Zoe Vlastos remembers getting the compliments from people who said she looked great. Those people were commenting on Zoe’s weight loss, which happened while she was on a trip to Spain. Something in Zoe, then a high school student, wanted to hear more of those compliments.
“Something in me clicked and I noticed ‘If I don’t eat, I lose weight. And people make comments about how great I look,’” she said.
So began a year-long battle with anorexia.
“I just spiraled down from there,” Zoe said. “I was really scared to gain weight.”
She would over-exercise and barely eat. Zoe didn’t admit her problem to herself or anyone else.
“All of that was a secret. I didn’t want people to know,” she said “During that whole period, I was in denial. I had no idea I was struggling with an eating disorder.” And I had people come and say ‘hey, you’re really skinny. We’re really worried about you. Do you think you have an eating disorder?’ and I would just push it all away. That was my defense because I didn’t want to look at what was going on, and I didn’t want to realize that was true. I didn’t want to be the girl with the eating disorder.”
A conversation with her mother, who also struggled with an eating disorder as a teen, got Zoe to see a different perspective. But she was still reluctant to seek help.
“I thought I could do it by myself. I’m going to journal a lot. I’m going to focus a lot, and I’ll be fine,” she said.
But Zoe’s research led her to the truth: she needed professional help.
“I went to the library. I checked out every book on eating disorders. And as I went through the books, I realized I was checking all the boxes for anorexia nervosa,” she said. “It started to settle more and more that I did have an eating disorder. And it wasn’t a little problem, it was a really big problem.”
Zoe began seeing a therapist and a nutritionist. She also participated in support groups. After months of counseling, she felt her mind and her body getting stronger.
“For me, I’ve come to a place where I feel fully recovered,” she said. “And, at the same time, that means I will always be in recovery.”
Zoe now volunteers with the Eating Disorder Foundation. Expert say peer support, in addition to therapy, can often be key for people struggling with eating disorders.
“Eating disorders are a major health problem in this country,” said Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, (MD CEDS, FAED) founder and medical director of the Gaudiani Clinic which helps people across the country struggling with eating disorders.
Gaudiani says even though eating disorders show physical symptoms, they’re classified as a mental illness.
“Anorexia nervosa, few people know, carries the highest death rate of any mental illness,” she said. “Eating disorders are mental illnesses that have physical and medical manifestations.”
Gaudiani adds that men, women, boys, and girls can all suffer from eating disorders. And she says people shouldn’t assume that only a person who is extremely thin can be classified as having an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. You can’t look at somebody and see whether they have an eating disorder or not,” she said.
Gaudiani suggests people struggling with eating disorders seek out a doctor who has specialization in treating eating disorders.
She says loved ones who are concerned may notice certain behaviors in a person why may have an eating disorder.
“They might start to get rigid around food time,” she said. “They might say ‘I don’t want to eat with you anymore’ or ‘I’m not going to go out to eat’… or they may start talking a lot about their body and what they’re doing about it.”
Gaudiani suggests a loving, kind approach when bringing up the subject with someone who may have an eating disorder. Zoe is grateful that her mom approached her in just the right way. She’s also grateful for something else.
“I’ve come to a place where I’m really grateful for my eating disorder,” she said. “And that sounds weird to say, (but) it’s because I have learned so much about myself in recovery.”
All this week, 9NEWS will be featuring stories of people who have beaten addiction and are in the process of recovery. We will also offer resources to anyone who needs help. A call-in line will be open from 6:30 a.m. -8:30 a.m. Tuesday-Friday. The phone number will be given out on 9NEWS Mornings, once the phone lines are staffed and open.