The battle inside
One girl’s struggle in the grip of — and out of — anorexia.
BY KAITLYN DAVIDSON
At 21 years old, 163cm tall and weighing a frail 38kg, I was diagnosed with anorexia. I had always been the sporty one, and from a young age I was a high achiever in netball, dancing and athletics. As I got older, my identity became defined by my passion and love for the gym.
Due to my determination and independent nature, I would spend hours figuring out how I could push myself to prove I work harder than others. The gym became my safe place, and I would prioritise it so everything else had to fit around it. My passion soon became an obsession. I had to work harder than others, eat ‘cleaner’ and never eat anything I considered ‘dirty’.
As the eating disorder consumed me, I would spend hours reading about the best methods of training and eating, constantly scrolling social media comparing bodies and tearing mine apart. I would look at competitors’ bodies and envy their ‘stage day’ condition, thinking this was maintainable and setting myself up for failure. I believed if I applied ‘peak week’ training and diet as my daily routine, I could look like this all year round.
I began to no longer feel satisfaction out of completing my workouts. I had to completely exhaust myself and still push even harder in order to exceed every expectation and adhere to the extreme rules I had created. I lost my love for the gym, and exercising became a chore.
I no longer fed my body to fuel it or enjoyed food, but eliminated so many food groups that I began to fear all food. If I felt like I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn a ‘treat’, I would excessively exercise the next day to ‘work it off’.
There were even times when the anxiety was so bad I would immediately have to exercise, even if it was midnight and freezing cold or all I could do was run up and down the stairs in my house. If anyone questioned my obsessive habits, I would snap at them, telling them I was just dedicated and committed, not obsessed.
In a way, I think I was trying to convince myself of this. I found out later that I was a lot closer to death than I could have imagined. The eating disorder was becoming so out of control that I could have gone to sleep and never woken up.
Deep down I knew I was sick, and the damage to my brain became apparent. I couldn’t make decisions, my hair was falling out, my heart rate dropped to an ultimate low, my hormones became completely damaged, I had lost my menstruation cycle, my skin colour began changing due to the lack of circulation (particularly in my hands and feet) and my teeth and cheekbones would hurt constantly.
Due to the lack of body fat around my bones, I would also be in constant pain simply from walking. Yet because of my mentality and mindset, I was still capable of pushing myself at the gym every day, if not twice a day, for hours. I was addicted to this feeling — a feeling that I couldn’t identify was feeding my eating disorder and taking over my life.
The wake-up call for me was around my 21st birthday. I was hearing the same message from so many people — strangers on the street, management at my gym, work colleagues, family and friends — there was no way I could ignore it anymore.
On a family holiday to Hawaii, I spent hours in the hotel gym on my own and prepared my own food, even on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. I spent hours strolling the grocery store aisles, thinking about all the food I wanted to consume, but wouldn’t allow myself to, and I went clothes shopping to find that the only clothes I could fit into were children’s sizing.
I couldn’t even enjoy swimming at the beach or in the pool, because I was constantly freezing, even though it was summer. I was unable to relax and enjoy time with my family, because I needed to be in an environment where I could control my food and exercise. I convinced my family to stay in the hotel or only go to places where I knew I could easily get back to the hotel if I wanted food.
It was on this holiday that my mum gave me Portia de Rossi’s memoir, Unbearable Lightness, to read. The book consumed me; her story was just too similar to mine to ignore. I began identifying my habits with hers, and the further I got into the book, the more boxes I was ticking off in my head.
My sister Ashleigh, who was studying a Bachelor of Psychology at the time, never gave up on me. The disease completely changed my normally outgoing and extroverted nature, and I began to push everyone around me away, not wanting to deal with their concerns.
Ashleigh was the one who recognised the symptoms early on and, after sharing a room with me on the trip to Hawaii, she thought the disease had gotten out of control. She knows me better than anyone else and knew that in order to change, I had to want to change.
After reading the book, along with my sister, mum and stepdad seeing firsthand how out of control this illness had become, I agreed to see a doctor on our return home. That was when everything hit me like a tonne of bricks.
I was told that my body wasn’t going to produce anymore warning signals and that my heart could stop at any moment; it was then and there I knew I had to apply the same mindset and determination I had applied to get to this state to get myself out of it. Only this time, I had an eating disorder mind to fight against and, as a result of the damage, a brain that wasn’t functioning properly.
