Recovery: WKU student fighting for a healthy body, mind

Aug 11, 2021 | Spotlight

By Ally Griggs

Seven. Zero. Zero. Start. Inside the microwave, a fairly large sweet potato sits centered on a revolving plate. Turning back to the stove, placing one hand around the arm of the skillet and using the other to grasp the spatula, 21-year-old Hillary Bacon watches thin traces of olive oil spit into the air surrounding her pan-seared chicken breast.

Removing the potato carefully from inside the microwave, steam rises from the three small cuts through its skin, too hot to be eaten right away.

“21, always 21,” she says flipping over her chicken with the seasoning flecked spatula. “I would eat raw almonds for lunch, and I would count out exactly 21, never 22.”

She turns the stove dial to zero and moves the hot skillet to the cool front burner.

“The serving size for almonds is 22,” she explains, “and I refused to overeat.”

She places a single bag of frozen broccoli into the microwave and begins a final countdown until her lunch is ready. Setting the colorful meal into a portioned Tupperware container to eat later, she leaves the lid unsealed to allow steam to escape from the sides. Each part of the meal — sweet potato, chicken, and broccoli — are thoughtfully chosen and serve a specific purpose in fueling a healthy body.

For Hillary though, it’s as much about fueling a healthy mind as a healthy body.

“Control feels good again,” she says. “I can see the thin line that exists between habit and obsession, and I’m back now to comfortably watching it from afar instead of having passed it by miles.”

Clear blue eyes and a healthy complexion complement the mental and physical well being of Hillary today, almost 18 months into recovering from her battle with anorexia. Now Hillary is using her continual recovery to not only come to terms with the past but also to shape her future.

Hillary says she is her own biggest critic. She remembers growing up always being taller and heavier than the girls her age and finding herself unable to dress in the cute clothes she liked because they never fit quite right.

She describes her childhood through middle and high school as being a continual struggle with body image and self-confidence. Middle school was the worst because she hated the way she looked, hated the way she felt, and hated that she didn’t have any friends.

“I never felt like my body and the way I looked was pretty or cute because I didn’t look like everyone else. I looked different,” she says while filling up a water bottle and packing it into her backpack. “I looked different from them and different from what society had shown me was pretty.”

She feels she has only found a true acceptance of herself now that she is recovering from her eating disorder.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) defines anorexia as a state of emaciation, a relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, a distortion of body image and intense fear of gaining weight, a lack of menstruation among girls and women, and extremely disturbed eating behavior.

The group reports that over 90 percent of women on college campuses have tried to change or control their weight through dieting, and that the vast majority of patients treated for anorexia trace the beginning of their illness to the first time they were able to see weight loss results from a diet plan.

No one factor causes a person to suffer from an eating disorder. Some of the risk factors can be genetic, biological, or sociocultural; even personality traits can play a role.

Although Hillary is unsure exactly when she began her battle with anorexia, she can remember the first time food consumption became abnormally uncomfortable in her mind and the events of the difficult year that followed.

It started at a summer job before Hillary’s sophomore year at Western Kentucky University with something as simple as a Dairy Queen ice cream cake and a lunchtime birthday celebration.

One by one, desk chairs at Neely, Brien and Wilson became unoccupied that day as the break room filled with the collective staff.

“Everyone loves ice cream cake; you’re crazy if you don’t,” Hillary says recalling that afternoon. “I told myself that day I would just go back there and celebrate, pay my respects and pass on cake.”

Instead, she was given a slice of colorful cake and quickly followed the lead of her coworkers, one delicious mouthful at a time. With a full stomach and an empty plate, she left the break room; however, the mental unrest that flickered inside her was just a small taste of what would plague her in the year to follow.

“I couldn’t breathe,” she recalls, placing her hand onto her chest. “I had never in my life wanted to throw up anything that badly.”

She called her brother Marshal and relayed her unexplainable anxiety to him. She remembers her brother telling her to calm down, and she remembers being completely unable to do so.

“I told him that I couldn’t,” Hillary says. “And then I hung up the phone.”

In that moment, she would have done anything in the world to get those calories out of her body. She went to the bathroom to throw up but was unable to. She returned to her desk and remembers spending the entire afternoon unable to focus on her work or breathe comfortably.

“I remember how slowly that afternoon passed,” she says. “I just thought over and over and over about what I had done.”

From there, a downward spiral began. For the next six months she walked along an impossibly narrow line that divided a passion for healthy living from an obsession with losing weight.

Returning from winter break, her condition worsened. Spring semester she was enrolled in a Weightlifting for Women class, which provided her the time, resources, and desire to pursue a healthier lifestyle, but simultaneously fueled her obsession with losing weight and self control.

“From March to April of 2014, I’d lost 20-25 pounds. That was a lot, and it was rapid,” Hillary remembers. “It was rapid weight loss, and I loved it.”

Additionally, without a roommate that semester, she withdrew socially, spent entire days alone and lost contact with her family as well.

“Entire weeks would pass, and I would hardly hear from her,” says Hillary’s mother, Leila Bacon. “And that just wasn’t normal.”

Her big sister and close friend in Alpha Delta Pi, Jayme Pharis, came back to WKU to visit Hillary that spring.

