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ED Awareness Week Part 2: The Support Team

We’re back, with part two of eating disorders awareness week; the support team. Parents, teammates, coaches, teachers, friends…you have the most important job of all. We need you. We need your strength, your cheering, your compassion, your patience, your unconditional love. But you might need a few tools and tips along the way as well, and that’s why we’re here right now with Eating Disorder Awareness week! 

I feel so lucky to have such a strong, loving support team around me! Sometimes literally all around me. Thank you family. (photo by Modica/NordicFocus)

Again, I’d like to kick this post off with a Brave Enough book excerpt that will hopefully help to explain some of what is happening around an eating disorder. It can be nearly impossible to understand what is happening inside the brain of someone struggling with an ED. While it was happening to me, I certainly didn’t understand it, either. Hopefully talking about our experiences can help provide some insight, while recognizing that everyone’s experiences are a little bit different and unique to them. 

Eating disorders can be extremely confusing…so it’s time to get the thinking caps on and see how we can support one another! (photo by Reese Brown/SIA Images)

“I began to make breakthroughs. Besides my therapist meetings, my parents were actively trying to help me. My mom bought me the book Life without ED by Jenni Schaefer. This extremely well-written book is about how one woman declared independence from her eating disorder, and I highly recommend it for people struggling with an eating disorder and anyone close to them who wants to understand what they’re going through. 

Schaefer likens having an eating disorder to being in an abusive relationship, which is very much what it is. In many abusive relationships, the victims think they need the abuser. The victims are not willing to leave because they’re too scared to think about what it’s going to be like without the abuser. It’s a really good analogy because with an eating disorder the one thing you think you need the most is the one thing that hurts you the most. It might kill you someday. While you’re in the relationship, you don’t believe it’s really going to kill you. Because that only happens to other people. You don’t think it will ever happen to you. Your marriage, your relationship with this eating disorder, is fine. You think you have it all under control. Nothing bad is going to happen. 

I continued to have private sessions with a therapist outside of our group sessions, and this time I met with a new therapist, Angie Scott. I instantly clicked with her. She had this air of warm, caring calmness about her, and for the first time in private sessions, I truly believed that I could share everything I felt and thought. 

These intimate, raw conversations turned my life around. They helped me separate who I really was from who I was with an ED. Angie was very motherly, and her aura reminded me of one of my grandmas. She helped me gain the tools to cope with the stress of being a competitive athlete. Using symptoms was currently the only tool I had in my toolbox, but Angie helped me figure out that I had many other, less self-destructive ways of dealing with stress. Every week I practiced a new tool, such as taking my dog outside to play when I felt the urge to throw up, calling a friend, or watching a show that would distract me. I had no idea at the time, but the tools Angie gave me during those sessions at The Emily Program were ones that could help me throughout the rest of my life. Most important, Angie helped me figure out my struggles weren’t about the food and that it wasn’t all my fault. 

Before I met with Angie, I thought there was something wrong with me, that if I was just a better person, I wouldn’t be struggling with an eating disorder. As a result of this assumption, I felt shame and embarrassment that caused me to not act like myself. I was always such a truthful child that I never had a curfew. My parents just trusted me to use my judgment and come home at a reasonable hour. And I always did! I was so intense with my ski training, so focused on school and getting into university that I never considered staying out late, partying, or lying to my parents about anything. However, when my eating disorder came along, I found myself lying for the first time in my life. I became a different version of myself. 

My eating disorder took a strong hold, and from there on it did whatever it had to do to survive, like a parasite that’s taken over its host. Lie to my parents, saying I wasn’t hungry at dinner because I’d already eaten? No problem. Be angry with my parents for trying to talk to me about my eating disorder? Piece of cake (figuratively speaking). Cry irrationally and become overly emotional at the smallest things? Of course, that’s what happens when you’re trying to function on, shall we say, less than optimal nutrition. Whenever someone was trying to help me, my immediate instinct was to push the person away, even if a small corner of my brain was still crying out for help. The larger part of me that was controlled by my eating disorder was terrified of accepting help of any kind, so taking any steps whatsoever toward recovery was like dragging a ball and chain behind me. 

A shockingly accurate description of my brain with an eating disorder.

I’ve always been such an intense person, and that’s been an incredible thing for my ski career. My ability to focus in on one thing and stay on task until I am finished is simultaneously my best and worst character trait. And my eating disorder absolutely thrived on this intensity. 

“Genetics loads the gun,” Angie explained. “Environment pulls the trigger.” 

