When Chelsea Kamody was 16 years old, her grandmother passed away, and it hit her very hard. She was extremely close to her grandmother and the grief left her with no appetite and a lot of mental anguish. A self-described “control freak,” soon Chelsea found herself becoming obsessed with the number on the scale. Her weight was quickly dropping and she wanted to keep it that way. She began excessively running for miles at a time, purposely restricting food and weighing herself frequently.
Chelsea didn’t realize it at the time, but she had become one of approximately 20 million women who suffer from an eating disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. An additional 10 million men also have or have had an eating disorder. Many people think eating disorders consist of specific symptoms like binging and purging food or severe restriction of food, but eating disorders actually include a range of psychological conditions that usually begin with obsession with food, weight and physical condition.
IN THE BEGINNING
Chelsea’s obsession with her weight began in November after her grandmother’s death. In addition to excessively exercising, she was existing on very little food like celery. She shed a lot of weight very quickly, but her family and friends didn’t realize it fully until January, when Chelsea reported to volleyball practice.
“Living in Cleveland, I had a lot of heavy clothes on during the winter, which hid my weight loss,” Chelsea said. “Once I was in my volleyball shirt and shorts, my parents were very alarmed by my appearance.”
After practice, her dad took her to Subway for her once-favorite sandwich, a turkey and bacon sub. Chelsea was alarmed by the prospect of having to eat a whole sandwich. “I screamed and basically threw a tantrum in the middle of the restaurant.”
After discovering Chelsea’s extreme weight loss, they got her into therapy. She saw many therapists, but it didn’t help.
“I am a very stubborn person and I had no intention of changing my habits,” Chelsea said. “I knew what the doctors wanted to hear and I told them that.”
Physically and mentally, she was not doing well. Her volleyball coach told her he would not let her play if she was not in better physical condition. So, Chelsea began to eat a little more and got herself back to a healthy weight. Even though she looked better on the outside, Chelsea knew that mentally she was not any better. She was still obsessively weighing herself and running excessively.
Chelsea was suffering from anorexia nervosa, one of several types of eating disorders. Symptoms of anorexia include a severe restriction of food, being very underweight, having an obsession with maintaining a certain weight at any cost and a very distorted body image. Anorexics who exhibit the restrictive type of this disease go about maintaining a certain weight by withholding food and/or excessive exercise, said Healthline.
A TURN FOR THE WORSE
After Chelsea went to college, her destructive habits continued and got worse. Although she was an excellent student and active with several college clubs,
she was in no way healthy. Chelsea is 5’11” and weighed 80 pounds at the time. “My friends later told me how worried they were about me.”
Chelsea’s daily schedule consisted of going to the YMCA at 3 a.m., exercising for three hours, and then taking the bus to the university fitness center to work out from 7 to 9 a.m. She would then go to class and return back to the fitness center for more exercise. Chelsea was hospitalized several times for failing organs like her heart and kidney. Although her parents, doctors and friends were worried about her, they could only do so much, as Chelsea was an adult.
“I knew what I was doing was so bad. I wanted to change,” Chelsea said. “I would wake up every morning and say to myself ‘today is the day I will fix this.’ It’s like something was controlling my mind. I was miserable and hated how I looked and felt.”
After Chelsea finished college, she got a teaching position in Virginia. While there, she was hospitalized once again with a failing liver and heart. This time it was a true death scare. The doctors told her if she didn’t change, she was likely not to survive.
“I had lied to everyone but I couldn’t lie to my organs,” Chelsea said.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
What pulled her out of her dire situation was her passion for physical fitness. Chelsea had always loved the pursuit of fitness so she set herself a goal of wanting to enter a fitness competition. This meant a lot of training but also a regimented nutritional routine.
“Although I still had my obsessive behavior, now I had a singular goal to be healthy,” Chelsea said. “I began eating eight times a day and I could slowly feel myself coming back. I began gaining weight slowly but surely and began feeling better.”
Although she was feeling physically better, overcoming an eating disorder does not happen overnight. For the first couple of years, Chelsea admits that she still obsessed a little about food and weight.
“It takes a while to overcome those habits and thoughts. Although I was eating more healthily and had gained a good amount of weight and muscle, I could not veer from my dietary routine. Going a day without exercise seemed unimaginable, and the thought of eating out with friends or family was something I could not do,” Chelsea said.
Since beginning training for fitness competitions five years ago, Chelsea has participated in professional bikini competitions, triathlons and Spartan challenges. Her attitude about food and exercise has improved as well. Now 30 years old and new to the Gainesville area, Chelsea says this past year is the first one she has felt totally healthy and whole. She is 100 pounds heavier now than she was at her lowest and has never felt better.
“I feel completely healthy and happy. What finally motivated me to change was my goal to compete and for the sake of my family,” Chelsea said.
When asked how families and friends should deal with someone they suspect is suffering from an eating disorder, Chelsea says that there is nothing they can do unless the person admits they have a problem.
“It’s like any other addiction or compulsion,” Chelsea said. “Nothing could have stopped me at the time. You can’t help someone who can’t help themselves.”
While setting fitness goals helped Chelsea recover from her eating disorder, there are other types of treatment that may be able to help those who are suffering. Mayo Clinic recommends working with a team of professionals that can help address the issues that may affect someone with an eating disorder. Working with a mental health professional can help address the underlying problems triggering the condition. A dietitian can help the patient with nutrition plans and a medical professional can address the physical ailments that may have arisen.
Treatment for an eating disorder does not happen overnight and the underlying triggers or symptoms may linger for a long time. If an outpatient plan doesn’t seem to help symptoms, patients may consider an eating disorder treatment facility, said the Mayo Clinic. The most important thing is to develop a treatment plan working with medical professionals and with the support of family and friends.
WHAT CAUSES EATING DISORDERS?
Genetics play a part, as do psychological and societal factors. Psychological conditions like “neuroticism, perfectionism and impulsivity” are risk factors to develop an eating disorder, said Healthline. In addition, societal and cultural images of thinness as an ideal for bodies, especially women, also influence people’s perception of their bodies. For men, it can be the fit and muscular ideal that may drive a disorder.
DANGEROUS SIDE EFFECTS
Adverse effects of anorexia can include brittle bones and nails, infertility, organ failure or even worse, death. In fact, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any other eating disorder, said the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Other types of eating disorders include bulimia nervosa, where someone will binge a large amount of food and purge it by several methods including induced vomiting, diuretics, laxatives or enemas. Adverse effects can include swollen salivary glands, gastrointestinal problems and an electrolyte balance that can prompt a stroke or heart attack, NIMH reports.
If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, seek professional advice and treatment. The National Eating Disorders Association has resources and chat options available to get you started at nationaleatingdisorders.org.