"I remember the sneaking. I would sneak at one o'clock in the morning, I'd wake up and sneak food. I'd worry that my mom would hear me," said Jaimi Healey, an Erie native who struggled with an eating disorder for most of her life.

About eight million Americans are currently struggling with an eating disorder. But millions more are struggling in secret, as Healey did, and taking huge lengths to hide their symptoms.

For many, the words "eating disorder" will bring to mind the image of a stick-thin girl who refuses eat. That's because anorexia nervosa is the most visible eating disorder. But increasingly, both the medical field and society, is realizing the many different forms disorders can take.

Healey suffered from obsessive eating.

"When people think of eating disorders and addictions, you don't think of being addicted to food as a disorder, but it completely is," she said.

For Healey, it all started when she was 17 years old. But eating disorders often strike much earlier.

"It starts young, 9, 10 years old sometimes. Where girls are getting teased for being fat or overweight, and then they start watching their mom's diet," said Shana Bennett, a therapist at Innovative Therapy Services in Erie. "It starts with 'Oh, I'm not going to eat this or that, but very quickly, it can develop into an eating disorder."

Excessive food restriction is just one of the symptoms of disordered eating. While anorexia and bulimia are the two most common, others are simply classified as "eating disorder not otherwise specified," or "EDNOS."

An EDNOS can include symptoms like pathological dieting, obsessively over-eating, binging, purging, or any mix of combinations.

"This (an eating disorder) is a disease that takes over the brain, their body, and their mind. It's not something that anyone would choose to have. But when it does come in, if you don't get help quickly, it can take over your life," Bennett said.

That happened to Healey.

"It ruled me. I let it rule me. That's all I wanted, that's all I thought about. I didn't care about anything else, I just wanted food," Healey said.

"I knew for years it was getting bad, but after I had my son (six years ago), I thought to myself 'I can't do this.' I wanted to be there for him," she said. "I had to take control, I had to take charge of my life."

At the time, Healey was planning every minute of her day around when and what to eat next.

It took years of therapy, self-search, the birth of her son, and a gastric-sleeve surgery to do it, but she's now in remission from her disorder. And Healey knows the fight isn't over.

"I will always struggle with it, I will always have a problem, but I am just more confident in myself that I can control it now," she said.

Bennett said the continuing struggle is why it's called "remission."

"The way I look at eating disorders and treat them is almost as if it's an addiction. Similar to AA, my clients are always in recovery. They can go through a remission but they always have to be aware the eating disorder can manifest itself and come back," Bennett said.

Those who do suffer from an eating disorder are usually reluctant to seek help. But once it's found, the results can be life changing.

"I'm in the place now where mentally, I know that I'm okay with myself, with my body," Healey said. "I'm happy. For the first time in 36 years, I'm happy."

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February 24 to March 1 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. For more information on eating disorders, visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.

Erie's "Innovative Therapy Services" offers treatment options:
8 Bloomfield Pkwy, Erie PA 16509
(814) 240-1011.

SafeHarbor also offers therapy:
1330 W 26th St, Erie, PA 16508
(814) 459-9300.