Written by Kate Mroz
“Be the person you needed when you were younger”- Ayesha Siddiqui
I cannot think of a better quote to explain the reasons why I volunteer with ANAD, and why, this year, I am running the Boston Marathon to raise money for ANAD.
Second only to opioid overdose, eating disorders are the most deadly mental illness. Yet, according to a recent report from the National Institute of Mental Health, across all psychiatric conditions, funding for eating disorders was the most discrepant from the burden of illness they represent. Treatment costs are also extremely high, and insurance companies often refuse to pay for adequate care. When I was a teenager, my parents were told to sneak into my bedroom at night to make sure I was breathing. Yet, it took a months-long fight with insurance to get a short hospital stay covered. As an ANAD volunteer, I constantly talk to people who desperately need therapy, nutritional counseling, or enrollment in a treatment program but continue to go without due to both a shortage of mental health care, and exorbitant costs.
Looking back, as inadequate as the care I received may have been, I was fortunate. As someone with thin, white, cisgender privilege, I at least was given a diagnosis and my parents’ concerns about my eating habits were taken seriously. Clinicians are far more likely to diagnose an eating disorder in a white patient than a Hispanic or black patient, even when displaying the exact same symptoms. Older adults, people in larger bodies, non-cisgender persons, and men are also less likely to receive a diagnosis or proper care. What I love about ANAD is their commitment to providing care for those who have the hardest time accessing it. ANAD has support groups catered specifically for LGBTQ+, BIPOC, older adults, teenagers, and people in larger bodies in recognition that sadly, a lot of traditional groups and treatment programs may not honor a person’s cultural or sexual identity, or unique experience.
I wish I could say that I was always this outspoken. For most of the past eighteen years, I hid my eating disorder history as much as possible. In college, I believed that I had to work extra hard and get perfect grades, lest anyone think my struggles made me less intelligent or competent. I feared disclosure of my past could prevent me from advancing in academia. Whatever I did, even after I was “recovered” (I put that in quotes because recovery means different things to different people, and is not, in my opinion, a term with an objective definition), I felt like I was constantly trying to prove to people around me that I was “totally fine.” Once no longer forced to by my parents, I refused to go to therapy. I had this incredible desire to help others with eating disorders, yet my inability to admit my own struggles prevented me from fulling giving of myself to the cause. I always felt like I was irreparably damaged somehow.
There was also another issue. Being an athlete was a big part of my identity, and I had been taught that recovery from an eating disorder and sports were incompatible. I remember being told by treatment professionals when I wanted to run, “well, of course, if you were going to the Olympics or something, we’d let you do it, but…” First of all, if sports are putting someone in extreme danger, they should not be doing them. People’s lives are worth more than even the Olympics. Second, an athlete with an eating disorder does often need to take extra precautions to maintain recovery. However, EVERYONE deserves to be able to access that extra care so they can ENJOY their sport if it something that brings them joy. There is no required pace for having a therapist or a sports dietitian.
As an adult, I would discover, during a difficult time, that finding a dietitian and therapist was harder than getting into a PhD program, and this was for someone with insurance living in Boston. This is even more reason why ANAD’s free services are so important.
I was fortunate to eventually find an amazing sports dietitian who was extremely compassionate, but who also would not take any crap from me. She told me to focus on my performance, not my weight. Although resistant at first, I eventually allowed myself to trust her and I have not stepped on a scale since. I started eating what she told me to for workouts and races. It would take a ton of mental courage to do it, but then I would feel so much better not getting hungry and losing steam in the middle of a long run, or having the energy to power through to finish line. She was the first person who showed me that it was possible for me to fight against my eating disorder while fighting for my race goals.
I also eventually got off of a waiting list and found a therapist, a therapist who herself struggled with anorexia and has been recovered for many years. At first, in all honesty, this made me skeptical. Weren’t people with eating disorders irreparably damaged somehow and limited in what they could do? After all, that is what I believed about myself.
