Titans' Freshman Overcomes Adversity

By Tom Sheridan

The sun is beginning to set on another practice for Leslie Bullock and the rest of her Cal State Fullerton tennis teammates. With only a little daylight left they're trying to get in a few last volleys before they call it a day. It's only been a little more than a year since Bullock was released from the hospital, but those old memories seem like they're from another lifetime.

When she was hospitalized she wasn't sure when, or if, she would play tennis again. What a difference a year makes. In her first season as a freshman on the CSF women's tennis team, Bullock has overcome a four-year battle with an eating disorder and emerged as a future star and top player on the team by leading the Titans in singles wins.

It all started when Bullock was a 14-year-old high school freshman. For the two years prior to enrolling at Mater Dei High School, she was home schooled - where she was able to play tennis for up to six hours a day. Once she had a full load of classes, she had to cut down her practice time considerably. Less practice meant less exercise and she noticed herself gaining a little weight. Like most young girls on the verge of entering womanhood, Bullock bought into what she read in magazines, or saw on T.V., about what a stereotypical "ideal" woman was supposed to look like. As a self-described person who tends to overanalyze things too much, Bullock started to feel self-conscious and insecure about her appearance. She thought some of her new classmates noticed her weight gain, too, and she decided to go on a diet. It began as a simple pledge to lose a few pounds, but it turned into an eating disorder that consumed more than four years of her life. After that initial diet she still wasn't happy with herself.

"You don't see what other people see because you just have this image in your head that you're bigger, or you're not good enough," Bullock said.

At Mater Dei Bullock became a very accomplished athlete. She played all four years on the varsity team - earning the Most Valuable Player honor twice, while being named team captain in 2006. Despite her success on the tennis court, Bullock still wasn't happy. Her daily exercise routine, combined with her desire to cut calories, led to her developing an eating disorder known as "over exercising anorexia." As an athlete she was burning a lot of calories, and she wasn't taking in enough to replenish her system. The only things she would eat were fruit, vegetables and turkey. If she got really hungry she would only allow herself to eat a small portion of vegetables, or one slice of turkey.

"It's kind of like you're scared. Like you have done this, and the eating disorder has been created," Bullock said. "It's kind of like its own thing, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You have you the good person, and then you have your `ED', which is the eating disorder. It talks to you like, `No, you shouldn't eat it. You could go longer.' It's extremely weird...You just become afraid of food."

The first time her mother noticed something wrong was during her freshman year at Mater Dei. They were at a restaurant and Bullock ordered a tostada salad that came with cheese and beans. When she refused to touch it her mom got so mad that she yelled, "Why aren't you eating? What is wrong with you?" Even though her mom noticed the initial signs, she had no idea how serious it would become. Bullock said that her mom thought it was just a phase because she would stop eating, and then start up again.

Oftentimes, people with eating disorders don't want to recognize or admit that they have one. They can see the weight coming off and they keep getting skinnier, so they just keep doing it. Bullock got so used to her eating disorder that it became normal.

By the time she graduated from Mater Dei, she'd been struggling with anorexia for nearly four years. With her high school years behind her, Bullock was having a rough time at home about moving away. She was accepted at the University of Arizona, and was guaranteed a spot on the women's tennis team there. What should have been a dream come true for an 18-year-old, was anything but that for Bullock.

The summer before she was supposed to leave for Arizona, her eating disorder became very apparent. She changed her mind and didn't want to go. She fought with her parents because they thought that if she could get away from California and her old friends, that maybe she could start over, and it would be something new. That wasn't the case.

After being in Arizona for a little over a month things got much worse. She didn't want to be there and one of the main characteristics of her eating disorder is that she shuts down and stops eating all together when she's not happy.

Her tennis coach at Arizona took notice of her deteriorating condition. Being away from home, mixed with the pressure of school, practice, and the eating disorder was becoming too much for Bullock to handle. She was overwhelmed with everything so her coach told her to take a break. Just focus on school, and get better. She was assured that her spot would be there when she was ready to come back, but she never did return.

"I just couldn't do it, I needed help," Bullock said.

In October, 2007, she came home from school to visit her family. She looked like a skeleton, and when her parents saw her in that condition, they knew they had to do something. They took her to a hospital in Texas that focused on people with eating disorders. When she was admitted she was put on a six-meal plan - a balanced daily diet designed specifically for her. Prior to that, the amount of food she was consuming in an entire day didn't equal even one of the six portions she was now required to eat. Because she was classified as an over exerciser anorexic, the hospital wouldn't allow her to do any type of physical activity.

