Shelley PageThe Ottawa Citizen
Date Published: Monday, April 2, 2012
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Janelle Foligno still fights the unrelenting 'voice' that led her to develop an eating disorder, writes Shelley Page
Janelle Forest had it all. Beauty, brains, her own career, and an engagement to an NHL hockey star.
But inside the soon-to-be Mrs. Nick Foligno, hateful thoughts hammered away: I am fat. I am ugly. I am stupid.
When she was a teenager, this unrelenting "voice" drove her to anorexia. Eighteen months ago, as she prepared to enter a world where hockey wives are lavished with attention and high expectations, she feared the bullying voice that still haunted her would become deafening. So before walking down the aisle with her hockey-player hunk, she finally sought help to quiet the voice.
And this past week, in a bold move, the newly minted Janelle Foligno began telling her story to Grade 7 and 8 students. In six-session workshops in four Ottawa middle schools, Foligno probes body image, self-esteem and the negative thoughts that hobble many adolescents.
Her decision to not only go public with her eating disorder, but also to reach out to young people, is a part of her healing process that she hopes will have residual positive effects for those vulnerable to the same condition.
She has been hailed as "courageous" by those in the Sens camp, as well as her hubby, who is cheering her on.
"Janelle deserves a lot of credit for being this brave," says Jennifer Graves, a fundraiser for the Sens Foundation and the co-founder of F.A.B. Women, which educates and empowers those suffering from eating disorders and disordered eating. "She has a public face in this community. It is a scary spot for her to be in. I am proud of her for being so forthcoming with her own story."
Hockey players' wives invariably seem to be beautiful, effervescent and charitable, called on to lend their time and their names (or those of their husbands) to good causes.
We all know the most famous among them: Mike Fisher's Carrie Underwood, Mike Comrie's Hilary Duff, and going back a few years, Alexei Yashin's Carol Alt.
The women behind these men have significant roles to play in a hockey city. There is a lot of pressure to be your best, and look your best.
Foligno had long hidden her struggles with body image and a highschool bout with an eating disorder, but she knew that if she was to survive and thrive in the limelight, she had to confront her body image and disordered eating. "I was still battling these voices in my head," she says recently in a candid interview. "And I really wanted them to stop. I was engaged and I didn't want my future children to see this in me and perhaps develop similar thought patterns. So I wanted to heal myself before I could have a family and be the best person I could be for them."
And she feared her future.
"In this new role I had to make sure I didn't put any more pressure on myself."
Speaking with Foligno, the word "perfect" pops up frequently as she describes her struggle.
"Looking back, I put a lot of pressure on myself to have perfect grades and to look perfectly. I was very much a perfectionist," the 25-year-old says. Yet, that constantly belittling "voice" told her she was nowhere near perfect. "I looked at myself as being ugly and stupid and fat and there was nothing positive at that point going through my head."
As a Grade 12 student in Sudbury, where she was raised and met her future husband, the nagging voice overpowered her fragile psyche. She started restricting calories.
She won't get into the nitty-gritty of her eating disorder because she doesn't want to supply ideas to others who are vulnerable. "Let's just say I started off cutting foods here and there, and then getting almost addicted to that feeling of losing weight and then restricting even more." She'd also spend two hours a day at the gym moving from rowing machine to stair climber to treadmill to force her weight down further. She dropped 30 pounds off her already petite five-foot-five frame.
"I had been a very social person, but I didn't go out. I focused my entire life on school. I wanted to have really high grades going in to university." She graduated with a 94-percent average.
Friends and teachers expressed concern. Her mom and dad were the last to notice. "I became really good at hiding it and lying about what I was eating."
When her parents realized their daughter was starving herself, they intervened. They made her realize she was harming herself and must stop. After many emotional conversations, "I just literally started eating again," Foligno recalls. She didn't want to disappoint her parents.
But not seeking professional help was a mistake, she says. "Maybe we didn't think it was as serious as it was, so we didn't seek that help."
At Laurentian University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and attended teacher's college, she stopped the compulsive exercising and calorie-restriction, but the voice grew louder.
"I gained weight, so the mental part of it was probably the worst. The self-hatred was really intense."
It was during this time she began dating her future husband, who played for the Ontario Hockey League's Sudbury Wolves. Nick Foligno was a big deal.
