“I was losing control…”
Rebecca Burnett, 20, from Sunderland, was a Judo champion before an eating disorder threatened to destroy her whole life.
When my anorexia started at 15, I fit the typical profile; a high achiever, a perfectionist. I was an A* student with a large group of friends in and outside of school. I was very sporty, artistic and academic, and so I put pressure on myself to exceed in all three areas.
In Judo, I was number one in Great Britain for my weight and age. I spent my weekends travelling to retain that spot and climb the European rankings, and at 15 I was Commonwealth and three-time British champion. This led to my selection for the British team and European cups. This happened around the time of my GCSE exams, so not only did I put pressure on myself to exceed academically, I upped my training. I wanted to conquer the European rankings, not just the British.
Something around this time caused me to crumble. I decided that in order to be the best, I had to eat healthier and train harder. I didn’t realise that I was already close to breaking point and that one step would tip me over the edge. Training six to seven times a week and eating less made my weight plummet.
I came back from my first European Cup in Ukraine with a silver medal. This was a big achievement for anyone, never mind a newcomer to the European Championship circuit. Rather than revel in the excitement of my friends and family, I was already pushing myself to do better next time. Everyone was thrilled, but not me. I had to do better, I had to be the best.
I didn’t realise at the time that what I was doing wasn’t normal. It was becoming obsessive. I was losing control. I started missing the bus so that I could walk the route to and from school, exercising in whatever time I had free. My parents and coaches were already becoming concerned. I realised I had to try and show everyone that I could cope with the pressure, so I started eating the extra portions of food advised by dieticians and nutritionists. I choked down every last bite and I filled myself with hatred for being such a failure. I was never going to become the best in Europe like this.
I didn’t do well in the next European cup. I had lost my strength and was at the bottom end of my weight category. I would put weights in my clothes and drink excessive amounts of water in an attempt to be a certain weight. Judo guidelines are strict – I had been entered into a certain weight category and if I didn’t weigh the right amount, I couldn’t fight. I convinced myself that gaining weight meant I would fail and miss my chance at the European Championships. In fact, the opposite was happening. Coaches pulled me aside and insisted I take the time to get better. This was much to my annoyance, there was nothing wrong as far as I was concerned
I began suffering with reflux, and this became a way for me to mask my eating difficulties. Everything I tried to eat would come churning back up. I now had an excuse for my weight loss, but countless tests showed that this seemed to be a sub-conscious reaction to eating, rather than having a physical cause.
I was admitted to hospital a number of times when my weight dropped. Each time I would tell myself I’d go back to ‘normal’ and start eating properly and resting. I did this while in hospital, but things would get worse again every time I left. There was so much at stake for me. If I couldn’t get on top of this, I would miss my exams, my friends, the European Championships. I had a deadline and I needed to get better or everything I had been working towards would be gone. I think the thing holding me back was the refusal to admit there was a problem. Each hospital admission became longer and harder.
I ended up being sent home from my first exam in tears. My parents tried to make me eat my lunch when I got home, and I broke. The mask I had been wearing for months shattered, and I cried and cried. I admitted I needed help.
Recovery was far from easy. I slipped into depression and self-harmed as a way to punish myself. I ended up being sectioned under the Mental Health Act for refusing to drink water. I then spent six months in an adult eating disorder inpatient unit. Over this time I learned that only I can get better. I have to accept help and reach out for support.
I haven’t been able to go back to Judo. It wouldn’t be good for my mental health.
Things are better now – I have an amazing family, and a wonderful boyfriend and group of friends. They accept me as I am, not who I used to be. I may not be there yet, but I am closer than I was yesterday, and I am proud of that.