By Priyam Vora
“I just wanted to look pretty. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be thin.”
These are 26-years-old Ashley Ice’s words when she speaks about the eating disorder that she battled for six long years. And she was thin – so thin that her young heart was failing.
“I was 13 years old then. I didn’t know my thoughts had deeper roots like self-esteem issues and negative body image,” she says. “I focused on what a child would interpret as an innocent desire to look pretty.”
At the age of 12, growing up in Naperville, Ashley suffered from bulimia. Within a year and a half of receiving treatment; she relapsed into anorexia. It took her six years of treatment and counseling along with unconditional love from her mother to completely recover from the eating disorders by age 18.
“The need to belong” was not a default cause for her eating disorder. Yes, social desirability was a strong trigger in her case. But she said the triggers included a variety of mundane factors such as the beliefs you are raised with, the company you keep, the media culture you are exposed to when you are still naïve.
During her bulimia, Ashley didn’t indulge in binge-eating as much as she purged while sticking to an already restrictive diet. During anorexia, in addition to limiting her eating, she over-exercised. Her exercise routine escalated to three hours daily.
“Even though I knew somewhere that I wouldn’t really lose weight by exercising so much,” she said, “my mindset was fixated on losing weight.”
Eating disorders have far-reaching effects on psychological and physical well-being. While Ashley battled with her eating disorder, she suffered from repeated bouts of depression as well as from obsessive compulsive disorder. She believes that not eating well and not getting the right nutrition affects the brain “in ways you cannot imagine.”
“Psychologically, the disorder made me pull away from people. I become an introvert,” she said.
Physically, Ashley reached the worst point of her life when her percentage of body fat dropped to 0 percent. The normal body fat percentage is 10-12 for women and 2-4 for men, according to the American Council on Exercise. Since her heart didn’t have the necessary fat to protect it, she experienced abnormal heart beats and her body started eating into her muscle to survive.
“My cardiologist came into my room and told me ‘Your heart is failing. You are going to die.’ That moment, I still remember vividly, was the turning point of my life.”
Her friends and her counselors had been an important part in her recovery, but she said she owes so much of her gratitude to her mother, who stood by her at every point.
Kathy Ice, Ashley’s mother, said it was much later when she learned her daughter had so serious an eating disorder. She knew that Ashley fell sick too often and would be too exhausted to attend school, but she didn’t really understand the magnitude of the problem then. When all her efforts to talk to Ashley fell flat, Kathy spoke to Ashley’s best friend who was aware of her purging behavior.
“It was only when she [Ashley’s best friend] showed me a picture of Ashley throwing up in the bathroom,” Kathy said. “Everything started making sense then.”
Kathy started talking to her daughter, in 7th grade at the time, about the disorder in bits and pieces instead of asking her questions and sounding confrontational. Kathy said that the approach is critical – it was very important to not come on to Ashley as an imposing mother but as a friend.
“She was already struggling with her problems,” Kathy said. “I didn’t want her to shut down from me.”
Ashley lives in Chicago now and is a member Junior Board of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders and works for the association. She said that recovery is not easy but is very much achievable. The key to recovery is self-awareness, she said. It took her a long time before she even realized she was facing an eating disorder. The need to control was so over-powering that it became a part of her, and soon enough, she stopped seeing her disorder as an enemy.
“It’s like you know it’s wrong but by then you are used to it,” she said. “It becomes an addiction.”
She added that, unlike many other disorders, an eating disorder promotes secrecy. It can take a very long time before your loved ones even realize you are going through something so serious and dangerous.
Kathy agreed. It was precisely this “secretiveness” that made it so difficult for her to recognize Ashley’s disorder.
“She was very good at hiding it and making me think everything was okay,” Kathy said. “She would wear big baggy clothes. I just didn’t know.”
Nonetheless, Kathy knew what had to be done. Even though her daughter hated her for trying to change her, she fought all odds to continue Ashley’s therapy sessions and counseling.
“Every morning when we left for treatment, we fought. She hated me, she blamed me for the disease. She cried, she screamed, she kicked,” Kathy said. “As a mother, I was consumed with confusion and guilt.”
Ashley said that with time, she realized that her disorder was not without a ripple effect. Her struggles affected her mother so much that she too suffered from severe depression.
“My mom was so worried about me all the time, that she forgot to take care of herself,” Ashley said.
Ashley said she decided to overcome her problems for her mother. She didn’t want to be the reason her mother cried.
“And it has worked well,” Ashley smiled. “It’s been eight years that I am free. It’s good to be free.”