However, with nothing to lose, I decided to give her a chance. A few months later, I remember telling my mother on the phone, “I can just be totally honest with her and I do not feel like she is judging me. It’s amazing.” My mother replied, “well, wouldn’t that make sense since she’s been there herself?” Knowing that someone who once struggled with an eating disorder has brought healing not only to me, but to countless others, made me realize that perhaps, I can accomplish amazing things as someone who “has been there.” That is another thing I love about ANAD. ANAD’s support groups allow people to talk to others who “have been there,” who might understand in a way that even the most well-meaning family and friends cannot.
One day in therapy, I said that I had a dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon again, and running to raise money and awareness about eating disorders. I then laughed after I said it. My therapist did not.
On October 10, 2021, I ran the Chicago Marathon and qualified for Boston. It was a dream come true.
Training and maintaining my recovery has not always been easy. I have had to end relationships with people who were angry when I refused to participate in diet programs or calorie-burning challenges with them. When fueling, I sometimes have to fight voices that tell me to skip aid stations or that I can get away with less (my dietitian and I actually have some pretty hilarious phrases for doing that!) I do not step on the scale, and I try to move away from conversations about weight when I hear or see them. When a person has an eating disorder, things that might seem like ordinary endeavors are actually huge accomplishments: following a meal plan, going out to dinner, eating a particular food, throwing away clothes that no longer fit, asking for help. I love leading support groups and telling people the words I often longed for when I was a teenager in recovery, “you are strong, I am proud of you.”
I believe it’s important to normalize conversations about mental health and taking steps to protect it. It should be no different than a person with an injury history going to regular physical therapy, or a person who over-pronates only wearing certain types of shoes. If people can adjust their paces to run with a friend with less experience, or choose a course with no hills to run with a friend recovering from Achilles tendonitis, people can also refrain from diet talk to run with a friend recovering from an eating disorder. Asking coaches, friends, and teammates to help hold you accountable for fueling and taking rest days is a sign of strength, not weakness.
A little over a year ago, with the help of three friends, I started the Facebook group Athletes Against Diet Culture. In Athletes Against Diet Culture, we believe that athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and we define “athlete” as anyone who enjoys intentionally moving their body in some way or engaging in sport. The group is intended to be a safe space from diet promotions, food shaming, weight loss advice, before/after photos, and other triggering content that is often found in sports communities. Some people in the group are in recovery/recovered from an eating disorder, or coming back to their sport after needing take time off for recovery. Some, however, do not have a history of an eating disorder but appreciate a diet-free space to talk about their sport or training. After all, it is so much more fun talking about the beautiful trails people have hiked on, the fun places people have raced, and the dreams people have, rather than calories or BMI. It is also great to have a space for people to ask questions and receive advice on things that might be hard to ask in other sports groups, such as how to deal with triggering diet talk during the holidays, or how to give up the scale for good.
Through ANAD and Athletes Against Diet Culture, I have been fortunate to encounter so many brave people (anyone in recovery is brave, regardless of how long they have been there, or how many setbacks they have had). I do not want them, or anyone, to have to feel as alone as I once did.
People sometimes ask me, “What if [gasp] your students were to Google you and find out?” At first, I would gasp too but then I thought about it, and said, “What would be the worst that could happen? They would find out I’m human?” I love teaching, and I learn so much from my students every year. I would never want any of them to have to feel ashamed for struggling with their mental health.
I am so proud to be an ANAD volunteer and I am thrilled to be running the Boston Marathon for ANAD. So far, I have received many generous donations, for which I am very grateful. I hope to receive many more. However, more importantly, I hope this fundraiser encourages continued conversations on weight stigma, mental health stigma, the dangers of diet culture, and the need for accessible mental health care. As the ANAD sticker on my computer says, “your life is worth fighting for” and EVERYONE deserves to be treated as such.