On a sunny summer break, many students were spending their free time at the pool, the mall and the park. But for two weeks in August 2010, one Fairmont student was spending her summer in the hospital, recovering from anorexia.
Eating disorders are a serious problem in the United States. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, some 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. These affect every gender, race, ethnicity and age group.
Rachel Sheidler, a 2013 Fairmont alumnus, knows first-hand what it’s like to have an eating disorder. “I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was in 7th grade,” Sheidler said.
Sheidler, now a sophomore at Wright State University, explained that she developed her eating disorder through a need for control.
“In middle school, I was the quiet girl in the corner,” Sheidler said. “Naturally, because I was moving on to high school, I didn’t want to be known as that girl anymore, so I turned to something I could be in control of: losing weight.”
She quickly spiraled down into anorexia, reaching her worst point in 2010 when she was hospitalized.
“I was a skeleton; I was cold all the time,” Sheidler said. “I grew fine hair on my body, had no energy, and if things weren’t turned around quickly, my organs would start failing. I knew this in my heart but Ed (her nickname for eating disorder) was so strong that I didn’t care.”
Why name her eating disorder? Suggested by one of her numerous counselors, Sheidler explained that this made the problem more real for her and harder to deny.
‘It helped me to personalize my disorder and realize it wasn’t a part of me,” Sheidler. “I would have conversations with him: He would tell me, ‘You’re so fat,’ and I would say, ‘No, I’m not. I’m going to eat this.’ It sounded like I was crazy, but it helped me recover because I could personify him to make me realize that it’s not my fault.”
This was the turning point in Sheidler’s life, when she realized she had to get better and put the disease behind her.
“I feel like before hospitalization, I was in denial: I didn’t think I had a problem. I didn’t realize I had a problem,” Sheidler said. “I didn’t realize how significantly dangerous this was: the fact that I was starving myself and overexercising to the point of exhaustion, to the point where my organs wouldn’t work properly. I was severely underweight. I was sick, I was ill. I just kind of ignored that, and being in the hospital made it more real and more authentic.”
Sheidler suffered many of the common symptoms of eating disorders, such as weight loss, constant worry about food and calories, and a strict exercise regimen. According to Fairmont nurse Betina Irwin, RN, there are many possible triggers that may cause a person to develop a food disorder.
“Some of those stressors could be relationship stressors,” Irwin said. “One example would be a relationship either at home or with friends or here at school.”
Any person can develop an eating disorder, ranging across the spectrum of all types of men and women, and each case is unique from person to person. Sheidler said anorexia is not often thought of as the diverse disorder that it is.
“People try to fit anorexia into a box, but really, there’s such a wide range,” she said. “Anybody could have it; it doesn’t matter your weight or your calories.”
Irwin said that if there is any pattern to the FHS teens who approach the nurses about having an eating disorder, it’s that the students are the ones who do well in school.
“We see more higher-achieving students that have eating disorders,” said Irwin. “They are generally quite intelligent, quite motivated, and quite goal-oriented students. It has to do with control. It’s something that they can control for themselves.”
This reiterates one of the main reasons that Sheidler cites as causing her to develop anorexia.
Many people and many different forms of treatment went into helping Sheidler recover. She saw numerous dietitians and counselors who helped her reach recovery. One of those treatments was the naming of her eating disorder; another was keeping a food journal of everything she ate and how many calories that was equivalent to.
“I relied on my faith a lot for recovery, too,” said Sheidler, noting that her faith helped her do more than just recover: it gave her life meaning.
“Throughout recovery, and after I was recovered, I knew I had a purpose. I still would not be on this earth if I didn’t. I believe I would have died.”
Sheidler has since recovered from her eating disorder, even registering as a speaker for the National Eating Disorder Association. This is a group that strives to raise awareness of eating disorders — like anorexia nervosa — and to get help to those who need it.
“I wanted to be an inspiration for others, and this was a good way to do it,” Sheidler said, explaining her motivation to join the group. “I knew that if I could help someone and be an inspiration to someone struggling with body image or even a specific form of eating disorders, then that would make those four or five years of suffering worthwhile.”
Now fully recovered, Sheidler reflects back on those years and is thankful for them.
“I’m so much more confident and stronger than I was before,” she said. “There’s always going to be that little Ed voice in the back of your head. The difference is, I know how to control it now.”
She also notes that she has learned a lot from working with NEDA, including tips on how to share her story. Asked what her lowest weight was, she explained that she never tells her audience any of her “numbers.”
“I don’t give people numerical values on weight and calories when they ask. It may deter them from treatment,” Sheidler said. “Someone struggling with body image or an eating disorder may see or hear my ‘number,’ so to speak, whether talking about weight, sizes or calories, and they may try to ‘beat that number’ per se. They may voluntarily put themselves in competition with me, so that, in reality, it could make their illness worse.”
Sheidler knows that as a severe killer of teens, eating disorders are not something to be overlooked. While there may be several psychological, emotional and genetic contributors to eating disorders, Sheidler notes one powerful influence that everyone is suspect to: the media.
“I think the media bombards girls with pictures of what they’re supposed to look like,” she said. “From a young age, from when you’re a little girl, you see all of these pictures of these perfect models. They’re your role models, and you want to be like them!”
Irwin also sees evidence of media spewing out the “perfect image” of what women must look like. “There are a lot more images in the mainstream media about body shape and size and what is ideal for women,” she said.
Sheidler encourages girls to ignore the media’s images of perfectly Photoshopped women and the unrealistic expectations laid out on the table.
“The media doesn’t rule the world. They can’t tell you what you’re supposed to look like or what your weight should be,” she said. “That doesn’t even matter in the long run; what does matter are your hopes and your dreams and your impact on the world.”
Sheidler knows now that recovery is possible, and that there are many resources out there to help those struggling with eating disorders. She even hopes that telling her story will be beneficial to people who don’t have eating disorders.
“There’s always going to be that little Ed voice in the back of your head. The difference is, I know how to control it now,” Sheidler said. “I think everyone has that little voice; it’s knowing how to control it and keep it from taking over your life.”
See Sheidler’s story on Teen Ink.
NEDA Helpline (available Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.Eastern Time and Friday 9 a.m.to 5 p.m.): 800-931-2237