NEDA Week 2021

Eating disorders controlled their lives. Now, 3 SU students tell their stories.

Photo Illustration by Emily Steinberger | Photo Editor

The Daily Orange spoke with (from left) Emily Bright, Alexis Peng and Gwen Mercer about their experience with eating disorders.

Editor’s note: If you are struggling with disordered eating contact the National Eating Disorder Awareness hotline by calling 800-931-2237 or by going to https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.

Eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness, affecting 28.8 million Americans. Additionally, around 32% of women and 25% of men in college have eating disorders.

The Daily Orange talked to three Syracuse University students who discussed their experience with eating disorders.

Gwen Mercer, junior

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After going through an eating disorder, Gwen Mercer is now a nutrition major. Emily Steinberger | Photo Editor

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When I was 17 years old I had an anorexia relapse that nearly took my life. I weighed next to nothing and my body temperature was like 92 degrees. My pulse was nonexistent, and they may have had to use the defibrillator on me — I can’t remember if my heart actually stopped. I don’t even know how it got so bad because you basically get to a point where you’re so, so, so sick that it just became that I was my disorder.

Going into the emergency room, I didn’t know that it was going to be my last view of the world for a very long time, but it was. They had me on a feeding tube and a 24/7 IV. I was in the pediatric ICU for four days, and they were very worried I wasn’t going to make it. I don’t know who was there. I don’t know what happened for those four days. I’m not necessarily a religious person, but I’m definitely a spiritual person, and I definitely had some sort of weird experience there which makes me feel very lucky to be here.

They put me on a different floor for eating disorders for about two weeks. They were trying to get me to the point of stability where I could go to an actual in-patient program. But I was going through refeeding syndrome, which basically just means that after being starved for some time, when you give your body fuel it doesn’t really know what to do with it, which can be really dangerous.

They told my parents that I would either be on tubes for the rest of my life at the hospital or that I had to be sent to a place to fix my issues in Denver. So the next morning, they said, “We’ve packed up all of your stuff and you’re going to be hospitalized in Denver.” I didn’t have a say, but it was the only thing that was going to save my life.

When I was 19, I made the decision that my eating disorder was no longer in control of my life, and I haven't looked back since
Gwen Mercer, SU junior

Once I got to The ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders in Colorado, I spent 40 days in complete isolation. I had a 24/7 aide who watched me eat, watched me sleep and watched me shower. My heart rate went to an overshoot phase where I started to have cardiac arrhythmias or a resting heart rate of 150 or 160 BPM. Every morning I woke up and something was wrong.

My experience there contributes to why I have an issue with recovery programs. The aides were so mean. If you didn’t finish every single bite of your food, you would get punished. So for a person who’s trying to reestablish a healthy relationship with food, to have food become the punishment just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I eventually became stable enough to go to a hospital that wasn’t isolated. I went to Children’s Hospital Colorado, and for me, a 17-year-old girl who hadn’t seen anyone except the nurse in over a month, I was really excited. It also meant that I was able to start eating real food again. The first food I ate was a banana, and to this day, bananas are still my favorite because they gave me life again.

I met so many amazing people at Children’s Hospital Colorado, but there were still terrible parts too. I cried and had panic attacks every single day. I became this anxious angry person who just wanted out, just wanted to be done. At the end of the program, one of the girls –– who became my best friend –– and I went on a hike and took a picture on top of a mountain, and we were like “this is symbolic.”

Unfortunately, the programs are often a means to an end, and while you’re there you just want to be healthy again so you can get out. So when I was 19, I relapsed, and I think it might have been even worse than when I was 17. I should have gone back to the hospital, but I was so afraid of what would happen if I went back.

I was like, “You know what, recovery centers didn’t work when I was 14 in an outpatient setting, it didn’t work when I was 17 when I was in an inpatient. It has to come from an intrinsic source. I have to be my own recovery.” So when I was 19, I made the decision that my eating disorder was no longer in control of my life, and I haven’t looked back since.

Now, I’m a nutrition major because it’s my passion, and I became a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal fitness trainer. I’ve run two half marathons and a triathlon, and I teach at Orangetheory Fitness in Syracuse. Nutrition and fitness are very important to me because, for a long time in my life, there was no life in me.

It just shows you how you can recruit your demons as your army to work for your lifelong battle against the thing.

Emily Bright, junior

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Emily Bright ended up calling health services at SU and went to a couple of appointments with an eating disorder specialist. Emily Steinberger | Photo Editor

I was really nervous about what people would think of me and how I looked going into my freshman year of college. You know, maybe I wasn’t as skinny as I used to be when I was playing basketball and training all of the time in high school. I felt like everything was really spiraling out of control. And obviously, a classic thing about food is that it gives you control.

So I really started restricting my diet, and one time I was leaving my COM 117 lab at 9:30 p.m. and passed out on the way home. I didn’t have enough energy, and I was going to class from early in the morning until 10 p.m. and not eating. All my friends were really worried about me and knew I wasn’t acting normal and had no energy. I ended up calling health services, and I went to a couple of appointments with an eating disorder specialist. I really didn’t like it though because it was really hard to start over with a new therapist.

I lost 15 pounds my freshman year instead of gaining the “freshman 15.” When I went home for winter break, I got out of a toxic relationship that I was in for three years. And all my problems stopped.

But my story isn’t even that interesting. It was pretty brief. I think I was really lucky because I didn’t have to seek intensive help. My problems are literally nothing in comparison to my sister Sara.

My sister was a ballerina her entire life and then she stopped her senior year. And I think that kind of led to a lot of her problems because she was intensively dancing in her studio for hours and then she wasn’t anymore.

