Even with strong support, my eating disorder fight was hard. Here’s how to help others | Opinion

Like many mental health challenges, eating disorders thrive in isolation. In feeling alone, you feel like you’re the only one. That’s an excellent breeding ground for shame, feeling like “there is something wrong with me because of this.”

So, for any of the 28 million Americans who will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, public-awareness walks such as one coming up April 1 in Dallas are a chance to make them, along with their families, feel just a little less alone. And maybe a little bit more seen, supported and valued.

At least that’s how I feel.

Having spent more than 10 years of my life battling an eating disorder, I know those feelings of loneliness, shame, and even hopelessness. And I know the severity: someone dies every 52 minutes from an eating disorder, making it the second most-deadly mental health disorder, next to opioid use disorder. The effects are serious, and eating disorders can affect anyone.

I count myself lucky to have sensitive parents, who noticed the changes early and prompted intervention. I was privileged to have the support of a therapist, a nutritionist, an eating disorder specialist — you name it. But even with this incredible support, I found myself living in a hospital due to complications of anorexia nervosa and bulimia before I had even finished middle school.

From there, high school was a balancing act: teetering between healthy enough to do everything I wanted to and too sick to participate. I was determined to keep my weight up enough to demonstrate to my health-care providers and family that I was healthy enough to go to college independently, and I did.

But it was really hard.

That greater independence I craved only gave my eating disorder more autonomy. By the end of my sophomore year, I was so tired of fighting, and I knew that something needed to change. At this point, besides the weight loss, amenorrhea, thinning hair and irreversible bone loss, an EKG showed I had bradycardia and cardiac arrhythmia. Anorexia and bulimia had slowly taken a toll on my body, causing my heart to begin showing the effects. Because of this health liability, the only care that was available to me was a residential facility.

After handing in my cell phone and having my belongings searched for contraband items, I spent the next few months, well, eating — with the alternative option being fed through a tube — and putting in some of the most challenging work I’ll ever do. I would have never chosen to spend my sophomore summer on a couple acres of land in Pennsylvania, but it was the environment I needed to make any lasting changes in my life.

And it was absolutely worth it.

I feel so privileged to stand on the other side of this and say that recovery is possible. To those brave people fighting today: There is so much to life beyond your eating disorder. Your value and worth have nothing to do with the size of your body or a number on a scale. You are not alone. You possess incredible strength, and you are enough in every way.

In my experience, I see both severity and privilege. I can’t help but wonder about the people who don’t have parents who notice their struggles. Or the people who go through traumatic experiences. Or those from underrepresented groups. Or those going through it alone.

Everyone deserves to recover from a eating disorder: everyone deserves access to care and support. That is why this NEDA Walk exists. This walk is a chance to honor those strong folks and their families. It lets us raise our voices, share our stories and spread awareness, to say that we are more than our eating disorders and to remind people fighting that they are, too.

April 1 marks the return of Dallas’ National Eating Disorders Association Walk. These walks represent hope and support in acknowledging the millions of Americans who at some point in their life will struggle with an eating disorder.

I hope you will join us at 10:30 a.m. at Klyde Warren Park as together we make steps toward change.

Hayley Grainger is the volunteer coordinator for the National Eating Disorders Association.