Happy day to you, Strong Runner Chicks! Today is the first part in a series centered around how to help a teammate or a friend who may have an eating or mental health disorder. Some wonderful women who have struggled personally with an eating disorder have been gracious enough to share their advice and personal experiences. The insight these women provide is extremely valuable. I hope this series can help you if you are a friend who is unsure how to help a teammate, or if you are someone who may be battling a disorder and may need help discovering how to seek a friend.
What is something that someone did for you that helped you the most?
Adrienne Shirk, Millersville University Alum & Volunteer Coach
Proudest Moments: When someone says I have helped or encouraged them in a small way & the first time I won a 5k
There were two friends who helped me the most regarding my eating disorder. The first was my friend, high school teammate, & training partner Jana. We trained all summer together and one night we ran to our coach’s house (something we did often, as all three of us lived closeby to each other). We all sat down and had a good, long talk about how if I continued to lose weight that it would affect my running success. It was a hard conversation for me to stay present for, but there weren’t really any accusations or confrontations: it was all very objective and caring and not overly-emotional, and this all really helped me (since I felt overwhelmed and could barely cope with my own emotions at the time). I think it also helped a lot to have this conversation with these trusted friends who were literally my favorite people.
The second was my friend and college teammate, Katie. One day she went on an easy training run with me. We hadn’t really met yet, so I was thrilled that she chose to run beside me and wanted to become my friend. She started talking to me and asking me questions about my life, major, etc. It was so helpful that she was genuine and took the time to know me first before even thinking of approaching the subject. Then when she did, she did two things that immediately helped: she listened to me and she disclosed her own encounter with collapsing in front of the finish line and losing a race after not fueling properly. I felt safe with her and a lot less alone when she shared that. When I told her that my mom was on my case about my weight, she looked me right in the eye and calmly said my mom had every right to worry and that she was really scared for me. She wasn’t the first person to say that to me, but somehow when she said it, I finally really ‘heard’ it and understood what it meant. Katie has become a life-long friend & I credit her with saving mine.
Actually, my whole college team was exceptionally caring and displayed such maturity & insight in helping me. They worked hard to get me to see one of my teammate’s family friends – – he was a psychologist who specialized in eating disorders and also a professor on campus (lucky me!). Some of them would simply offer to eat meals on campus with me, while another friend used to drive me across campus to appointments with the psychologist so I wouldn’t have to walk extra. And when I had to withdraw from school for emergency medical (and eventually eating disorder) treatment, they all wrote me a card saying they missed me and mailed it to my house. It honestly makes me cry (grateful tears) just writing this and their impact on my life.
Carly Prais, University of Illinois Alum
Proudest Moment: It’s a tie between finishing my first Half Marathon and graduating college!
Something that someone did to help me most was honestly just to be there to listen. It was helpful for them to avoid putting the focus on food, and instead ask me about how I was feeling, and what sorts of emotions I was going through. They let me cry on their shoulder and tell them how afraid I was. They supported my healthy behaviors and encouraged self-care rather than lecturing me on what I wasn’t doing. They didn’t make me feel like I was to blame for my issues; they showed me that they understood what I was going through and consistently asked me what they could do to help support me.
Christiana Rutkowski, Seton Hall University, Psychology major
Proudest Moments: Running PRs, academic opportunities/achievements, & getting through tougher parts in life
Four people immediately come to mind (besides my mom and dad) when I think of what/who helped me and how they did it. One of my best friends approached me in the most gentle, kind, and open-minded way and asked me if I was doing okay, that it seemed like I was turning down food a lot and she just wanted to make sure my spirit/mind/body were feeling okay. The same kind of approach is one that my cousin took, and she made me feel less alone when she opened up that she too had once struggled, and that there is nothing to be ashamed about when it comes to asking for help if we are struggling. One of my former high school XC teammates also asked to come over one day, and when she did, she, like my best friend, asked simply if I was okay, that it seemed like I lost a lot of weight in a short time and that she wanted me to excel in running, but to do that I needed to be making smart decisions. Lately, my high school athletic trainer kind of took me under her wing in, again, a non-judgmental, caring, “I have your best interests in mind” sort of way. All of these people were respectful and gentle with their approaches. They were asking from a place of sincere and genuine care and never pressured me to answer, etc. They just continuously reinforced the fact that they were there for me and reminded me to practice what I preach (fueling your body, eating for health and well-being, etc).
Rachel Barich, University of Buffalo, Nutritional Science major & Public Health minor
Proudest Moment: Accepting her offer to run collegiately as a Canadian Runner
I think the biggest thing that teammates helped me with was just talking. As soon as I shared my struggle or maybe how guilty I was feeling about a binge or something a weight lifted off my shoulders. I still struggle to today but always when I’m feeling low having someone to share with is helpful.
Anna Bearss, Indiana State Student Assistant Coach, Political Science major
Proudest Moment: Whenever she is helping others
Simple kind gestures, and the sense of support from the people who were closest to me were incredibly helpful throughout the battle for recovery. I think people who see a friend or a teammate suffering and/or going through the rehab phase over complicate their role and what it takes to make a difference. When looking at a teammate who is dealing with an eating disorder, the physical signs are what is visible to the world, but the internal turmoil is where most of the battle exists for the person who is recovering or dealing with the illness. Throughout the recovery process, a tremendous amount of mental energy is devoted each day to thinking about the changes, challenging mental demons, and working with professional help. So for me personally, I didn’t need my friends to fill the role of helping hash out the problems, or talking to me about anything food or eating related. I needed a break from all that when I was interacting with peers. I just wanted to feel loved, and a sense of normalcy. So simple things like hugs, small subtle compliments, or just a helping hand with normal daily tasks like homework or carrying bags to my car after practice were so much bigger than what they appeared to be on the surface. I knew my friends knew what I was up against, even though we didn’t talk about it all the time. Just having friends there period, and knowing they were available if I needed to talk about deeper stuff, was an element that aided the process tremendously.
Megan Marshall, Penn State Alum & Co-founder of the F.L.Y. Movement
Proudest Moment: I would say overcoming fears. Fear of speaking in public. Singing in public. Climbing a 14,000+ mountain. Just trusting in my abilities and strengths.
As someone that personally struggled for years, I think the environment that was toxic for me was secrecy & not talking about eating disorders. It left a lot of people without help and never addressed the issue. I think comments can deter or encourage someone from getting help. Coming from a place of empathy, love, and care are always good things. For someone to know that you care about them is important. I would also say that not focusing on weight or looks when addressing a teammate is important. Focus on changes in mood and lifestyle. Addressing it in a safe environment and not interrogating them also helps. I’ve had negative comments made and that really set me back. You could volunteer to go with them to seek help and support them.
Thank you to all of these wonderful women for sharing their stories and advice. We hope their advice helps you to understand how your teammate or friend battling a disorder can be best reached and understood. Feel free to share feedback or additional advice with us @StrongRunChicks or firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope we can help share advice to help you live a happier, more joyful, and peaceful life. Stayed tuned for Part 2 next week!