This Life with Gracie: Just how bad can an eating disorder really be?

To look at her now, you’d never guess Megan Higgins once avoided eating and didn’t care if she lived or died.

But for years before her parents realized she had a problem, Megan was rarely eating, and purging when she did, because that was the one thing she felt she could control.

She is hardly alone.

The reality is somewhere around 30 million Americans from all walks of life will be affected by eating disorders in their lifetime. And twice, maybe three times, as many suffer from what experts call subclinical eating disorders. That doesn’t mean they’re not potentially just as harmful, but just that they may not meet all the criteria to get a psychiatric diagnosis.

Yet when we think of eating disorders, preteens aren’t normally what immediately comes to mind. White upper-middle-class teenage girls? Perhaps. Models and Hollywood starlets? Most likely.

Megan, a 21-year-old senior at Columbus State University, was just 12 when she started restricting her food intake to cope with her parents’ divorce and later, the stress of moving from a private to a public high school.

“I couldn’t control what was going on around me, but I could control what I was eating,” she explained recently.

By her sophomore year of high school, it had started to take a toll on her physically and mentally. Instead of depriving herself of food, Megan began vomiting to purge. Although she was never clinically underweight, she appeared pale and swollen-faced.

RELATED: Kids need eating-disorder care, too

According to Laura McLain, site director at the Renfrew Center in Sandy Springs, eating disorders can run the gamut, but binge eating is the most common, followed by anorexia, restricting one’s food intake, and bulimia, typically engaging in binge eating and restricting episodes and compensatory behaviors such as purging, exercising, and abusing laxatives.

When Megan’s father confronted her about his suspicions, she broke down crying. Her secret was out.

The family sought help at the Renfrew Center, the first residential treatment facility for eating disorders in the U.S., which has an outpatient location in Sandy Springs.

Just two weeks after her arrival there, Megan’s therapist discovered she wasn’t following the rules. She was eating at Renfrew but continuing to avoid meals and purge at home.

“At that point, it was how I coped with everything,” Megan said. “I wasn’t ready to give it up.”

Doctors decided Megan would benefit more from Renfrew’s residential treatment center in Florida, where she could be under constant watch.

From breakfast to dinner, she was never alone. When it was time for bed, the door to her bathroom was locked.

“Once I was forced to stop and could see I was surviving without it, I finally realized I could live without my illness and develop new coping skills,” she said.

Five weeks later, Megan was well enough to return here to complete the program. Instead of restricting her food intake or purging, she learned to speak up for herself and worry less about what people thought of her.

The crowning moment, perhaps, was when Megan, a senior class officer, opened up about her illness during an address at her graduation ceremony in 2015.

RELATED: Running on empty: How one man faced anorexia as a marathon runner

“A big part of what feeds eating disorders is secrecy,” she said. “Don’t make it everything you talk about, but don’t ignore the elephant in the room. The sooner you get comfortable talking about it, the better.”

Secrecy might explain why eating disorders remain the deadliest of all mental health disorders.

“Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a result of an eating disorder,” McLain said, quoting the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

And if it doesn’t kill, it’ll wreak havoc on your entire body.

One of the longer-term effects includes bone loss, which, she said, can happen either from extreme weight loss or from the weight cycling of purging that can be part of an eating disorder.

During the teen years, that can mean a lifelong risk of osteoporosis and potentially fractures down the road. There’s also a risk of fertility loss, gastrointestinal issues, and dental problems because of the effects of purging on enamel and tooth erosion. And there is a particularly high mortality rate among teenagers.

For example, a 15-year-old with an eating disorder, particularly anorexia nervosa, has 10 times the risk of dying in her teen years compared to another teen who doesn’t have an eating disorder, McLain said.

Of the tens of millions of people suffering from eating disorders, the majority don’t even seek treatment because they are embarrassed, in denial or don’t have the social and financial support they need.

In 2014, Megan completed the program at Renfrew and is doing well now.

March 4 marked the end of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, so you might think this is a little too late. Even the “This is ME!” social media campaign the Renfrew Foundation launched to encourage women to embrace the unique attributes that make them who they are and to feel motivated to share those attributes with the rest of us is far spent.

RELATED | Midlife eating disorders on the rise

But it’s never too late to recognize the importance of one’s true self .

“Far too often, individuals — especially adolescent girls and women — lose touch with their true selves to conform to the image of who others expect them to be,” said Adrienne Ressler, the foundation’s vice president of professional development. “The more you put aside your true self in hopes of gaining acceptance, the more you are abandoning the real you and the greater your risk of being physically and emotionally unhealthy.”

It took years but Megan Higgins knows that now.

When she summoned the courage to tell her story at her high school graduation three years ago, she hoped it would make a difference in someone’s life.

“A woman came up to me later to say, ‘Thank you for saying what you did, I really needed to hear it,’” Megan recalled.

There’s a good chance someone needed to read her words here today, too.

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

PG's all good, right? Sorting out which movies are right for your kid
PG's all good, right? Sorting out which movies are right for your kid

Time flies, especially when you stroll down your cinema memory lane. It may seem just a year or two ago you were wrangling with your own parents over whether you could see the R-rated  “Breakfast Club”or “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” now you're the parent trying to figure out if “Transylvania 3” will scare your...
7 millennial-friendly volunteer opportunities in Atlanta
7 millennial-friendly volunteer opportunities in Atlanta

Giving back to the community is a great way for new residents to get to know the city and for native Atlantans to expand beyond their comfort zones, too. In the case of millennials and young professionals, giving time and talent can be the most impactful way to enrich the city and feel like a part of something bigger. 1. Wonderroot 982 Memorial...
Author events Aug. 18-24
Author events Aug. 18-24

J. Patterson, “Legal Blood.” When a longstanding truce between humans and vampires is threatened, a teenager and her friends fight to uphold peace in the face of genocide. 2 p.m. Aug. 19. Signing. Free. Tall Tales Book Shop, Toco Hill Shopping Center, 2105 LaVista Road NE, Atlanta, 404-636-2498, Karin...
Faith calendar

Guest speaker: Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brian will discuss the spiritual science of happiness at Hillside International Truth Center during the 10 a.m. service. She will also conduct a workshop titled “Realize Your Dharma: Live Your Extraordinary Life with Higher Purpose” with topics such as living with purpose, freedom and prosperity...
God loves to use the unlikely and inadequate
God loves to use the unlikely and inadequate

Thomas Edison. Colonel Sanders. Dr. Seuss. Walt Disney. Vincent Van Gogh. Albert Einstein. Helen Keller. Michael Jordan. If I were to ask anyone to ascribe common adjectives to describe these famous figures, the words “successful” and “persistent” would probably appear on top of the list. Thomas Edison, the man who revolutionized...
More Stories