Before Sadie Tyler ever stepped foot onto the stage at her first bodybuilding competition, she had already faced her harshest judge: herself.
And she was an unforgiving critic. She scrutinized herself for any possible imperfection in her body, skin, hair or nails. It wasn’t that she was shallow or superficial. It was because she suffers from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an anxiety-related condition that causes a person to focus on real or perceived flaws in their appearance.
I’ve known Sadie, 27, of Winterport, for more than a year now and I’m proud of the progress she has made in battling BDD, and I’m even prouder of her courage in talking about a misunderstood disorder that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
In fact, knowing how private Sadie is, I was kind of shocked when she approached me about spreading the word about BDD.
I’m also guessing that the “old” Sadie of a couple years ago would also be shocked at the things the “new” Sadie is doing: getting ready for her fourth bikini competition (a division of bodybuilding) and teaching BodyPump – on a stage! In front of people! – at Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club.
“I believe most people go through times in their lives when they have issues with their bodies or appearance, but it’s the level of severity that differs. I want people to know they aren’t alone in feeling that way and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. And the good news is there are ways to overcome those feelings,” she says.
Looking back, Sadie is sure she suffered from BDD for years, but it didn’t become disruptive until she started to overcome some nagging long-term issues: PTSD, a brain injury and a rare seizure disorder.
“That’s when the symptoms of my BDD became more apparent and really started to take over my life,” she explains.
On paper, her life looked great. She was happily married to her best friend Jeremy, had a lovely home and was building a successful career in insurance. But when she looked in the mirror, she only saw flaws, and that made her feel like hiding.
“I was constantly comparing myself to other woman, including celebrities, critiquing my features, feeling anxious and anticipating how I would appear to others,” she says. “I would pick my nails and my cuticles to the point of drawing blood, and then cover up my nails by putting Band-Aids over them.”
Getting ready to go out at night was exhausting – finding the right outfit was almost impossible, and then getting her hair and makeup right would be another huge task.
“If I did end up going out my heart would race all the way to the destination and I would be thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. What about if someone looks at my husband and thinks, ‘Why is he with that?’ What if they noticed my irregularities and defects?” she remembers.
She studied the mirror for any small rashes or defects in her appearance. And if she found any, she tried to fix them by exfoliating, hiding, scrubbing or picking at them, which often made whatever small imperfection she believed she saw even worse.
It turned into a self-perpetuating cycle.
For example, BDD-related anxiety took away her appetite and she lost 11 pounds. That made her underweight, which caused her hair to thin. So she got hair extensions to make her hair seem fuller, but having hair extensions only reminded her that her hair was thin, causing even more anxiety.
She had no idea what was “wrong” with her until her therapist suggested she had BDD.
“The fact that I could work a 40-hour-plus week in an office with no problem, but getting ready to go out for a night was almost impossible, didn’t make sense to me and I was beyond frustrated,” she says.
“I mean I am not a superficial person and was always taught it was what’s on the inside that truly matters. I knew it was irrational but my emotions were so strong that it took over my mind.”
Since beginning treatment, she has uncovered some clues as to what might have laid the groundwork for the disorder.
“As far as what caused my BDD I now have a good understanding how some childhood events, how I was raised and being bullied from grade through high school might have laid the groundwork. All those factors contributed to an extreme lack of confidence and unhappiness with myself. At this point I can’t go back and change it. I am not mad and I don’t hold grudges so I will not allow it to continue to control my life. I have overcome many things to get to a good place I refuse to let this keep me down,” she says.
For years people had been telling Sadie she would do well in natural bodybuilding competitions but even though she had a lifelong interest in weight training, she always found an excuse not to give it a try.
“The biggest reason I gave myself was there was no way I had the confidence to pull off being a competitor in a competition. I mean for goodness sake I can barely go out on a date fully dressed and feel confident. So to willingly open myself up to judgment and quite literally bare myself to an audience full of strangers who are actively watching at the time seemed impossible,” she says.
Plus, she worried competing might mean she wouldn’t be taken seriously at work.
Then she realized those were only excuses and that competing might actually be beneficial for her.
“I have always felt the ‘rip-it-off-like-a-Band-Aid’ mentality works for me so I decided the only way to overcome something so severe was to immerse myself in a situation that forced me to focus and work on building myself inside and out,” she says.
So she hired a trainer, Sean Soucy at Bangor-Brewer Athletic Club, and was all-in.
But she admits being terrified at her first meeting with him. After Sean outlined her program – from the workouts and diet to the level of commitment and costs – she told her him her biggest worry was her lack of confidence, and she remembers him being dumbfounded.
“I didn’t want to scare the poor guy the first day so without going into all the details of BDD, I simply told him it’s just the way I feel and that’s why I am here,” she says now.
Sean recalls the meeting, too. “I didn’t get it,” he says. “She was one of the most genetically gifted and full of potential female athletes I’ve seen.”
She started training 5 days a week and following a nutrition plan, which for her (unlike many competitors) actually meant eating more food than she had been before.
In the past year she says she has gained about 12 pounds of muscle, her hair is thicker, her nails are almost fully recovered and her skin is no longer reactive.
The hardest part of the program was working on stage presence and posing because it meant she had to rely on pictures and the mirror, two of her old nemeses.
Having her picture taken caused instant anxiety and she also had a complicated relationship with mirrors. In the past, she either avoided them altogether or she spent hours staring into them, critiquing everything she thought was wrong with her appearance.
But in bodybuilding, pictures and mirrors are important tools. “I knew I needed to learn how to display my body in the best way on stage, so it had to be done. At first it was like a form of torture,” she remembers.
She says Sean focused on building her confidence. “We had lots of hearts-to-hearts during my workouts trying to work through the inner battle I was having with myself. He would tell me that when I go into the posing room I was not allowed to say or think anything bad about myself. That was very hard and I found myself having to stop or change my inner critic a lot,” she says.
Her husband and a few close friends who know first-hand her struggle have always helped shore her up during her periods of insecurity. “Through being at the gym I’ve also met some amazing and positive people that I surrounded myself with,” she says.
“The days before my first competition (in September 2014), I thought, ‘What did I get myself in to and why am I doing this?’” she said. “Getting on stage for the first time was terrifying and at the same time was one of the best experiences of my life. Once I was up there I put all the hard work together and stayed in the moment. The world didn’t come to an end, no one threw rocks at me, and I survived.”
She also brought home two trophies: a 2nd and a 4th place. She has moved up the rankings ever since.
“Invisible illnesses like this one are hard to diagnosis and understand,” says Sadie. “That is why I feel it is so important to educate and build awareness surrounding them. I was fortunate to have a few people around me I could confide in and also wouldn’t judge me or hold it against me. It is very easy for people to assume you’re seeking attention or being vain when it is far from the case.”
For Sadie, who is getting ready to compete in another show, the OCB Natural Yankee Classic in Newburyport, Mass., on July 25, every step onto the stage and into the spotlight is another chance to put BDD in its place.