It feels like there is an elephant sitting on my chest. My lungs are fluctuating between hyperventilation and taking deep breaths but feeling like the oxygen isn’t getting to me. I can feel my heart in my ears, in my hands, in my stomach. “Am I dying?” I think to myself as the dizziness sets in and cold sweat drips down the back of my neck. “Something is wrong.” Then I realize I’m holding my breath, and in a panic, I gasp for air. The pain in my chest subsides, but now my stomach aches in a way that worries me. I feel bloated and full of air but not enough oxygen. My body is rigid and painful. Fear is the only thing that I can think of, and it picks at me with obsessive thoughts and regrets until I can finally calm myself down or eventually pass out. From either exhaustion or lack of oxygen; I could never tell which.
Being told these episodes were panic attacks was not a pill I was ready to swallow. Something was clearly wrong. So very wrong. At the time, I was experiencing full-body muscle rigidity in the middle of the night. Waking up in a panic with my legs unable to bend, gasping for air because I was holding my breath in my sleep. I felt like I couldn’t breathe at least once a day. Even in happy moments, a sense of impending doom followed me like my twisted shadow. Panic was always around the corner.
Looking back now at a wonderful childhood, I can now see that there were moments of extreme anxiety and panic at ages that should be care-free and worriless. I remember I had night terrors, sleep walking episodes, and other issues with sleep. The monsters I was afraid of had more to do with mortality and heaven and hell than the ones that could fit under my bed. I’m not sure where it came from, but the more I explore the world of mental health and my own personal history, the more I understand that my mind, without intervention, was predisposed to over-analyzation and panic. Throughout most of my adolescence, I was an incredibly happy kid. I flourished in school, my mother taught me how to harness my creativity and imagination and my father helped me find a sport that I completely fell in love with. I was happy, I was loved, and best of all, I was cognizant of how fortunate I was.
I began taking taekwondo classes when I was only 8 years old. My father enrolled me in a summer camp, and although I can’t remember much detail, I remember joy. I remember being good at it. I remember things coming effortlessly and the instructor encouraging me to be a part of their competition team. My first tournament was in November 2001. That is something I remember vividly because I harnessed my nerves to my advantage for the first time in my life. I became addicted. To the nerves. To the rush and adrenaline of fighting another person. To the contact. To the winning. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t for the next 12 years.
Taekwondo took me everywhere and taught me more in a shorter period of time than some people learn in a lifetime. I was competing in about 10–13 competitions a year during those 12 years of competition. I competed annually at state and regional qualifiers and two National Championships per year. When I was 12, I competed at an international event for the first time, and at 14, I began to travel overseas to compete. Even in the beginning, my coaches were constantly pushing me to do more and be better. They would have me fight at the black belt level when I was only a blue belt so I could get more challenging fights. They would move me up from the 10–11 age group to the 14–17 age group to gain experience. Even if I lost, I would love it, because I would always be able to hold my own, and I loved seeing the look on the girls’ faces when I told them how old I was.
At my first international event I was a 12-year-old blue belt, fighting in the 12–14 year old black belt division. I was absolutely terrified. This was the US Open; one of the highest-level events in taekwondo in the world. I wasn’t sure if I deserved it, and my nerves seriously took over. I remember having anxiety attacks weeks before the event when I would have a bad practice or lose a fight during training. The day of the event I couldn’t even eat. It drove my mother crazy, and she came at me with snacks and meals, but they just turned my stomach. She eventually forcefully offered me a banana, and by the look on her face, I could tell that if I didn’t willingly eat it, I was at risk of having it shoved into my mouth. Miserably, I choked it down and showed my then-appeased mother an empty mouth. Shortly after, I was called to the athlete holding area, paired up with my first bracketed match, and we began walking to the ring. Before you enter the floor at international events, they always have a referee check your equipment, make sure you don’t have earrings or long nails, and confirm you have a mouth piece. As I was awaiting my turn for inspection, everything felt electric. The noise of the crowd and the competition was incredible. My senses were so heightened, and I was simultaneously ready to rip my opponents head off and turn around and run right out of the venue. I bounced and swung my arms to relieve the tension building up in my body. That’s when that banana reared its ugly head. Nausea is a powerful thing when your adrenaline is coursing through you. I turned around, spotted the nearest garbage can 20 yards away, and ran toward it. Standing over that horrible smelling trash can, I told myself to pull it together. People were watching. You’re better than this. After I convinced myself I was fine, I stood up and began walking back over to the inspection only for nausea to violently overcome me halfway there, where I “released” banana all over the venue floor in front of just about everyone. As I stood there prepared for shame or embarrassment to kick in, I realized that my nerves had subsided, and I felt much more “fighty” and not one bit “flighty.” “I feel better now,” I remember saying out loud to no one in particular as I stepped back up to the ref and held out my arms for him to inspect my equipment. I went on to win second place that day. I also didn’t eat bananas for about 10 years, and it started a bizarre pre-fight ritual before national and international events where I would uncontrollably throw up before my first fight. This was my way of getting that anxiety out before an event. My subconscious coping mechanism was to physically purge out anxiety. I didn’t realize until writing that just now, how that subconscious conditioning seriously contributed to my disordered eating later in life.