The next year and a half consisted of having to take each day at a time. It became a constant battle between my rational mind and the eating disorder mind, and with my natural competitive nature, I wasn’t going to let this disease win. I told my family and friends, and in particular my sister, I was going to fight this and win, but it was hard for them to believe me without seeing any physical changes.
I also decided I was not going to stop going to the gym; I wasn’t going to associate a place I had always loved as a trigger to the disease. I had to take full responsibility and control my mindset and not blame anyone or anything around me for getting this way. I had to learn to trust myself at the gym, around food and social environments.
This meant, at times, having to talk to myself before walking into the gym, telling myself I will be satisfied with my workout, I will only do what I should, I won’t beat myself up about not going ‘hard’ enough, I will learn to work out because I love my body, not because I hate it.
I wouldn’t give up on a goal of competing one day. Yes, seeing these images of girls’ stage bodies had impacted on my body dysmorphia, but I was not going to blame this or associate with it negatively. It was my brain that was damaged, not the images, and I channelled this as motivation to trust the process and to become healthy again. I knew I would achieve this, but I also knew that it would be a long ride and not a smooth one.
It was throughout my recovery that my sister and I bonded on a whole other level. She became my main support, and as I watched her prep for her first competition, it gave me constant hope (that I could do this), encouraged me to introduce certain foods back into my diet and constantly motivated me to trust the process.
I was her number one fan, and from the adrenaline I got from being in that environment and watching her compete, I knew this was where I needed to be. We made a promise to each other the day of her first competition that one day we would compete together…
So standing next to her on the WBFF stage in October last year was more than a dream come true for us. We had achieved a moment that I had visualised, one that had pushed me to continue through my recovery on days when I couldn’t see an out.
During my recovery, there were times when I would lie on the floor bloated from eating one almond because my body had adapted to a lack of food groups. I pushed through the months when I would binge eat every night because my body was so malnourished for so long. I was slowly learning to have a healthy relationship with food and to silence my eating disorder mind when it told me I needed to do excessive cardio after I finished a weights session.
I wanted to not only prove to myself that once I was healthy mentally I could achieve my goal, but I wanted to show others that anything is possible if you have the right mindset and don’t give up.
Competing can be associated with mental illness due to the intensity and restrictions that can be put in place throughout a prep, the extensive workouts that are implemented at times, along with the post-competition blues and blowouts, which are regularly discussed.
So once I had achieved a healthy body and mind and knew I wanted to take it to the next level and compete, I knew how important it would be to ensure I had a coach. I needed a coach who would work with me on all levels — mentally and on a cellular level — to ensure I stayed healthy, but I also wanted to promote that this isn’t a sport to be scared of.
I wanted to show that just because I have a previous history it doesn’t mean I will relapse — in a sense it made me stronger, because I faced my demons head on again and could prove to myself that I now have full control and that I have beaten it. I worked extensively with my coach, Melissa Zimmerman, who is also a paramedic and who I knew would look after me mentally and put my health first.
Due to the trust, love and courage it took for my sister to step back and trust me throughout my recovery, I am now able to identify my triggers and weaknesses and know how to deal with them personally before they manifest into an unhealthy thought. This has since helped me enormously throughout my prep for WBFF by keeping my training social as much as I can by training with my sister, which in turn made our relationship even stronger.
As I stepped off the WBFF stage placing sixth in my first national competition, it was far beyond what I could have ever dreamt of. This competition was a long time coming, and I am beyond excited to continue to improve and bring the best package I can to the stage again.
I want to use what I have been through to reach others in identifying a problem, showing them that there is hope, that anything is possible, to trust the process, trust yourself, and to keep pushing through, because things do get better when you have the right mindset. I am now the strongest I have ever been physically and mentally and have created the life that I always dreamt of and knew I would get to.
I have set some big goals and wake up every morning excited to continue to work hard toward these because, for me, the most satisfying reward is self-accomplishment and the hope that my journey can help someone even in the slightest way.
I’m not there yet, but with the love, support and constant encouragement from my family and my team, I know I will get there.
Some words from Kaitlyn’s sister Ashleigh Ingram
Through her journey my sister has shown that with a healthy and strong mindset and determination, anything is possible. Not only was I with Kaitlyn throughout, including during all of the ups and downs watching her overcome this illness, but I am an emergency services worker, so I have a passion for helping others and showing that even with shift work, if you commit and want something badly enough, hard work will get you the results. Something that we both share through our experiences is the belief that no matter what is thrown at you, you can overcome it and reach your goals. We’ve shown in two different ways how a strong and positive mindset can help you achieve anything.
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