Problems, passion, perseverance

How sophomore Lila Hartle overcame anorexia

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[Graphic made by Nidhi Pejathaya][Photo provided by Lila Hartle]

Sophomore Lila Hartle poses before a dance recital in 2021. While Hartle’s eating disorder diagnosis prevented her from dancing, it motivated her to improve. “I wanted to continue dance as a career, and I knew that I had to stay healthy so that I wouldn’t end up hurting myself more,” Hartle said.

Eating disorders are commonly associated with body dysmorphia issues; however, for sophomore Lila Hartle, that was not the case. What started as a small loss of appetite quickly escalated. Her eating disorder became increasingly prevalent as her hunger cues were cut off. Then, she stopped feeling hungry entirely.

In July 2021, Hartle realized something was wrong with her health as she began to experience fatigue, a loss of appetite and dizziness.

“The year leading up to getting treatment, I knew something was off,” Hartle said. “My parents were in disbelief because it didn’t make any sense. I still had cravings for junk food, and fast food, which made it really confusing. [According to] what we’re taught about eating disorders, my eating disorder did not line up with [my parents’] traditional lines.”

Looking past the small signs, what pushed Hartle to suspect she had an eating disorder was a summer intensive for dance. Hartle has been dancing since she was three and considers it a huge part of her life. Hartle got 15 minutes into a routine during a dance intensive before fainting.

“When you’re malnourished, your body takes a step back and starts eating at your muscles, so it goes into a constant state of fight or flight. [When I found out I couldn’t dance], I was devastated, but I knew recovery was the only way I could continue dance in a healthy way and [pursue] it as a career,” Hartle said.

Contrary to most anorexia diagnoses, Hartle didn’t excessively exercise, diet or outwardly display an unhealthy relationship with her body. Because of the unusuality of her symptoms, her condition was completely new to the professionals she was in contact with, making the recovery process more challenging. Since she didn’t deal with body dysmorphia or experience a drastic weight change, she struggled to receive a diagnosis.

“[Eating disorders] almost always have something to do with body image, but the only thing I’ve had problems with were my wrists,” Hartle said. “I don’t completely agree with my diagnosis because anorexia, in my mind, has to do with body image, and I’ve never really struggled with body image.”

After being diagnosed, Hartle began to eat lunch with her mother in her car instead of in the cafeteria. Hartle started treatment in November 2021 when her therapist recommended her to an outpatient program at the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute. She attended five days a week for three hours a day to eat dinner with other girls in the program.

“[The program] helped a lot with eating more. It was much easier to eat in a room with five other girls struggling to finish their meals. Unity was very quickly formed among the group. It gave me the sense that I’m not in this alone, [and] other girls are going through this with me,” Hartle said. ”We used to have drawing competitions after every meal, and we’d hang them all up on the fridge after. One of the girls even brought her crocheting supplies and taught all of us to crochet. These little moments created a sense of [unity] amongst the girls. It let us know that [anorexia] happens to many girls, no matter how it presents itself.”

After four weeks in the program, Hartle was scheduled to be discharged until she got Influenza. The weight she lost due to being sick undid her progress. Maintaining a steady weight was one of the criteria for leaving the program, so being sick caused her to start from scratch.

“It was degrading because [until] that point, I was feeling really good about myself. [Getting sick] was the lowest point in the whole experience [because] it set all of my progress back,” Hartle said. “I was pissed, to say the least. I was with all new girls. It was demeaning in a way. The girls [I started with] weren’t in the program anymore, and I was, and while they may not have fully recovered, they were able to have more freedom.”

After I was dicharged it still took some progress to fully recover. A big hurdle was over but I still had many little ones to go, even today.”

— Lila Hartle

Despite the difficulty of restarting, Hartle saw it as a place to build up from. While the program limited the amount of exercise she could get, Hartle was able to start going on walks around late January 2022. 

“Being allowed to go on walks instead of completely resting my body meant I could get serotonin. Around that time, I also started journaling, and I talked to my therapist about what I needed, what I was struggling with and how to work through it. Being able to talk to someone and write things down got my thoughts out of my head and gave me an outlet,” Hartle said.

With a determined mindset and encouragement from family and friends, Hartle recovered in February 2022 and was discharged from the program.

“Even though I didn’t struggle with body image, the program helped me [differently]. I was able to find a place where we all [thought], ‘I finished my meal today, and that’s a great thing,’” Hartle said. “The first day I was back in the cafeteria, I sat down with my friend group, and I remember everyone being so excited. It was a really supportive environment. Everyone was there for me, and they were all like, ‘you finally got this.’”  

Through the program, Hartle gained a viewpoint on how hard recovery can be for girls, and has some words of advice for them.

“It’s important to be ready to recover, because if you’re not it will make the process a million times harder than it is, and even though recovery seems really hard just focus on little steps at a time. Even if you lose a large amount of progress it’s quicker to regain it because you’ve done it before and you’re prepared to take on the challenge. Just focus on getting back to what you love, that was one of the strongest things that kept me going,” Hartle said.

Harmful stigmas and stereotypes can be amplified across social media and can make it harder for those like Hartle to access help.

“[These] stereotypes aren’t the way eating disorders are,“ Hartle said. “All of the stigmas around eating disorders just makes it harder for girls to reach out and get help, and that was especially hard for me to do once I was in treatment because my disorder didn’t fit the textbook eating disorder.”                             

While there are various stereotypes in online spaces, Hartle found a supportive place on social media that promoted eating over diet culture and encouraged her to keep going until she reached recovery.

“Some of the girls I was [in the program] with were really affected by social media, and it screwed them over and made everything worse,” Hartle said. “[However], I found a place on social media where instead of being like ‘you have to be skinny,’ I was able to find people supporting each other and being like ‘I know it’s a rough time, but you can and will get out of this.’”

While Hartle is recovered today, she still occasionally struggles with remembering to eat, but rather than not eating like before, she does her best to make sure that she finishes her meals.

“I’m better than I am before, but there are definitely still hard days where I just don’t feel hungry and don’t want to eat. Despite that, I still eat every meal, and even if I feel really nauseous afterward I just lay down, breathe and push through it until I’m all good. If pre-recovery me looked at how far I’ve come today, I think she would be really proud,” Hartle said.