lili hakimi and alana leifer

"She was compassionate. She played the violin, played soccer, ran track and loved animals. She loved her friends and family. She loved life, and she was the person that her friends would come to for advice," Linda Mazur said.

John and Linda Mazur lost their daughter, Emilee Mazur, to an eating disorder after 10 years of battling the illness. Emilee, who was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age 25, passed away when she was 35 after receiving inadequate treatment.

Following their daughter's passing, the Mazur family started a non-profit organization, The Emilee Connection, to offer people the support they wished their family had.

Scan this QR code to reach the Emilee Connections website

According to the Academy for Eating Disorders, 9 percent of Americans or 28 million people will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime. Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common types of eating disorders, characterized by food restriction, an extreme fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body image. Out of any mental illness, anorexia has the highest mortality rate — even greater than depression or anxiety.

When exploring the effects of eating disorders, it is critical to distinguish between disordered eating and eating disorders. Although some of the characteristics overlap, the primary difference between the two is an eating disorder is a clinical diagnosis while disordered eating references abnormal behaviors. This could manifest in avoiding specific food groups, eating due to boredom or stress or restricting calories over a limited period. On the other hand, eating disorders are a form of mental illness denoted by overwhelming, persistent obsessive thoughts regarding food, calories and exercise, as well as extreme weight changes. However, eating disorders manifest themselves differently in each individual.

The number of eating disorder cases has doubled from 2000 to 2018 and is currently on the rise, as reported by Oregon Health and Science University. Jojo Hill, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, attributes the increase in eating disorders to social media and the increasing use of technology to alter photos. Hill also believes a surge in the popularity of health culture has contributed to a rise in eating disorders.

"There is a rise of a kind of wellness culture, which is often just thinness wrapped in a different bow. Instead of being really thin, people want to be really fit, which requires similar levels of obsession with changing one's natural body," Hill said.

For “Hannah,” a junior who wishes to remain anonymous, her two-year-long battle with anorexia began in eighth grade. From its onset, the disease took control of Hannah's life, ruining her physical health, mental health and her relationships, notably with her family.

"I was such a happy person. Once my brain switched and focused so much on food, that's what made me depressed because I had so much hatred for myself because of how I looked [and] how I [ate], and that's what led to my eating disorder," Hannah said.

As Hannah's eating disorder gained power over her well-being, her social relationships became strained.

"Anorexia made me frustrated with people. … I had so many issues with my friends because I pushed so many people away. I didn't realize how much that affected them. I saw my parents' texts about how worried they were about me and how scared they were for my life. They didn't know what to do," Hannah said.

It wasn't until her health became jeopardized that Hannah began to grasp the gravity and severity of eating disorders.

As a mental illness, eating disorders are often misunderstood. One of the largest misconceptions surrounding eating disorders is the idea that there is a singular cause behind them.

"The first thing people go to is [eating disorders are] about achieving control. Often that's true, but eating disorders are so complex, and it's really impossible to distill it down to one reason," Hill said.

Senior Georgia Bender, who recovered from an eating disorder, believes one of the most harmful misconceptions regarding eating disorders is that there is a specific body type associated with having an eating disorder.

"[With eating disorders], there is a physical piece to it sometimes, but more than anything, it's a mental thing. It's the actions and things you're thinking that make it an eating disorder. The body you have doesn't dictate whether or not your habits and behaviors are unhealthy for you," Bender said.

Bender also feels the recovery process for eating disorders is misunderstood.

"[People think] it's as easy as just eating more. That's not how you fix it," Bender said. "It takes a lot of work, time and mental effort to recover from something like that. And even when you recover, it's still a process you must work through daily. You'll still have these thoughts in the back of your head. It's almost a lifelong process of navigating how to deal with food and continuing to [choose to] recover."

For Hannah, she found it challenging to seek the help she direly needed due to an underlying fear of embarrassment.

"I kept my eating disorder hidden due to the feeling that it was my fault. No one directly said it to me, but I know some people thought so," Hannah said. "I was very reserved when talking about it because it affected my life so much, primarily from the fear that I would get judged. It isn't very comfortable to talk about, but it's not something you choose. It's something that comes to you. It's a disease."

Linda emphasized the importance of educating yourself on the reality behind eating disorders, particularly while trying to support those struggling around you.

"[It is critical to] learn that what you say isn't always what the person hears. It's very important to become educated, realize it's not a choice and help the person help themselves as much as you can," Linda said. “Recovery isn't always a straight line. We have to be compassionate with people who are struggling, and they have to be compassionate with themselves, too."

While recovery is a lifelong process for some people, Hill finds that many people are uncertain about starting their recovery journeys because they do not think it is possible.

"People often hesitate to go into treatment because they think that they will always [have their eating disorder]. [They think] they will always have these thoughts, always have these feelings, always have these worries. Recovery is possible. And it's typically a really long journey. The sooner you start, the easier it usually is," Hill said.

One of recovery's most significant and complex parts is learning to let go of control. For Bender, what drove her to begin her recovery journey was wanting her life back to how it was before food and her body controlled it.

"Once I realized that my eating disorder was my whole life, everything I was thinking about was correlated to food, and how my body looked and exercising, I realized that if I was able to recover — if I chose to recover, if I chose to let go of this control — I could focus on so many other things," Bender said. "Look at your life now and how your life used to be when you were free of those eating disorder thoughts. Let that drive you."

As another survivor, Hannah's decision to recover was what ultimately saved her life. Through her journey to recovery, Hannah began to rediscover herself, getting back the little things that made life worth living.

"I regained the ability to do spontaneous things and be a teenager. I could get ice cream at 10 p.m. I found myself being able to talk about my issues, being able to run again and there's so much more. I had strong hair again, and finally, I could get up without feeling like I was going to faint. Most importantly, I was able to actually feel healthy," Hannah said. “You do get your life back."

Hill also recognizes the limitations of therapy, given that an individual fighting an eating disorder must choose recovery for themselves. However, Hill acknowledges the importance of demonstrating empathy with patients and assisting them in navigating their journey to recovery.

"It's essential to listen to clients and hear their worries and pain. Explore their hesitations, fears, and options, then allow them to choose. And they usually [choose recovery] in time, even if it's excruciating, but it's a process," Hill said.

Although those struggling with eating disorders may view recovery as a never-ending journey, it is essential to remember that there will always be light at the end of this tunnel.

"For a lot of people, they will still have that [eating disorder] voice. But maybe it is not a roar anymore; maybe it's a whisper they can ignore," Linda said.

As emphasized by Linda, although easier said than done, it is crucial for those struggling with disordered eating to seek help.

"The sooner people are diagnosed, and treatment begins, the better their chances of finding some level of recovery. Everybody's recovery may look different, and that's okay,” Linda said. “Whether you're living in recovery or not, everybody deserves to lead a rich life. You shouldn't compare your progress with anybody else's. As long as you keep going and trying and moving forward, you're doing the right thing and doors will open."