For many people, the search for weight loss, fitness and self improvement can devolve into the exact opposite and an obsession with a number. Experts and survivors of eating disorders recently spoke out about their encounters with the disease and the path to recovery.

Southern Smash, a non-profit aimed at bringing attention to disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, recently came to Texoma to encourage people to smash and destroy — literally and figuratively — the obsession with the scale.

“Eating disorders affect everyone — men and women, people of all ages,” Southern Smash's Amy Sullivan said. “The only requirement to have an eating disorder is to have a body.”

Among the more well-known conditions classified as eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is often characterized as an obsession with maintaining a low body weight through starvation or over exercising. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating followed by purging in an effort to not gain weight.

Sullivan described herself as a survivor of anorexia, which started during her senior year of high school.

“I started a diet to lose a bit of weight and it became an obsession with the scale,” she said.

AnnaBeth Thomas, who attends Austin College, said she wasn't entirely sure when her fight with eating disorders truly started, but said she likely has always had issues with it throughout her life. However, the Amarillo native said her fight with bulimia peaked in high school when she went through periods of binging followed by purging along with excessive exercise. At the time, Thomas said she was ashamed to bring it up because no one was talking about it.

“For me personally, I think it has been important in recovery to be open and honest about it,” she said during an event at Austin College where Southern Smash encouraged people to smash scales with hammers and baseball bats, as well as listen to talks by Sullivan and other survivors on their encounters with the disorders.

Thomas said she first tried to treat her illness herself using self-help books to stop her vomiting episodes. While she thought she was able to control her illness herself, in hindsight Thomas said she left herself open for other illnesses. In college, Thomas said she instead developed anorexia due to her fears and her past as a bulimic. This led her to fear eating due to her history of binge eating in the past. At her lightest, the five foot, six inch college student weighed 100 pounds.

Sullivan noted that it is common for people to fluctuate between disorders. Sullivan said she fought her disease for six years amid struggles with anxiety and depression. It was stories of other people's recovery that ultimately led her to seek treatment.

“I say I was sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time,” Sullivan said.

Seeking help

Thomas said she decided to seek help in 2017 after a friend was hospitalized the year prior due to similar eating disorders. This led her to reflect on her own condition, and led her to speak out on the topic.

“People mentioned that I didn't seem to eat a lot, so I ultimately decided to seek help,” she said.

Thomas decided to seek professional help during her second bout with an eating disorder and looked for local experts that specialized in the topic. Thomas said she found one therapist in the area who specialized in it, but had to drive to McKinney to find a dietitian who focused on the topic.

Thomas ultimately got in contact with Stephanie Waitt, a licensed professional counselor based in Sherman. Waitt said she is seeking her specialization in eating disorders, and believes she is the only one in the area doing so.

Waitt estimated that about about 75 to 85 percent of college students practice dieting during their education. Of those, about 25 percent will develop a pathological disorder related to it, she said. Waitt added that women are more likely to seek treatment for the illness than men, where she thinks the disease is likely under reported. Additionally, eating disorders also appear to be more prevalent in the LGBTQ community, she said.

In part, Waitt said this seems to be related to American culture and an obsession with an ideal body shape and size.

“We see as we promote weight loss, the more we see eating disorders,” she said.

Thomas said a major reason for that is American's “diet culture,” adding she feels eating disorders are sometimes glorified.

“There is such a obsession with weight and its connection to your worth,” Thomas said.

Serious conditions

Waitt said eating disorders should be treated as serious conditions, and specialists and medical professionals should be contacted. However, she did acknowledge that options are limited in Texoma, with most professionals located in the Metroplex.

“Self-help really isn't effective with this,” she said.

Stephanie Seekamp, a clinical dietitian with Wilson N. Jones Regional Medical Center, said treatment often needs to be a team effort between psychologists, therapists and dietitians.

“In this case, it does take a village to threat the patient,” she said.

Seekamp noted that she has had limited experience specifically with eating disorders, but has seen some people come to the hospital as outpatients.

Seekamp said treatment often is individualized to the patient, including the approach and speed. One common approach is to start with foods that the patient is comfortable eating and slowly introduce the fear foods. Then, as the treatment progresses, she said therapists and medical providers can talk about the experience with their patient.

“For many, eating is not pleasurable anymore and is instead a chore,” she said.

Once she started therapy and other treatment focused on her disease, Thomas said she quickly realized how much it tied into other mental health issues she has faced in the past.

“Once you realize how much an eating disorder affects every aspect in your life, because it is a mental disorder, you can start to recover,” Thomas said.