I learned through the experts at The Emily Program that bulimia is a mental disorder. Much the same as alcoholism, depression, or anxiety, it’s something you feel you cannot stop. It’s part of your genetic makeup, and you’re predisposed to suffer from that condition. If you’re someone who is predisposed and at risk for an eating disorder, it’s likely going to surface at some point. It might surface very early if you’re a super type A athlete in a really stressful situation, or it might surface much later in life. Maybe it’ll never surface, or maybe it surfaces quickly, and you get treatment and you get better fast. Or maybe it takes a long time. It’s different person to person and case to case. 

Everyone experiences situations differently, and handles stress in their own way! (cartoon by Liz Climo)

The environment I was in, one with a lot of stress, brought everything to a head. Let’s face it, high school is stressful for almost everyone. And the stress I was under with school, skiing, violin, AP tests, and applying for college is what pulled the trigger on my loaded gun and set me off into an eating disorder. It’s hard to explain how much this knowledge helped me let go of some of the intense guilt and shame I felt. All along I’d been thinking I had a behavior problem, that I just wasn’t strong enough to not use symptoms, that I was a bad kid. Learning that I hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve this helped me start to have compassion for myself. 

Stress was at the root of my bulimia. So, Angie set out to help me handle stress, because I had never known how to deal with it well. Now, I know that when I’m really stressed, I can call my mom and talk it over. I have a sports psychologist I can hash it over with. I can talk to my coach, Cork. I can talk to a teammate. I can talk to my boyfriend, Wade. I can go for a walk. I can do yoga. I can watch Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. There are a million tools in my toolbox now because Angie helped me put them there. I’ve also learned that if you just need to be sad, that’s OK too. You can be sad! You can be anxious. You can be worried about something. You can be nervous about a race. It’s human, and if I learned anything at The Emily Program, it’s that I want to let myself feel the whole range of incredible emotions we humans experience. 

I was always such a happy-go-lucky kid. When I was eighteen years old, a time when everything was going right for me, I felt that I had no right to be nervous or anxious. So, I didn’t know how to deal with stress and adversity. Angie changed that. She helped me figure out that life is about facing and channeling that stress. We would talk about everything in life and talk about symptoms and what my eating disorder was doing to me. She would break it all down to the smallest box to find the truth. 

Two weeks into my residency at The Emily Program, I felt that I was beginning to heal. I started to see things more clearly from the mental health and emotional side of things. But I still needed to conquer the next stage. 

I had to keep the food down. I still didn’t want to eat.”

Eating disorders can feel isolating and lonely, but you’re not the only one who is going through it. (photo by Modica/NordicFocus)

Sometimes, the person you care about who is suffering from an eating disorder might simply need someone to listen to them, but not necessarily try to understand or explain why their disorder doesn’t make sense. We know it doesn’t make sense. We know that we need to “just eat, damn it”. But what we really need is for someone to listen to what’s scaring us, what’s stressing us out, what our fears are, even if they don’t make sense at all. It’s ok to say “I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I care about you a lot, and I want to be here for you”. That support and unconditional love goes a long, long ways. 

I know Wade will be there to support me, love me and listen to me on the best days, the worst days, in the sun and in the rain. And that unconditional love is important to have, whether or not you are recovering from an eating disorder!

The good news is, you are not alone. You have resources! 

