I remember one past Saturday morning so clearly. I had agreed to play beach volleyball with friends. The night before, I had 2 panic attacks and couldn’t sleep. When I prepared my morning breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, and banana, I could barely digest the meal. As I walked down to the beach, my legs throbbed and trembled. The sun seemed too bright, even though my eyesight felt dim. I was exhausted physically and mentally, but I was determined to play.
As we competed that morning, I felt my stomach drop several times as if a panic attack were about to happen again. I kept playing.
I dove for a ball, and immediately my vision went dark. When the world came into focus again, I saw stars everywhere. I kept playing.
I dove again, the wind was knocked out of me and I became nauseous. I kept playing.
My legs alternated from throbbing painfully to going completely numb. I kept playing.
I coughed and couldn’t breathe because of my indigestion. I kept playing.
My heart skipped beats, too weak to beat properly…and I kept playing.
I felt like I was dying. But at the same time I thought to myself: “if I die here, at least I’ll die happy, in a place where I feel joyous and passionate and free.” And then I began to mourn my mental and physical state of being, because my eating disorder was so strong, my relationship with exercise and nutrition was so unhealthy. Beach volleyball - the sport that is one of my biggest passions and joys in life - had become a weapon for my own destruction. I was beyond terrified.
This is how dangerous an eating disorder, in combination with athletics, can be.
I decided that morning that I needed treatment for my eating disorder immediately, and was hospitalized for my dangerously low heart rate the following week. I would not play volleyball again for months following that day.
Next thing I knew, I was hooked up to a heart rate monitor, had an IV in my arm, was required to eat over 4000 calories per day, had to lie in my bed for almost 24 hours per day, and wasn’t even allowed to walk around the hospital wing.
Tell a highly active and competitive athlete to remain bedridden and sedentary for an invisible injury, for an unspecified amount of time, and that athlete’s worst fears are realized.
Tell a girl with an eating disorder to consume over 4000 calories a day, and that girl’s worst fears are realized.
The ED voice in my head screamed at me about how worthless and pathetic I was for allowing myself to eat this amount of food, and that all my athletic prowess and performance would be ruined, all my “fitness” and talent would be lost, if I wholeheartedly committed to this recovery process. Yet somehow deep down I knew this was the right thing to do.
I chose to believe that there was something better on the other side of all of this. I chose to believe that I deserved more than the voice in my head telling me I was only worth something if I looked lean and “fit”. I chose to believe that there was more to life than restricting my food intake and exercising to deal with anxiety, depression, and distress. I desperately wanted freedom from the torment in my own mind, and I wanted to heal my weakened and starving body. I wanted my strong, athletic, healthy body back.
After months of eating disorder treatment and a slow, calculated integration of exercise back into my life, playing volleyball looks far different than the story mentioned above.
I haven’t experienced a panic attack since I started the recovery process.
My vision is clear and bright.
My body is 25-30 pounds heavier, but it is far stronger, functioning properly, and I no longer worry that I am putting myself in danger every time I play.
My mind is sharp, my court awareness has improved, and I can execute game strategy far more effectively than when my brain was under-fueled.
I can play for far longer without feeling depleted.
Most importantly, I am energized, joyous, and grateful. I have fallen in love with my sport again, for the pure joy it brings to my life and the wonderful community of volleyball players, coaches, and many other people that come with it.
Eating disorders are complicated, and each person's story is different. Athletics is NOT the only factor in the development of mine, but it was definitely a strong factor.
How did my athletics play a role in my eating disorder?
The control of my diet was borne out of an innocent attempt to improve my performance by fueling my body the “right” way. Unfortunately, I knew almost nothing about proper nutrition going into collegiate athletics, so when I was exposed to some restrictive eating habits through friends in college, I thought I might try them and see if my performance improved. Initially when I started restricting, my performance did improve. But chronic restriction became, and remains to be unsustainable; and it’s terrible for physical and mental health.
2. Reinforcement for weight loss
As soon as I started losing weight, it was reinforced by many people around me, especially in the athletic community. I was complimented for looking leaner, having more muscle definition, becoming quicker on the court. I got more attention from guys, and from other external influences. I felt more “confident” in the way my body looked.
3. The “Beach Volleyball Body-Type” – Societal/Athletic body ideals
Many girls who play beach volleyball are thin. Many of the girls I compared myself to growing up were thinner than me. Many of the girls on both my collegiate teams at UCSD and UCLA were thinner than me. Many of the athletes I saw in magazines and on billboards were lean, thin, and had visible abs. This led me to assume that because I looked different, there might have been something wrong with my body, or that I needed to change it to fit in, to be the best athlete. I didn’t know how to value my body in its healthy state, without trying to manipulate it into looking like the bodies of those around me.