"I couldn't skip to lunch. I couldn't jump. No sit-ups. Nothing," Bullock said. "That was the hardest thing for me...Being an athlete you're always moving, like you always want to work out, even if it's just something little."

As a patient she couldn't work out at all, and was required to eat much more food than she was used to eating. Despite her increased diet, Bullock's willingness to follow the program was a major factor in how she overcame the eating disorder. She acknowledged her problem and took the necessary steps to fix it.

"When I went into rehab I had the mindset that I wanted to get better. I wanted to get out of here. I wanted to be home. I just wanted to get over this," Bullock said.

For most people it takes eight to ten weeks to complete the program. She finished in six to eight weeks. While some new patients resist when they first get there, Bullock said, "I knew that I was sick, and food was my medicine." When she finished the program and was cleared to go home, her doctors told her not to step on a scale. To this day she hasn't gotten on one, and says she doesn't want to, either.

Her doctors also wanted her to move back home with her parents, ease back into tennis, and start seeing a nutritionist and a therapist regularly. Her diet has improved so much that she no longer needs to see a nutritionist. Now Bullock keeps up her energy by eating many small meals throughout the day. A big advantage for Bullock living at home is that she never has to worry about food. Her parents always make sure that there is something she likes on hand.

"I love chicken taquitos and tortilla chips," Bullock said. "I also love Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cheerios and milk. That stuff is always at our house so it's easier for me to eat."

After moving back home with her parents in Orange County, Bullock started to search for a new school. She decided on Cal State Fullerton after visiting the campus and meeting with CSF women's tennis head coach Bill Reynolds.

"I was excited when I heard Leslie wanted to come here [CSF]. We worked hard to get her eligible. We both had to jump through a lot of hoops," Reynolds said. "She is one of the better players we have ever had here."

Bullock said when she came to Cal State Fullerton it felt like the perfect place for her. She already knew a couple of the girls on the team, and her friendly personality helped her fit right in. She's glad that there are no individual egos on the team, and she appreciates how everyone supports one another by putting the team first.

"It's really great to be a part of that. I think it makes the experience a lot better and a lot more fun and memorable," Bullock said. "They say college is the best time of your life, and if you're going to be on a team that you spend five hours a day with, you better like the people on it."

For nearly the entire 2009 season, Bullock has been playing in the No. 1 position for CSF, but not that long ago her future in tennis was in question. When she left Arizona she had tennis taken away from her. All she could do was think about playing. That time away from the game opened her eyes to what was really important, and left her with an insatiable desire to return to the courts.

"I missed it [tennis] so much. When you have something taken away and you can't do it, like you really, really, really learn what you love," Bullock said.

Reynolds said he feels like she will become a team leader by her junior or senior year, and CSF women's tennis assistant coach Ruya Inalpulat said she "admires Leslie's positive attitude and work ethic."

Although Bullock has overcome her eating disorder, there are many who don't. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, it is estimated that nearly 8 million people suffer from eating disorders in America (7 million of those are women). 1 in 200 women will suffer from a form of anorexia and 2 to 3 out of 100 women will suffer from bulimia. Bullock even admits that she still has some tendencies related to her eating disorder that she still has to contend with.

"I would say that I've overcome it, but then my eating disorder still has some little thoughts going through my head," Bullock said.

She remembers how it was when the eating disorder controlled her life, and said she never wants to feel that way again. Constantly being hungry made her very irritable and annoyed all the time. She described how she would just drag herself through the day because she didn't have enough energy to walk, or even speak. Those days are gone and Bullock has a new outlook on life. Now when she looks in the mirror she is happy with the person looking back.

Changing her self-image has been a major step in Bullock's recovery. She knows that she could never have overcome it alone, and realizes how lucky she was to have a support network of friends, family, teammates and coaches to watch out for her.

"I kind of look at this whole thing and I even go, `Wow, how did I get here?' I hit rock bottom and I'm back," Bullock said.

The sun's just about gone now, and the darkness is slowly creeping in. There are only a few matches left in Leslie Bullock's first season with her Cal State Fullerton teammates. It's only been a little more than a year, but these memories will last her a new lifetime.