  • WithAll’s what to say campaign, “What to Say” equips youth coaches with ways in which to talk with their athletes about how to create healthy relationships with food and their bodies. It’s free, and it’s an extremely small time commitment that can save an athlete’s relationship with themselves. Check it out here: https://withall.org/
  • The NEDA website: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/ 
    • Under the header “Help and Support” there is a “find treatment” button to click that brings you to a map of the US, so you can find a treatment option nearest to you. 
    • Coaches, it’s a great idea to have names and numbers of licensed therapists and nutritionists on hand, so taking the time to explore this website and find options near you if your program, school or University doesn’t have a RDN (registered dietician nutritionist) or counselor on hand. 
  • In order to find treatment, the site https://www.findedhelp.com is pretty incredible. You can search by location and type of care, but also by your insurance provider. 
  • I also recommend the Emily Program, not because I’m an ambassador for them, but because their treatment program literally saved my life. They also have a lot of helpful resources on their website, so take some time to play around and learn more. https://emilyprogram.com/
  • The Work, Play, Love podcast with Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas. Everything they do is great, but specifically their podcast #63 “Mary Cain, Creating A Healthy Team Culture, Eating Disorders, Performance and Nutrition, Picking a Program”. Starting at 19 mins, Lauren and Jesse dive in depth on the eating disordered culture around running and what needs to happen in order to change it for the better. I thought their remarks were right on the button, and I recommend this as a great conversation starter for athletes on teams and as food for thought for coaches. 
  • The PeaceMeal podcast, by the Emily Program. They discuss topics around eating disorders, body image and how society plays into this, along with inspiration recovery stories. Their podcast Episode 2: Eating Disorders 101, can be especially helpful for anyone looking to understand a little bit more about what exactly these disorders are. 
  • ROAR by Stacy Sims. I loved this book, and I highly recommend it to female athletes and coaches of female athletes. The premise is that “women are not small men”, and should be given training and sports nutrition options that reflect a Woman’s unique physiology. 
  • Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer and Thom Rutledge. As mentioned in my book excerpt above, this book uses many different analogies and yes, even humor to help explain what it’s like to have an eating disorder, and offers many helpful tools and inspiration to fight against it. 
One of my favorite photos with Jason Cork; the time he ran my race skis to the start line in Drammen wearing a top hat, just to give me an extra smile before the race! Our coaches are great at finding ways to keep sport fun and take the pressure off, even though we’re racing at the highest level.

Coaches

Even if you foster the most incredible team culture with the best body positivity in the world, you may still have athletes with eating disorders. I was one of them, and I had the most caring coaches in the whole world. This is not your fault! But there are some things you can do to help them out, because we know you care about your athletes as humans as well as athletes. 

If you’re scared to talk about it with your team at the start of the season, bring in an expert and be present for the conversation. Let your athletes know that there are many resources available to them and let them know that they can come to you at any time. 

Meet with an RDN (registered dietician nutritionist) and have a chat with them about how to talk to athletes about food and fueling during training, and then you have someone to refer athletes to if you feel something is not quite right. 

Focus on process oriented goals, not outcome results. Make sure your athletes know that you care about their work ethic, their presence on the team, and their mental game more than what number is next to their name on the results page. 

I know that the finish line hugs will be there whether or not I podium in a race. Here, getting a hug from Head Coach Grover because he knew I’d left it all out on the course. (photo by Nordic Focus)

If you see an athlete who appears to be showing some red flags of an eating disorder, it’s ok to ask them about how things are going. Ask them if they’re doing ok emotionally, if they’re stressed, if they are doing ok outside of sport, since there is likely something triggering their eating disorder. Offer to give them resources (maybe your school has a RDN or counselor they can meet with), or point them in the direction of local eating disorder specialists. 

Lastly but perhaps most important: do not ever tell your athletes they are fat, to lose weight, or say that they are “too big” for their sport. I repeat; don’t do this. Ever. This can only cause harm. If your athlete comes to you asking about how to safely drop weight for their sport, refer them to a registered dietician nutritionist or helpful resources like the book ROAR by Stacey T. Simms (this is for women specifically), or sit down to have a conversation with your athlete if you feel knowledgeable and comfortable doing so; with awareness that a type-A athlete may take what you say about weight loss and run too far with it. 

Former teammate, great friend and now all-around amazing counselor and coach Holly Brooks giving me a big huge hug and dose of laughter when I really needed it. (photo from Garrott Kuzzy)

Parents

Your child’s eating disorder is not your fault. Just as it is not their fault, it is not yours, either. But there are some ways in which you can help your child build (or re-build) a healthy relationship to food and their body. 

When it comes to athletics and results…your most important job is to make sure your kids are happy, healthy and enjoying sport. Ask about how their day was or what they learned/worked on, not what result they got. Ask about their goals. Ask about what they learned today, or if practice was fun. Because sport, in the end, is supposed to be fun! 

Seeing my Mom right after I won time of day in a World Cup race. But she didn’t ask about my result, she was saying in this moment “I’m so proud of how you skied with guts!” (photo from Nordic Focus)

Think about the words you use to describe yourself or how you talk about your relationship with food in front of your kids. I am forever grateful that I never once heard my Mom say “these pants make me look fat” or “I’m being ‘bad’ and eating french fries today”. If she wanted the french fries, she enjoyed a normal portion of them, and as a child I saw that all foods could fit into a healthy life. My parents never made comments about my body or my shape, but I did receive comments from my Dad like “way to go! You were really hammering up that hill!” or my Mom saying “wow Jess, it looks like you’ve put a lot of hard work into your double pole technique, good job!”. It was never about how my body looked, only about what it could do. 

