Campus / News / February 8, 2014

Overcoming bulimia: a student’s reflection on an eating disorder

Hannah knew it was time to get help again. She had been obsessing over it. She spent the morning scrolling through the cafeteria menu, panicking that there was nothing she could eat. She sat in class and thought about it. She couldn’t even focus on her work. But she didn’t want to say it out loud. She didn’t want to hear it, and she knew her mother wouldn’t either. Still, she couldn’t go back to before. So she called her mom on the way back to the Quads.

“I threw up again,” she said. “I need help.”

Junior Hannah Schierl has been conscious of her body image since she was seven years old, which later in life led to bulimia.

She first became aware of her body while school shopping with her grandmother in second grade. Hannah’s grandmother compared her to other kids in the section saying, “You need to be careful of what you eat if you want any friends.” Hannah looked at herself in the mirror, wearing a pink jumpsuit she was trying on, and all she saw was a pink blob. For the first time she blamed it on her body instead of her clothes. For many years, she avoided looking into mirrors altogether, because she never liked what she saw.

Hannah is not alone.

A survey in 2011 found that 10 million men and 20 million women suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder sometime in their lives. According to the national eating disorder website, eating disorders have been increasing since 1950, and the number of cases of bulimia in women ages 10 to 39 alone tripled between 1988 and 1993.

Bulimia is an eating disorder that involves binging and purging either by throwing up or taking laxatives, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. This can lead to many health problems, such as inflammation and possible rupturing of the esophagus or an imbalance of electrolytes in the stomach from the dehydration of the body. More severe cases can lead to death.

Hannah’s eating disorder started much later than her initial struggle with body image issues. She would skip meals or work out until her body would not let her anymore. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that she became bulimic.

Hannah sat at the dinner table with her family and thought about throwing up. It was too cold to run outside, and she felt she had to justify eating in some way. She thought, “Are you actually going to do it now? What would it hurt?”

After dinner, Hannah went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and the fan. She didn’t know how to do it. She tried jamming her fingers down her throat, but nothing happened. So she grabbed her toothbrush and shoved that down her throat until she threw up. She felt a rush. She finally had control of something in her life.

As a junior in high school, Hannah was still ashamed and terrified of getting caught. She knew it was wrong. So she only threw up on the days that she felt like it. By senior year, Hannah no longer cared what anyone thought of her. She began throwing up two to four times a day. She even arranged her class schedule so she had extra time for the bathroom.

But Hannah’s mom was on to her. Brenda Schierl, formerly bulimic herself, knew the warning signs. She watched Hannah eat and head to the bathroom. She sometimes would hear the shower go on a few times in one afternoon.

One night after Hannah had reemerged from the bathroom, Brenda went in after her. She saw the spray on the back of the toilet seat from the force of Hannah throwing up. “She’s probably sick,” Brenda thought to herself. So, she cleaned it up and continued her night.

This situation reoccurred several times, as a concerned Brenda continued her efforts to explain away Hannah’s behavior. She knew there was a problem, but didn’t know how to admit it to herself. Her child had pulled away from her and she didn’t know how to fix it.

Hannah’s best friend, Tyler Eddy, was one of the few people she confided in. Eddy had known Hannah since sixth grade, and they had been close since.

Hannah would call Eddy from the bathroom floor. “I want to throw up,” she would say. “You don’t need to do that. You’re stronger than that,” Eddy would reply. He’d then proceed to change the subject. They’d talk about how sports teams were doing, or something about school, until she didn’t feel the need to throw up anymore.

“I don’t think he knows how much those phone calls meant to me,” Hannah said.

Eventually, her stress became overwhelming and she had a panic attack. She went home crying and told her mom that she needed help. Brenda was shocked. She had known, but she didn’t want to admit to herself that her daughter was facing the same struggle with which Brenda was so familiar. So they both sat on the floor of her room. Hannah cried as her mom held her. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll figure it out,” Brenda said repeatedly.

“I had never seen her that broken,” Brenda said. “I was scared she wasn’t going to be able to get out of it.”

Counseling was the start of a long recovery process for Hannah. Every week, she would reduce the number of times she allowed herself to throw up until she was down to zero. If she went over, the total would reset. To attend counseling, she had to skip two of her classes during the day, which she had to make up after school or between practice sessions. Her days started at school at 8 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m., sometimes even later.

In June 2011, Hannah graduated from counseling. She spent the summer working three jobs and living with her father. She had a gym membership, but no time to work out. Since her parents assured her she would not go to college if they caught her relapsing, she spent the summer recovering.

During her first year at Knox, Hannah relapsed. The stress became overwhelming in every aspect of her life, and she found herself needing her old coping mechanism. It was much less frequent this time, only about once or twice a month, but she found herself watching what she was eating and slipping further into old habits.

Hannah spent the summer after her freshman year in the hospital, recovering from adrenal fatigue syndrome and a vitamin C deficiency. In short, her organs were shutting down. The doctors never said whether the issue was related to her bulimia, but Hannah wonders how two years of throwing up may have impacted her body. So far, she has been lucky.

Last year, Hannah felt comfortable enough to participate in Love Your Body Week, which includes photo shoots (with or without clothing) meant to defy traditional notions of beauty.

Hannah met with her photographer, sophomore Carmen Ribaudo, in the photo studio in the Drew Hall basement. Hannah wanted her photos to be bright, colorful and happy. Hannah stripped down and danced in front of the camera to her Florence + the Machine playlist, after the suggestion that it might help calm her down. She began laughing at her awkwardness, which led to her favorite photo.

She was nervous. “These photos are great,” Ribaudo said. And Hannah started to see them the same way. She saw her body, and she saw herself smiling. “That was something really unique to her film. Most other people didn’t smile at all,” Ribaudo said.

Hannah invited her mother and closest friends to the photo presentation.

“I was surprised at how many different body types were on the wall,” Brenda said. “I had hope that a future generation could be more accepting than mine can.”

Serafine George

Tags:  body image bullemia eating disorder Hannah Schierl Love Your Body

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