‘ve never really put on weight quickly.That added weight and the new stimuli, the new idea of lightweight and weight classes and weight efficiency, it all scared me, I suppose. I look in the mirror and I hate what I see. I want my muscles more defined, I want my hard work to show, but I still want to be the twiggy little girl I was. But I want to be strong.
The wonderful part of rowing is that even with all the pressure of weight restrictions and good times for heavies or moving up a boat, even with all of that, you still see the beauty of the human body. I joined rowing because I loved how our US Women’s 8+ moved, how they were able to make it look so graceful but at the same time, holy crap, their muscles. The sport has made me love what my body can do, with the weight or without it. And so I want to keep fighting, I want to eat healthy, get good times, feel GOOD about myself, just because I‘m a goddamn rower and I put in so much effort that I deserve as much from myself.
This is really long winded, but my point is that it’s scary, the idea that if you play with the heavies, you need to get times like them, but if you ‘re a lightweight, you need to keep it down. It’s hard to find a good weight and a good time and everything, it torments me all the time, it’s terrifying, it hurts, half the time I hate my body, half the time I hate myself for hating my body.”
“It’s been almost a year since I first started my battle with my eating disorder. It’s tough to be an athlete and have one. I used to run on the treadmill to prepare for soccer season. When I got down to 107 lbs my mom stopped me. She wouldn’t let me leave the house because it was likely I would be going to the gym and on an empty stomach.
My eating disorder has brought me to my knees, especially today. Today was the start of soccer tryouts. Because I purge constantly my lungs tend to act up. In the middle of a drill it happened today. I lack just about every vitamin and mineral that I need. My back does a weird twitch from it. It’s hard to control my movements with spasms running about. Not only has my eating disorder affected my breathing, but it’s also affected my muscles. It’s true when people say you lose muscle from starving. I was never strong to begin with, but it was hard for me to run today; harder than it should have been. My bones have also lost some density and find it difficult to support myself and kick a ball far.
Playing a game on an empty stomach because you just can’t bring yourself to eat is dangerous. Feeling light-headed and faint isn’t something I wanted. This isn’t how I imagined my life to be, which is why I am where I am. I’m not sure if I want recovery. All I know is that I can’t keep this up forever. Thankfully, I’ve gotten a healthy amount of calories today. Maybe this year I’ll recover. I hope so.”
“I saw your post on EDs and lightweights, and I have a little bit of input. I had developed an ED prior to becoming a rower. I swam for several years, and putting a muscular girl into a swim suit does a number on your self esteem. So when I switched to rowing, and I learned about lightweights, I thought about trying to starve myself that much more just to get to 130. That would have killed me. I‘m 5″8, and I should be about 160 lbs, but I‘m 150 because I still have a habit of restricting. So I thought about trying to hit the light weight mark, but after my first practice with restrictions, I nearly passed out. I knew I couldn’t do it. And staying healthy was more important to me than being a lightweight.
In a weird way, rowing actually helped my ED. I couldn’t restrict my intake like I had done while I was swimming. Rowing took more out of me than I had anticipated, and I ended up dropping weight without even trying. So I learned that I was allowed to eat, even if I wasn’t one of the lightest girls on the team.”
“I was in pain for a long time. As is the case in anyone with an eating disorder, or anyone with a mental disorder in general. I was quite underweight – never to the point that I needed to go to the hospital, but I was definitely hurting my body. I didn’t get my period anymore, and I regularly had trouble with my blood glucose levels. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t concentrate, and I couldn’t remember much. How I managed to get a 3.6 GPA by the time I graduated, bearing in my I had been struggling with this for 2/3 of my college years, is still a miracle to me. But I did it, and after an extremely stressful last semester where my ED was the worst of all time, I started feeling peaceful. I don’t know where it came from, but I had ended another chapter of my life, I had achieved my academic goals and had another adventure in front of me. The adventure being moving to another country to go to graduate school. I associated my college town with my disorder, and I associated my hometown with stress and family problems, so I wanted to get away. But I didn’t want to taint my experience abroad with this stupid disorder, I was done with it, I didn’t want it in my life any longer.
There wasn’t a moment where it all clicked. Sometimes you hear that from people, ED survivors, that they went out and did something and suddenly it clicked. Or they went to therapy and had an epiphany. It didn’t work like that for me. I didn’t go to therapy. I didn’t go to the doctor. I wasn’t even diagnosed. As far as I know, no one knew except for the people I told. But I wanted to get better. I started eating more regularly and I felt better. My body image was still very distorted and it was a struggle not to look in the mirror and not to stand on the scale, but at a certain point it became normal not to. It sounds so much easier when I write it down like this, but I promise to anyone who is reading this: it was the fucking hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It is harder than a 2k. It is harder than a 5k, 6k, 10k, power hour, ergathon, anything. But you distract yourself. You find things that make you feel good. Whether that’s a song, or a bath, or knitting, or drawing – anything. YOU KEEP GOING, until it becomes normal.
I was looking at my graduate university’s website and after being sedentary for quite a long time (aside from the occasional yoga and run a bit earlier in my disorder), I wanted to do some exercise. I didn’t know what, until I found information about rowing. I was scared at first, because rowers tend to look quite buff, but I read up on it and I got excited. I watched youtube videos and I got excited. I wanted that connection with people, after being alone in my disorder for so long. At first I thought I would cox, because I was still quite small, but on the open day at the beginning of the academic year I decided I was gonna row. I realised I was only this small because I hadn’t been taking care of myself, and if I would eat normally and work out normally like any other person, I would be too big for coxing, as I am quite tall. I was still scared of the weight gain, but I hadn’t been weighing myself for a long time, and I finally started wanting something more than I wanted to be thin. I wanted to be fast and strong more than I wanted to be thin. I started training with the novices, and although I was obviously out of shape, I caught on quickly and made first novice boat in November. That’s when I decided I was more interested in what my body could do than what it looked like.
It was a struggle, especially during winter training where you pack on the pounds (of muscle, but still) but I got through it. I realised that in order to be a fast rower, you need the calories. You need the food. And if that sometimes means that you have to force yourself to eat, and force yourself to overeat to the point of being uncomfortable every so often, then so be it. I remember vividly the first time I realised that my thighs were touching once more – it’s a silly little thing but for someone with an ED it’s important. It shows your ‘status’. Losing your ‘status’ means failing and failure isn’t fun for anyone. The only way I got over that was by ignoring it. Ignoring it, doing other things, ignoring it some more until it no longer matters. Until you know longer care. Make it angry. Show it who’s boss. I gained the weight and leaped over the lightweight limit over Christmas break, and leaned back down to my normal, pre-ED weight a month and a half later, just within the lightweight zone. But I’m beating PB after PB. I’m winning medals. I’m stronger, and faster, and more determined to move the boat to the finish line as fast as I can, than I ever was to be skinny.”