Monica Seles won nine Grand Slam events during her professional tennis career. She remains the youngest person to win the French Open and the youngest to reach the world No. 1 ranking. Her list of accomplishments is long, yet when she thinks of her playing days, she often thinks first of something few people know about: Seles battled an eating disorder for the majority of her career.
After matches and practices, the Yugoslavian star would go back to her hotel room and empty the mini bar snacks. Potato chips, pretzels, and cookies were her Achilles’s heel. She thought the binges were an emotional reaction to her stabbing (she was stabbed by a fan of rival Steffi Graf in 1993, forcing her to miss two years on tour) and her father's illness.
She now knows that she was actually battling Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Officially named a medical condition in 2013 – but recognized by doctors for many years before that – it is the most common eating disorder among U.S. adults. More than 2.8 million Americans battle BED every year.
People battling BED often eat much more than others in short periods of time, eat uncontrollably, and feel ashamed after their binges. They might eat incredibly rapidly, well beyond feeling full, or when they are not hungry. When these behaviors persist at least once a week for three months or longer, it is most likely a case of BED.
“For me, suffering from binge eating disorder was as tough as playing any opponent on the tennis court,” Seles told Yahoo Sports. “It was very hard for me to understand how one part of it I’m able to do what my coaches are telling me and what I know I need to do but when it comes to my binge eating I’m out of control.”
Seles’s coaches and parents would tell her to “get a grip,” she said. The more they said it, the more ashamed she felt, and the more she withdrew from them. But she couldn’t control it. It had nothing to do with being hungry – it was just something that would come over her, almost like an out-of-body experience, she said, a pure euphoria.
“You’re just inhaling food... It just feels so wonderful, and you’re not even noticing the huge quantities of food that you’re inhaling,” she said. “And then just feeling terrible about what you have done. In my case I let down my coaches, my sponsors, even my family.”
In group settings, she ate very small amounts, waiting until she could be alone in her room to eat on her own. “I didn’t want them to think that I was overeating or letting them down,” she said.
She suffered in silence for years, she said, especially because she never wanted to show her opponents any weakness.
A few years after her 2008 retirement, she finally decided to see a doctor, where she was quickly diagnosed.
“It was a big revelation, when the person said this is a medical condition, because I always thought I just wasn’t mentally strong,” she said. “It’s a huge weight lifted off your shoulder.”
Since then, her life has completely changed, she said, and she is now attempting to help others recognize the disorder through a campaign with Shire, the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Treatment for BED is determined on an individual basis. “With BED, the person can need a variety of levels of care,” explained Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt of Oliver-Pyatt Centers. The options range from outpatient care to hospitalization, but the exact course must be determined by the person with BED and the health-care professional.
“What it boils down to is is the person suffering?” she said. “If they are binging once every 10 days, they maybe don’t meet the exact criteria, but I definitely encourage them to meet with a healthcare provider.”
Warning signs of BED include avoiding certain social situations, staying in a lot, or going out to the store alone and then bringing food into a private room, where no one will witness a binge.
This is how Seles carried out her binges – alone in hotel rooms, or in her room at home. She thought she was hiding it well, but there was no hiding when she gained weight or felt sluggish after repeated binges.
At the time, her coaches and nutritionists did not know that it was a medical condition. She said she feels fortunate that there are now so many more options for those suffering from BED.
She shares her full story in her memoir, Getting a Grip: On my body, my mind, my self, and offers advice in a current PSA campaign.
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