Reclaiming life beyond disorder


Junior nutrition major Monica Werkin shares her story about going through an eating disorder and embarking on a journey to recovery. She spoke at a panel for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week on Tuesday night, Feb. 21, 2017.

Alex Delaney-Gesing

Monica Werkin just wanted to fit into her clothes better.

As a junior in high school, Werkin determined she’d just “lose a couple of pounds.”

“I said, ‘I’m going to start working out more,’” she said. “My eating habits were bad, so I was like, ‘I’ll clean those up a little bit and things should be good.’”

Werkin began working out daily. She cut back on what and how much she ate. Immersed in her new lifestyle and goal, she quickly started seeing results. People told her she looked good.

“I (thought), ‘Okay, this is good. I’m going to keep going,’” she said.

On Tuesday night, Werkin joined three other members of the Kent State community for a National Eating Disorders Awareness Week panel discussion in the Student Center.

Representing the Body Acceptance Movement (BAM) — a student organization dedicated to educating, promoting and supporting others on creating a lifestyle rich in body acceptance — Werkin discussed the struggles of living with a mental illness such as an eating disorder. She also highlighted what the university can do to improve the environment around those affected.

Three other panelists joined Werkin, including Kylie McCann, a former president of BAM, Marisa Stephens, president of “I’m That KSU Girl” and Eryn Willoughby, a sophomore visual communication design major.

“During my junior year (of high school), I was hearing someone give a speech (on eating disorders) and it clicked,” Willoughby said. “I never really had a formal education (about it).”

Across the nation, approximately 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported.

While applicable to all, college-aged individuals are also susceptible: 15 percent of women ages 17 to 24 have been cited to have an eating disorder — 20 percent of all college students have claimed to either have, or previously had, an eating disorder, according to research conducted by the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association.

All panelists agreed the conversation regarding a mental illness — particularly one as critical as an eating disorder —  is important to have before it can manifest into a potentially life-threatening illness.

“You need to know that you can talk about it before it gets worse,” Werkin said.

Taking a step too far

By the start of her senior year, Werkin’s healthy habits turned obsessive. She continued to eat less and kept up her daily exercise habits. But if she thought she ate too much, she’d agonize, experience anxiety attacks — and cry.

“I couldn’t go out with my friends. I couldn’t be social because I didn’t know what we were going to eat,” she said. “I didn’t want to be tempted.”

Werkin became antisocial. Her habits became strict, regimented. She got into a pattern that was incapable of being broken.

“I would have to eat at certain times of the day, or I’d have to eat certain things,” she said.

She never stopped eating — at least not completely.

She’d eat at 8 a.m., then noon, 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m., and again at 8 p.m. The foods were the same each day: oatmeal in the morning, sandwich for lunch, celery for a snack, lean protein with vegetables for dinner.

“You get into a pattern and that’s just the way your mind works,” she said. “I couldn’t deviate.”

Reaching the bottom of the barrel

During a class trip to New York City in the spring of her senior year, Werkin reached the lowest point in her regimented lifestyle.

“I don’t think I ate that whole weekend … (maybe) two protein bars the whole two days that we were there,” she said. “And I came back and my mom was like, ‘You need to weigh yourself.’ ”

She was 99 pounds. “At that point I was like, ‘I need to do something … I need to get serious about gaining some weight,’” Werkin said.

Her parents convinced her to go to a few therapy sessions when she was home for break. Initially, Werkin thought she’d only go one time — “a one-and-done visit,” she said — and not have to return. She was wrong.

During one of multiple sessions Werkin went to, her therapist had her draw on a large piece of paper covering the floor how large she believed she was. Then Werkin laid on top of it and had her body traced to show her true size.

“The comparison was just mind blowing,” she said. “I looked so much smaller than I thought I was in my mind.”

A new look at life

By the time Werkin graduated high school and started at Kent State, she said the first semester on campus was “rough.”

Attempting to navigate her way around an eating disorder while juggling new friendships, classes and being on her own for the first time, forced Werkin to take a step back and re-evaluate her lifestyle.

“I think college actually really helped me because it threw me into a situation that I was forced to come out of my comfort zone and say, ‘What the heck, I’m going to eat pizza with my friends,’” she said.

Werkin realized her life didn’t need to be as regimented and restricted as it was. She didn’t have to eat the same amount of food at the same time and follow the same workout schedule to be happy — and healthy.

“I still work out five days a week, but I don’t do it to kill myself,” she said.

She’s a nutrition major — an irony that’s not lost to her.

“When I was in therapy (back in high school) … my therapist (asked), ‘Do you really want to do this? Because you’re going to be around food all the time,’ ” Werkin said. And I was like, ‘No this is absolutely what I want to do, this is what I love.’ ”

Through her major, Werkin’s been able to take the knowledge she’s learned about the importance of fueling the body and apply it to her own lifestyle.

Werkin’s weight is now back to the number she began with her junior year of high school. She still works out. She still eats. But the number on the scale doesn’t control how she lives.

She goes out on the weekends with friends, has a few drinks, eats food not factored into any type of premeditated plan or schedule. The rules and patterns that once dictated how she lived day-to-day have eased up.

“(I realized) it’s not going to derail my progress,” Werkin said. “(I) don’t let it control my life.”

She still has her triggers — still has times when a flash of guilt crosses her mind after eating too much sometimes — but Werkin is in a better mental and physical place.

Talking about her experience and struggles with others have helped her. Through therapy, her family and her friends, she said no one should be afraid to open up.

“Eating disorders thrive in secrecy,” Werkin said. “The more you keep it hidden, the worse it’s going to be. So if you just talk about it (and) you’re open about it, the better off you’re going to be.”

Linda Stocum contributed to this story.

Alex Delaney-Gesing is the managing editor, contact her at [email protected].