4. Negative body-commentary
When I was at a healthy weight in college, I got called “fat”, “overweight”, and “out of shape” several times from a few different sources. These comments affected me more than I’d like to admit. Now I can look back and understand that these comments were far from true. But in the moment, they deeply hurt.
5. Body Dysmorphia:
When I looked in the mirror, often what I would see was not an accurate reflection of what my body looked like. I still struggle with this to this day. When others saw a thin, bony girl, I saw a girl that was far bigger.. When others saw a healthy, strong woman, I saw a woman that needed to lose weight. Body dysmorphia is rampant in athletics, and especially in groups of young girls.
In the past, my eating disorder convinced me that I should play because I needed to maintain a body-type, be as lean and “fit” as possible, and that this was the way to achieve success and acceptance from others. My ED also told me that without my athletic abilities, I was worth nothing.
Now, I am convinced that I should play because my sport brings me joy and fills my heart. Because it is a way to be surrounded by good people. Because my body and my mind feel amazing when they are adequately fueled. And I am learning to accept myself even without my sport, because my athletic prowess does not define my worth as a person. As athletes, we are still worthy of love, relationship, and acceptance even if we are not actively competing or playing.
I wish I could travel back in time and tell younger Kamila a few things. I can’t do that, so I’ll tell every young athlete a few things that I wish I knew:
1. All bodies are biologically built differently:
Each person’s body has a weight range in which it happily and healthily sits, when it functions most optimally. This looks different for each person! To some extent, it cannot be changed – it’s genetics. If my body is a little more thicccc than hers, that does not make mine any less healthy or less beautiful.
2. If you’re struggling with an ED, you are worthy of help and support:
Collegiate and professional athletics is a pressure-cooker. We all go through difficult and uncertain times. if you are dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression through disordered eating habits, it’s 100% okay to ask for help. I promise that you’re not alone, and that so many others struggle with the same things. If you’re struggling with restriction, binging, or purging…you’re not broken, you deserve freedom from your ED, and it does not define who you are.
3. Focus on how you feel rather than looks. Function > Form:
Do you feel energized when you compete and practice? Is your performance consistent? Is your mind clear and focused? Are you recovering well? These are all signs that you are adequately-fueled.
Do you run out of energy quickly? Is your performance wavering, or inconsistent? Are you constantly thinking about your last or next meal, or filled with anxiety about food? Are you sore all the time? These are all signs that you are not adequately-fueled.
4. There’s far more to life than one sport:
Life has far more to offer than just one sport. Life is FULL of amazing opportunities: friendships waiting to bloom, talents to be discovered, careers to build, social events to enjoy. Don’t let an eating disorder take away all the excitement and joy in life in pursuit of an "ideal" body, or as a means to control anxiety and depression. Easier said than done, but be open to the possibilities that life has far more to offer, you are worth far more than your performance in one sport. You are worthy of love and acceptance for who you are, just as you are.
As a collegiate athlete, athletics can mean everything. To me, beach volleyball did – I poured my whole heart and soul into my sport and my team. For better or worse, I let it define my worth and who I was for those years of my life. I made many sacrifices for my sport, but I made more sacrifices to perpetuate my eating disorder.
Today, athletics is still an enormous part of my life, and who I am. I enjoy being active and connecting with others through beach volleyball: it’s a talent that I absolutely love to use.
Today, I am determined not to let my ED take over beach volleyball, a part of my life that I love so much, and destroy me with it.
Today, I am determined to make a full recovery, and show that recovering from an eating disorder AND being a high-level athlete is possible.
Today, I want to value my body for its strength and resilience, and for its amazing abilities that have absolutely nothing to do with how it looks.
Today, I want to protect any younger athlete that I can from developing an eating disorder, to help those who need support, and to educate athletic communities about eating disorders and how to support each other.
Today, I want my struggle with this terrible eating disorder to serve a greater purpose. I wouldn’t wish an ED on my worst enemy, and I strive to give others hope that there something greater beyond life with an eating disorder. There is incredible freedom and joy that comes with recovery!
By the way… It’s National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) awareness week. February 25th-March 3rd. I hope that those who are struggling can find the courage to share - you are not alone and you are SO loved. I hope that if you know someone who is struggling, you might reach out and potentially change his or her life.
Thank you all again for reading!!!