FORMER paralympian Jessica Smith has revealed how she battled the eating disorder bulimia, which she contracted as a teenager at school in Grafton in 2000.
Ms Smith, who retired from competitive swimming in 2007, has released details of her 11-year struggle with the illness on her blog.
Ms Smith thought she hit “rock bottom” in 2007 when she spent six weeks in a rehabilitation clinic after her body finally caved in after years of mistreatment.
“It started around the age of 15 or 16, when I missed out on selection for the team for the 2000 Paralympics,” Ms Smith said.
“It’s a tough age for any person and it’s hard to pinpoint where it started.
“It was a combination of low self-esteem, awareness of my own appearance and pressure from coaches to maintain the level of fitness an elite athlete requires.”
In a blog entry, Ms Smith recalled that as a 14-year-old a coach told her she was carrying too much weight and was “heavy”.
“I don’t doubt that these comments were part of the cumulative reasons that led to me spiralling out of control,” she wrote.
Ms Smith likened eating disorders to a drug addiction, although unlike taking drugs, eating is an absolute necessity.
“Bulimia is always with me, even as I am learning to deal with it,” she said.
“Every time I look at food, I have a bulimic thought. Even now.
“I don’t think I will ever conquer it. It’s something I will have to manage for the rest of my life.”
One of the surprising characteristics of eating disorders is it gives its victims a perverse feeling of empowerment.
“When I started doing it as a teenager it was my secret. It was something I had control over,” she said.
“There were so many things I didn’t have control over. But I could have control over what went into my body.
“Ironically, it ended up having control over me.”
Combining an eating disorder with the training regime of an elite athlete led her to have a condition known as female athlete triad.
“My menstrual cycle stopped, my heart rate dropped, I was cold all the time, my teeth started to deteriorate, I was fatigued all the time, poor memory, restless, moody and irritable. All these symptoms are typical for someone suffering from an eating disorder,” Ms Smith wrote.
“They are also the symptoms of female athletes triad syndrome.”
It was two years into her recovery when Ms Smith really hit rock bottom.
“My doctor told me I might have gone through early menopause,” she said.
“When I thought at 25 I might not be able have a family, that was as low as I ever felt.
“But I was at the stage of my recovery when the news made my resolve to recover stronger.”
Allied to her recovery from bulimia is a burgeoning career as a motivational speaker and a rebirth as a competitive athlete in the sport of triathlon.
“Although I’m training as hard as ever, I’m 10kg heavier than I have ever been in my life,” Ms Smith said.
Ms Smith wants to tell her story to young people in country areas who are going through similar experiences.
“Most of the resources to deal with these are concentrated in the cities, but the statistics show eating disorders are spread evenly throughout the country,” she said.
“I would love to talk to young people at school in Grafton about the dangers of eating disorders.”
You can read her blog at www.jessicasmith.com.au
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