We’re grateful to Liesel Schmidt, regular contributor to Do South® Magazine, for allowing us to share her story as previously published in Scarlett Magazine.
You’re skin and bones turned into something beautiful.
~ ”Yellow” by Coldplay
I remember the first time I heard the song “Yellow.” I was twenty-two years old and riding shotgun in a truck bound for Cape Canaveral to watch the shuttle launch that didn’t happen, falling head over heels for the man driving. It’s a song that has held a special place in my heart for seventeen years, but that line became even more meaningful to me when I accomplished what I’m most proud of: I overcame severe anorexia.
Eating disorders are, by and large, something that challenges doctors of every ilk, every specialty. Be they doctors of the physical body or the mind, none of them seem to be able to prevent – or quite fully understand – eating disorders. Which could be why they are so misunderstood by the world, seen as a lifestyle choice or a consequence of vanity, rather than what they are.
Anorexia. Bulimia. Binge eating. They are all sides of the same coin, all emotional and psychological disorders. They also have the highest mortality rate of any diagnosed mental disorder.
My anorexia began when I was fourteen, when I felt like my world was falling apart and I spun headlong into an emotional breakdown. As a result of all the noise in my brain, I’d spent that summer avoiding people, hiding out in my room unless I absolutely had to go out. When I did go out, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye, couldn’t spare words to speak out loud anything that might interrupt the words that I had to keep track of in my head, lest my tightly held grip on reality slip out of my grasp.
Needless to say, my parents didn’t know what to do for me.
Restricting what I ate became a coping mechanism and a replacement for everything else that had me tied up in anxiety for months. It was the one thing that I felt like I could control, one thing in my fourteen-year-old head that I could keep track of and make sense of. And so, I controlled it to the point that it became a full-time thought that consumed my mind and took so much mental energy it dictated all the other things in my life: where I went, who I saw, what I did during the day. If anything, or anyone threatened that one thing, I stayed away from it.
Each year, my eating disorder grew more and more intense. And the damage that it caused became greater and greater – to me, and to my family. The ones closest to me and the people who cared the most about me suffered as they watched me waste away, knowing there wasn’t really any way to help. And I wasn’t ready to accept any help offered. As a result, family celebrations, gatherings, holidays – they all became intensely stressful for me because of the food, and stressful for my family because of the tension my problem caused everyone. It was like a heavy cloud over everything.
As my anorexia intensified, it began to rob me physically. I’d been an avid runner since the age of seventeen and a well-known name and face in the local racing circuit. I was fast, and people noticed. But they also noticed something else. One day, I received a call from a close friend and training partner telling me that I’d been banned from racing because the racing committee was concerned about my very marked weight loss that year. The next week, my mother got a call from the president of a local running association that I belonged to, a two-hour long call in which he berated her for not doing something about my alarmingly low weight and my eating disorder.
But there was nothing she could do. I was twenty-six by then.
At my mother’s insistence, I went to doctors and nutritionists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors. But I was only doing it to assuage my parents, who were both at their wits’ end and had no idea how to help me. I didn’t wanthelp. I didn’t think I needed help.
By the age of twenty-eight, I’d lost my social network, as it was tightly bound to my running community. I’d disappeared after being banned from racing, and no one reached out to see what was going on. People don’t know what to do in the face of an eating disorder, so they often either don’t do anything, or they overstep. And at times, I was on the receiving end of ridicule, rather than understanding. Consequently, I felt abandoned and alone. My job as a freelance writer didn’t help – it kept me safely hidden behind my computer screen. At the time, I was still living at home to save money, and I had reached the point I was sure I was either going to be kicked out or forcibly committed by my parents. And so, when the man I’d been dating for a month proposed, I accepted.
We were married eight months. Eight months of constant verbal abuse and manipulation about my weight. While we’d been dating, he humiliated me by weighing me every time I went to his house to meet for a date. And if I didn’t make it to his house, he brought the scale with him. I remember standing on the scale in the dark at an O’Charley’s in Pensacola, right in the parking lot while people walked by. He’d given me the ultimatum that I had to bring my weight up to at least ninety pounds by our wedding, and if I didn’t, he wouldn’t marry me. He even staged an intervention with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law. And when we left, I begged him to call off the wedding. To let me go.
