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Andi Ruttan: Seeking Help and Persevering

TW: eating disorder

I, like many athletes, consider being a student-athlete a huge part of my identity. So in January of 2021 when I found out I needed surgery for a torn hip labrum and was out for the rowing season, I didn’t know how to cope. I had already lost my freshman year to COVID and now I would lose my sophomore year, too. As a way to cope, I turned to food restriction to feel a sense of control in my life, to numb my feelings, and to attempt to feel better about my body since I was brainwashed by diet culture to fear weight gain while I couldn’t train.

I vividly remember one of my coaches advising me to seek mental health support when I found out about my injury. I was reluctant because I have a really hard time opening up to people. I would feel really uncomfortable talking to friends and family about how I was struggling. I was the perfectionist, the jokester, the team captain. I wasn’t supposed to be struggling mentally. I was the happy one, not the depressed one. So I waited until I was past my breaking point to ask for help.

I spent months severely restricting what I ate and exercising daily. I abused my rehab plan for my hip and used it as extra exercise to lose weight. What had first started as a desire to prevent weight gain while I couldn’t train turned into severe Anorexia. A common misconception is that eating disorders are solely vanity based, which is typically not true (and even if it is, I believe we shouldn’t judge someone for how much diet culture has hurt them). My eating disorder also involves compulsion, perfectionism, a way to escape hard emotions, and a way to feel in control of my life when it felt like everything I loved was taken away from me. I had always used sports to bring me peace when it felt out of reach. Suddenly I couldn’t, so I found a new way to cope.

I spent the summer knowing something was wrong but thinking I couldn’t ask for help until I looked a certain way, which would mean I was “sick enough”. To anyone who relates to wondering if they’re sick enough to seek help: if you weren’t sick, you wouldn’t be wondering that. I finally called my school’s mental health services when I was so scared that my heart would fail in my sleep that I wasn’t sleeping at night. I was in outpatient treatment for a bit and they encouraged me to admit to a treatment program. I refused until they recommended hospitalization if things got worse. I finally agreed to admit once fall quarter ended, and I will never regret my decision to enter treatment.

Admitting to UCSD’s eating disorder treatment program saved my life. It was also a very traumatic experience. Even so, I made lifelong friends, bonded with the amazing staff, and discovered so much about myself. While my past brings up hard emotions, I do wish people would talk to me about it more. My guess is that people are stopped by two things: worrying they will upset me, and the stigma around eating disorders. Everyone with an eating disorder is different and oftentimes they may not want to talk about it. However, if someone close to you has an ED, I’d recommend asking them if they want to talk about it every once in a while. It can be very therapeutic.

About two months into treatment I felt like I was finally happy again. I was finally getting my life back. Then two weeks later I tried to take my own life because my depression and anxiety were so debilitating and I was unable to completely open up to my treatment team or my loved ones. I survived, and I want my story to help fight the stigma that is present between suicidal people versus people who lose their lives to suicide. The lives we have lost are correctly recognized as tragedies. However, suicidal people are often viewed as selfish and burdensome. My suicide attempt is something I have intense grief and guilt about. Never would I mean to hurt my loved ones. For those struggling with suicidal ideation, it often feels like by simply living, we are hurting those we love. One thing I have learned since my attempt is that it is easy to find reasons why you are a burden. It’s harder to see why you’re actually not a burden to others, which is why suicide often feels like the only option.

Nearly six months back in outpatient treatment, I am fully weight restored and so people assume I’m cured. In reality, I still struggle with my eating disorder every day. It’s a fight every day against what feels natural and safe for me. I think eating disorders are so misunderstood because they are incredibly hard to describe. For me, acting on my ED feels like something I am meant to do to live. I have to remind myself that the only thing my eating disorder wants is to take my life.

I wish my story was one of a full recovery. One day it will be, but for now my story is one of persevering through the pain because without pain, there is no joy. Through this pain I have really found myself and learned how to be a more vulnerable person. I’ve discovered that it helps to do things for my young self, for little Andi, who loved sports and food unconditionally.

I never force myself to find the bright side in a horrible situation because I think that invalidates my pain, but in this case, I truly hope that everything I struggled through serves as a little bit of strength to someone else who is struggling. Just enough for them to reach out for help. You deserve a long life full of joy. You deserve health, food, and fun. After all I’ve been through, I finally know I deserve those things, too.

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