Of course, I still developed an eating disorder anyways because it was hard-wired into me, but without this guidance and examples of self-care and confidence from both my parents, I am sure my eating disorder would have sufficed much earlier and with more disastrous results. In short, treat yourself with the same kindness and love that you treat your child, because they’re always watching. I say this with the full and complete knowledge that I’m not a parent and have no clue how hard it is, and I’m sure I will make many mistakes down the road! But hopefully this will not be one of them, because it is so important to show with your actions and words that it’s ok to accept and love yourself the way you are. 

Dad helping Mackenzie out with her skis with my Mom and I in the background. I’m so grateful to them for keeping skiing about the joy, the people, the fun and the challenge, rather than the results.

Teammates

Look for ways to foster an open culture on your team where concerns can be shared and openly addressed. This goes beyond eating disorders! School is stressful. Life is stressful. Dating can be fun (but also, stressful). Talk to one another. Listen to one another. Have one another’s backs.

Finish line hugs with Sophie (photo from Nordic Focus)

What I love about our environment on the US women’s team is that I feel that no matter what the topic is, I can have a productive, safe and interesting conversation about it with my teammates. I know I won’t be judged, and I’ll have another viewpoint to consider. The fact that we can talk about body confidence and pressure from racing with one another takes away the strange influence something seems to hold when it’s made a taboo topic. By bringing it into the light, we take away some of its power. 

Hanging out and sharing giggles after a good hard training session with Julia Kern, Hannah Halvorsen and Hailey Swirbul.

Some ways to start this culture include but aren’t limited to:

  • I’ve had teams send around my Body Issues blog post as a conversation starter as well, which you’re welcome to use to get the conversation going on how you want to create a safe space to talk about the hard things.
  • Have everyone listen to Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas’ podcast (listed above) and discuss those topics covered as a group. 
  • Most important, get together as a team and brainstorm about the type of culture you want to create. What kind of things do you value as teammates? What does being a good teammate look like? Write down your “team culture document” so you all have a copy to look back on now and then. 
I feel supported by my teammates in all ways…even when they’re scraping me up off the snow! (photo by Nordic Focus)

In summary, although I desperately wish there was a “how-to” book for exactly how to support someone who is struggling through an eating disorder, it’s going to look different case to case and person to person. But in my experience, offering your unconditional love and support, compassion and being available to check in with your person is incredibly helpful. This is likely the roughest period of their life, which can take its toll upon you as well. Thank you for standing by them, and for being so strong! 

Eating Disorders Awareness week, and a Brave Enough book excerpt!

Eating Disorders awareness week is really important to me, and hopefully to you as well! Statistically, you know at least one person who has or who will suffer from one at some point in their lifetime. As with many challenges in our lives, the more we can learn, understand and find compassion, the more we can help one another through the rough patches.  Talking about eating disorders can help us take away the stigma and taboo so it’s easier to ask for help. (photo by Jesse Vaananen) I’d like to start with an excerpt from my upcoming book, Brave Enough. I was 19 years old, having just checked into the Emily Program for group sessions during my treatment. I was beginning to learn more about how my eating disorder was connected to my emotions, not necessarily to food. Depending on who you are, this will either sound familiar (you’re not…

Hitting the mark, missing it, and everything in between.

We’re starting our second Tour event of the season tomorrow! But before I get into race stories, a really fun announcement that I’d like to highlight…the registration for my book launch party is up! We’re hosting it at the Stillwater Area High School (so my English teachers can grade my final project) because they have enough space to fit everyone who wants to come! The signup link is below: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/book-launch-for-brave-enough-with-jessie-diggins-olympic-gold-medalist-and-hometown-hero-tickets-89882836985 I’ll be speaking, sharing a recap of the past year’s races, as well as some of the highlights from the book. We’ll cover the process of going from a pair of 3-pin binding skis at youth club to racing on the world’s biggest stage. We’ll talk about the ups and downs of ski racing, learning how to deal with pressure, being a woman in sport and what I hope people will learn about body image from my book.  When I first…

The Tour test of positivity

I didn’t mean to completely block the finish line by collapsing a mere two feet from it. When I finally dragged my tired and completely flooded body across the red line in the snow at the top of Alpe Cermis, my ski hit one of the pine boughs marking the finish, I tripped, and that was it. Once I was down I wouldn’t have been able to get up even if you were waving free tickets to Disneyland in front of my nose.  Awesome photo reposted from Ragnhild Haga…sorry I was right in your way at the finish, girl! I was so out of it that it took a good 30 seconds before I realized that the GPS pod in the back of my bib was digging into my spine. I treated it the same way I reacted to the spit I was sure I had all over my face:…

