How athlete Jayne Nisbet beat bulimia to become an inspiration

Jayne Nisbet's success in changing her life culminated in the Commonwealth Games in 2014 ' and a new career as a motivator. Photograph: Ian Rutherford
Jayne Nisbet's success in changing her life culminated in the Commonwealth Games in 2014 ' and a new career as a motivator. Photograph: Ian Rutherford
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Before there is any meeting set or any time agreed for a chat, the e-mail address and Twitter handle offer more than a hint at the way Jayne Nisbet has turned her life around.

As the messages fly back and forth, discussing availability and arranging interview times, there is no escape from the positive message the former Scottish high jumper wants to get across.

The e-mail address is 
@beyoutiful-u.co.uk, the Twitter account is @_beYOUtiful_U and both are a far cry from the damaging way she looked at herself and lived her life just a few years ago.

Nisbet is a woman who has struggled with eating disorders, anxiety and depression but having overcome her issues she is now both a shining beacon of positivity and a cautionary tale.

Her social media accounts are motivational and honest and, knowing what she has come through, they are inspiring. In a world when such platforms can so often be used to troll, to promote an unhealthy and unrealistic reality and pull people down, she is fighting back.

“Adversity is something we all go through in life,” she states in one post. “Now you can’t tell me you haven’t because we all have but how do you deal with it?

“A lot of the time when adversity hits we start on a downward spiral into self doubt, criticism and lack of belief. Why? Because we hit a stumbling block? That is all it is, just a stumbling block! If you were driving down a road and it said ‘diversion’ would you just turn round and go home or would you follow the diversion and other route to get to your destination? You would definitely follow the other route. It might take you a little longer to get to the destination but you will get there.”

The fact is Nisbet has endured a few detours and veered off the straight, smooth roads to negotiate some potted, rutted, dirt tracks but she has arrived at a place where she is not only happy but also keen to offer some directions to others.

A sporty child, who swam and played hockey for years, she was a late starter in the world of athletics and while there were already underlying issues that would eventually require determination and therapy to address, it was only when she stepped into the world of top-class sport that the problems began to manifest themselves in devastating fashion.

“It wasn’t until I was 16 that I really got into the high jump.” But she was driven and she was good and very quickly she moved up the rankings. “I think the key thing was the exposure to the 
 elite level. Within two years I was competing for Great Britain and to be exposed to that level of perfectionism, which is so massive, when you already have issues, including OCD was tough. I have always been a perfectionist and OCD when it comes to planning stuff. Even now my diary is colour coded and I like everything managed. I am a bit more flexible now and it doesn’t affect me the same way if something changes but back then that level of perfectionism affected everything, including training.

“If things didn’t go right then I would go on a massive downward spiral. But now I understand how to control it and how to manage my emotions. Back then I was so afraid of being judged but when you are in a sport you are set up for people to judge you, to succeed or fail, so you are constantly afraid of what people think of you.”

What happened next is detailed in a best-selling book, which Nisbet penned to try to prevent others slumping to the depths she plumbed as the demons took hold.

The book – Free-ed: Stop Self Sabotage and Start Living Your Life Again – offers honest insight into the emotional, mental and physical toll as she became anorexic and then bulimic, tells of her terror at facing people and everyday situations, choosing instead to hide away in her room. It also reveals how she became too weak to compete and pondered whether her life was worth living. She admits she hit rock bottom.

“From the age of 18-21 I started to deal with things by manipulating food,” she said. “It was a control mechanism but it soon got out of control. I was losing weight and people were commenting on it but the more they commented the more I would use food to deal with the feelings. They asked if I had an eating disorder but I denied it.

“ I wouldn’t listen to the warnings and initially it was OK because my performances were still going up, up and up. But when I was 21 I missed the European under-23 qualifiers because I literally had no energy.

“ The way I started that year I should have qualified easily. It was 2010 and a Commonwealth Games year and I wanted to be there and I really tried but I had nothing to give. By that stage I was down to 51kg.”

The recommended ideal weight for a woman Nisbet’s height is between 57-70kg. Physically she was done, while the eating disorder also affected her moods. In the end, having sat out the major events that year, she had a blazing row with her mum and it forced her to confront the realities. “I eventually admitted there was something wrong and I went to the doctor,” she added.

But demands on the health service meant she was offered anti-depressants as an emotional sticking plaster and to try to rationalise her thinking and placed on a six-month waiting list to get the help she needed. “In the meantime I went from being quite anorexic to very, very bulimic and that was the worst because it was no longer visible. My weight went up to 65kg in the space of two months but I was on a major downward spiral and everything just got much worse.

“My mindset was a mess. The chemicals in my body were all messed up and it got to the point that I thought ‘I can’t live life like this anymore’. I basically tried to end my life and everything that anyone had ever criticised me about went through my head. But then I realised that it was all stopping me from being what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a Commonwealth Games athlete.

“It had taken me a long time to get to that point. I had admitted I was ill but it wasn’t until my 22nd birthday that I really started the process of implementing change and finding strategies to help me cope. I was so ashamed of who I was that it took a while for me to go to therapy. I had to build up the courage. But so much of it was to do with my relationship with the idea of perfection.”

It took years and it took guts but she opened up, she got some help and she reignited a lust for life. It was tough and there were even more diversions along the way but she put in the work and in 2014 she pulled on a Scotland vest and represented her country in the Commonwealth Games high jump final.

“That didn’t happen overnight. I would take two steps forward and then one step back. But now that sometimes feels like a past life.”

Having competed at Glasgow 2014, she walked away from the sport on her own terms. Now she lives in London, runs for fun, works as a personal trainer and helps others as a blogger, a motivator and a mentor.

This Friday she will address the Scottish Women in Sport conference, in Edinburgh, talking about body image and sport. She is also writing a new book, Finding Power, which deals with life after she stopped being an elite athlete. Aware that the transition into another career can often trigger mental health issues, through her own experiences she offers advice on how to adapt and looks at everything from body confidence issues to the more unexpected problem of filling weekends that had hitherto been bound up in competition or training.

It even impacts on families. Something she has realised. Supporting her sporting dreams from a young age, she says that while she was the athlete, her parents were just as invested as she was, which is why she is delighted they have embraced the new directions she has taken and can still take pride in her non-athletic achievements.

“My mum messages me now telling me that I inspire her to be a better person and to be fit. How lovely is that?

“I really value where I have got to. It is bizarre because it was such a hard time that I went through but it has made me who I am today. I appreciate every moment I have in life. It is crazy but I do so much self development and now I am able to help others going through similar things. I can use what I learned and help them overcome and come out the other side. When I was at my worst, a lot of people didn’t think I would be able to get through to the other side but I did. I did a lot of that on my own because at that time there wasn’t that much support, or people openly speaking about the issues. It was something that was brushed under the carpet.

“Seeing how much I get out of my life, it’s crazy. I’m such a social butterfly these days. Before I wouldn’t put myself out there but now I am speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people. Back then that would have absolutely petrified me. I was scared to put myself in a situation where people could judge me or might say something negative. But now I am comfortable with who I am.”