ST. PETERSBURG — Allison Kreiger's eating disorder started when she was just 13 and continued until she was a senior in high school. She didn't set out to lose weight, but to gain control over a life that felt out of control to a young girl.
Anorexia can cause dramatic weight loss, making it more visible. But Kreiger, who would go on to be crowned Miss Florida in 2006, started out with the binging and purging condition bulimia.
Her weight seemed stable until anorexia took over in her senior year. Kreiger, already slim, quickly dropped 30 pounds, making apparent the damage years of purging had caused. She lost much of her hair, her eyes were bloodshot from chronic vomiting, her teeth were corroded by stomach acid, her heart was weak.
"I am very lucky to be alive," says Kreiger, now 29, who is married, a new mother, and a recent law school graduate.
As Miss Florida, the Orlando resident adopted eating disorder awareness as her service platform. "It's a scary disease with a lot of shame," said Kreiger, "and eating disorders are rampant on school campuses everywhere."
Kreiger's advocacy continues at the University of Florida and her nonprofit organization, HOPE, Helping Other People Eat. She is on the board of the National Eating Disorders Association and will be at its annual conference, today through Saturday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg.
Kreiger spoke to the Times this week about her work and her recovery.
Why did your life feel so out of control at age 13?
I was a competitive baton twirler from the age of 5. You had to train like gymnasts several hours in the gym every day and take dance classes at night. We had school performances on Fridays, competitions on Saturdays and Sundays we traveled home from competitions. By the time I was 13, I was over it.
But I didn't say anything because I didn't want to disappoint anybody. My mom competed in baton; her former coach was coaching me. This was our family sport. My parents never criticized me or said I was a failure if I didn't win. I was doing that to myself.
How did the eating disorder start?
One time, after an intense practice session that I thought didn't go well, I got so worked up and upset that I got sick (vomited). And I felt better after doing that. Something was triggered in my brain that told me I felt better when I got sick. It became my relief, my way to cope with stress. It quickly became a "go to" behavior. I had to eat lots of food in order to have something to purge, so I started binging. I was 13 and didn't even realize what I was doing. I didn't know there was a name for it.
When did you realize you had a problem?
I tried to stop (purging) on my own my senior year in high school, but I was so conditioned that I couldn't stop myself. That made me very scared. I was aware that I was sick. I started researching it and figured out what was going on. That's when I talked to my parents, but they didn't get it and they didn't understand what they needed to do to help me. That was 13 years ago. Now we know you have to get help, treatment right away. We didn't know that back then.
What was your treatment?
My parents took me to our family doctor who put us in touch with several experts who became my treatment team: a psychiatrist, a therapist, a nutritionist and the family doctor. I saw someone several times a week. I stuck to it because I wanted to be well enough to go to college. In hindsight, I should have entered an in-patient treatment program, but it wasn't offered to me as an option at the time. My recovery may have come sooner.
What was recovery like?
It was a hell of a battle, one of the most challenging things I've ever done in my life. A big part of it was building a relationship with food again. When dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction you remove the thing you're addicted to entirely. With an eating disorder, you have to face that disorder at least three times a day, every day. So you have to work through it including the anxiety leading up to meal time, meal time itself, the anxiety after eating. That took a lot of time.
What's your advice for others in your situation?
They need to get help. Let go of the shame and allow help in. Talk to the people around you, don't hide it. People tend to relapse when they don't get the help they need. You will learn the tools and skills you need so you don't relapse later in life. Recovery is challenging but it's worth it.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org