I developed bulimia nervosa, depression, and anxiety when I was around 15.
My biggest fear was people knowing. Talking about my mental illness publicly was never something I saw myself doing when I was younger. But as I grew older my mindset changed, and when my mental health forced me to step away from sport for a season, I chose to open up about it.
It’s tempting to look for one concrete cause when someone develops an eating disorder. It’s such a destructive illness. It goes so strongly against human nature. I spent a lot of time searching for my own reasons and in the end, I found there wasn’t just one cause. Family dynamics, bullying, head injuries, and personality traits all played a part. Eventually, I realized the biggest driver in my case was the deep rooted sense of shame I felt about every aspect of my life. I was never enough, I was not worthy of love, I was worthless.
I turned to food for a sense of control over a life I felt I didn’t own. Food was both a comforting blanket and a stick to beat myself with. I ate to soothe anxieties and then I threw up because I was afraid of weight gain. I put all my self-worth into numerical goals. Test scores, race results, numbers on a scale. If I didn’t achieve my goals, I would punish myself by withholding food. But this restriction would result in binge eating, followed by making myself sick. Eventually, it stopped being a coping method and became a destructive habit of its own. I told myself that I could stop if I wanted to, but I didn’t. Or maybe I just couldn’t.
I believe that I would have developed an eating disorder regardless of my pursuing high performance sport. I know that my skiing did not help me in recovery. Sport can be a channel for excellence, but it can easily foster obsessive and destructive habits. Someone trying to gain or lose weight for performance can very quickly go too far. I became obsessive about numbers and stats in training, believing that if I reached my goals, I would ultimately perform better on snow. Body fat percentage, lean mass, weight, strength-to-weight ratio; if I could take these numbers to the extremes, then I could lift more, jump higher, run faster. It might have been the case if I hadn’t gone about it in the way that I did, but instead of improving myself, I became very sick.
My health and quality of life deteriorated alarmingly in 2015. I was stuck in a vicious cycle with my eating disorder, and my body just couldn’t keep up anymore. I was constantly short of breath, and my heart made funny jumps when I was exercising. I looked ill. I remember looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror one September day, and not recognizing the face that was looking back at me. The girl I saw in the mirror had pale, lifeless skin, swollen cheeks and cracked lips. Her eyes were sunken, accented by dark circles below them. There was something in her eyes that made me scared, the soul staring back was saying something was very wrong. I was frightened of her. The girl in the mirror scared me enough that a small voice inside said things needed to change.
I applied to the Looking Glass Residence for the Treatment of Eating Disorders in October of 2015, and I was accepted in December. I have never been more terrified than I was standing on the front porch of that house. LGR is in Vancouver, and is one of only two publicly funded residential treatment centres in Canada. I was admitted to the 12-week, possibly 16-week, inpatient program. I would stay in a house with 13 other young adults and full-time medical staff and mental health workers. I went from eating irregularly to eating three complete meals and three snacks per day, and after every meal we gathered to discuss how the food made us feel. I had one-on-one therapy, psychiatry, group therapy and learning sessions. For the first month I wasn’t allowed to exercise, save for our daily half-hour walk with the group. It was a major adjustment, since exercise was such a huge part of my life.
I felt restless and anxious. I started to understand how much of my self-worth and identity was tied to being an athlete and a skier. I think the 14 weeks I spent in Vancouver were the most challenging and rewarding I will ever experience. Few people have the opportunity to take that amount of time to heal and learn about who they are as a person. I came out with the skills and courage to live my life ED-free. I made some friends that will be close to my heart forever. The biggest thing was I walked away with an understanding of who India really is.
'I wasn't prepared for the Olympics'
Two years later I started my rookie season on the world cup ski cross circuit. I had low expectations because I was so new to that level. Maybe you can imagine how shocked I was to win the qualifier at the first race of the season, and again in January when I won my first podium. Shortly after, I was selected to the Olympic team for Pyeongchang. All at once I was thrown into the limelight. I wasn’t ready.
Truthfully, I wasn’t prepared in the slightest for the 2018 Olympics. I held the Games as more of a dream than a tangible goal. I didn’t know how to manage media or fans or the immense pressure I felt to perform. I suffered extreme doubt and questioned everything, simply because a small part of me felt like I didn’t belong.
Maybe it was because of this doubt that I made a mistake on race day. A mistake that caused me to fall backwards and hit the uphill landing of the next jump. A mistake that resulted in a broken back. I knew I was lucky to have escaped worse injury. I spent only six weeks in a brace and needed no surgery to heal my little bones. In my heart, though, I felt I had failed myself and my country. As it turns out, that was a much more difficult injury to overcome.
Darkness into light
I had so much on my side throughout the months that followed — a support team of health and mental professionals, family and friends that never gave up on me. Despite doing everything right, I fell back on my eating disorder to cope with the trauma and depression. While that’s really a story for another time, I can say that those were the darkest few months of my life.
Just as there is no single cause of an eating disorder, there is no single key to recovery for any mental illness. A combination of therapy, medication, and perhaps my own stubbornness helped me climb out of my dark place. Now, almost exactly a year after my crash in Korea, I feel the best I ever have. I’m a big believer that people grow the most in difficult times. With that knowledge, I allow myself to feel pride in how far I have come as a person and as an athlete. While I hope to be through the worst of it, I understand this isn’t likely the case. Regardless of what I face in the future, I know I can handle it. Darkness can be a gift. Holding it softly in my hands, I will thrive.
(Top and middle large photos submitted by India Sherret; bottom large photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
The India Sherret edition
Q: The best book you've ever read?
A: I know it’s a children's book, but my favourite is Watership Down.
Q: Must-listen Podcast?
A: I don't listen to many podcasts, but I like crime and psychology based ones.
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: With enough hard work, you can achieve anything. Nick Zoricic told me that when I first met him. It's a pretty cliche piece of advice but the situation made it a pretty influential moment in my life.
Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: Struggle Street.
Q: What word or phrase do you over use?
A: “That’s super clutch.”
Q: What is a skill you wish you had?
A: General coordination.
Q: What's something no one would guess about you?
A: That I love architecture and interior design.
Q: What scares you?
A: All the night sounds when I'm solo camping.
Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite?
A: Emily Carr, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Emma Watson, Billie Jean King, Clara Hughes.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: I ugly cry during every dog movie.
Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Completing paramedic training.