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Season 2, episode 4

In Depth with Paralympian Jessica Smith

 

Mental health is one of the major underlying issues that have been laid bare at the Tokyo Olympics. Australian Paralympian swimmer Jessica Smith understands – she lived through it with an eating disorder.

As a kid living with a disability, Jessica wanted to win gold for her country from the moment she realised she could beat all the able-bodied swimmers at her school. It became more than a dream. Swimming was her life’s work and her identity. In 2004 Jessica’s went to the Athens Games as a favourite, only to have her Olympic Dreams shattered when her health, both mental and physical, failed her.

In this episode of Butterfly’s Let’s Talk In Depth, Jessica opens up about her body image issues and eating disorder, including the story of her road to recovery.

Find out more about Jessica Smith

Find out more about AIS

Find out more about NEDC

Sam Ikin:

Our guest for this month’s Let’s Talk In Depth was an easy choice. With the Tokyo Olympics so fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate that we dive in with an Olympian. Jessica Smith represented Australia as a swimmer for seven years. And since she was a kid, her dream had always been to win a Paralympic gold medal, but her dream was shattered when failing mental health and an eating disorder forced her into early retirement.

Since then, she’s dedicated her life to raising awareness and educating society about the complexities of eating disorders and negative body image. From Dubai, Jessica Smith, Let’s Talk In Depth.

Jessica Smith:

I was actually born missing my left arm. And to this day, doctors have no explanation as to why that occurred. I think for me growing up, I was really grappling with my identity and my place in the world. I was told by everyone around me, by doctors and professionals, that I was different, that I had a disability. And a lot of the labels that were being used to describe me have so many negative connotations. And for a young child, I remember feeling as though I didn’t want to be limited by what other people were saying or by the way that my body looked.

Jessica:

For me, I realised I had an opportunity to show people and to prove to myself that my body could do amazing things. The natural progression for me was obviously to go into sport. I grew up having three younger brothers. We’re climbing trees and skateboarding, doing all sorts of outdoor activities. And that in itself enabled me to realise that my body was capable of so much more. Ironically though, when it came to sport, I felt so much pressure when it was team sport, because I had a disability. Somehow I would always be the weakest link.

Jessica:

That pressure was just too much for me. Even though I enjoyed team sport, I thought that individual sport was probably the only opportunity that I had. Swimming was something that I fell in love with. I really enjoyed being in the water. I had this sense of freedom and power from a very young age. I think there was obviously a bit of natural talent there, which helps build that level of self-confidence.

Jessica:

But it was my first swimming race when I was 10 at the school swimming carnival and it was a 50 meters freestyle and I won, beating all the girls and boys with two arms. I grew up near in New South Wales in Grafton on the far north coast, so there was no other disabled kids in the school.

Sam:

That’s awesome. I love that story.

Jessica:

Yeah. In that moment, I remember thinking, “Wow! People are looking at me finally for something that I can do, rather than something that I can’t do.” The elation and the excitement that I felt in that moment only at 10 years old. I remember it so vividly, and I said to my mum and dad, “I need to swim. I want to swim because it makes me feel good.” Little did any of us know at the time what that would mean in the coming years. But unfortunately, for my parents, it was a lot of early, early mornings getting me to and from the pool.

It was just something where I felt I have the opportunity now to prove to society that living with a disability is not a hindrance. It’s not something to be ashamed of.

Sam:

Along with Jessica’s newfound physical prowess, she also found she had some psychological strengths, things like high achievement orientation, self-motivation, self-performance, and perhaps perfectionism. But any clinicians out there will also see a pattern forming, as all those traits are also risk factors for eating disorders.

Jessica:

Yes, exactly. I think some of those traits were ingrained in me and certainly come from my upbringing and my parents and their approach to never feeling sorry for me and making sure that I knew that the opportunities in my life were there. I just had to take them. Having that sort of dialogue around me, it was quite positive, but also, I was just a teenage girl growing up in a world where we emphasize so much on beauty and aesthetics and appearance.

