Brittany Maddocks has dealt with Anorexia Nervosa for the past decade, but that didn’t hold her back from joining the American Ninja Warrior family. She took her first steps on the course in Indianapolis. While her run didn’t make the show, she’s a valued member of the Ninja community.
Brittany trains with the infamous Wolf Pack in the Fort Collins, Colorado, area. In high school, she was a professional rock climber who was ranked in the top 10 nationally, and at the age of 22, lists one of her goals as earning her master’s degree in social work.
In true Ninja fashion, Brittany is ferociously dedicated to the people and things she loves. You can tell when she lights up at any mention of her boyfriend and trainer, Justin Frank. And you can tell as she continues to this day to shield her parents from the heartache that comes with facing an illness such as anorexia.
Brittany talked with us before her American Ninja Warrior qualifying run in Indianapolis. What she shared was a long struggle with her heart and her head that saw her saying goodbye to her first love of professional rock climbing, facing her fear of vulnerability, and moving forward into a future that’s totally hers to tackle.
Brittany is the third oldest of nine children. She has always led a fairly hectic life combining rock climbing with her studies and navigating the emotional needs of a large family. She first noticed her habit of restricted eating around the age of 14, but attributed it to part of the process to succeeding in her passion: Competitive rock climbing.
"I was just getting into climbing and as I stopped eating, I started getting stronger. So, not really thinking much about it, I kind of took it as a correlation between the less you weigh, the stronger you get. That just kind of enabled it."
This routine went on for years before Brittany’s close friends and at-the-time boyfriend began to raise the alarm during her junior year of high school.
"A close group of friends were like, 'Hey, we noticed you're not eating lunch. We’re worried about this, and we see that you're super pale and not that healthy.’
I was tired all the time. I would take naps. I would shake. I would constantly get injured. Especially with climbing, I'd get tendon injuries, shoulder injuries. I always had something wrong with me. I would get sick a lot.
I was mostly in denial. I had a long-term boyfriend that helped me recognize that it was an issue. Certain characteristics like separating my food. Not eating that much. Hiding my dinner plate with a napkin. Trying to hide how much I actually did eat versus how much was on the plate. I went to a school counselor because it was an ultimatum from the boyfriend of, 'If you don't seek help, then we can't be together.' So I went to the school counselor, and the school counselor had to tell my parents. That was like this huge bomb that went off. Because my parents, they were kind of blindsided I think."
Brittany’s relationship with her parents pivots around this phone call. She went home terrified after that day. She needed to face the two strongest people in her life. She needed to protect her parents from what was happening, and she needed to protect herself from the pain of being that vulnerable. The solution: Say it wasn’t happening.
"I wanted to be able to have the courage to tell them myself. And then when they did approach me, it was ... I kind of felt defensive. I was like, 'No, I don't have a problem. It's not as big of a deal as it seems.' I tried to downplay it and I just told them I was good. Not to worry about it. Just because ... I don't know ... panic, I guess.
My mom could see it. She was always worried about it, but never really knew how to approach [the subject]. Even now, I don't want to tell them that I had a problem. I don't want them to feel like failures. They've been great parents. They've really done a great job. They'll always trust me. So when I told them that I was fine, they were like, 'Okay, well ... good.' And we just kind of didn't talk about it. It came up a few other times.
It's really hard to admit that you have a problem with something that seems so basic for human survival. It IS basic for human survival. Without it, you can't survive. And to admit it, especially to parents ... it was always hard for me. So I was never able to be like, 'I need help with this right now.' Because there was this shame and guilt that I felt. I didn't want them to feel like they're bad parents. Or that they were missing something. I understood that they had busy lives. With nine kids, I can't imagine trying to balance nine different separate lives. It's been interesting, especially with them; trying to figure out how to tell them I had a problem versus not making them feel guilty."
Finally, after almost 10 years of suffering as quietly as possible, Brittany reached a tipping point that pushed her into the mental health services offered by her school, Colorado State University, during her freshman year.
"I just couldn't take it anymore. When I was climbing I got sponsored by a company and the owner ended up tragically passing away, and it absolutely destroyed me. So I distinctly remember that in September of my freshman year, I thought, ‘I don't want to keep on doing this. I don't want to keep on failing, I don't want to.’
Obviously there was something more that I needed and I couldn't offer it to myself and the people around me couldn't give me the service."
Relapse is a strong word that can bring some pretty scary images to mind. Brittany doesn’t shy away from accepting the fact the relapses are a part of her life, and something she needs to be wary of as she continues to train for such strenuous events as American Ninja Warrior. With only two relapses in the past year, Brittany is proud of her progress and the steps she’s taking to build a stronger future for herself.
