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The superachiever had a secret that proved nearly debilitating, until she learned to set new, healthy goals for herself.
Published Oct. 6, 2014

I gained 5 pounds recently, and I don't hate myself.

If this had happened four years ago, I would kneel in front of a toilet and shove my right index finger down my throat.

I would gag repeatedly as my eyes filled with tears. And then, in the instant before my esophagus registered the harsh sting, I would expel everything in my stomach.

I would feel both contentment and disgust as I panted on the bathroom floor, my head ringing as the room came back into focus.

I would flush the toilet and watch, relieved, as my secret swirled away.

It feels strange to say that I had an eating disorder.

I consider this essay my "coming-out party.'' I am finally ready to admit it: I was a bulimic.

- - -

Starting in my sophomore year of high school, I would purge about twice a day.

It felt like a swim set I used to do. On a single breath, you swim the entire pool length. In the last 5 yards your lungs, empty and panicked, contract, searching for air. Just when your vision wanes, you breach the surface and breathe.

Oxygen slams into your lungs, inundating your body. Your arms and legs tingle. It's pure relief.

Purging felt like that. An intense calm would envelop my brain and for an instant I could forget everything: the exams, the papers, the swim practice, the boy I liked, the argument with my parents.

I'd simply forget.

- - -

I've never been fragile. Normally, my body is athletic with plush edges. I have baby-ready curves: hips, thighs - meat on my bones - with ample muscle.

As a little girl, I was pure tomboy, all bloodied knees and stained T-shirts. In second grade, I gained a lot of weight, which I dropped within a couple of years when I took up swimming.

Still, I yearned to look like my friends in their double-zero jeans. But even they weren't happy with their bodies.

Studies estimate that up to 60 percent of elementary school girls worry about their weight. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will have an eating disorder at some point during their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Awareness website.

Even after my extra pounds were gone, the insecurities lingered. Shame is heavy and unforgiving.

Purging carried a different kind of shame. It meant I was weak, and that was enough reason for me to hide.

I was constantly sneaking around, ensuring that no one heard or saw me emerge from the bathroom with red, watery eyes.

- - -

No one knew I was sick because I wanted it that way. I knew if I told anyone, they'd try to stop me, and I wasn't about to let that happen. Purging allowed me to cope.

In high school, I was an International Baccalaureate student, a competitive swimmer, president of the environmental club, secretary of the art honors society, a photographer.

Most days, I woke at 5:30 a.m., and was in class from 7:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. I had swim practice from 4 to 6 p.m. Home by about 7 p.m., I'd start my homework. Most nights, I slept three or four hours. Weekends were for swim competitions and schoolwork.

Swimming concealed me. Athletes are supposed to be thin, right? When I started purging, I went from a size 8 to a 4. I was down to 128 pounds.

- - -

The pressure on students to succeed today is crippling. I buckled under the load.

I found myself in a place beyond stress and reason, and I was too exhausted to find my way out.

A year after I started purging, I developed stress hives: Pink, oval, nickel-sized dots littered my arms and neck. My stress was visceral and obvious. I was drowning.

My parents suspected I wasn't okay. They threatened to pull me out of IB and swimming, but I talked them into letting me stay.

I never thought I had a problem because I chose when to purge. I was in control. Until I wasn't.

I started having panic attacks after eating. I would obsess: "Did I eat too much? How much weight would I gain? Did I swim enough to burn this off? Will the fat land on my stomach or my hips or my thighs?"

And it wasn't until I threw up that I calmed down and could start my homework.

- - -

Midway through my senior year, I was at a family friend's home when I started crying. And talking.

I told her I occasionally purged when I felt overwhelmed.

She gave me an ultimatum: I had to stop by the time I left for college, or she would tell my parents.

I'm blessed with incredible parents who love me more than I will ever comprehend. I couldn't bear to let them think they failed me in some way.

I was determined to quit. When I set a goal, I stop at nothing to reach it.

I know that not everyone can quit on her own. But although I've relapsed for a couple of short stints, I'm immeasurably proud to say I've been healthy for three years and counting.

Well, almost healthy.

- - -

A year ago, I learned I have eosinophilic esophagitis, which means that a type of white blood cell has built up in my esophagus, inflaming it and causing sensitivity to a lot of foods. If I eat something I shouldn't, my esophagus contracts, and I can't swallow.

Worse still, I learned I have Barrett's esophagus, meaning intestinal tissue has replaced esophageal tissue. Uncontrolled, it can lead to cancer.

The worst part is that I did it to myself. My purging caused the Barrett's, my doctor said.

Now, I adhere to a super-restrictive, noninflammatory diet to control it.

It's ironic. When I was younger, my mind refused to let me enjoy food. Now my condition is the problem.

Today, weight and size are meaningless to me. I'm a size 6. I weigh 150 pounds.

I have never felt more beautiful.

Shannon Kaestle, 22, is a senior journalism student at the University of Florida who grew up in Delray Beach. This article is adapted from one she wrote for her magazine and feature writing class. She plans to work as a multimedia journalist, telling stories in written, photo and video form. Contact her at