I traveled all over the United States and the world. I traveled to Germany, Switzerland, Canada, The Dominican Republic, Spain, and Turkey to compete and train with other national teams. I have rest stop preferences throughout Floridan highways because of the sheer volume of driving we did for tournaments and training camps. I made the US National Team twice and got to spend a significant amount of time training and competing at the Olympic Training Center. I met lifelong friends and am fortunate enough to have been teammates with Olympians and some of the most talented athletes in the world. Taekwondo was a gift and purely and simply one of the best things that has ever happened to me. But, it came with challenges. Coaches can be manipulative and controlling. It’s a full contact sport with its fair share of injuries and concussions. It’s a weight-controlled sport, and for me that included weight cuts, extreme dieting, exercising in saunas, and wearing trash bags to sweat out every last drop. I still can’t sit in a sauna for more than 5 minutes. Although I was enjoying this non-traditional life I was leading, I didn’t realize how I was developing a destructive relationship with food and body image, or that I wasn’t learning how to cope with stress without throwing up or kicking something.
My third year of college, I was 21 years old and was forced to choose between school and taekwondo. The athletic training program at the University of Central Florida is intense. Hundreds apply, and they only accept around 25 students per year. If you get a C during any semester, you are placed on academic probation and can be removed from the program if you do not maintain A’s and B’s during the following semesters. In addition to this, you are required to have an internship with certified athletic trainers throughout the entirety of the program. They say it should be around 16–24 hours per week, but while working with division I football and baseball, it was more like 40–60 hours. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but I missed taekwondo and slowly began to realize that I did not have the appropriate skills or outlets to deal with this kind of stress and pressure. I began to turn to both old and new habits. I had a history of managing my weight with purging since I was about 20 years old. I told myself it wasn’t a problem because it wasn’t everyday, and I only did it when it was before an event when my weight was an issue. I never realized it would follow me after I left taekwondo behind.
The second year of my program at UCF was when everything came to a peak. I had hit my breaking point, and anxiety and panic became a part of my daily life. I was not taking care of myself. Between drinking heavily, eating processed junk foods, binging and purging, and ignoring any kind of mental and spiritual well being, it’s no wonder my body and mind started to revolt against the decisions I was making. The anxiety became debilitating and began to manifest itself physically, causing me to be highly concerned about my health. I convinced myself things were wrong based on the symptoms of anxiety attacks and went to countless doctors only to be handed Prozac. It was maddening. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown because I was certain that I was dying. Not one MD/PA/ENT/gynecologist even asked me why I was so stressed. They simply told me I was fine but had anxiety disorder or panic disorder all while experiencing heart palpitations, chest pain, fevers, sensations of derealization, and a plethora of other symptoms. So, I constantly told myself that when I graduated, it would be better. The stress would be less consuming, and I would find something I loved again instead of feeling like some washed up fighter not doing anything significant with their lives. I felt weak. I felt helpless.
Unsurprisingly, the stress, anxiety, and self-loathing followed me to grad school in North Carolina. At the time, I didn’t realize that external forces had nothing to do with my own well-being and happiness. Instead, I looked for happiness in one destructive relationship after the other and at the bottom of whatever bottle, can, or fast food container I could get my hands on. I gained 50 pounds. I questioned why people loved me in the first place. The only happiness in my life was a few great friends and my discovery of BMX and those wonderful athletes. Regardless, I took my aggression out on people around me and secluded myself every chance I got. It was embarrassing to see old friends because I knew I was different. When I look back on that year after graduation, it feels like someone else’s life. Whoever that person, she was not me.
