Navigating Eating Disorders as an Athlete: A Recovery Story
I suffered from the afflictions of an eating disorder for three years. I wanted to take the time to get vulnerable and speak a little about my journey in hope to shed some light on anyone out there currently struggling with an eating disorder. Please know, there is a path to healing and recovery is possible.
Starting in 2015, I found myself overly strict on my approach to nutrition and exercise. I had a routine in place for working out and eating that I let nothing come in the way of. While I told myself that I was disciplined and healthy, the reality is that I was suffering from an eating disorder and in denial about it. After concern was expressed from friends and family, I sought the help of a doctor at a local mental health clinic for an outpatient program. I began to see her regularly two times a month. By March of 2017, I had not made any progress. I was still weight compromised and clinging hard to my strict regimes.
As an athlete who was an NCAA Tennis Runner-Up in college, it was important that I find a provider who recognized my athletic history as an important aspect of my journey. Through an introduction from a family member, I was introduced to a provider who became crucial to my recovery, acknowledging my history as an athlete and helping me align my personal, life goals into my overall treatment plan. Through the introduction of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, along with my hard work, dedication, and determination to accomplish my goals, I learned how to safely be active and reintroduce foods I had previously eliminated from my diet. I was finally able to get my health back on track, move into a space of eating disorder recovery, and I have never looked back.
Around the same time that I was recovering, I was also trying to build my sports photography career. While living in the New York City area and working a job in sports communications, I took the first step in my career by investing a lot of money in very expensive camera equipment that I would need to photograph sporting events. It was a risky decision to buy such expensive equipment without knowing if I would ever land photo gigs, but I took the risk and spent much of my free time learning all about my equipment and settings. I decided to stop working my current job and focused solely on sports photography, networking with teams, media directors and anyone I could in the photo industry. I was fortunate to land a major break in the photography industry right off the bat at one of the biggest professional tennis tournaments in the world at the end of the summer and was then able to continue my coverage from there all fall and winter with photo gigs in with some of the top teams in college football and basketball.
Fast forward to today, my photography work takes me wherever the action is: from serving as the Staff Photographer for the Rose Bowl Game to Madison Square Garden to The Masters Tournament and everywhere in between. I have captured breathtaking moments from one of the greatest Rose Bowl Game’s in history to the US Open Tennis Championships to major college football and basketball games, and professional golf. I also regularly do off-court photo work with Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In 2019, I traveled for just over 200 days and am incredibly grateful that I can travel the country throughout the year doing what I love the most – taking photos at sporting events.
During the years of my struggles with an eating disorder, traveling all year for work would have proven too difficult for me. Now? Now I know how to travel without stressing about what I will eat, how much or when. I can cope with my emotions without using food thanks to the skills I learned in DBT. I can work out and now be able to take rest days when my body needs it without feeling guilt or shame. My eating disorder no longer takes a hold of my life. I learned to manage it and better myself, my relationships, and my career.
The path is difficult and may be long to recover from an eating disorder. Asking for help is an important first step on the road to recovery. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please know that you are not alone. Tough times never last, but tough people do.
As my doctor told me after I updated her on my progress, “I am glad you are able to live the life you deserve.”
Justin Cohen is a widely published sports photographer for college and professional sports across the U.S. Examples of his work can be seen at: https://justincohenphotos.com/. His published work can be seen in a variety of outlets including the official website of the ATP World Tour, the Rose Bowl Game; magazines, college athletics websites; official websites of clients; and various social media pages.