Student shares struggle with eating disorder

Brenna Anderson

Junior Leah Burgin, a student with a history of disordered eating starting around seventh grade, recently went into residential treatment for six weeks after a relapse in summer. She was diagnosed in August and is currently in Partial Hospitalization Program for the disorder. Content warning for mentions of eating disorders and sexual abuse.


Q: When did you start to recognize that you possibly had a disorder? 

A: I kind of refused to acknowledge it. I knew it was there, it was just kind of like a pest. I knew it was there, but I refused to talk about it, so I became more aware of it as it got worse. I was digging myself this really deep hole that around September of this year I knew I couldn’t get myself out of, so I brought up the possibility of me going to a residential treatment, which was a really big step because not a lot of people can do that.  

Q: What was the process of getting checked in, and what would a typical day be like in residential? 

A: Getting checked in was a big thing – insurance, figuring out where I wanted to go because there are many adolescent residential houses in Florida – so it was kind of like a big, weird summer camp that was a lot of money. Once you’re there, you have a roommate, you wake up at 5 and they take your vitals, you shower – you have 15 minutes in the shower with the door open, and you have to count when you’re in the bathroom getting ready – then you get dressed, you take your meds, they give you a calcium vitamin and a Flintstone vitamin and you go downstairs and they start to prep breakfast for you. There’s a thing there called exchanges, an exchange system so you can fit your caloric intake for the day, so they plan out exchanges for you throughout the day. We go to a therapeutic group, we eat breakfast, we go to another group. We aren’t allowed to have TV, movies, anything like that, so we did a lot of puzzles, a lot of drawing. It basically was a repeat of that, we had three meals and three snacks a day and we would be in bed by 8:30.  

Q: How did you first open up about your disorder? 

A: It was harder with family, because they saw me go through this weight change and they knew something was going on, but not to what extent. All of my friends were very supportive and compassionate about the situation, same with family but it was harder with them because of family therapy and them taking blame or thinking it was their fault. It’s something that’s hard to open up about, but once you do it, it just feels so much better. It doesn’t feel like this big secret you have anymore. 

Q: Going off that, you said earlier you relapsed over the summer. How has that impacted your recovery and what coping skills have you used as far as that? 

A: I realized throughout this whole big journey that a big coping skill of mine is art – drawing, music, stuff like that. Honestly, it is life-changing, which sounds annoying, but it’s true. It was something that was so hard to come by, to understand and figure out. A big step of recovery is understanding your coping skills. Some people like slime, some people like reading. The relapse was really hard more on myself. I would stay up almost all night just crying because of how guilty I felt, since I knew how hard it was to get myself out of this hole, so I would just cry. I felt like something was wrong with me, I was doing everything wrong. I was leaning towards substances to kind of help get my mind off of it, which was in turn declining my health even further. 

Q: Is there anything specific in your life that you feel might have caused your disorder or triggered it? 

A: I had a history of childhood sexual abuse from my neighbor, which felt at the time like I had a complete loss of control, and a big part of eating disorders is kind of making up for something you feel like you’re lacking. I had absolute control over what was happening to me and over my body, over what I ate, over what I didn’t eat, and I felt very powerful, when in turn I had actually lost all my control because of the eating disorder. I call him “Ed.” He’s a separate personality almost and he took over all of my thinking, and all of my rational thoughts were just gone. 

Q: What’s your opinion on diet culture? 

A: I hate it so much. I can understand it from a point of view of a health professional, like a doctor, saying something like, “Oh, you have high cholesterol, you should cut this and this out,” but the kind of fad diets that are going around are ridiculous. It is just draining your body and your body goes into survival mode, just surviving on the fat that’s stored, and it’s just on rapid decline but you don’t know it. You think you feel awesome, but it’s just your body on survival mode. 

Q: What do you think of the phrase, “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder?” 

A: I got that a lotactually. I had bulimiawhich was the purging and the restriction, but if you did eat you’d throw it up. That one, you still get 60 percent of the caloric intake, which I didn’t know, but I know now. I lost weight, but everyone would be like, “You look fine, you look good, you look healthy,” and I would get compliments a lot. It was kind of just me saying, “Oh well, I should keep doing this.” You’re trying to reach that goal of looking like you have an eating disorder, because that’s what you want to look likeso it kind of just further perpetuates this disordered thinking. And not everyone at Plant I think has an eating disorder, but I do believe that almost 98 percent of Plant has disordered eating or disordered thinking. I think it’s a very common thing that is kind of stigmatized, especially in men and boys. They have it, they have muscle dysmorphia, they can have body dysmorphia. It’s a very common thing that isn’t addressed enough. It’s annoying. 

Q: How do you think people at Plant and on social media could help break the stigma about eating disorders? 

A: I think it’s starting – slow start, of course – and I think the whole bodypositive movement is amazing as long as it’s within reason and held to the correct interpretation. I know it can be further continuing negative things, like body positive when you weigh 70 pounds and are six feet tall, like that’s not body positive, that’s you needing help. I think the kind of normalcy of seeing human shaped bodies in media and in movies and TV would help a lot.  

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone else hoping to work towards recovery also? 

A: Recovery is absolutely worth it. It seems at the time that it isn’t, and it’s not a straight line – it is up and down, sideways, everywhere. And it’s not just going to be easy, there’ll be a lot of challenges, but you have to have the motivation and the drive and people will love you and support you through anything you’re going through.