Tonya Russell: “You’re only as sick as your secrets”

There is no such thing as not sick enough, no matter what a doctor or society may say. If you have a troublesome relationship with food, body image, or exercise, seek help. Don’t suffer in silence or wait for things to get worse. Society glorifies behaviors that are disordered, so trust your instincts. As part […]

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There is no such thing as not sick enough, no matter what a doctor or society may say. If you have a troublesome relationship with food, body image, or exercise, seek help. Don’t suffer in silence or wait for things to get worse. Society glorifies behaviors that are disordered, so trust your instincts.

As part of my interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tonya Russell. By day, Tonya Russell works in public relations, but in her spare time, fitness is everything. She is an avid runner, yogi, and traveler-sometimes combining all three loves. She’s not afraid to talk about mental health, and she’s open about therapy and her history with eating disorders and anxiety. She lives in southern New Jersey with her fiancé and four fur babies. Follower her on Instagram @_ajourneytofit_.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?

I am a marketing manager for a PR firm, but in my spare time, I am a fitness influencer.

Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Are you able to tell our readers the story of how you struggled with an eating disorder?

My dysfunctional relationship started in middle school. I was bullied and would get extra help in classes to avoid the cafeteria. I was also just meeting my father’s side of the family, which was quite an adjustment. I suddenly had an ill father (he had cancer) as well as siblings. I was also maturing, and my mom would point out my cellulite and make me wear sarongs over my bathing suits (in 7th grade!). My poor body image coupled with new family turmoil was a recipe for what would become anorexia by college.

I began college as a Division 1 runner, and with track practice, restricting, and individual workout sessions, I burned out quickly. It hurt to give up on running at the collegiate level, but my performance in and out of class was declining. Right before my sophomore year, my father passed. That put me into a tailspin, and I gave up on food. I left during the first semester of that year for medical leave, and within 5 months, I had two inpatient hospital stays. They seemed to be enough to cure me at 20. I didn’t have any issues for years.

Then at 28, I decided to begin training for a bikini competition. I was not insecure about my appearance, but I began purging. Physique competitions are the worst things for people in recovery, but I was so far removed from my body image issues, I thought I was okay. Within two weeks of changing my diet and exercise, I began purging. And within 6 months of that, I was diagnosed with anorexia and compulsive exercise. For some reason, losing weight is what sparked the distortions of my body. I didn’t feel fat before, but even with my weight loss, I was worried about being the fattest person in the room.

What was the final straw that made you decide that you were going to do all you can to get better?

I would eventually reenter treatment, this time an IOP (intensive outpatient program) at the urging of my therapist. She was changing careers, but she did not want to end the relationship with me still struggling. During those six weeks, I gained some of my lost weight back, and I completely gave up exercise. Within three months of finishing, I decided to sign up for a local race, the Broad Street Run, a ten-mile party in Philadelphia.

I quickly realized how beneficial my rest was. I discovered that I still had some of the speed I was known for in high school and college, and this time, endurance. I surpassed my Broad Street time goal by 6 minutes. I’d sign up for local 5k’s, most of which I would place (and sometimes win). I decided to challenge myself and run a marathon, eight months after starting to run.

Marathon training was a whole new ballgame, one that required me to be intuitive with my eating and health. I had to figure out if I was wiped out because I hadn’t eaten enough, or if it was just the result of a tough run. You have to come to terms with the fact that some days you’ll have to consume more calories than you’re used to. Your caloric needs vary from day to day to support muscle recovery and repair. The question became: do I care about restricting and maintaining my weight, or continuing to earn these medals and reaching my goals?

And how are things going for you today?

I just ran my second marathon. My body image isn’t the best yet, but I love that I can revel in my strength and my abilities. My body can do amazing things, and it needs fuel to support that.

Based on your own experience are you able to share 5 things with our readers about how to support a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder? If you can, can you share an example from your own experience?

1. Educate yourself and differentiate between myths and facts. For instance, thin people can binge, and larger people can restrict. There is no size requirement for an eating disorder.

2. You’re only as sick as your secrets. Let your loved one know that they can talk to you without any judgment.

3. Be mindful of praise. Whether someone has gained or lost weight, it can be triggering to them, or because they could be struggling.

4. Remember that looking healthy doesn’t mean that someone isn’t struggling. The body heals before the mind. Check-in post-treatment or weight restoration. As I stated, my body may be strong enough to run a marathon, but my mind has a long way to go.

5. Avoid diet talk around your loved one. Imagine having to eat three meals and three snacks a day, just to have to sit through conversations about intermittent fasting.

Is there a message you would like to tell someone who may be reading this, who is currently struggling with an eating disorder?

There is no such thing as not sick enough, no matter what a doctor or society may say. If you have a troublesome relationship with food, body image, or exercise, seek help. Don’t suffer in silence or wait for things to get worse. Society glorifies behaviors that are disordered, so trust your instincts.

According to this study cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people in the U.S. of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Can you suggest 3–5 reasons why this has become such a critical issue recently?

1. Wellness culture and the glorification of seeking optimal health. There are people making an obscene amount of money off making people think that their bodies aren’t okay.

2. Social media. It is easy to get caught up in the comparison trap. As a runner, I must remember that my body wasn’t built for me to run every day, no matter what others may be doing.

3. Mental health stigma. Everyone is trying to cope with something. People with anxiety, depression, etc. are forced to suffer in silence. Medication is seen as weakness, and therapy is for crazy people. These types of comments are insidious and prevent people from getting the help that they need. Eating disorders are comorbid with depression, addiction, and other mental illnesses.

4. The obesity “crisis.” We’ve been at war with larger bodies for years. Some people aren’t meant to be a size 0, and on the quest to build a body accepted by society, many are setting themselves up for a dysfunctional relationship with food.

Based on your insight, what can concrete steps can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities, and d) leaders do address the core issues that are leading to this problem?

Stop policing people’s bodies. I was weighed in front of everyone my freshman year of high school and told to lose weight. Little did my gym teacher know, I had already been restricting and exercising to lose weight. I don’t understand how it was supposed to be helpful to criticize growing bodies.

What I love is that many advertisements now show all types of bodies and abilities, which normalize them. Nobody is wrong, and skinny blonde women or svelte men in every ad don’t depict most of society.

Mental healthcare shouldn’t be a luxury. There shouldn’t be a weight or severity standard for treatments being covered by insurance.

As you know, one of the challenges of an eating disorder is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just control yourself”. What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that an eating disorder is an illness just like heart disease or schizophrenia?

Continue talking about the problem, without romanticizing it. Frankly, I’m not sure that most people will ever get it or see it that way. Many still don’t recognize binge eating as a mental illness and try to prescribe Weight Watchers.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have helped you with your struggle? Can you explain why you like them?

I switched from listening to “fitness junky” type podcasts to ones that promote health at every size. I love Food Psych, Nutrition Matters, Harder to Kill, Holistic Health Radio, and It’s Not About the Food. They have helped me to navigate fitness and nutrition without pseudoscience, promoting fads, or making me feel like my body is wrong. Though heavy on fitness, I love Mind Pump, because they often dispel trends and myths. Run 4 PR’s is a running focused podcast that keeps me grounded when I see others running themselves into the ground on Instagram. They are experts and they keep me out of the comparison trap with other runners.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If you find yourself digging a hole, stop digging. It is easy in recovery to ignore small behaviors, but they add up. It is also easy to feel like throwing in the towel. If you’re in the middle of a binge, you don’t have to keep going. Quit while you’re ahead.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I compliment every little girl I see. Adults too, but I feel like little girls go through so much by the time they get to middle school. If we could continue to lift up other women, we could affect change.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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