by Cara Puscasiu
Ever since I was little I could remember being too afraid to wear shorts because my legs were too skinny. I would look at my stomach in the mirror and pinch my skin, convincing myself it was fat and reiterating that my proportions would never be ideal. It wasn’t until I became an athlete that I had the confidence to wear shorts to school. My legs were defined with muscle now, I wasn’t a “stick” anymore, as people liked to call me. I thought that I had overcome all my body image issues but that was just the beginning of falling into a deeper hole that would take over my life. It started with fabricated diets that I created. I went sugar-free for months straight, I wouldn’t even eat ketchup. Then came the ‘all vegetable and white meat diets’, no carbs, no steak, no salt. Then came the ‘cleansing’ teas, made of apple cider vinegar and lemons and ginger that burned my stomach to shreds. Then came the laxatives, the desire to feel empty. My favorite feeling was to go to sleep hungry. If I felt a rumble in my stomach and lightheadedness, I could go to sleep peacefully. While my diets changed every few months, one thing never changed, the pinch of my skin on my stomach. It felt like a portable measuring tool that was with me whenever I needed to remind myself how well I was doing or how much more I needed to restrict.
My junior year of high school I made the impactful decision to send myself to a sports and education preparatory performance high school and stay for two years as a boarding student. Without the constant support from my parents who helped me eat and stay on top of my meals, I knew the control of my body was now completely up to me. Unfortunately, this mindset was the opposite of what you might optimistically think I wanted to do. The control was now mine, no one could tell me what to eat. My schedule was jarring. School was from 7AM to 1PM and after that, practice from 1:30PM to 5:30PM. This wasn’t good enough for me, though. I went running from 5:30AM to 6:30AM to burn extra calories, which would then come from the one coffee that I would drink before going to class. After class, I’d run to the cafeteria and get cucumbers and a piece of chicken. To hold myself over, I would sometimes scoop a little bit of tuna or pasta into my plate as a reward. Then I went to practice for 4 hours and then stayed longer in the trainer’s room to do ab workouts. I ended the day with a pinch to my stomach skin and a rumbling tummy.
What were silly diets escalated to calorie counting, every single day. I would aim for a net gain of 1,000 calories a day. This included the subtraction of calories burned during three hours of practice, one hour of conditioning, half an hour of abs and one hour of running. If I am being realistic with myself, I was probably only storing around 500 calories a day, not a thousand because I made sure to count my calories on myfitnesspal higher than I was eating and calculate my exercise hours lower just to make sure I wasn’t ‘cheating’ myself. I turned to our nutritionist who would come talk to my team every couple weeks. I asked her in a suspicious way, how I could become lean and skinny. She didn’t understand this cry for help, she genuinely thought I just wanted to be educated on lean meat to keep myself from bloating before matches. My coach overhead this entire conversation and without even knowing my past, he heard my cry for help loud and clear. He sat me down and explained that athletes’ bodies are machines for us. Tennis players are strong, they are broad and they are quick. He sympathized with me, remembering that 30 years ago, my father was his student as well at the same academy, on the same courts, and now he is a marathon runner, 145 pounds, 6 1’, and reminded me that my mom is 95 pounds, with a six pack. These are the two role models I’ve looked to my whole life. He knew me for around 6 months and could already draw these impactful conclusions, he saw me and he heard me without me saying a word.
I do not want to keep describing my story and giving ideas of what an eating disorder should be like. The best part of this story is the recovery. My coach decided I had to meet with the nutritionist once a week. She decided to chart my eating, (send her pictures of every meal, etc), long story short, after a quick few months, I got sent to the school psychologist. It’s important to remember that nutritionists tell us what to eat to be healthy, eating disorders are your brain telling you how little to eat. Eating disorders are scary because you lose sight of what is normal. Your mind is so convincing, it made me realize that my brain is all I had and I was losing my battle to it. No one anyone could ever tell me would help, it was up to me to fight harder. You hear “but you’re so skinny!” and “you shouldn’t feel insecure!” all the damn time but that doesn’t help, no words of ‘comfort’ help. You have to believe those things within yourself to make a real change and you have to be willing to make a change. It’s so scary, it’s so painful but over time, you will see, it’s worth it.
I am not perfect today, but I am aware of the person I used to be. I still catch myself minimizing the severity of my mental health. If I were in my own shoes a few years ago, I would have wanted to know that there is a much happier side of life. This was not a battle with my body, it was one with my mind. It is not as black and white as it is portrayed to be in the media when we hear about “eating disorders”. Women athletes are put under so much pressure to be who the world wants us to be, as well as being high-level athletes. I know now, that I would rather feel strong, no matter who the dysmorphia is in the mirror. When I was weak, I couldn’t perform my sport the way I knew I could. Winning is not just on the field, or the court, or the track, it’s in your mind. I hope if anyone who is reading this is battling the same battle, just know, you are not alone and that there is a world of so much more happiness than numbers and mirrors. It may take some time but winning is worth it, I promise.