“I was winning world titles looking lean and fit and you would never have had any idea. Because I never got really skinny… I was a completely normal weight.”
When you picture the type of person who suffers from an eating disorder, your thoughts might not immediately turn to an elite athlete.
One who jumps hurdles faster than any other woman in the world.
But for 35-year-old Jana Pittman, some of the most successful times in her career as an athlete occurred while she had a dysfunctional relationship with food. In 2004, she developed bulimia, and for the next decade her eating habits spiralled out of control.
“One of the hardest parts about it was that when the issues started happening with diet, I was at my best in sport,” she tells Mia Freedman in a recent interview for No Filter.
“So there was that… it was almost like a negative reinforcement saying, well, you’re getting away with it.
“Whereas if you’ve got an eating disorder or anyone who’s experienced it knows it’s really hard to beat, and if things start going wrong in life you can say, well, I need to fix this problem because it’s causing me relationship issues, it’s causing me problems with my work and my mindset. For me, I was winning world titles while this was happening. So it kept reinforcing in a positive way – well the skinnier you are, the faster you are, the better you are.”
What Pittman experienced – in terms of having her difficulties with food ‘reinforced’ by success – isn’t unique. In fact, it’s a part of what makes eating disorders particularly hard to recover from.
For Pittman, as for others, one of the ‘cognitive distortions’ or inaccurate thoughts that perpetuated her illness was superstitious thinking – the idea that her performance was in some way because of her illness.
“A person may attribute their achievements to their eating disorder and fear that by letting go of certain behaviours they will lose their identity and control,” says CEO of The Butterfly Foundation Christine Morgan.
In her years as an athlete, Pittman’s weight, and her need to control it, was central to her identity. Just as her success reinforced her disorder, when something went wrong, she attributed it to her weight and her need to be thinner, therefore restarting the cycle of restricting, bingeing and purging.
In her book Just Another Hurdle, Pittman writes about a knee injury she sustained in February of 2004. She had been in Perth for a race, where she went out on a friend’s boat, competed, then flew back to Melbourne overnight. The next day, she noticed pain in her knee, and was told she was injured and needed two weeks off.