Behind closed doors, he would tell me that he liked his women skinny, “The skinnier, the better.” It was a mind game and completely contradictory to what he told my parents, as was it to the way he seemed to revile me after we married, when he would sneer at me and say, “Do you think I’m attracted to this?” while he gestured at my emaciated body.
Eventually our marriage ended. Over the next eight years, I lived on my own, getting further entrenched in the eating disorder that still felt like the only way to control things. As a self-employed writer, I was constantly worried about my finances, and food was something that I knew I could have a say in. Eating normally was something that, to me, was as threatening as a loaded gun. Even though the logical portion of my brain knew I needed to eat far more than I was, I couldn’t. I was terrified to the point of literal nightmares.
Even a broken hip that required emergency surgery and two months of recovery in 2017 didn’t derail me. Nor did the words that my orthopedic surgeon spoke when he came into my room the night before surgery. He informed me that my right hip was both displaced and broken – merely from walking – as my bones had become so fragile that the impact of walking took them to their breaking point. My hip had to be repaired or replaced, and he wouldn’t know which was possible until he had opened me up. I listened numbly as he talked about what would happen, and that he had very little confidence I would live through surgery because of my weight and how much it was compromising my heart. Most people associate heart disease with obesity, but being as life-threateningly underweight as I was put my heart just as at risk. My parents both cried as the surgeon advised them of the wisdom in telling me goodbye, but I didn’t hear the words. Even with the fleeting thought that the Chick-fil-A sandwich I had at eleven o’clock that night as the last thing I could eat before surgery might be the last thing I ever ate, I didn’t really allow the reality of how far I’d let this thing control me to sink in. As bad as it was at that point, never once did I think, “Screw this. This is killing me.”
Incredibly, surgery was successful, and I was quickly sent home – still with the surgeon convinced I was going to die, and the hospital determined not to have my death in their books. I never even received physical therapy, just instructions on how to use the walker they prescribed me and a few follow-up appointments over the next eight weeks.
As someone who was obsessed with having control over my own life and everything that went into my mouth, those eight weeks were torture. I couldn’t live on my own and could barely do anything for myself – most important of which was making my own meals. That task was taken on by my mother, who made whatever she made for herself and my father – both of whom are a healthy weight. I ate with them under protest, severely panicked as the calories I calculated were piling in and on me.
And yet, I still lost weight that I didn’t have to lose. Even when I ate everything my mother fed me, it continued to melt away.
When I was finally cleared to move to my new apartment, closer to my family than the forty-five-minute drive I’d previously had, I made marginal attempts at keeping the “real food” going. But even with the introduction of some new foods that previously felt “unsafe,” I continued spiraling.
By the end of 2019, there was nothing left of me to lose.
At thirty-six years old, I weighed as little as a kindergartener and was osteoporotic, with severe hair loss and a body that was almost constantly in pain. I’d lost two inches of height, and I hadn’t had a menstrual cycle since the age of fourteen. My skin was literally stretched over my skeleton, and you could count every rib, see every fiber of muscle. I could even run my fingers over my right hip and feel the heads of the screws and the plate where they’d put me back together.
Even my shadow was terrifying.
Once upon a time, I’d had a head full of curly hair and legs that got noticed. Now, I was a ghoul that people would walk by and whisper about, point at and laugh at. But they didn’t understand the prison I was in.
And then, God shattered my chains.
My mother has always told me that I’m the strongest, most determined person she knows. She told me that often on the heels of talks when she voiced her fear over what I was doing to myself. “You have the strength to beat this, Liesel,” she’d say. “You ran a marathon on a broken ankle. You can do this. You just have to want to.”
I can’t say I credit my recovery to that strength. Not solely, anyway. I wasn’t ready to change. But God was ready. God was ready for me to be more and to do more than what I had allowed myself.
And so, one month before the rest of the world darkened and shuttered itself under the shadow of COVID, I shut myself away from everyone and everything that could see what was happening to me.
