Erasing the Stigma: A Series on Student Athletes

Part 3

By Katie Montgomery

For many athletes, admitting that they have a chronic, invisible condition they can’t fix is terrifying.

Common fears about mental health include loss of playing time, loss of teammates’ respect and being seen as a quitter or a complainer.

Of course, that’s assuming athletes know mental health issues when they feel them and know it’s not a “fake” illness.

For Alexandra Butta, a former swimmer at Ursuline College, the way she viewed her anorexia never registered as “sick enough” for her to get treatment.

“When people talked about anorexia, I saw this super skinny, helpless, dying woman in bed,” she said. “I literally laughed in the doctor’s face when he recommended 24/7 residential care. I didn’t believe him.”

Her struggles began her senior year of college as her swimming career came to a close. She panicked about what she was going to do after college now that she would never have a coach yelling at her again, telling her what to do next to stay in shape.

Still fiercely competitive and goal-oriented, she decided she was going to become a bikini model.

“I would find diets online and I’d halve them, because I wanted to get to my goal faster and better than anyone else,” she said. “I started seeing a trainer, and I would work out twice as much as he recommended, just because I was so competitive.”

This kind of perfectionism is now classified as a vice by psychologists, along with narcissism and egocentrism. But for coaches and athletes, it’s not uncommon to hear it praised as a virtue.

“All I had known was being excellent and accomplishing what I wanted,” she said. “I always got what I wanted because I fought for it.”

Because of her competitive dedication to working out as much as she could and eating as little as possible, the disease almost killed her. She exercised intensely and impulsively. Her personality changed and she wasn’t thinking logically anymore because her brain was “starved.”

Even when she began feeling the physical effects of starvation, she refused to stop competing with herself.

“Athletes are stubborn and determined to a fault,” she said. “If you use it the wrong way, it can kill you.”

It took two years for her family and friends to convince her to seek residential treatment, and she still struggles to gain the weight back.

She uses her experience for good, by talking about her struggles openly. But even with her dedication, she admits that it’s hard to talk about it.

“I’m basically advertising the fact that I sucked at being an adult for a good three years,” she said. “I behaved like a 10-year-old child when I was in treatment. I failed as an adult.”

Regardless of her pride, she continues to fight the stigma by educating others. She meets regularly with those who have similar eating problems, or who have people in their lives struggling with the disorders.

“I’ve talked with a lot of women who I don’t think would have gotten help otherwise,” she said. “The stigma isn’t going to go away unless we make it go away.”

Part 1: here

Part 2: here