“I remember feeling like I had the breath knocked out of me,” Jayme says. “She was so thin. It scared me. I walked around her like I was walking on egg shells.”

Hillary spent hours at the gym each day, constantly reduced her food intake, began CrossFit and completed an Advocare supplement weight loss challenge all in an effort to lose increasing amounts of weight.

She would perform body checks by examining her stomach from different angles multiple times throughout the day and after every meal, wanting to make sure the small amounts of food she would allow herself wouldn’t bloat her stomach. She refused to eat a single bite of anything if it wasn’t for a designated meal. She researched foods and found an allergy or health risk to associate with any that she thought were unhealthy, to justify their deletion from her diet entirely as she simultaneously looked for any way to incorporate low-calorie super foods.

“I look back now at everything I did and all the reasoning and rationale I created for it and see it for exactly what it was: I was sick,” she says.

Hillary remembers weighing herself multiple times a day and the drastic impact that number would have on her happiness. That spring, Hillary’s weight dropped to under 130 pounds, 40 pounds lower than her current weight, which looks healthy on her five-foot-seven athletic frame.

“I lived for it. I lived for the scale to drop. That’s all I wanted… It was everything to me.”

Pharis recalls her frustration with Hillary’s social media feedback.

“She would post a picture of herself on Instagram, and girls would post things saying how perfect she was and how jealous they were,” recalls Pharis. “She was sick. How could they not see it?”

Still, the weight Hillary lost only changed the way others saw her, and she remained unwilling and unable to see it for herself.

“When I would get out of the shower and look at my body in the mirror, even at my lowest weight, I would have full-blown panic attacks,” she says. “I looked in the mirror and still saw a big person, a fat person.”

With the end of the semester just two weeks away, the extremity of Hillary’s restrictive lifestyle had become impossible to maintain. A Thursday night ritual consisting of two familiar scenarios, working out and being alone, became ground zero of what Hillary considers her breaking point.

The workout had made her breathing heavy, and the additional stress of her anxious mind sent her into a panic attack. The thought of food, calories, exercise and weight loss consumed her mind completely.

She didn’t want to live anymore — it was one of the darkest moments in her life, she says. Unable to call her mom and communicate through the excessive breathing, Hillary sent her mom a text message.

“I don’t want to wake up in the morning if it’s going to be like this,” she texted her mom. “If my life is going to be like this tomorrow, then I don’t want to get up, I really don’t.” Hillary had realized that night that her obsession with exercise and weight loss had completely consumed her life and her mind.

“I finally realized that I would either defeat this disorder, or it would defeat me.”

The promise of a summer amidst the care and support of her family willed Hillary to finish out the semester.

Once home, Hillary began weekly sessions with a therapist. Her weight had not dropped low enough to require immediate medical intervention, but her hair had started to fall out, and she had stopped menstruating.

She felt hopeless and wanted to go to an inpatient treatment facility, but her parents couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars for the short time that would buy them. Her family became the inpatient treatment as they pulled her back into the practices of a normal life.

Her recovery that summer was gradual. Hillary says she slowly began to eat more than just a salad at meal time, and she was unable to remain isolated which reminded her of the abnormality of her lifestyle at WKU.

The self-starvation of the spring was replaced by a summer of small steps forward in recovery and big steps backward with the coping mechanism of binging and fluctuations in weight.

“I had to ask my mom to hide the peanut butter,” Hillary says. “I remember getting into the jar one day and just bawling while I ate bite after bite until I finally ran water into the half empty jar to stop me from eating it all.”

The most significant strides in Hillary’s recovery have come from her therapy sessions where she has been able to realize the problem is not food, but rather food is what she uses to handle the problem.

“I asked my therapist, ‘So what is the actual problem then?’” she recalls.

They are still searching for that answer in therapy, she says.

Hillary believes that therapy gives her the science and facts to understand and cope with her disorder, but her family and God have given her the will to carry on.

Now, 18 months later, Hillary no longer considers herself sick, but she is also careful to recognize the longevity of the recovery process. She believes that you can never be fully recovered from an eating disorder; you can only continue in the path of recovery.

“I will never forget those dark moments, and I will never ever forget those feelings,” she says. “They’re too profound and too impactful to forget, but any step forward no matter how small is better than going backwards.”

Looking ahead, Hillary hopes to spend the rest of her life educating and helping others.

“You can find people who sympathize and try to understand, but to find peace you have to find those people who empathize and have been there,” she says.

Hillary says she believes that every chance she can take to reach out and help someone battling an eating disorder makes her own struggle have purpose.

Hillary will graduate from WKU in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in social work, and she hopes to work at an inpatient treatment facility for men and women with eating disorders.

Hillary says some days are hard. She still struggles to maintain the healthy physical and mental balance she has found. Even today, she struggles with the truth that her weight and the size of her jeans are not indicative of her personal worth and value. She reminds herself that numbers and pounds do not tell how hard she works, how good of a sister she is, how much she loves Christ, or how beautiful she is.

“Those fleeting thoughts,” she says, “ED (eating disorder) sold them to me, and I wholeheartedly believed them at one time. I will spend the rest of my life making sure I never live them as a reality again.”

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