As numbers increase, eating disorder advocates offer hope for recovery
By Sophie Biazus | Special to the Digital Free Press
Melody Pierce was 10 when her father died and her eating habits began to change. Skipping meals became her new normal as she sought relentlessly to have the ‘perfect’ body.
“My father passed away from alcoholism,” says Ms. Pierce. “His passing was really sudden to me, but I knew from that day forward to stay away from drugs and alcohol — that was very clear.”
But what she didn’t realize, looking back on it, was that addiction could take the form of an eating disorder.
It took Ms. Pierce, she says, years to recover from anorexia, an eating disorder that affects an estimated 20 million American women at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Those numbers have grown since the pandemic’s start, especially among young women ages 15-24.
According to a National Library of Medicine study, the prevalence of eating disorders increased from almost 32% in 2018 to 52% in 2021.
The results can be deadly. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, the death rate for anorexia is 12 times higher than any other cause of death for that age group.
Ms. Pierce’s journey to recovering from anorexia highlights the realities of the third most common chronic mental illness among adolescents.
Emma Lauer, a therapist who helps children and adults recover from eating disorders, says adolescents and young adults are more at risk because they’re still developmentally changing.
“You’re still growing and learning about yourself. Your brain is still developing, your body is still changing, and it can be hard navigating those changes as your body continues to grow,” she said. “You’re still learning at that age how to manage emotions and how to take good care of your mental and emotional health.”
Road to recovery
Ms. Pierce didn’t fully understand what it meant to lose her father at such a young age. His sudden death left Ms. Pierce yearning for control over something — anything to fix the void in her life, she says.
“It came from a sense of perfectionism. I was a really big perfectionist when I was a kid, but also just had a lack of control in my life. That’s why my eating disorder started, having control over food is pretty much what it comes down to,” she says.
Having remained silent about her struggles for years, Ms. Pierce made the decision to enter recovery after her friend died by suicide when she was 16 years old.
“His mom came to our school six months after he had passed. She was standing on stage and said, ‘I never want your parents to have to stand up here and grieve you,’ and you know when she said that all I was thinking about was all the harm I was doing to my body,” Ms. Pierce recalled of that moment. “My mom was all I had, and I didn’t want her to go through that.”
In the face of constant fear, Ms. Pierce felt like she was stuck in quicksand and became consumed with major depression and anxiety as she felt pressured by society’s idealized vision of how the female body should look.
Living in a fantasy land
Sam Lample, who has exclusively treated eating disorders for over 20 years, says they are an emotionally charged and avoidance-based coping style.
“The intention or the way that an eating disorder helps a person focus on emotion is by getting away from it as soon as possible by using any time of distraction that is available to that person.”
“Eating disorders behaviors themselves are the distraction that’s the avoidance-based approach of not having to feel,” he says. “Whatever coping styles exist in that person are going to be exaggerated when they get to a space where they start to experience increased emotional discomfort or emotional newness that they’ve never experienced before.
Eating disorders emulate an illusion of control and make it hard to decipher a deeper physiological issue.
“In eating disorders, people frequently confuse hunger and fullness with any number of emotions that they can’t effectively identify. When a person feels out of control, what they’re ultimately saying is that their internal experience with themselves is out of control because they simply don’t know what’s happening inside of them,” said Ms. Lample.
“Since a lot of anxious people have a tendency to lose their appetite when they don’t feel well, then all of a sudden they’re going to stop eating and make a false attribution that my skipping my meal actually made me feel better when it had absolutely nothing to do with it, and immediately prompted that uncomfortable emotional state to begin with.”
Letting go of control
Ms. Pierce told her mother she needed help the same day she heard her friend’s mom speak and they searched for treatment together.
“I remember how difficult it was for us to find anything. It takes months, phone call after phone call. I’m lucky my family has medical insurance. I’m lucky I have the resources that we do because not everyone is as lucky, and that’s when I figured out how awful the process was of getting help.
Ms. Pierce saw a long-awaited glimmer of hope as she took her first steps into the community that saved her life.
“I remember showing up to my first National Eating Disorder Association walk and I must have been 16 or 17 years old and was brand new into recovery,” Ms. Pierce said. “It felt so nice to walk in and not be alone. To look around and see that people were trying to help me and other people deal with this too and they’re okay, they’ve recovered. To see the different organizations, treatment centers, therapists and people that I got connected with really changed my life forever.”