So she started exercising a lot, which at first was great. But then she and her friend became vegans together. And I think veganism can be a really great thing when you do it correctly, but I almost have a negative view of it because of what it did to my sister. Because my sister didn’t go vegan for health benefits and to be kind to the environment. She did it because she wanted to lose weight.

Once she got rejected from her dream school, her life fell apart and she really started restricting her food. I was at school at that point, and I was just nervous that something bad was happening, but everyone else seemed to not notice. Maybe I noticed because I knew what that felt like at one point in my life.

I felt like everything was really spiraling out of control. And obviously, a classic thing about food is that it gives you control.
Emily Bright, SU junior

When I came home because of COVID-19, she was a completely different person. She reverted back to a very childlike existence where everything centered around when and what she ate. She had to plate all of her food and count the calories.

Dinner was the most stressful time of the day. I dreaded family dinners because it was painful to watch her sit at the table and like poke around at her food. She used to try to throw out her food, and my dad would have to steer her back to the table.

By April, she was so thin. I thought that I was suffering my freshman year, but, dude, seeing her, it was like it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. She looked like a ghost because her face was sunken in, and she had bags under her eyes because she couldn’t sleep. We had a whole team of people — therapists, a nutritionist, a pediatrician — on “team Sara” but it wasn’t enough.

My parents eventually told her if she didn’t go to a hospital she couldn’t go to college. And, you know, she worked really hard to get into a good school, and the thought of her not being able to attend college was really upsetting to her. So she started going to treatment throughout the entire summer. She was there for all three meals but there was a lot of work to be done at home.

She was in this program for about six weeks, and by the end, she was sad to leave. She made friends there and she really liked her doctors. I think she felt safe there. You know, she had a routine every day she went from 8 to 5 every day.

Originally, the people at the program were like, “There’s no way she can go to college in the fall.” But then she ended up graduating from the program and only going to school two weeks late.

She’s doing great today, and I’m really proud of her. I think she learned a lot from it. I think she learned to revert back to family and trust us more. And, you know, she and my parents do have a better relationship from it.

Alexis Peng, sophomore

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Alexis Peng started going down a YouTube hole where she would listen to other people’s eating disorder stories. Gavi Azoff | Asst. Digital Editor

I was a skinny kid. I guess my metabolism was just crazy, but I was always in a healthy weight range. Some of my first memories were going to family gatherings and relatives of mine commenting on my appearance. They would be like “you’re too skinny” or “eat more.” My immediate family never cared. They were like, “You eat, you’re healthy, you’re fine, whatever.” But at family gatherings, my relatives would always put more food on my plate just because of the way I looked.

I think that made me become very aware of my body’s appearance and my weight at a very young age. And then when puberty hit, I naturally gained 10-ish pounds, maybe a little bit more, in a short period of time. I was still healthy but I gained a bunch of weight at once. So then the comments from relatives and family members became “Wow, you gained a lot of weight fast” and “You need to start watching what you eat.” It was like the complete reverse of what it was before.

This hyperawareness of my body image and weight later manifested into my relationship with food. In high school, I became very wary of what I ate and would go through phases where I would calorie-track and weigh myself constantly. I became obsessed with the number that came up on the scale.

I used to confide in my friends and say that I was watching my weight because I gained a couple of pounds, and they would always respond by saying, “Alexis you’re so skinny. You’re basically anorexic.” That phrase is clearly problematic, and we were young, so I don’t think they would say that stuff now, but it made me feel invalidated in my body image issues.

The new tipping point for me was when I got to college. I had more control over my meals and my portions and stuff that I didn’t really have control over when I was living at home. I began to fall into the cycles and patterns that I had in high school, where I suddenly became hyperaware of my appearance. I’ll be staring at myself in the mirror and analyzing every curve and every crevice. I could not see what was in front of me. I only saw my flaws. And I was very dependent on what I saw in front of me, which didn’t help with my body dysmorphia.

My tendencies can still sneak up on me. But now I literally stand in front of the mirror and speak kindly to myself. I speak my name and say ‘Alexis, you are beautiful.’
Alexis Peng, SU sophomore

To fix my body image, I’d lighten my portions a little bit, which would leave me hungry throughout the day and especially at night. This then leads me to snack on like a whole bag of chips or something. And after I snack, I’m hit with this overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, which then causes me to overanalyze my body more.

I fell really deep into this cycle one year ago. I was laying in my dorm, and I was feeling awful about myself. Not only about my insecurities and my appearance, but also the shame and guilt for feeling the way I did. But then, I read an email about eating disorder awareness week and was almost like, that’s ironic.

I started going down a YouTube hole where I was listening to other people’s stories. There was one YouTube video that really struck me. She had very similar mannerisms that I have, where it never manifested to specifically anorexia or bulimia — which is what I think most people associate when they think about eating disorders. She said something like, “Eating disorders are 75% mental which leads to physical behavior,” and suddenly all of my struggles and issues that I had my whole life just made sense.

Sometimes I would say I have eating disorder tendencies or behaviors, but I think because of the general stigma of what an eating disorder is, I still struggle to call it that.

Shortly after that realization, we got sent home because of COVID-19. Honestly, it was kind of a blessing in disguise. I was free from other opinions, and it gave me an opportunity to create a relationship with myself and my own body without being clouded by other people’s critiques. I was able to work on myself and became the most confident in my own skin I’ve ever been.

My tendencies can still sneak up on me. But now I literally stand in front of the mirror and speak kindly to myself. I speak my name and say “Alexis, you are beautiful.”







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