At almost 27 years old, Jessica Stahl has a remarkable, scary, and relatable story to share about her five-year battle with an eating disorder. Fresh out of recovery, as difficult as it is to share these details with the world, she's doing it in the hopes that it will help someone else going through the same emotional struggles.
POPSUGAR: How many years have you been battling with an eating disorder?
Jessica Stahl: I have been battling with my eating disorder since the second semester of my senior year in college in 2012, so almost five years. My childhood and high school years were perfect with a loving family, amazing friends, and a great softball team of sisters. I always had a set path I expected myself to go on and had a very perfectionistic, driven attitude. I followed rules well and was very busy and led a structured, fun life. During my senior year, I started feeling like everything was out of my control, like everything was changing and ending and I was afraid of the future. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I did know that I was not going to be the stereotypical retired college athlete who gets a desk job and gains a bunch of weight.
I always say I was so lucky when I was in high school. My friend group was older than me and they were such good influences. My best friends from my Lady Lions softball team were really more concerned with enjoying life, and we were good at that, so I never thought twice about myself or my body during those times in my life. My senior year was the first time I had roommates who were very health conscious and into their looks, running, dieting, and going out, so it was very easy to pick up certain habits. I innocently thought that I was just exercising and eating healthy but over time, I continued to take it to extremes.
I always wanted to stay at the same weight until I lost weight . . . then I wanted to stay at that weight and it spiraled on and on.
People noticed my weight loss at first, but it was slow, and since weight loss was never my goal, I thought it was no big deal. I stopped eating certain foods and really started overexercising to the point where I killed my knees (and I still have to be careful with them). I moved a few times so it became easier to avoid the conversations about my weight and I didn't have to listen to people tell me I needed help and had a problem (which I still didn't fully believe).
I strongly believed that the only people who thought I looked bad were the ones who knew me before I lost weight, and that people who were just meeting me thought that I was skinny and pretty. This made it harder to come home as time went on, which was sad because I wanted to be home, it was just so stressful mentally. Not only would it interrupt my perfect diet and exercise schedule, I could hear my eating disorder voice fighting feelings of guilt because I knew they were right, but I refused to give in. I always picked at food throughout the day and in the beginning felt like I was eating a lot since I "never skipped meals," but I always made sure to never eat a lot and increase my exercise to compensate. That got harder once I couldn't do much cardio anymore and became so weak so I started restricting my food more. I always wanted to stay at the same weight until I lost weight . . . then I wanted to stay at that weight and it spiraled on and on.
In January 2016, I decided I wanted to try and gain weight by doing a bikini competition, figuring if I had a reason to gain weight I would be able to channel my competitive nature and do it. My coach Danika Johnson was amazing and it started off great. It was nice to feel stronger and I enjoyed the process but then when I saw the five-pound gain on the scale I couldn't do it anymore. I refused to trust that my body would respond to training like everyone else's, so I stopped.
My heart was barely beating and I was having trouble breathing. That's when I finally got scared.
This is a good time to add I weighed myself between two and four times a day and didn't even go on overnights for work without bringing my scale with me. I lied about my food and did extra cardio and after the show I stopped lifting altogether and went back to my typical workout of two to four hours walking on the treadmill, plus an hour of hot yoga every day. For the last two months before I entered treatment in July, I was eating a protein shake between 11 and 1, an apple at 3, and yogurt and cheerios and a Quest Bar at 7:30 pretty much every day. It made grocery shopping easy but it made my body seriously start to shut down. At that time, my heart was barely beating and I was having trouble breathing. That's when I finally got scared.
PS: What made you realize you needed to get help? Did friends or family urge you to get help?
JS: I realized I needed help on a couple of occasions but couldn't really make a change until I really started to scare myself, like I said. I was getting depressed thinking that there had to be more to life than slaving on the treadmill and beating myself up for every bite I took. Everyone had urged me to get help for so long and they were sick and tired of dealing with me. I felt like an outsider in my family and I felt like I had no relationships left at all and that was the scariest part. I was pretty physically isolated, and feeling like all of my friends and family had given up on me just made me feel even more alone.
I was getting depressed thinking that there had to be more to life than slaving on the treadmill and beating myself up for every bite I took.
It's funny because my biggest fear in life is ending up alone, and while the eating disorder made me feel like I would be able to get any guy, make a million friends, have my own family, and be the perfect person, in reality it actually did the exact opposite. It isolated me, made me less fun, and less attractive, but I still believed the lies. My friends and family mean the world to me and I'm typically a very social, friendly person so getting to that point of feeling scared, alone, and terrible about myself was really my rock bottom. After about a week of really tough conversations from my dad and my boss (and then the doctor), I knew I had no other option but to go to residential treatment. There are so many people I can credit for helping to save my life and I'm thankful for all of them.
PS: What did you do to change your mindset to stop worrying so much about being thin and focus more on being healthy and taking care of yourself? What treatment did you go through?
JS: I went to Monte Nido in Malibu, CA, for six weeks of residential treatment. It was a cute house in the mountain with six other girls. I became really close with a few of them and the therapists were wonderful. I then was cut prematurely by insurance down to a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) level of care where I went six days a week to the Eating Disorder Center of Boston for five weeks and then came home to The Healing Connection here in Rochester. I continued five days a week in PHP for six weeks. Then I stepped down to the Intensive Outpatient Program, which was three nights a week for four hours. I was in this program for 11 weeks and just graduated on Jan. 31, 2017. Now, I check in with my dietitian twice a week and will continue to have a session with my primary therapist on an outpatient basis.