Ms. Pierce continued her education throughout recovery at Arizona State University and didn’t realize how hard the transition would be. So hard that she relapsed.
“With the transition, being young, the pressure of society and, you know, all of it, I was feeling really overwhelmed,” she says. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh! That’s just part of recovery; you don’t have to worry about it so much.’ Then one bad day, I would skip a meal and then the next bad day would happen, and I would skip a meal. It came on gradually; it’s not something that people are looking out for. It’s pretty easy to get away with, which is what’s scary.”
Looking back, Ms. Pierce believes the guilt she felt from eating during that time derived from wanting to maintain a certain body image but also because she “wanted to be 100% good all the time.”
“I just didn’t even think about it and then it wasn’t until I was like, ‘Oh, I’m guilty and I feel shame,’ you know and all these negative emotions that I really started to realize I’m not good,” she said.
A cultural distortion
Ms. Lauer says pop culture’s unhealthy portrayal of the female body distorted the societal standards and expectations of beauty. As the internet reshaped how humans communicate, comparing yourself to what’s considered the perfect body is just a swipe away.
“If you see someone like Kim Kardashian’s body day in and day out every time you open your Instagram app. The repetition of it tells your brain, ‘Oh, this is common, right?’ Because you’re seeing the images over and over again, so your brain picks up on this idea that this is the standard because we keep seeing it over and over again,” she said.
“Even though it’s not reflective of the average body type.”
An estimated 88% of women compare themselves to images they see in the media; over half of women say their body unfavorably competes with those images, according to a 2020 survey by mental health and addiction treatment facility Florida House Experience.
Ms. Lauer says for those who spend more time on social media, this comparison can become a fixation leaving people questioning, “How does my body look? How do my pictures stack up against other people’s pictures? How do I look compared to other people’s bodies?”
Pierce says even when she realized the danger she was doing to her body, she felt pressure to maintain her figure.
“It’s difficult when you’re a thin woman because that’s so idealized in our society,” she says.
What Ms. Pearce calls her ‘Godsend’
This time was different. Ms. Pierce made enough progress in recovery to realize it’s just a bad day, not a bad life.
“It was realizing that adults have bad days too and life isn’t perfect. Society doesn’t really help us. It was hard but I have the best friends in the entire world. I have the best support system. I have the best people around me.”
Ms. Pierce found her safe haven, the on-campus club Recovery Rising, which provides students with
a community for those recovering from substance and mental health issues.
“They were just incredible the whole four years I was there and really supported me and gave me a community and the purpose that I needed.”
Tom Quinn, who is Recovery Rising’s club advisor at ASU, says the group has expanded its topics of support for all mental health concerns, including “things that might affect people and affect their ability to succeed specifically in a college environment.”
Mr. Quinn first joined the club as a person with alcohol use disorder and feels the support on campus.
“It helps me every day with that reminder of where I came from, where I go back to very easily. The alcoholic anonymous program puts a heavy emphasis on service work, so I always consider that an immediate responsibility of mine and one of the ways I fulfill my own progress is to keep myself sober.”
Recovery Rising meets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at both the Downtown and Tempe campuses.
The silver lining
Ms. Pierce found her passion in advocacy well before graduation and co-founded an eating disorder recovery awareness club and began competing in Miss America Organization pageants.
“It’s very different to have a platform that’s about you. [Eating disorders weren’t] something anyone really discussed, so I was like, I’m going to air my dirty laundry to the world. But I knew it needed to happen and there was just something in my heart that said, ‘If I could save one person, that’s all that matters. If one person finds peace from me standing on this stage and talking about it that’s all that matters.’”
By the ripe age of 22, Ms. Pierce became a certified eating disorder intuitive therapy coach and founded her own business S.T.E.P.S. Recovery, where she works as a recovery coach for eating disorder clients.
“After being in recovery for a while, I was like all right, I really feel like someone needs to be helping people with this. Someone needs to be a resource in our community to help people figure this kind of thing out because it’s just impossible to do on your own,” she says.
Ms. Pierce’s recovery journey came full circle as she now works as the director for Phoenix’s National Eating Disorder Association chapter. She now runs the same awareness walk that opened the door to her recovery.
“I feel like a lot of us who have struggled always come back to help, which is a pretty unique thing,” she says.
The next Phoenix National Eating Disorder Association Walk will be on Sunday, April 2, 2023.
Editor’s Note: Ms. Biazus is a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.