In her own words: Alice Merryweather details eating disorder treatment

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Editor’s Note: In December, U.S. alpine skier and 2018 Olympian Alice Merryweather announced that she would be taking time away from the World Cup circuit to seek help for an eating disorder. Ahead of this week’s World Cup Finals, Merryweather wrote about her experience in treatment and her hopes for the future of eating disorder education.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.


By Alice Merryweather, as told to Megan Soisson

I attended a ski academy for high school, where I quickly discovered the “Alpine Girl” trope. Alpine Girls are always going for a second helping of food. Alpine Girls always eat dessert, and if there’s cake, watch out! Alpine Girls eat a lot, and they have big thighs and they’re strong. At the time, I fully embraced the trope. I worked out a lot, and yes, I certainly did eat cake.  So I enjoyed being a part of that stereotype. It made me feel like I belonged in that community.

But once I was racing on the World Cup, I started feeling that I should be more conscious of what I ate. On the one hand, I was told that I was small for a speed skier, so I tried to eat even more. At the same time, I also learned about different diets and dietary habits and started questioning my own eating patterns.

About two years ago, things really began to shift. It no longer seemed like a good idea to always get dessert and I slowly lost the appreciation for fueling my body. I didn’t want to be a part of that Alpine Girl stereotype anymore. I didn’t want to be judged for getting seconds or for having giant legs.

Surrounded by other elite female ski racers, there was also a lot of room for comparison. We would be in our skin-tight racing suits and I’d see someone who was a lot smaller than me and think, “They’re tiny and they’re still beating me, so I don’t need to be big to be successful.”

I became more and more critical of myself, overthinking the way I looked in my own ski suit. Over the next few World Cup seasons, I spent all winter thinking about what I was eating and how that was making me feel. Traveling and training around Europe, I never felt like I had control over the food I was eating.

But at that point, I was still eating.

In fact, I would joke with a teammate about how much we were eating all winter. For me, humor was a coping mechanism. When I was feeling down about myself, I would joke about my body and all the rich food I was eating.

I thought that it was a good way for me to process my feelings, but looking back, it was really harmful to my mental state because it just put that much more emphasis on my body.

At the end of the past few World Cup seasons, I remember thinking that I wanted to limit my food intake in order to lose weight. And then I would be disappointed when I didn’t have – what I thought – was the self control to do it. But in reality, I hadn’t actually gained any weight over the winter. It was just a thought in my head.

But when COVID hit, it got a lot worse. The World Cup season ended early and I returned to the United States. Then, while on a cross-country drive from Massachusetts to Utah, my housing fell through. I ended up living with my boyfriend Sam until I found alternative housing, but I still felt like a burden. And at the same time, I got put on a restrictive, low-FODMAP diet to try to figure out some GI issues.

I was overwhelmed by everything happening around me and felt like I had lost control.

That’s when I said, ‘You know, I can restrict how much I eat. I can find control in this area of my life. I’m just going to stop eating, and it’s going to be really good for me.’

I stopped trusting my program and stopped eating enough.

If I felt hungry, that was a good sign; it meant that I was being strong and pushing through. When I would feel my stomach growl, I would wait another few hours before eating. When I felt hunger pain, I imagined my body burning fat and losing weight.

Sam, who is also on the U.S. ski team, was quick to notice that I was not eating much, especially since he’s also very conscious of how he’s fueling his body. He started Googling eating disorder symptoms because I was complaining about being cold all the time. I was moody and irritable, and he noticed that I hadn’t been eating much at all, and how that coincided with how I was feeling and how I was reacting to him.

Late in the spring, we went out on a hike and he asked me about it.

In retrospect, I feel really lucky that he was paying so much attention and was so aware of what was going on. But at the time, I brushed him off, saying “No, I would never have an eating disorder. I’m just being healthy.” In truth, I still only felt like some of my actions seemed a bit disordered. I honestly thought there was no chance I had anorexia. I just thought I was maybe a little off, but that was it.

By mid-summer, I had started counting calories, which made things much worse. Trips to the grocery store took longer because I had to read every single nutrition label. I began to plan my days based on how many calories I would consume. I declined outings with friends if it meant changing my meal structures. Eating – and more often not eating – took precedence over hikes with friends and time outside. It dominated my life.

Throughout all this, I was still doing offseason training and would often have two workouts per day. My dietician wanted me to track what I ate to make sure I was consuming enough and eating a wide variety of foods since we were trying to heal my gut from my GI issues. She wanted me to consume well over 2,000 calories per day to keep up with the workouts. But internally, I was only happy when I consumed far fewer.

At that point, I had successfully tricked myself into believing that what I was doing was healthy. When I started feeling achy, unmotivated and tired, I convinced myself that this was the feeling that came with being all muscle.

I also started forcing myself to go for runs. There were times I was running around my neighborhood in Salt Lake crying, just trying to justify my next meal. I lost my love for training and for working out because of the disorder.

Still, I still didn’t realize it was an eating disorder. I wondered if I was suffering from depression. I lost my passion for skiing and questioned if I should be done with the sport because it no longer brought me joy. I hadn’t even considered that those feelings were related to eating.

It wasn’t until the fall, after a training camp in Europe, that I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Hearing those words, I didn’t believe it. I think part of the reason it came as such a shock is because I didn’t really have any education about eating disorders other than maybe one day in sixth grade health class. Based on that education, it always seemed like eating disorders were something that people intentionally did to themselves, and not something I would ever do to myself… because I loved eating.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard team assembled an outpatient team to work with me. I was still aiming to compete on the World Cup circuit this season until everything caught up to me at a training camp in November. After months of restricting, and not actually gaining the strength that I thought I had, I was pretty useless at camp. I was so tired; I was so cold.