"Relapse is, for me personally, is usually triggered by stress. I don't want to eat. It's like I physically just cannot eat. I don't think I could keep it down. It's more of like a sick feeling in my stomach, like it wouldn't stay if I ate it. So I just wouldn't eat until I felt hungry. Sometimes that's one day, some times that's four days.
“It takes noticing that I feel anxious or I feel stressed and combatting it. I do that through mindfulness and meditation. I try to figure out what's causing the anxiety and then try to problem solve with solutions that can fix the anxiety. Then usually when I find a good solution, my anxiety goes down, or my stress goes down and I can eat again."
As Brittany began to develop the tools to address her anorexia, she also began to understand its triggers. Unfortunately, this led to the realization that her first love, rock climbing, might not be a part of her life for the time being. The same mentality that earned her a spot on the American Ninja Warrior Indianapolis course was working against her in rock climbing.
"I'm very, very competitive. I'm not going to compete unless I think I have a good chance at winning, or performing as well as I should. I know my capabilities and I know I haven't really reached them yet. Back when I was a senior in high school, when I'd say I was at my worst, I was 100 to 110 pounds. Right now I'm 140, 145, so that's a lot of weight with the same frame that I have. I haven't grown taller. I took a break from climbing for awhile to get my head in the right place. It was hard to try to compete and get healthy because my mind wasn't able to see the healthy side yet.
It's hard to keep a healthy mindset. I'd rather be where I am right now and not as good of a rock climber. Not doing Nationals, not trying to be the next up and coming female rock climber, and be 145 pounds and live my life day to day. I'm much happier with my lifestyle now. I'm not stressed. I'm in a much better place. I'm way happier.
I'll climb if it's with friends. I just won't climb by myself anymore. It's not worth it. It puts me in a bad mood, just because I am so competitive. I get frustrated with myself. Why can't you do what you used to do? And then it makes me think, 'Oh, because I'm not so small. So I was right about light being stronger.' It gets me down this bad spiral of a place I don't want to be in."
As Brittany prepared for the the lights and pressure of an American Ninja Warrior shoot, she planned to have her mom and boyfriend by her side for support. While she understands how important her family and loved ones are to her support system, she still struggles with showing them the extent of her struggles.
"I don't know why it's so hard for me to tell them [her parents] that I need help, or that I struggled with it. I would go through peaks and valleys. It would always be during a peak when we would talk about it. I would be feeling like, 'OK, I'm really motivated to get better.' So I'd be like, 'No. I'm really good right now. I'm really motivated. Don't worry about it.' And then when it got bad, I felt like I couldn't talk to them. I'd just chalk it up to teenage emotions and hormones and whatnot.
I wish that I had the courage the first time that it was brought up to be able to tell them. I wish the younger Brittany was able to just admit that she needed help. Because now I feel like I'm backtracking. 'Oh, you know when I said that I didn't need help? I really did.’
I don't know if I would have wished for it to not have happened because it's given me a lot of the resiliency that I have. I just wish that I could have told younger Brittany to trust her parents a little bit more with her struggles. Be vulnerable. It's really hard for me to be vulnerable. Especially with individuals that I see as very strong. I see both my parents as very strong individuals.
“I even wish Brittany right now would trust her parents a little bit more with emotions and being vulnerable because I think that would ease a lot of heartache. I think the biggest thing is I want my parents just to know they did a great job. I had opportunities to tell them, and I just didn't have the courage to."
So why did Brittany want to use American Ninja Warrior as a platform to share her story?
"I really honestly believe that if I talked about it sooner, or if I had felt it was more acceptable to talk to my parents about it, or more acceptable to talk to my friends about it, I wouldn't have struggled with it for as long as I did. I think of my little sisters and if they were struggling with it. I hope that they would have enough courage to talk about it.
But it's something that I don't think should take courage. I think that it's something that needs to change within our society that we should be able to talk about mental health because if we don't, the problems just fester and get worse. Then seven years down the line, it becomes this issue that is too big to handle by yourself.
I think American Ninja Warrior is a great platform to be able to get the word out there of being able to talk about it. It's really uncomfortable. I don't know if I feel guilt or shame about it. I don't know if that's the right word. I can't put the word to the feeling right now. It's hard. But someone has to do it.
My life is successful and my life is good. I didn't know if recovery was going to be worth it. I just want people to know that it is worth it. It's worth the fight. There's going to be really, really hard days. I still have hard days with it. But that doesn't mean to not fight for it. I think that's just the main thing. I want people to know that it's worth it."