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Olivia Bray: Hook 'em Hero

TW: eating disorder

Our Campus Captain Olivia Bray was recently recognized as a February Hook 'Em's Community Hero from the University of Texas for her mental health advocacy.

Olivia has overcome her own struggles with mental health and advocates for more understanding and better treatment for those fighting the same battles she has. "Mental health is something that I've struggled with personally and never want anyone to feel the way I did. I believe it's important to break the stigma around it along with having more awareness and strategies to support people who struggle. It's brave to ask for help."

Congratulations to Olivia for this recognition and thank you for choosing The Hidden Opponent as your benefactor for the award's donation! We love you!

Read more about Olivia's mental health story below (first published on @hopeforathletes):

I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for as long as I can remember. One of my first childhood memories is eating the same three things for lunch in first grade and the kids making fun of me for it. Growing up and even in high school I was always a little bigger than the other kids, so no one thought I could have an ED. Everyone always said I was just a picky eater because I ate the same five things every day.

Being an athlete and struggling with food made everything so difficult. I would binge on the weekends and have excellent training for the first half of the week. By the middle of the week, I would be at the back of the lane struggling to finish practice. It was hard to fuel my body during the week because what I ate was so dense and I ate so much at a time that after I ate, I wouldn’t be able to move after.

In the past, I’ve tried occupational therapy, hypnotherapy, and nutritionists, but nothing would help me get better. Honestly, I don’t think I was ready to change and get better. I was swimming fast, so I didn’t think it was a problem. Nothing else mattered to me except that. After the initial COVID hit, my mentor and I did some research about my symptoms and how we could change my habits. We discovered that I probably had an eating disorder. After reading and talking to a few people, we learned that I struggle with ARFID, which stands for avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. So, I have a hard time trying new foods, like to stick with ‘safe’ foods, and cut back on my food intake sometimes. In May 2020, I went to an eating disorder treatment center halfway across the country. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I was finally ready to accept it and challenge these habits. I finally wanted to give myself a better life.

In treatment, I think I cried every day and was hospitalized for the first time. I felt so alone, lost, and confused. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, but I knew I had to push myself to get over my fear of food. I felt like I wrestled with my thoughts the entire time there. I was trying to change how my brain was wired for the past 12 years. For the first 15 or so days, I thought the pain and frustration would never end.

I remember there was a specific lunch that changed my whole thinking about food. Before this meal, I had never tried meat before, but I signed up for chicken tenders. I thought “everyone likes chicken tenders, so why can’t I?” I sat down at the table, staring at the variety of food on my plate that I’d never eaten before. It felt like a flipped switch inside my brain like I was ready for the challenge. I tried a piece of chicken and I didn’t choke or spit it out. I ended up eating one of the three chicken tenders, which I’ve never eaten more than one bit of something when I’m trying it for the first time. Even though I tried no other new foods at the meal and didn’t even finish the tenders, I knew I could get control of my life back. I ended up leaving the center a few days later and was trying three new foods a week. The first week I was back home, half of my plate at meals was something my family has never seen me eat. I felt like a new person.

Here I am 2.5 years later, swimming and studying at one of the best programs in the country, The University of Texas. If I hadn’t reached out for help and taken control of my ED, I don’t think I would be where I am today. While I still struggle with food, body image, and restriction, I have gained so many tools to help and manage them. I have an awesome support system that helps me every day. Whenever I’m struggling, I go to them. They get me through the hard days.

Although I am doing better with food, not coping with my ED has unlocked new heightened emotions and unhealthy coping mechanisms. I’ve learned that I used to use food to cope with situations and emotions in the past. Since I try not to do that anymore, I have been learning how to feel and handle emotions for the first time in my life. I had no idea this could happen while recovering from an ED. I didn’t know there would be other things (besides food and body image) that I would have to deal with because of my ED. I’ve never heard anyone talk or read about this anywhere before. This should be something that is talked about more, the recovery process of an ED.

I first shared a part of my story on Instagram after I came back from treatment. I have never been someone who likes to share anything about my life, but I never want anyone to feel as alone and helpless as I did. One of the hardest steps for me was asking for help. I never would have been able to get better on my own. It was scary to open up to my mentor and family about this, but it was necessary for me. I needed help and I needed to be brave to ask for that help. I want to support others who are struggling, I want them to know that they are not alone and they can get through this.

It’s brave to ask for help.


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