The last time I went to rehab, I had no hope,” admits 24-year-old Kaylee Vanderhoof, regrettably. “I did not care if I died, and I had lost all hope. No one wants that.”
Vanderhoof has been dealing with an eating disorder since she was only 7 years old. Now, after 17 years of fighting, Vanderhoof has found that hope. And so have I.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Around 95 percent of them are young – between the ages of 12 and 26.
The pressure to look a certain way – thin – starts very early in this country. According to ANAD, a striking 42 percent of first- through third-grade girls in the U.S. want to be thinner, and an incredible 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
I, too, was a young person when I began showing signs of anorexia nervosa. And Vanderhoof was even younger when her struggle began. We also differed in that Vanderhoof suffered from bulimia nervosa. What we had in common, however, was that we both suffered from depression and/or anxiety, and our eating disorders actually ended up increasing the intensity of those other preexisting mental illnesses.
A dangerous voice in my head
According to the Academy for Eating Disorders, some laws in several U.S. states have actually excluded eating disorders as “serious mental illnesses.” This makes it impossible for some patients to receive insurance coverage for their treatment – which could lead to serious health problems or eventually, death. I was a victim of this exact problem. When I was diagnosed with Anorexia, my physician requested that I see an eating disorder psychologist in downtown Atlanta. Naturally, my insurance would not cover it. Luckily, I was quickly presented with a different, cost-free option.
A little over a year into my struggle, I was sitting at almost a whopping 110 pounds. With a height of 5 feet 8 inches, I was dangerously underweight. I was consuming maybe 700 calories per day, and burning those calories (if not more) at the gym. I had almost completely pushed away everyone who loved me without realizing what I was doing.
“You argued with your dad and me every day. You weren’t yourself anymore,” my mother recalls. “You always wanted to be alone and never wanted to spend time with us. It just wasn’t the Samantha I knew.” But it was not me who was pushing away my family or my best friends. It was the evil, selfish person inside my head that I referred to as Ana. She wanted me to be alone, to be hungry and to be perfect. She wanted me to continue to kill myself. She wanted to win.
“You feel weak,” Vanderhoof explains. “You push people away that love and care for you. You feel lonely and you hate yourself. You never think you’re good enough.” She explained that there were very few people who understood exactly what she was going through – especially her family. I ran into the same problem. Both of our families seemed to think it was a quick fix. That we could just eat and it would all go away. But there came a point during both of our illnesses that they realized that we really, truly had a problem. It was a mental illness that could not be fixed without professional help.
I had to get help
I remember it almost perfectly – the one particular argument with my family that hit me the hardest. It was the night that things changed, and my family knew that it was time for me to receive real, psychological help. This particular argument stemmed out of something small and pointless, but escalated to brutal and violent yelling in a matter of seconds. I just remember the argument ending with my father yelling, “I wish you would just eat. I don’t understand why you can’t just eat. Do you want to die?” Frustrated, I ran up to my room and slammed the door.
The next morning, my mother handed me a business card for the eating disorder specialist located on the Kennesaw State University campus and told me to schedule an appointment. I refused. Ana told me I did not have a problem – that I did not need help and I was stronger than this. Pushing Ana’s words aside, I called the number. I hung up. I called again. I hung up again. The third time, I pulled through and scheduled my appointment.
I spent a little more than a year with my eating disorder specialist and the dietician she referred me to. Through all of the doctor’s appointments, blood tests, tests on my organs and meal plans, I got the help that I needed. I thank God for those two women every single day for saving my life. Without their professional help, I would still be heading down a path of destruction.
Vanderhoof went to rehab. She struggled, but she had time to heal and get the help she needed, too. According to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders (ANRED), recovery from an eating disorder may take anywhere from seven to 10 years, or even longer. Some may do better than others – and those who do best work with physicians and counselors.
The type of treatment, however, is tailored to each person and the severity of their disorder. Some may need rehab, some may not. I often think what it would have been like if I had chosen rehab – would I have healed faster? Would I still be faced with depression? Would I still have disordered thoughts? Even though I question myself, I remain thankful that my disorder never reached a severe enough point to where I was admitted into a facility.
Eating disorder is an illness, not vanity
What many people (such as Vanderhoof’s and my family) do not realize is that eating disorders are more than an issue of vanity and succumbing to society’s idea of “perfect.” According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), it is highly common for eating disorders to occur with one or more other psychiatric disorders. This can complicate treatment and make recovery more difficult process. These range anywhere from depression and anxiety disorders to substance abuse.
According to ANAD, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The mortality rate associated with these disorders is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15 through 24 years old.
“I do believe it is a mental health problem,” said Vanderhoof. “I think you can recover, but I also think the thoughts never fully go away. It might not ever show itself again, but you will always have a part of your ED in the back of your head.” Even after going through the recovery process, Vanderhoof and I both still struggle with depression and disordered thoughts when it comes to eating.
I may consider myself recovered, but Ana’s voice still lingers in the back of my head bringing the disordered thoughts to every one of my meals. I consider every single bite and how they all still count against me. Sometimes I think that maybe – just maybe – I could find that strength to not eat again. I could easily consume only 700 calories per day. But then I brush off those feelings. I brush off Ana’s voice and think about how far I have come.
An eating disorder is not simply just about eating or not eating. Food becomes so much more – it essentially becomes an enemy. Every bite, every calorie, seems like it counts against you and your eating disorder’s goal. You essentially develop a fear of food. “It’s still hard for me,” Vanderhoof agreed. “I think about it throughout the day. I could skip meals and no one would know. But if I skip one meal, I will want to skip two, and so on.
“An eating disorder will take over your life if you let it. The longer you live with ED, the darker your life gets,” said Vanderhoof. “Now a year and a half later I look down at my son and think about how my ED almost took him away from me. I realize just how amazing life without my ED is.”
The Academy for Eating Disorders discusses the need to create awareness of eating disorders as mental illnesses. It explains three reasons why eating disorders can be classified as biologically-based, serious mental illnesses:
There is medical and scientific evidence that both Anorexia and Bulimia are as heritable and genetic as other psychiatric conditions that are considered biologically based.
The behaviors of eating disorders (such as restricting food intake) have been shown to alter brain structure, metabolism, and neurochemistry in ways that make it difficult for a person to discontinue the behaviors.
Eating disorders are associated with impairment in emotional and cognitive functioning that greatly limits life activities.
With the increased awareness and recognition of eating disorders as a mental illness, I believe that many others will be able to find the hope and happiness that Vanderhoof and I have rediscovered in our lives.
Samantha Kemmer is a senior at Kennesaw State University.