CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a teenager, Erin Bradley seemed to have it all. Riverside High School cheerleader, athlete, homecoming attendant and honor student, she led a dream-come-true life. But it wasn't her dream.Behind her smile, Bradley gritted her teeth as she trudged through high school."Where I grew up, it's all about looks and image. I think a smaller high school is worse than larger ones, where the majority of the students do their own thing. Authenticity is more acceptable," said Bradley, now 24.Looking for an aspect of her life that she could control, Bradley obsessively focused on her weight and severely limited what she would eat. Her weight yo-yoed as she went from eating one excessive meal a day of a whole rotisserie chicken and vegetables at one sitting, or secretly binging on a box of cookies or large tin of nuts.
Her path down a life of beauty pageants and baton competitions started when she was 3 years old. Her mother owned a dance studio in Marmet where Bradley danced from the time she was 5 until she stopped at 12 years old. "I remember crying before lessons that I don't want to do this," she said.When she was in middle school, Bradley's weight began to climb. "I was overeating to cope with the pressure and expectation to be perfect. I gained weight. My mom knew I was unhappy, but she thought it was because of my weight," she said.She tried different diets, and most closely followed an extreme version of a low-carb diet. At 5 foot 7 inches, Bradley's weight fluctuated between 130 and 200 pounds. At her lowest, she didn't have the skeletal look and medical problems of an advanced anorexia patient, but she knew her efforts to control her weight were taking over her life."I was losing weight, but dying inside. I thought that if I were really skinny, I would have value and worth," she said.Her weight was at its lowest during her junior year in high school. Friends and family told her she looked great, but she wanted to lose more weight and "look like a runway model." She wanted to keep going until someone would notice and say, "Are you OK?"Bradley's preoccupation with her weight coupled with binge sessions and mood swings are classic signs of an eating disorder, according to Fannie Loughridge, a Barboursville counselor who has worked with people with eating disorders for 10 to 12 years.
They tend to avoid social situations centered on food. If they're bulimic, they excuse themselves from the dinner table and immediately head to the bathroom, where they'll force themselves to vomit. Anorexic people will push food around on their plate to try to hide that they aren't eating. "I really encourage them to get help if they see these signs. The patient usually resists treatment in the beginning. They think they're doing well," Loughridge said.Bradley willingly sought help, but not for a disorder. She gained weight during her first semester as a Marshall University student and told her mother she wanted to talk to someone about her inability to stay on a diet. Her mother helped her find a counselor at the Family Resource Center at CAMC Women and Children's Hospital
.Bradley told the counselor she wanted to work on her inability to stay on a diet and lose weight. The counselor saw a deeper problem."I was overeating. It was anorexia, infrequent bulimia, body dysmorphia," she said. "She told me that she didn't want me to go on any diet. She said, 'you're going to gain weight.' I wanted to leave," Bradley said.
Eating disorders include overeating as well as undereating. Patients who overeat usually substitute food for love and support."The eating disorder is not as much about how you look as your emotions. Patients often exhibit perfectionism, low self-confidence and lots of negative emotions. It's all based on control. When their life is out of control, they can control what goes in their mouths. It's completely up to them," Loughridge said.Bradley's counselor recommended the book "When Food is Love" by Geneen Roth, which Bradley said prompted a breakthrough in her treatment."I realized that it's totally not about food. It's about everything underneath -- who you are. Your childhood experiences affect the way you view yourself," she said.Resources for eating disorder patients are sparse in West Virginia, Loughridge said. She recommends the National Eating Disorder Association
as a research starting point.Parents usually bring children under age 18 to see Loughridge. Adults are usually long-term patients in remission who have slipped back into the disorder. Treatment depends on the severity of the patient's condition, but usually includes individual or group counseling.
Bradley continues to meet with her counselor and attends meetings for a co-dependence support group that meets at the Serenity Club in Dunbar several times a week. "That place has saved my life," she said.She plans to finish college, possibly with a degree that will lead to a career in counseling. Today, she works in a floral shop and creates jewelry in her spare time. She knows her eating disorder recovery will be a lifelong struggle."I really want to emphasize that recovery is a journey. Change doesn't just happen, especially when you're obsessed with controlling and restricting yourself," Bradley said. "It happens when you desire the best for yourself."For information on the National Eating Disorder Association, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
or call the helpline at 800-931-2237.Reach Fannie Loughridge at Loughridge Counseling at 304-733-1833 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
.The WVU Disordered Eating Center of Charleston
is the only multidiscipline treatment team in the state, It includes a team psychologists, social workers, nutritionists and physicians specializing in adolescent medicine, psychiatry and internal medicine. Call 304-388-1000 Reach Julie Robinson at email@example.com or 304-348-1230.