Jessica:

While I was navigating my world in the pool and as a swimmer and achieving great things, I was then also coming to terms with the fact that I was going through puberty, and I was this teenage girl who did look different. I wasn’t getting the attention of boys at high school. I remember one guy even saying, “That girl Jess would be pretty if she had two arms,” and so feeling like I just was too different in my space. It was really hard to then try and combat the negativity that then started to encroach in my internal dialogue.

Jessica:

I looked in the mirror and realised that my arm was never going to grow back, and I also have profound scarring on my neck and chest from an accident when I was a toddler. All of those things made me look so, so different. And when I looked on the television and in magazines, I was never represented. Somebody like me with a disability, we never saw that. I convinced myself that if I could change what I could control about my body, maybe then I could get that little bit closer to what perfection is and what society tells us those beauty standards are.

Jessica:

I thought if I could lose just a little bit of weight and fit within society’s norms in some way, maybe then people would see past my obvious imperfections, and maybe that would be enough to then feel as though I had been accepted or included. And for me, that was what I guess looked at as a way of being happy in a way of being normal in many ways. And that’s what I was striving for so much at that time. It was so, so difficult. And as anybody who has dealt with eating disorders or disordered eating, once you dove into that hideous diet cycle, it is so hard to get out.

Jessica:

It started at age 13, 14, just really turning to food for comfort in many ways, trying to figure out who I was. And I guess as well, living with a disability and growing up in a family where I was the only person, I am the only person with a disability, some of the questions that I had about who I was and why I looked this way, my parents didn’t have answers for. There was a little bit of resentment as well. A lot going on in that childhood years and teenage years as well.

Jessica:

I started to diet, and I started to look at ways in which I could lose weight. And unfortunately for me, that was the beginning of basically a decade living in the hellish nightmare of anorexia and bulimia. And like many athletes can relate to, what people see on the outside is completely different from what’s happening on the inside and the shame and guilt that accompanies an eating disorder, and that insidious mental illness meant that I didn’t feel that I could speak up and share what was actually going on with anyone around me.

Sam:

It sounds like an isolating and quite lonely experience.

Jessica:

So incredibly lonely. I felt the pressure as well that perhaps because I was already living with a disability, I therefore didn’t have the right to have any other issues to complain about. I was grappling with that. It was kind of like a tennis match going on in my own mind about how can I possibly ask for help when I’ve already asked for help so many times in my life. The fact from birth having to, I suppose, adjust to my reality and to feel as though that I was just a burden on my family and on society.

Jessica:

It was a secret and a shame and a guilt that I lived with for far too long, but it was right at the time that my swimming career was taking off as well. And unfortunately, I feel that the two together just compounded so many issues for me during that time. Yes, it was incredibly lonely.

Sam:

Can we fast forward now to what might have been the peak of your illness, I guess, which was 2004? Can you take us through the 2004 Olympics?

Jessica:

Making the team was obviously the highlight of my career. I was so, so excited. Everything that I had worked for had become a reality. I remember telling myself, if I make the team, then I don’t have to starve myself anymore. I don’t have to go into that binge purge cycle. But of course, as anyone in this same experience will know that the goalposts then just moved. I said to myself, “Well, now that I am an elite athlete, I have to make sure I look like an elite athlete.

I have to make sure that I am even more stringent, even more demanding when it comes to what I was eating and how I was exercising.” As Athens got closer and closer, I became sicker and sicker. I remember landing in Greece and feeling so excited, but just terrified at the same time, because it was as if I knew that my body physically and emotionally was under so much pressure. I was expected to medal in Athens, but I was the only member of the Australians team who didn’t make a final.

Jessica:

And that’s been very, very hard for me to verbalise for almost seven years when I worked as a motivational speaker, I didn’t share that with anybody because the guilt and the shame was still far too heavy for me to carry, but I realised that’s the important part of my story, that I do need to share and that I do need to express to help myself heal and to help myself in recovery.

By explaining to people that my eating disorder had really taken such a hold on my entire life to the point where it had basically destroyed my swimming career to be the only member of the Australian swimming team to not make a final was absolutely… It was just horrendous.

Sam:

Your eating disorder, was that what you blame mostly for your under-performance? I apologize that that word has got so many negative connotations.