The Folignos were hockey royalty in Sudbury. Dad Mike, who was born there, spent 15 seasons in the NHL. Nick's brother Marcus now plays for the Buffalo Sabres.
When Nick and Janelle started dating, she didn't share her fears with Nick, nor the details of her eating disorder. She was too ashamed. She also kept her "daily struggles" from him. In 2006, Nick was selected by the Senators as a first-round draft pick, 28th overall. When he joined the roster in 2007, Janelle planned her move to Ottawa.
She quickly got a job teaching elementary school French immersion, and turned that into a full-time job.
When she was welcomed into the fold of hockey wives and girlfriends, she kept her struggles from them.
The hateful voice again grew louder.
"I think a lot of people would look at me and think that I was this confident person when I was the exact opposite." She says bluntly, "It was among the lowest points in my life."
She was also dealing with health issues that had resulted from her high-school battle with anorexia. "Digestive problems, mostly. Your organs don't work properly when they are not nourished properly."
What helped turn her situation around was a conversation with Jennifer Graves, a fundraiser for the Sens Foundation, who'd suffered from an eating disorder for 25 years. She was founding F.A.B. (Free as a Bird) Women, an organization to help people "become free from poor body image, eating disorders and disordered eating." Graves' mission and enthusiasm spoke to Foligno, who confided her own struggles.
"I wanted to help her, but I realized I couldn't be a hypocrite," Foligno says. "I needed to start healing so I could help others."
A first big step - about a-year-and-a-half ago - was telling Nick how sick she'd been, and how she continued to battle low self-esteem.
"I realized to heal I couldn't hide it from him any more." His biggest reaction, she says, was "surprise."
"He saw me as a very confident person." Since then, he has been "amazing and supportive. He believes I can get through this."
She also stopped teaching fulltime to focus on improving her health and dealing with her digestive problems. She still exercises, but her goal is to be healthy and strong, not a "particular size or weight."
She began telling people about her struggles, and was one of the faces at a F.A.B event in February to raise money. "The other wives and girlfriends have been incredibly supportive of me. They were part of the group that didn't know I had struggled with it - It was very emotional to have them all there for me (at the February event)."
Admitting she had a problem and seeking help has been liberating.
"I came finally to the realization that I don't have to live with this negative voice in my head forever. It was a revelation. I said, 'You know what, this doesn't have to be me. I could have optimal health and I deserve that. It's time to silence that negative voice and focus on the positive.'" She now works hard to address the negative feelings about herself, instead of just pushing them aside. "I need to feel those emotions so I can move on."
She has developed a school program for Grade 7 and 8 students, based on the Ontario curriculum, which focuses on body image and healthy living.
"With my teaching background and my personal experience, I knew I needed to reach these students at a deeper level rather than just going in once and talking to them about the subject," she says. "It's about positive body image, and self love and self confidence."
Her workshop includes writing in journals, identifying each student's positive characteristics and learning how to celebrate them, instead of focusing on the negatives.
This past week she led sessions at Henry Munro Middle School and D. Roy Kennedy Public School. Next, she will hold workshops at Pinecrest Public School and St. Laurent Academy. Next September, if her pilot project is well received, she hopes to be in more schools.
Jay Blauer, vice-principal at Pinecrest Elementary School, says he welcomed Foligno because "any chance I get to have that discussion about body image and well-being out in the open and to make connections to their health, I feel I've done what's in best interests in the kids."
"The great thing about Janelle is that she is a teacher. And her ability to work with young people is unparalleled. And she is very courageous. In my mind, she has put herself out there a bit. And I believe part of this is her own healing." Foligno says she talks about her negative self-talk with the students, "because I think some of them have their own voices and demons in their heads."
One of the most common questions she gets, is, "How can someone who looks like you think she is so ugly?"
She explains the immense pressure she put on herself, but also that eating disorders are mental illnesses and sometimes hard to explain.
She encourages students to "embrace the people" they are, in different sizes and shapes. "You are special for certain reasons and someone else is special for other reasons. Be the best you that you can be."
But that doesn't mean her own critical voice is gone.
"Before it was all-consuming. And exhausting. It's still there, but quieter. I have come a long way."
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