What was happening was that I was finally, finally eating enough to sustain myself. More than enough, as I couldn’t seem to satisfy the need to eat. I ate entire boxes of Pop-Tarts and whole bags of chips. I ploughed through massive containers of cashews and anything else that looked good. And all the things that I had been so terrified of became my lifeline and my way back to health.
But it also horrified me because I felt out of control. I hadn’t consciously chosen this. My body had. My innate sense of survival had kicked in and taken over. But the changes I saw in the mirror were not ones I felt I could live with. It was everything I had been so afraid of, come to life in my reflection. Still, every day I would eat until I was satisfied, padding to the kitchen in my stockinged feet and thinking, “Whatever. I’ll go back to normal tomorrow.”
But I didn’t.
As a result, I spent the entire year hiding from my family – and they lived a mile away. I kept them at bay, even when they came to drop off groceries. I didn’t want them to see me until I’d returned to my “normal.” None of them knew what I’d been going through, and no matter how many times my mother asked me what was going on, I couldn’t bring myself to say the words, “I’m gaining weight.”
As the holidays approached, I panicked. I’d broken my word to my mother that I’d see her at Thanksgiving, but as Christmas grew near, I knew I couldn’t stay away any longer. So, I kept my promise that I’d come home before Christmas.
I knocked on my parents’ door on December 23.
I was crying hysterically when my mom opened the door, ashamed of how I looked, and frightened at the reaction I would see in her eyes when she saw the change.
What I saw in her eyes was relief, disbelief, and absolute joy. Behind all the tears, of course.
“You’re beautiful!” she cried.
“No, I’m not!” I said, sobbing.
And I didn’t think I was. I believed the voices in my head that distorted reality.
But I had come back to my family. Back. This person who had been dead for so long, this vibrant and alive person who had, once upon a time, been told that she sparkled. As unhappy as I was with what I saw in the mirror, I felt freed. Like someone who had been unshackled and given the world.
Still, I didn’t take it. Not yet.
Until that May, I stayed hidden, going only from my apartment to my parents’ house, where I spent every afternoon reestablishing the relationship I’d lost with my parents, sister, and nieces and nephews. It was a gift.
What brought me out of hiding was the news of a friend’s death and the determination not to miss his memorial. And since I would need clothes to fit my newly restored body, I had to shop. I dreaded it, but I made myself go, and it showed me several things: that I looked completely normal and that no one gave me a second look, but also that it wasn’t that scary. I could go out in public and feel as though I belonged.
It wasn’t until two months later, in July of 2021, that the memorial finally happened. And what took place at that very casual gathering was something beyond the scope of my wildest imaginings. All the friends I had lost from my running community, all the people that had once been so much a part of my life, embraced me and welcomed me back warmly, rejoicing in the fact that I was healthy and finally free.
Such a small word that holds so much.
Since then, I’ve reclaimed my life. I’m running again and have reunited with family and friends, established new friendships, and traveled anywhere and everywhere. Just because I can. To my great amazement, my curly hair has returned in full force.
I feel sometimes like Mel Gibson’s character in the movie Forever Young, as though I’d been frozen for ten years and finally reawakened. I’ve lost that time because the world moved on without me, while I stayed static, stuck in the prison of my eating disorder and all the psychological and physical damage it inflicted. I still don’t know what the long-term effects will be. I don’t know if I can have children or if I’ll have any issues with my heart or kidneys. I can only pray that I stopped before it was too late to avoid permanent damage to my organs.
I’m thirty-nine now, on the cusp of forty. But I celebrate. I celebrate that I have reached this age when no one thought I would survive to live this long. I’m incredibly blessed, because I have a life, I thought was forever lost to me, and a tattoo on my arm featuringf the lyric from the song “Yellow” – forever a reminder of just how far I’ve come – “You’re skin and bones, turned into something beautiful”
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options.
Online Chat: Monday – Thursday 8am – 8pm ET, Friday 8am – 4pm ET
Helpline: 800.931.2237 / Monday – Thursday 10am – 8pm ET, Friday 10am – 4pm ET
Text: 800.931.2237 / Monday – Thursday 2pm -5pm ET, Friday 12pm – 4pm ET
Crisis Text Line: If you need help immediately, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line. Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 support to individuals who are struggling with mental health, including eating disorders, and are experiencing crisis situations.