Changing my mindset was the hardest part, and to be honest, it is still hard some days. When I have those moments I just try focusing on my goals and what means the most to me and that helps to keep me going. I think to myself, "Do I want to be the smallest or prettiest person in the room, or do I want to be the kindest, most connected, loved, compassionate person who makes people feel good about themselves?" That means a whole lot more to me than being skinny.
PS: How is your recovery coming along? What's hardest right now?
JS: So I'm pretty fresh into this phase of my recovery. I just hit my maintenance weight, so I feel like what's hardest is trusting that I will actually be able to maintain it and stay within my healthy range. I've been gaining weight since July 2016 and my fears have always been that if I gained weight it wouldn't stop. I get nervous sometimes that certain foods cause me to gain weight but I've worked through that a lot. I've learned that all foods are good, that a serving of bread won't make you gain five pounds, and you can have ice cream twice in one day and you won't die (tested and true).
Thinking about how far I've come in recovery makes me feel proud and reminds me that I don't want to ever go back to my eating disorder ways. It also helps to know I can trust Marie, my dietitian (who is awesome), to keep me in my target weight range and call me out on any eating disorder comments. I know most of my fears around food and exercise are irrational, and now I just take the time to reality check, and can be coached through them. Also, using the support of others and focusing on enjoying my experiences instead of letting the food control them helps too. I mean I ate with my brother at a bowling alley with our friends. I never thought that would happen! Thinking about how far I've come in recovery makes me feel proud and reminds me that I don't want to ever go back to my eating disorder ways. I see other people close to me still active in their disorder and sometimes I get jealous, but my healthy mind knows no matter how enticing it may seem sometimes, I know it's not worth it. I also feel like I have a lot of support around me, near and far, and I don't want to let anyone down.
PS: Any details about your daily diet or exercise routine now? What do you like to do to stay healthy and happy?
JS: I am trying to do things that make me feel good and really listen to my body and mind. I make sure that I am connecting with others and spending time with my loved ones, as well as taking time to rest and do things for myself. I have continued to exercise, but now to feel good and because I love it, not to lose weight. I have found a studio I love here in Rochester, called M/Body, where I have fallen back in love with Barre now that my body is strong enough, and I have continued my yoga practice. I have been varying my classes every day including some strength-based classes as well. I've fought hard against feeling the need for hours of cardio, which has been tough mentally, but my body loves these classes and I really like the teachers and the energy that comes with taking classes with others. I've also included some days of lifting and hot yoga if I feel my body is craving it. Sometimes I feel as though I'm operating in a completely different body, which coupled with body dysmorphia and feeling uncomfortable makes it hard mentally, but I remind myself every day that if I wasn't in this body, I couldn't do the things I want to do. I have such an appreciation for what my body can do now and what it has the potential to do, and I don't want that taken away from me.
PS: What mantras do you say to yourself when you feel like you're getting off track? Or is there someone you look up to or something that inspires you?
JS: My all-time favorite mantra I picked up from my friend Rachel, who teaches yoga in Macon, GA. It is "may my heart be kind, my mind fierce, and my spirit brave." Repeating this over and over in my head drowns out any negative thoughts and replaces them with reminders of what is really important to me.
I try and remember that "God's got it" — I stole that from Tim Tebow's book, meaning that he has everything under control and I need to just be the person he made me to be and act as he would want me to act. (PS Hi Tim if you ever read this.)
Friends and family never stop repeating your concern and your care because one day it will click and it will be worth it.
Lastly, I try to apply what my first treatment center, Monte Nido, preached, which was to "show up, pay attention, tell the truth without judgment, and don't be attached to the results."
I look up to many people, but I'd have to say my parents are my number one heroes. I am inspired by Danika, Rachel, and my yoga teacher friends in Vermont, my friends Anna and Bri, some alumni and therapists from Monte Nido, I could go on for a while! But mostly by the people who fight and are truly themselves every day, who do what they want without doubt or care as to what others think, and aren't obsessed with the diet culture.
PS: What advice would you give other girls or women going through this?
JS: I wouldn't be surprised if there are a number of other people going through this thanks to the crazy societal pressures and standards out there. I would tell them to never give up because you deserve so much more than the eating disorder. Friends and family never stop repeating your concern and your care because one day it will click and it will be worth it. Then I'd tell you to finally listen and to get help and to reach out to others often. Definitely feel free to contact me, I would love to help if I can.
Anything you're struggling with has power in secret so talking about these things is so important. I would say opposite action and meal planning is your best friend and that you need to choose better life coping skills than your eating disorder. Your eating disorder will never give you the things it promises you, that I am sure of. It makes you think you're special and powerful, when in fact you're making yourself normal and boring and contrary to belief — actually more out of control of yourself and your life. Create a safe recovery bubble of friends and family who respect your recovery and try not to trigger you, it helps a lot. Finally, what helps me constantly is to take time to think of your real values and how you want to live your life and then start living in alignment with that.
If you or a loved one are in need of any help, the National Eating Disorders Association has several resources.