Jana Pittman: ‘At the height of my career, I was broken in a way no one could see.’

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Content warning: This post deals with eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.

Over the years I have witnessed many athletes fall prey to eating disorders, as we are controlled by diets and body weight restrictions. I had zero boobs and no hips. I resembled an apple, where my middle bits bulged a little outwards, skinny arms and legs sticking out awkwardly below. This wasn’t the right look for a world champion, hence my introduction many years before to the AIS nutritionist Louise Burke in Canberra.

Yet my performances were never affected; in fact, my body was always much happier with a soft layer of fat gently hiding my abs. With hindsight I should have hung on to this notion. It is not how you look, but how you feel. Performance should have been the driver.

In my head I was convinced we were supposed to be ripped and lean. Debbie Flintoff-King was the epitome of this. The photo of her winning the 400m hurdles at the 1988 Olympics was out of this world. Debbie’s body was so lean and fit, every sinewy muscle striation was visible. I looked like a prized pig alongside her svelte form.

I restricted my calorie intake and tried to conform. I got much leaner and grumpier. My performances certainly improved and instead of putting this down to increased experience and growing older, I associated it with my shrinking body. It was hard work, my knitting needles got a work out! Hence the multiple knitted garments that graced my wardrobe.

Listen: Jana talks to Mia Freedman about what it was like being at the peak of her career and suffering from bulimia: 

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I had had a girlfriend at school who was bulimic and I began to flirt with the idea of regurgitating certain foods or going for extra-long walks to burn off any foods I had stupidly consumed. It wasn’t very often and I felt I had a handle on it.

This year, 2004, something broke in me. Maybe it was the suppressed pain of breaking up with Rohan, or the pressure of being reigning world champion in the Olympic year. Perhaps it was my severe food deprivation, as by now I was having around 1400 calories a day and burning thousands more. Maybe it was my past coming back to bite me—my unpopularity at school, how few friends I had, the horrible night in the back alley. I had always overeaten chocolate. Even at fourteen I used to pop off to the shops and buy a family size block and eat it all myself. I sucked and loved every piece, it was just delicious and comforting.

I honestly don’t know what snapped but I vividly remember the day my strict eating became disordered. I started on a long and slippery road. I seemed to be living inside my thoughts all the time, with a little demon voice that bargained with me about everything. What I could eat, what I shouldn’t, what I was allowed to feel and what I should block out.

We had a huge pool session planned but I was extremely tired from the weeks of training. I stopped at the local IGA to buy some things for a salad. My heart didn’t want salad and I gravitated towards the confectionery aisle. The beautiful blue blocks of Cadbury chocolate just seemed to be calling my name. Ahhh . . . one can’t hurt. I can control myself. I’m sure of it. The year before, I used to have at least a row a day for one week and no chocolate the next week. It was a funny little game Rohan and I played, allowing us to indulge but not have too much. In fact, during Easter in 2003, all I ate for a full day was chocolate—it put me off it for weeks!

Jana was Australia's athletics sweetheart. Image via Getty.

This being the Olympic year, I had decided to have no chocolate, and as a result I was fit and lean if not a little too muscly. But today the chocolate looked scrumptious. I shoved the bar to the bottom of my basket, trying to hide the evidence.

Back home, I left it on the counter and walked past it often—until finally I gave in, convinced by my little demon voice. I boiled the kettle for a cuppa and cracked off a row. I even put it to my nose and drank in the smell of it. Finally, after carefully dipping it into my boiling mug, I sucked it onto my tongue. It was simply divine. Too quickly the row was gone. Devastated, I put the chocolate away and went up for my afternoon nap. Instead of delight and the comfort I thought eating the chocolate would bring, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there as the guilt set in. ‘You idiot, Jana, you just broke a vow. You are so weak and destined to lose. You can give up a relationship but not chocolate. Pathetic!’ Before I knew it two little voices in my head started their internal dialogue. ‘Come on, Jana, it was only one row, grow up, you don’t do it every day, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.’ My little devil then piped up, ‘Well, you can just start fresh tomorrow, so if that’s the case, why not eat the whole block?’ My mind battled for what felt like eternity and I was so overwhelmed, I caved in.

