CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a teenager, Erin Bradley seemed to have it all. Riverside High School cheerleader, athlete, homecoming attendant and honor student, she led a dream-come-true life. But it wasn't her dream.
Behind her smile, Bradley gritted her teeth as she trudged through high school.
"Where I grew up, it's all about looks and image. I think a smaller high school is worse than larger ones, where the majority of the students do their own thing. Authenticity is more acceptable," said Bradley, now 24.
Looking for an aspect of her life that she could control, Bradley obsessively focused on her weight and severely limited what she would eat. Her weight yo-yoed as she went from eating one excessive meal a day of a whole rotisserie chicken and vegetables at one sitting, or secretly binging on a box of cookies or large tin of nuts.
Her path down a life of beauty pageants and baton competitions started when she was 3 years old. Her mother owned a dance studio in Marmet where Bradley danced from the time she was 5 until she stopped at 12 years old. "I remember crying before lessons that I don't want to do this," she said.
When she was in middle school, Bradley's weight began to climb. "I was overeating to cope with the pressure and expectation to be perfect. I gained weight. My mom knew I was unhappy, but she thought it was because of my weight," she said.
She tried different diets, and most closely followed an extreme version of a low-carb diet. At 5 foot 7 inches, Bradley's weight fluctuated between 130 and 200 pounds. At her lowest, she didn't have the skeletal look and medical problems of an advanced anorexia patient, but she knew her efforts to control her weight were taking over her life.
"I was losing weight, but dying inside. I thought that if I were really skinny, I would have value and worth," she said.
Her weight was at its lowest during her junior year in high school. Friends and family told her she looked great, but she wanted to lose more weight and "look like a runway model." She wanted to keep going until someone would notice and say, "Are you OK?"
Bradley's preoccupation with her weight coupled with binge sessions and mood swings are classic signs of an eating disorder, according to Fannie Loughridge, a Barboursville counselor who has worked with people with eating disorders for 10 to 12 years.
They tend to avoid social situations centered on food. If they're bulimic, they excuse themselves from the dinner table and immediately head to the bathroom, where they'll force themselves to vomit. Anorexic people will push food around on their plate to try to hide that they aren't eating.
"I really encourage them to get help if they see these signs. The patient usually resists treatment in the beginning. They think they're doing well," Loughridge said.
Bradley willingly sought help, but not for a disorder. She gained weight during her first semester as a Marshall University student and told her mother she wanted to talk to someone about her inability to stay on a diet. Her mother helped her find a counselor at the Family Resource Center at CAMC Women and Children's Hospital.
Bradley told the counselor she wanted to work on her inability to stay on a diet and lose weight. The counselor saw a deeper problem.
"I was overeating. It was anorexia, infrequent bulimia, body dysmorphia," she said. "She told me that she didn't want me to go on any diet. She said, 'you're going to gain weight.' I wanted to leave," Bradley said.