After being let go from my graduate assistantship due to lack of program funding, losing the ability to pay for school, knowing my grandma was fighting a battle with cancer, and being dumped by yet another narcissistic man who didn’t deserve an ounce of my time, I snapped. I cried everyday for maybe three months. I was done with myself and who I had become. I couldn’t eat or sleep. It was the first time I hadn’t had an appetite in years, but when you wake up everyday to your baseline of borderline panic attack, eating is the last thing on your mind. Acupuncture is actually the first step I took toward health. The acupuncturist at Townsend Acupuncture in Raleigh, NC was the first healthcare professional to ask me why I was stressed, what I was eating, and how I was coping with my feelings. I’m sure people had tried to intervene before. I vaguely remember my parents and friends expressing concern. I absolutely remember Josh Perry harping on and on about nutrition throughout most of his ACL pre/rehab we went through together, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t listening to anyone.
One day, during a meditation and acupuncture session, it was like a switch flipped. I went home and immediately started to apply for jobs in Florida. I wanted nothing more than change. I wanted to change the people around me, the place I was in, and who I was. Three minutes after applying to a job in Tampa, I got a phone call for a job interview. Things were falling into place, and I was on the right path. I could feel it in my bones and heard my intuition for the first time in years telling me I was doing the right thing; I was under the impression she had given up on me a long time ago.
After I moved, I immersed myself in nutritional research, meditation, and self-reflection. I leaned on people who had always been there and surrounded myself with love, light, health, and positivity. It took time, but I got to a place of healing where I wanted to battle my disordered eating. The feelings of anxiety were less intense, and panic wasn’t a daily thing anymore. I began to realize that when I turned to whole foods, the anxiety symptoms were less prominent. Then I noticed that higher fat and lower carbs made my whole body feel better, and without even trying, I lost 20 pounds. When I switched to hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, my brain fog disappeared. This was my first realization of how tightly interconnected my physical and mental well-being were. Eating and mental health are tightly woven together in my psyche, and this realization was everything. With great power comes great responsibility, and from there I knew my happiness was only up to me and desired to overcome this eating disorder that had latched itself onto my life. Binging and purging would only lead to anxious and obsessive thoughts and feelings. It didn’t serve me anymore, and I had to let it go.
Luckily, I was falling in love with a man who can’t help but to inspire the people around him. Josh was a huge part in showing me that, yes, I deserve more, and better, and everything I want, but it was up to me to get it. He opened my mind to a high-fat diet and pointed me in the direction of people and research that could guide me. When we moved in together and began implementing the ketogenic diet, things really started to shift. It unlocked the full potential of how good I can feel. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had a panic attack. Anxiety comes around, but now I have the tools and mental capacity to deal with it. Disordered eating is something I am still working through, but with keto I can feel satiated and unrestricted; I know if I’m strong and consistent, I eventually won’t have cravings. I’m currently using keto with coach Lauren Berryhill to get my body composition back to where I want it to be. I know I have a path that requires patience and attention to detail because of the amounts of metabolic damage to my gut and body. Years of crash dieting and binging and purging took its toll, but now my diet is a lifestyle, and it feels like freedom rather than restriction and control. It took me a while to get here, but now that I am, I’m not leaving.
The more I learn about the ketogenic diet within the athletic and medical community, the more I realize I want to share it with my athletes and anyone who will listen. Research with TBIs and performance are well under way, and I am determined to implement it into my practice. As an athlete from a full-contact sport who dealt with multiple concussions, I love that something as simple as my diet is benefiting my brain.
As I’m writing this, I can truly appreciate how far I’ve come in just a few years. I have so much gratitude in my heart for my family, friends, and my partner. They encouraged me to find so much strength within myself. I encourage anyone traveling through their own journey with mental health to understand how important community and self-expression is. Through a network of support, a willingness to sit with myself and my demons, and lifestyle changes, I was able to come out on the other side. I was able to understand that one of the core values in my life should be prioritizing my mental, emotional, and physical health. I wouldn’t have been able to come to these realizations while feeding my mind and body toxins and poison. Food was such a major key in saving my life, and I am so thankful for Ketogenic.com for allowing me the opportunity to share that with others.
Jackie Lauricella in a 27 year old health professional in the field of athletic training. Her practice specializes in sports medicine care in the athletic population from high school to professional levels. She is originally from Daytona Beach, Florida but currently resides in Apex, North Carolina with her partner, Josh Perry. As former athlete in the sport of taekwondo, Jackie made two USA national teams and medaled at international events all over the world during her 14 years of competing. She began experimenting with the ketogenic diet about a year ago to help with personal anxiety and disordered eating and has recently adopted it fully as a way to change her body composition and gain strength with weight training. She is passionate about sharing the idea of holistic health with her athletes and those around her. “I understand the the idea of well-being is all encompassing. Rest, nutrition and mental health are all as equally important as exercise and training to an athlete’s success.” She encourages high fat/low carb eating when dealing with concussion and TBI management and is an advocate for continued research on how nutritional intervention plays a huge role in healing time.