Jessica:

No, but you’re right. I think what needs to be explored here is it’s not so much the eating and the physical side, but the emotional burden as well. I was in a complete state of depression by that point as well. And so again, what a lot of people don’t understand about eating disorders, it’s not just about the food and the weight loss. It’s everything else that creates this heaviness and fog.

Jessica:

Yes, it was a combination of all of those things to the point where halfway through the week of competing in Athens, I realised, I was like, I am not going to be able to swim as fast as I need to. My body has had enough. I remember my hair was falling out. My teeth were breaking. That’s just the physical side of it. But emotionally I had basically checked out. I wasn’t even able to have proper conversations with people.

Jessica:

I was so fixated on the disorder side of things that I had forgotten why I enjoyed swimming. I had forgotten the love of it. I was there because I thought I had to be, and I was there to prove a point.

Sam:

Retirement, giving up this one thing that you’ve worked so hard for throughout your life, this goal that was essentially your identity was a choice that you just had to make. Did you see any other alternative?

Jessica:

No. It was agonizingly painful to get to a point in my life where I realised that in order to continue living, I had to give up the one thing that meant so much to me, and that was swimming. It took a long time. I tried to make comebacks and I tried to say to my coach who has and always was one of the most supporting pillars in my recovery journey. He just said, “Jess, I can’t take on that responsibility of coaching you. You’re too fragile.” I respect that so much, but I did try because exactly that was who I am, who I was.

How could I be just a girl with a disability now? And that’s what was playing in my mind. How could I just be someone with a disability walking through life? Because again, that was the other side of things that I was dealing with. Living in this world as a female with a disability is not easy, but I felt as though my swimming career gave me some sort of an advantage, another platform to say, “Well, hang on a second, maybe this outweighs those negative things.” So, to then turn around and realise that if I continued swimming, I probably would not be here today.

Jessica:

I know that I would have ended things because emotionally, mentally, I just wasn’t able to take it anymore. To make that decision and to be able to take that first step knowing that I just had to trust that the next step would unfold without seeing it in front of me, it was so hard. I think that’s the important message for anybody on their recovery journey is you just have to trust. You have to be able to surrender and realise that we’re not in control. The eating disorder takes control of us. And to be able to walk away from that is very, very difficult.

But just to know that there is hope and to be where I am now today, if you had told me this 10 years ago that I would truly be living in a state of recovery, I would never have believed you. For me to be able to share this with other people who might be on that same path. to realise that recovery is possible. And then I can be at a space now and a time with my husband and with my family where it is not all consuming and I don’t think about food.

Jessica:

And I’m able to exercise because it’s fun and because I enjoy it and I’m able to eat food because it brings me happiness in that environment with family and friends. That is a sense of freedom that I wish everybody could experience, especially those people who are living with disordered eating or negative body image issues and obviously people with eating disorders.

Sam:

This story is just so powerful, Jess. I really appreciate your being so candid about everything. Can we take a step outside of your story now and look at sport as a whole? Can you tell me about the culture that you experienced when you were an athlete and whether you think that’s something that’s improving?

Jessica:

Yeah. I think, unfortunately, the demand and the pressure on athletes to look a certain way or to be a certain weight or shape, I think we need to really educate ourselves about that a lot more because I don’t think that’s necessarily true. However, I appreciate that in some sports looking at speed, power, all of those things do come into play. And when we want to be the very best, we’ll do anything we can to make sure that happens. And of course, I appreciate that more than anybody else.

What’s really interesting is that people who do live with eating disorders have many common personality traits and characteristics that are indicative of those people who are elite athletes. And that’s why we see so many elite athletes who do identify as having disordered eating behaviors. Will that ever disappear? Personally no, I don’t believe it will. What we need to do and what is being done at the moment is setting up support networks and collaborative approaches to ensure that athletes feel supported during that process.

Jessica:

The AIS and NEDC, the Butterfly Foundation are doing some amazing work in this space. It’s never too little too late. I think it takes a long time to be able to learn about this because eating disorders are so personal and individual. To be able to get to a point where we can understand that journey for an athlete is very, very difficult because it’s different for every single person. So, to be able to have some approach that fits all isn’t possible. I think the work that’s being done now really does need to be applauded, but it is something that has to be ongoing.

