Shawn Johnson East Details How Her Post-Olympic Burnout Led to Body Image Issues and Adderall Abuse
By Meredith B. Kile
Paul Archuleta/Getty Images
Shawn Johnson East is getting candid about her battles with substance abuse and body image, and how she rediscovered her purpose after years of post-Olympic burnout. The former Team USA gymnast shared a new YouTube video to her family channel over the weekend, titled "body image issues: 110lbs to pregnant." In the video, Johnson starts by detailing the regimented training lifestyle she subscribed to in the years to leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games, where she took home a gold medal in the balance beam and silver in the team, all-around and floor competitions.
"In my mind, everybody praised me for what I did at the Olympics. They praised who I was as a human being when I was there," she explained, recalling how her 700-calorie daily diet would often leave her faint and with no energy. "One of the things that was I guess a sacrifice and a cost of the sport was my perfectionism."
After the games, Johnson, like many high-level athletes, struggled to find a sense of purpose when not working toward the Olympic goal. "I remember feeling like I had run straight into a brick wall full speed," she recalls in the video. "Every decision I made in my life up until that moment for at least 13 of my 16 years was based on gymnastics -- what it would take and what I needed to do to get to the Olympics."
"Now that the Olympics were over, I didn't know how to function as a normal human being, I didn't know how to eat, I didn't know when to set my alarm or do I set an alarm? I didn't know how to go into a gym and work out."
She competed on, and won, season 8 of Dancing With the Stars -- but off screen, Johnson was feeling like anything but a champion. She started trying weight loss supplements, fad dieting and drugs like Adderall to try to manage her body image issues and increased weight gain as a result of no longer training at an elite level.
"In my mind, if I could look like that, not necessarily compete or do gymnastics, but if I could be that person again, then the world would say that I was enough and I was accepted, which didn't make any sense," she notes.
The drugs and directionless feeling led her to a "dark kind of spiral" that reached a low point in 2010, when she tore her ACL in a skiing accident. After rehabbing her knee, she attempted a return to gymnastics -- as well as her unhealthy levels of training -- in an attempt to find happiness in her former sport. However, despite making the U.S. senior national team, and medaling at the 2011 Pan American Games, Johnson didn't have the same fulfillment.
"I competed, I won a medal, and I still felt lost," she remembers realizing, noting that she was "burning out" of her sport and suffering from depression.
The unhappiness led to "heavy doses" of Adderall, Johnson recounts, noting, "I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn't be caught by USADA [United States Anti-Doping Agency]."
"There was nothing in my life that was healthy," she says. Ultimately, it was walking away from the sport that brought her so much that provided a turning point. She began working with a therapist and nutritionist, weaned herself off Adderall, and found happiness with husband Andrew East, whom she wed in 2016.
However, the couple suffered a heartbreaking loss the following year. Johnson miscarried their first child, and placed the blame on herself and her past decisions.
"It was the lowest point of my life,"' she recalls. "I had this gut-wrenching feeling that it was because of my past -- because of the ephedrine, because of the Adderall, because of the pills, the diuretics, because of starving myself and the weight fluctuations and the binging and purging."
"I thought it was because of all of those bad choices I had made that had caused me to miscarry and that would potentially cause me to not be able to have a kid."
She got pregnant again in 2019 and welcomed her daughter, Drew Hazel East, on Oct. 29. Johnson admits it still wasn't easy -- she feared the weight gain and pressures of pregnancy might cause her to relapse -- but says all of her time spent on self-care and understanding her body image issues made it much more manageable than she expected.
"There was something in me that switched when I got pregnant where it no longer was about me or my body or the vanity or the calories or what I looked like or what I weighed," she notes. "I couldn't have cared less. It was about protecting my baby and I was so excited about that."
"The world's constantly trying to change you, but now with Drew, all I want to do is be a good influence," she adds. "Having gotten clean from the medications and the prescriptions and just the obsessiveness, I wouldn't change anything for the world. I love that I went through it. It was very hard and I don't wish it on anyone, but I've had these tough experiences that make me a stronger mom that will allow me to teach Drew how to be strong as well."