The TDS, explained in GIFs

Here we go, you guys. On the eve of the Tour de Ski 2019-20, I’ve put together a ridiculous interpretation comprehensive guide to life inside the Tour de Ski. It’s a wild ride, but it’s also my favorite event of the whole year because of it’s non-stop energy! When you’re not pumped about leaving Christmas behind. I had a really incredible week with my family over the Holiday break. It was our first Christmas together in 5 years, and although it flew by, we had an amazing time skiing together, sledding, baking cookies and just enjoying each other’s company. Family ski up Sertig valley! The tiniest of gingerbread houses! But now, it’s time for that thrill ride of a race series…the Tour! I’ll let the photos/gifs do most of the talking. Fuel is important (always), but especially when you have 7 races in 9 days. Eat up, kids. When you’re…

Race-day braids and Relay socks

This has been, without a doubt, the most exciting Period 1 of World Cup that I’ve ever had! It’s had it’s little ups and downs in the weeks between the races, but it’s been so much fun being part of a team that’s killing it both on the race course and off. And it’s hard to believe that we’ve been over here for a whole month already!  Keeping the Beito plant baby alive…even on a 16 hour travel day from Ruka to Lillehammer! (photo from Sophie) We arrived in Lillehammer after some delays and extra flights. Honestly, I was relieved that I’d managed to not kill my little plant that I’ve been traveling with since Beitostølen. Curiously enough, no eyebrows were raised in customs each time I marched through the airport clutching this bundle of little white flowers and green leaves…but the flight attendants seemed to really love it.  Psyched…

Bust out the Sparkles!

Before I get into the race tales, I have received a number of questions about my book, Brave Enough, so I thought I’d take the hottest of seconds to go through those. First of all, thank you all so much for the positive messages and excitement! After 18 months of hard work, I’m pretty over the moon about the book coming out for real on March 10th!  Leo the handsome doggy is excited about the book, it seems! A lot of you have asked about the best way to buy the book, and the answer is 1.) pre-order that cute little sucker! and 2.) if possible, order it from your local bookstore. The Indiebound and Barnes and Noble links on my website should take you right to where you can pre-order it. I’ve also gotten questions about how to get a signed copy, and the mnworldcup.com site has a tab…

I wrote a book!

I am so excited to finally “officially” share some really big news…I wrote a book, called Brave Enough! And my website got a much needed update! And…I’m currently in Beitostølen, Norway, skiing in a winter wonderland, so life is good all the way around.  My book cover! Our “morning commute” from the apartment to the wax truck in Beitostølen The website update seemed obvious, and a huge thanks to Doug DeBold and Zach McGill for their awesome work! But why would you write a book, Jessie? (I asked myself this many times, especially around the 200 hour mark of working on it). Weeks after the Olympics, I was approached about writing a book. I thought “eh, that’s cool…but seems like a lot of work. No way, dude.”  Then I did the ESPN body issue shoot, and decided to share more of my history with an eating disorder. And the weirdest…

My Barbie doll is jealous of my biceps.

I’ve only lost my cool in the gym once in my life. I was lifting weights early in the morning my senior year of high school, intent on being able to do 3 sets of pull-ups like I’d seen the senior athletes do at regional training camps. I was serious about training hard for cross country skiing, which meant that, like it or not, I was going to have to get serious about spending some time in the gym to get strong. I was getting ready to do my first set of pull-ups with some assistance from a rubber band when a football player walked up with his chest puffed out. “Move over, I’m about to do some REAL pull-ups.” he announced. “I need that bar.” I almost punched him in his smug, stupidly chiseled jaw. “These ARE real pull-ups.” I spat out. “You can just SIT AND WAIT!” I…

My Barbie doll is jealous of my biceps.

I’ve only lost my cool in the gym once in my life. I was lifting weights early in the morning my senior year of high school, intent on being able to do 3 sets of pull-ups like I’d seen the senior athletes do at regional training camps. I was serious about training hard for cross country skiing, which meant that, like it or not, I was going to have to get serious about spending some time in the gym to get strong. I was getting ready to do my first set of pull-ups with some assistance from a rubber band when a football player walked up with his chest puffed out. “Move over, I’m about to do some REAL pull-ups.” he announced. “I need that bar.” I almost punched him in his smug, stupidly chiseled jaw. “These ARE real pull-ups.” I spat out. “You can just SIT AND WAIT!” I…