 

Everybody has to work together. Everybody must be educated and aware so that we can make sure that our athletes’ well-being is at the forefront of their entire journey.

Sam:

The prevalence of these conditions among high performing athletes hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC) have teamed up and they’ve put together a position statement, with Jessica’s help, which is aimed at trying to help athletes before they reached the stage that Jessica did.

Jessica:

Yes. I came onboard to share my story as personal experience, because I think for those people who don’t have a personal experience, they don’t know the complexities of this. For me and for others to share our story makes a huge difference. It gives that insight and shows how an eating disorder manifests and how it builds and changes over the years. And perhaps through sharing our stories, we’re able to ensure that the team approach is something that is worked at.

Jessica:

From coaches to physios to team management, how can we all work together to understand this a little bit better? For me, sharing my story was part of that. And I’m very grateful to be able to do that. All these years later, I feel like that I’m being heard, but I feel that by sharing my voice, giving power for other people to share theirs. The more we do that the easier it is then to help navigate this world when it comes to eating disorders in sport. I think that that is just one aspect of this collaborative team approach.

If it means you’re doing more of these podcasts and sharing more of exactly what I went through, then I actually feel honored to be able to do that, because it means that everything that I went through was worth it if it means that I can help another athlete not go down the same path that I did.

Sam:

Well, this is what we’re aiming to do here with this podcast is to amplify voices like yours and the story of recovery and give people hope who were stuck where you were, I guess, before the 2004 Olympics. What advice would you give to somebody who thinks that they might be in a similar situation, but haven’t yet come to terms with it?

Jessica:

I think the best thing we can do is to find somebody in our network, whether that’s our family or whether it’s a coach or whether it’s somebody in the sport team space who we trust, who we can say, “Look, I feel like I’m struggling a little bit with this. I’m focusing more on my aesthetics. I’m focusing more on what I’m eating and what I’m not eating. I just want to flag this before it becomes too much of an issue.” I think if more people can have the confidence to do that, but that they feel safe to do that, that’s the key there.

Jessica:

I think the only way that happens is through the rest of the team educating themselves and knowing what resources are available. So that if an athlete does come to you, you can say, “Okay, all right, we’ve got some resources that can help us here. I may personally not be able to help you if it’s a coach, for example, or if it’s a member of team staff, but I know somebody who can.”

Jessica:

It is just going to be more about conversation, more about communicating openly and honestly to the point where it’s not looked at as shameful for an athlete to say, “Hey, this is a real struggle.” Because I can guarantee you that so many athletes identify with negative body image issues and distorted eating. We to take the shame and the guilt away and say, “This is a real issue that’s going on.” And now let’s make sure that people feel supported so that you can take that first step to ask for help or to just say, “Hey, can we just monitor this?

Can we just all work together, because I’m feeling a little bit uncomfortable, I’m feeling the pressure and what it’s going to take me to get to that gold medal or to get to that specific time, or whatever that goal might be, I feel that is becoming a little bit of a burden. How can you all help me to make sure that my well-being is always put at the forefront?” And that’s not easy. I understand it’s not easy.

Like I said at the beginning, the only way that we make that easier for an individual is to ensure that we’re all working together and to make it public, like we’re doing with a position statement, so that people know, okay, if I was to come forward, and if I was to share my struggles, there would be people there who are willing to listen.

Jessica:

To know that the collaborative approach is something that is well-versed, and people are very much aware of it, because then that’s going to make it easier for people to say, “I’m going to take that first step to making sure that I’m putting myself, my mental health, and my overall well-being first.”

Sam:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I understand that this was difficult.

Jessica:

No, my pleasure.

Sam:

Thank you.

Jessica:

It’s always great to be able to share my story. Thank you so much for your time.

Sam:

If you liked this episode of The Butterfly Podcast, you might want to write a review, leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. We would really appreciate it. And remember, as always, please share it with a friend. I’m Sam Ikin. The Butterfly Podcast is an Ikin Media Production for Butterfly Foundation.

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