I raced downstairs, re-boiled the kettle and sat down ready for another row. Oh it was good. All my stress and worries seemed to float away with every mouth-watering velvety suck. Crap . . . that row was gone too. Might as well have one more then. You’ve done it now. I was no longer sucking with enjoyment but rapidly shoving in three or four pieces at a time, tears pouring from my eyes. At one stage I put the chocolate in the bin, shoving it under the garbage, but even that wasn’t enough, as before I knew it I was washing off the germs and attacking it some more. I was hysterical—what had I done? I raced to the toilet and tried hard to bring it back up. Nothing but spit. I had eaten so much the chocolate sat heavily in my stomach. I would have to weather the damage. It was my doing. I deserved this. I did some rapid calculations and if I missed dinner I would only be over by about 1000 calories. 1000 calories.

You have got to be kidding me. Returning to the kitchen I looked for anything I could shove down my throat to make me gag. Even carrots and celery didn’t work. I have no gag reflex.

Eventually I found a pharmaceutical way but I will not explain further for fear of giving some young person any ideas. I was so sick. I vomited so hard I felt like my intestines came flowing out with the chocolate. But the relief it was gone was intensely satisfying.

At training later that day I was in a fabulous mood. I have no idea why my poor brain reacted that way but as a result I had a fantastic pool session, despite feeling exhausted. This sadly reinforced the behaviour as acceptable. Over the coming months, it only happened on the odd occasion. Most of the time I was very disciplined and in control. I vowed never again to turn to medicine to throw up and I never did. Sadly, I learnt to regurgitate things like ice-cream and chocolate if I got on to them quickly. I could still never throw up other food, which in hindsight was a blessing.

Jana with Mia in the Mamamia podcast studio.

By now I had my training partner Bec and another close friend of mine, Kate Lashin, living with me. Outside of my weight concerns life was pretty good and my training was going smashingly. In 2003 we had done little more than circuit-based weight training. This year we brought in Olympic weight lifting medallist Robert Kabbas. He was super sweet and I loved that I had another Olympic mentor in my team. Little did we know that my body would morph with the heavier weights. I am so naturally anabolic that within a short few weeks, I had gained 3 kilograms of muscle. All of a sudden I was too heavy. Naturally, with my newfound eating habits, this was a disaster. I quickly became even more fixated on food. Weighing everything, cutting meals and going for long walks. It became all-consuming and the binges increased. I felt like I was spiralling out of control.

Luckily, my performances weren’t affected and I continued to dominate the Australian domestic season. Between my ears, though, I was suffering, trying to hold it together externally so no one guessed the guilt and pain affecting my mind.

You can listen to the full interview with Mia Freedman and Jana Pittman right here. (Post continues after audio.)

Around February in 2004 we headed over to Perth for a race. I had been out all day having a blast on Andrew Forest’s boat off the Perth coast. Standing up the front with my arms spread out like Kate Winslet in Titanic, bouncing across the waves, I felt free and happy. We raced the following day. I chose to wear a full-piece race suit as I was starting to feel very self-conscious about my body. I ran solidly, clocking a decent but not excellent time. We flew back to Melbourne on the red eye that night. The following day I rocked up to the track and something was just off, my knee was incredibly sore. I couldn’t stride out as it pinched and creaked with every step. We rushed to the physio, who pummelled me with treatment, and finally I was told to have two weeks off. No way—I can’t have two weeks off in the middle of the season!

I was racked with guilt. It must be my weight. I am too heavy and I caused the injury. I went into overdrive, writing myself the strictest eating plan that ever existed. I even rang Phil and said, ‘Right, PK, can I move in with you and Debbie? I need baby-sitting with my diet.’ I went to the extreme. In hindsight, it was probably the boat ride as my knees took the brunt of the waves, coupled with the race and then the cramped, late night plane flight home. But I was convinced it was my fault, my fat body was to blame.

I moved into Deb and Phil’s spare room and we got off to a great start. It was lovely having them around, they have three kids and I felt so at home. I certainly couldn’t binge and never did under their eagle eyed guidance. It was a relief to think that part of my life might be under control. Not knowing the struggles I had with diet, at one stage PK put a photo of me winning the World Championship under my door, next to a photo of the current, slightly heavy me. The note read something like, ‘It is up to you, JP.’ I knew what he meant and it simply reinforced my need to be skinny.

For free help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or at [email protected]

This is an edited extract from Just Another Hurdle by Jana Pittman. Available now, $32.99, Allen & Unwin, available now. You can grab your copy here. 

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