And I was struggling so much emotionally that I had a hard time pushing myself physically in training. I was devastated when I was five seconds behind teammates I’m usually on par with, run after run, day after day.

I remember phone calls where my dietician would walk me through the actual science of why I needed to be fueling my body.

I would say, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I understand.” But then I would sit down for dinner and see the food in front of me and just think about calories. By then, the neural pathways had wired themselves to react to food in such an adverse way that I couldn’t break the habit on my own. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed help; telling myself to eat more wasn’t enough.

Eventually – after a blood test revealed the internal damage the eating disorder had begun to inflict on my body – my doctor refused to sign off on my traveling to Europe to compete.

I was furious and heartbroken. I thought maybe my ski coach, Alex Hoedlmoser, would be on my side as I tried to negotiate with my outpatient team, telling them that I would actually eat more and would be ready to race in a few weeks. To that, Alex straight up told me that if I showed up to St. Moritz, I would get my ass kicked. Hearing him say that was the final push that I needed to get more help and enter treatment.

I left that training camp early and started treatment on November 19 in Denver. The moment I told my mom, she booked her flight and came to Denver to stay with me in a hotel for the entire six weeks of treatment. My dad came out for most of it too, and I’m really lucky to have had them there for that whole process.

The program was 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Even after all that I had been through, when I first started, I didn’t think my problem was that bad. I called my team’s physical therapist on the way home from the first day, crying and saying how terrible it was. I was furious, I didn’t feel like I needed this because I didn’t think I was sick enough for treatment.

Eventually, though, it started making more sense. My treatment involved lots of therapy and education about eating disorders. There were group sessions, family therapy, individual therapy, and even athlete-specific sessions where I worked with a sports psychologist.

We were also provided three meals per day so that everyone could re-learn portions and what to eat to fuel our bodies. I hated this aspect at first because I didn’t think I needed this sort of structure. I had been training myself that “food is bad” for so long, so to be in that supportive environment where food is good – all food is good – was pretty daunting. But it ended up being one of the best parts of treatment. In this safe place, I was able to eat foods I had been uncomfortable eating.

I also reached out to American cross-country skier Jessie Diggins, who has been open about her own experience with an eating disorder. I told her my story and she responded right away and provided a lot of advice. I’m grateful that she has been so open about her own experiences. To see someone of her caliber – who has also gone through this – be transparent about her story, it helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.

I also learned about the science of my disorder, which was eye opening. My disorder changed my brain, creating a fear response to food. That helped me understand why I couldn’t just say I’d eat more and then I’d get better, and it was a relief to realize I hadn’t “done this to myself.” I wish I had understood this much sooner, or even been informed of the science during that sixth grade health class, as it might have prevented me from going down this path altogether.

In December, the World Cup speed season resumed – without me. At first, I was jealous. I wanted to be there racing. But once I finally embraced treatment and understood the reason I needed to be there, I found the peace of mind to be truly happy when my teammates did well. Watching Keely Cashman, Breezy Johnson, Nina O’Brien and so many other American women have breakout years just made me want to come back even more.

I ultimately decided not to return to the World Cup at all this season. It was actually Jessie who reminded me that I need to return to competition on my own time, and that stuck with me. Hearing her say that allowed me to take a little bit longer, be more patient, and actually do it right.

While I’ve felt some jealousy and isolation watching races over the past few months, I believe those emotions are a good sign because they show I’m still passionate about racing. I realized I have the desire to get back there and be one of the best in the world.

Now that I’m out of treatment and in recovery, I have good days and I have bad days. I’m still struggling with body image, and I probably always will. It’s hard to feel comfortable in my own skin, especially as I’ve regained necessary mass over the last few months. Finding peace with my body is not an easy or fast process.

On good days, I can prioritize what’s important: my family, Sam, skiing, and joy. On those days, food is less of an issue. It wasn’t until I started working out again, fully fueled, that I realized how much of an impact my eating disorder had on my athletic performance. I no longer feel achy and I am so much more energized. I love working out again.

But then there are some days where I don’t have the energy to commit to fighting, and I don’t wake up feeling ready for battle. On those days, the disordered voice is especially loud in my head, telling me to feel guilty for eating. It’s an ongoing process as I learn to deal with those thoughts.

I’ve been practicing gratitude for the people in my life, my support system, and for the small joys I experience every day. It helps so much to remember that my body can do incredible things and that I’m supported. It makes the hard days a little bit easier.

I feel like I’ll be ready to race again next year, but that’s an easier thought to have on good days than bad days. Still, I know that the patience and grace I’ve given myself has put me in a good spot to return next year, starting with a camp in April and hopefully highlighted by the Olympics next February.

There’s still so much stigma around eating disorders and going through this makes me want people to know that it’s okay to talk about them. I want people to know that it’s okay to seek help. The whole athletic world – in general – could do better by providing more education on eating disorders. I wish I knew that this was something that could happen. I just never had any sort of formal eating disorder education so I didn’t understand that this was a risk.

Across the spectrum of sports, the way we talk about female athletes’ bodies also needs to be shifted so that it’s less objective. And we all could do well to remember that it’s not just about being powerful and strong, but it’s also about being happy. Being yourself, finding home in your body – whatever that may look like. I’m learning to respect my body in that way, knowing that my body is home and it can do incredible things as long as I give it the proper fuel.

[RELATED: Jessie Diggins on body image education, why sports journalism needs more women]

 

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