For 16 years, Kasey Cramer hid her disease in plain sight. She skipped meals; she binged and purged. When she did want to eat, Cramer experienced such severe panic attacks that her throat would close up.
By the time she sought professional help at an Arizona treatment center, a dietitian told Cramer that her body's cells would have to relearn how to process food. Her medical chart, Cramer reveals, showed that doctors expected her to die because the disease had gone on so long.
But Cramer, one of seven panelists at the Sept. 26 “Voices of Hope: A Conversation About Eating Disorders” gathering, wasn’t ready to give up. “Recovery is possible; it is realistic,” she told the audience assembled in an upstairs conference room at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Center for Graduate Studies in Asheville. “Even as severe of a case as I was, it can be done.”
Sponsored by T.H.E. Center for Disordered Eating, a local nonprofit, the annual event aims to raise awareness about these illnesses through testimonials from all sides of the experience: family members, individuals in recovery, and professionals who treat them.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from clinically significant eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating.
“Everyone knows someone who’s suffering silently from an eating disorder,” Dee Dee Jones, T.H.E. Center's board president, told the audience before the formal discussion began. “It is only through gathering information and listening to others that we can become aware of this and give them the courage to break their silence, come forward, seek help and, again, seek hope,” said Jones, a former Voices of Hope panelist.
Questions fielded from audience members guided the nearly two-hour panel discussion. One query scrawled on a note card asked what you should do if you suspect a friend has an eating disorder.
Carolyn McCarter Wood, a social worker and licensed clinical addiction specialist, said that sometimes the hardest part can be trusting that intuition while approaching the subject with information and curiosity — not judgment.
Having an eating disorder, she explained, is “not a choice; it's not a lifestyle. And you can't make a friend get help, but you can be very vulnerable in saying, ‘This is what I see, and I'm scared.’”
Eating disorders are not about food, said Jenn Burnell of Carolina House, a Durham, N.C.-based residential treatment center. Usually, the registered dietitian and nutrition therapist explained, they’re “triggered by some sort of underlying anxiety or depression.”
That was the case for Cramer, who noted, “I had a hole inside, because I didn't feel worthy. I felt like I was this crappy person my whole life, and I was trying to punish myself by starving myself.”
Fellow panelist Lauren Leichte, who described herself as being in recovery from an eating disorder, said that learning to work through the emotions has been both the hardest and most rewarding part of her journey.
“It's usually an emotion, or something comes up that maybe triggers an emotion, and it's allowing myself to feel that feeling, regardless of how icky, how uncomfortable it may be,” she revealed, tearing up. “It's about feeling it, and it's about letting myself go to that place, whether it's scared or really nervous or whatever it may be, and knowing I'm going to go through it. It's not going to overtake me; it's not going to kill me: I can handle it. Each time I'm able to face that, it's not as big. It's definitely worth it.”
Clarke Leichte, her husband of 13 years, wholeheartedly agrees. In the beginning, noted Clarke, he was so worried about his wife that he’d forget to take care of himself and, consequently, would find himself running out of steam during the prolonged and exhausting period when they were shuttling from specialist to specialist, trying to find the right treatment team. It's imperative, he emphasized, for friends and family members to understand the illness their loved one has to face each day.
“Think of your biggest fear, whether it's heights or jumping out of an airplane or spiders, and think of having to deal with that six times a day, every day,” he said. “It's not just food: It's the whole package that goes along with that.”
And unlike some ailments, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment, no magic pill, for eating disorders. Equine therapy was what helped Cramer develop self-worth and the motivation to overcome her illness. But she and Clarke both stressed the central role of hope, whether it's found within or gleaned from friends, family or medical professionals.
“You can always have hope, but the hope can change for whatever's fitting for you in the moment,” noted Cramer. “It can be the small little hope of 'I'm not going to get anxious when I eat my snack,' and then the hope gets bigger.”
For Lauren, hope came during her last stay at a treatment center.
“I was walking through a healing garden one day, and I came upon a stone that somebody had done,” she explained. “It said, 'Sometimes you have to fight the battle more than once to win the war.' To me, that's what hope is: Day in, day out, whatever it may be, there's that hope. It's not just in a minute or a day; it's over a period of time. Always keep going, regardless of how good or not so good you may think you're doing.”