State of Mind: Overcoming an eating disorder

SHAWANO, Wis. (WSAW) -- Eating disorders are unhealthy, extreme and oftentimes obsessive behaviors with food. Their complexity hits every part of life: mental, physical, social and spiritual.

Kayla Williams at work (WSAW photo)

Out of the 30 million Americans who will have a significant eating disorder in their life, only 1 in 3 will get help for this potentially deadly illness, and while every single one of my mental health reports are very personal to me, the woman you’re about to meet has a story about a battle with anorexia that hits home.

Her name is Kayla Williams and she is my sister.

Life is a gift for Kayla. She’s a loving wife, married to her husband for 10 years, and a mother three boys aged 9, 6, and the youngest almost 2 years old.

A typical day for her is what she calls an adventure.

“Get the kids ready for school, drop them off and then I go to work where I am in radio sales, production, and programming,” Williams explained. “Pick up the kids, do homework, school projects, go eat dinner, repeat.”

It’s like clockwork for Kayla and her family, but if you rewind to early adulthood, life was a struggle, for some time. She would exercise to deal with stress while a freshman at UW-Stevens Point.

“I got comments, you know, ‘Hey, you look great. You lost some weight,’ and so that kind of fueled a little bit of that obsession for me,” Williams said when describing her usual breakfast. “Half an egg white and a grape, and I would cut it up into extremely small pieces. I would eat over a 15 minute time period. When I was done, I would feel guilty for eating so I would exercise it off.”

Judy Lemke is a counselor at the Behavioral Health Clinic. She explained that typically, other mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety, can be the underlying cause of eating disorders.

“The more severe the dieter, the more likely they are to have an eating disorder,” explained Lemke. “If they don’t follow this rigid pattern of eating, they become more anxious and then they become depressed because they don’t like the way they look.”

“My goal was to match my body mass index to that of my 6-year-old self,” Williams explained. “I felt like at that point, I was thin enough.”

Kayla said she thought she was getting in shape, but not everyone around her agreed. The compliments she had been receiving started to turn into concerns.

At 5’11, she was down to 95 pounds. It wasn’t until seeing an older woman at the gym who was smaller than she was that she woke up to what was going on.

“I looked at this woman who was, she must have been on that treadmill for a good couple of hours,” said Williams. “I thought, ‘that’s going to be me if I don’t cut it out.’”

She knew it would be tough, needing to fix what was going on inside her head. Now, Kayla says she’s in a completely different place.

“It’s important to love yourself the way you are, and maybe give yourself a little more grace and forgiveness,” Williams said. “Your body is this incredible machine and it does amazing things. After being a mother and carrying 3 kids, how amazing your body is, is something you need to think about.”

Kayla now has a tattoo on her arm that symbolizes the progress she has made. It shows the symbol for eating disorder awareness. Not only is it a reminder of her strength, but a message to others that there’s the hope of making it to the other side of an eating disorder.