A warm smile, contagious laugh and captivating blue eyes carry the victory of a young woman who endured a life-altering journey with an eating disorder. Autumn Bradford-Johnson, an ETSU junior majoring in psychology, had an eating disorder beginning at the age of 15.

Eating disorders revolve around a preoccupation with food, exercise and/or weight. According to the National Eating Disorder website, it is estimated that about 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. will have an eating disorder in their lifetimes. Contributing factors to eating disorders come from a myriad of sources, such as mainstream media, peer-pressure, low self-esteem, depression and sexual abuse.

“It all started as a seemingly innocent diet simply because all of my friends were doing it; it slowly became a compulsion to lose weight that I could not control,” Bradford-Johnson said. “No number I saw on the scale was good enough.”

Johnson was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa with a purging subtype. Anorexia is characterized by an abnormally low body weight and restriction of food intake due to an intense, irrational fear of gaining weight. While no eating disorder manifests itself in the same way from one person to the next, they are often marked by painful perfectionism and a need for control. They also all share deadly side effects.

“My target weights became so low that I stopped menstruating, experienced frequent migraines, lost a lot of hair, had no barrier to the outside, resulting in being perpetually cold, total malfunctioning of my bowels and severe dehydration,” Bradford-Johnson said. “The purging caused an irregular heartbeat and palpitations, bloody vomit, and constantly being dizzy and short of breath.”

Anorexia Nervosa in particular wreaks havoc on the heart and bones, with a death rate of 5-20 percent. Bradford-Johnson said she managed to hide her eating disorder from those closest to her.

“I met her during her battle, and she lost approximately 40 pounds between the time we met and the time she entered treatment, which was around 11 months,” Bradford-Johnson’s husband Matt Johnson said.  “Unfortunately, I was on a weight-loss kick myself and failed to see anything was wrong until the situation became critical …. A huge part of the disorder is secrecy. In hindsight, I realize that little could have been done to prevent the damage, but I still feel guilty for failing to see her struggle.”

Some people are genetically predisposed to a higher chance of having an eating disorder in their lifetimes.

“My eating disorder wasn’t a result of trauma, the media or stress,” Bradford-Johnson said. “It wasn’t something I selfishly chose to act in every day; it was something that I was genetically predisposed to because of traits like perfectionism and obsessive compulsion. When someone who has this predisposition gets to a enough weight, the insulin and serotonin and dopamine receptors begin malfunctioning, and pleasure is no longer derived from food. Traits of certain mental disorders like body dysmorphia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even dissociative disorder can become present when the brain is malnourished.”

An eating disorder does not just affect food, weight and exercise. It impacts every aspect of your daily life. Bradford-Johnson said she lost her love for life and lively disposition during her struggle.

“As her condition worsened, her attitude toward life greatly darkened; she would experience periods of highs and lows, typically corresponding to bouts of food restricting,” Johnson said. “Upon entering the treatment facility …, she lost her independent spirit and her drive; that experience was so frustrating and so harrowing that it essentially destroyed that period of her life.”

Bradford-Johnson sought treatment at several different recovery centers before finally finding a treatment center in California that provided her with an atmosphere where she could begin her recovery process. Typical treatment choices for eating disorders are counseling in private office settings and residential treatment centers, both often combined with medication.

“The hospital in California provided a more scientific-based approach to treatment; they required higher weight ranges for maintenance, did not require the patient to prep their own food, and did not necessarily add any client-centered therapy to the equation because having to eat is hard enough work for an anorexic,” Johnson said. “Getting my weight to a higher place in which my brain could begin healing was the most important factor in my recovery. It took about a year of weight maintenance until my brain began to heal, and after that period of time, my compulsions and dissociations began to cease.”

As she began to heal, Bradford-Johnson said she slowly began returning to who she was and disassociating herself with the person whom the disorder had tried to make her become.

“I became an active participant …, which aided in her recovery and allowed us to grow together and for our relationship to recover,” Johnson said. “She has regained her independence and drive, and her outlook on life is better than ever.”

After completing her treatment, Johnson chose to take her experiences with her eating disorder and use it to pursue a career in psychology where she can help others struggling just as she once did.

“I am now devoting my career to the advocacy of science in eating disorder research and treatment, so that no one else has to spend years receiving bad treatment, which can result in fatalities; eating disorders are very serious matters and should not be taken lightly,” Johnson said. “If you or someone you know is struggling with eating, do not hesitate to get help; in today’s culture, ‘healthy’ eating and excessive exercise is becoming normalized, and it can be hard to tell if someone is developing anorexia with all of the clean eating hype, but it is always better to be safe than sorry, recognize the signs.”

Johnson says that she understands that she will probably always have negative thoughts about her body and herself at times, but now she has the tools and understanding to not let those thoughts control her life. She encourages others that are struggling to get help so that they can begin living a fulfilling life just as she has been able to do.

“If you feel that you are noticing the signs of yourself or a loved one struggling, there are so many resources available …, do not wait to get help and do not be ashamed,” Johnson said.   “You  did not choose this, and it is not anyone’s fault; full recovery is absolutely possible, and life in freedom is so beautiful and worth it.”