Kelsey Heenan wants others struggling with eating disorders to know that recovery is possible.

By Faith Brar

One look at Kelsey Heenan's Instagram and it's clear that she's passionate about health and wellness. But living a healthy, balanced life didn't always come easily to the fitness influencer.

"I started to struggle with food around 2007-2008 while still in college," she says. "I was a collegiate athlete and under a lot of pressure at the time to perform well while balancing my personal life and school."

Heenan says that her Type A personality meant that she never shied away from working hard, being disciplined, and giving it all when it came to her goals. But that rigidness led her to develop disordered eating behaviors without even recognizing it.

"It started with the mindset of wanting to be healthier so that I'd perform better as an athlete, but after some time, those small habits turned into rules and eventually into restrictions," she says. "Before I knew it, things spiraled and my health started to really suffer as a result." (Related: What Is Body Checking and When Is It a Problem?)

Heenan first realized she had a problem when her fiancé ordered a pizza for them to share one night. "I opened the box and I saw the thick crust and the gooey cheese, which would normally make people feel excited, but I felt complete terror and fear," she says. "I started freaking out, hyperventilating, and sobbing uncontrollably because I couldn't bring myself to eat that pizza. I just could not eat it."

Even though Heenan thought she was in control of her health and her body, she realized that she actually wasn't. "I had always been able to trust myself and was so disciplined, but at that moment, I had no control over my emotions so I knew that something wasn't right."

Yet, her true wake-up call wouldn't come until later. It wasn't until her fiancé sat her down and said she needed to face the fact that she was sick, she recalls.

Worried about her health, Heenan's fiancé said that he was going to call her parents and tell them what was going on because he didn't know what he could do to help. The next day, Heenan's mom flew into town and they visited a doctor together. (Related: An Open Letter to Anyone Hiding an Eating Disorder)

The Moment She Knew It Was Time to Change

"Once a medical professional really laid out what I had done to my body, I knew something had to change," says Heenan.

In a powerful transformation post, Heenan said she'd learned that she'd lost 30 percent of her body weight within a couple of months, "which is a lot for someone who didn't have any weight to lose," she wrote.

She also learned that her extreme weight loss and malnourishment had led to such a low resting heart rate that even a brisk walk could have possibly led to a heart attack.

After leaving the doctor's office, Heenan says at first, she tried to address her eating disorder on her own. "I basically had to quit basketball," she says. "Medically, I couldn't play an endurance sport, and mentally, I could not handle the stress and pressure of not performing well."

But she soon realized she wasn't able to overcome her illness alone and ended up at a treatment facility a few months later. "I went through an intensive week-long Family-Based Therapy (FBT) program with my fiancé and mom," she says.

That specific program was new at the time, explains Heenan. In fact, she was one of the first adults to go through it. "I was 21 years old in the company of 16-year-olds, 14-year-olds, and 7-year-olds,” she says. "I remember feeling like I should know what I'm doing, given my age, but I didn't. For the first time, I realized that eating disorders don't discriminate against age, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else."

Following the one-week program at the facility, Heenan went home to spend another six months in intense therapy while starting on her road to recovery. "I worked really hard, and a little over a year after going to FBT, I was declared symptom-free," she says.

Even then, moving on would take time. "I had to re-learn how to eat and exercise with a completely new mindset, which took a lot of time," says Heenan.

In the first six months in recovery, she didn't work out at all, which she says was particularly hard as she started gearing up for her wedding. "I know that a lot of women feel stressed about getting in shape for the big day, and so I was feeling a lot of that pressure, too," she says. "But I had to let go it and ended up gaining weight by the time I walked down the aisle. In hindsight, it was the happiest start to my new life." (See: Why I Decided Not to Lose Weight for My Wedding)

How She Developed a Healthy Relationship with Food and Exercise

After spending those months focused on nourishing and nurturing her body, Heenan slowly started to work out again. Now, though, she needed an accountability system in place to help her stay on track. "I'd show my workout plans to my husband beforehand to make sure I wasn't overdoing it," she says. (Related: The Reality of Exercising After an Eating Disorder)

Over the next couple of years, Heenan continued to focus on healing and getting her body to a healthy place. "I wanted to get to a point where I was no longer overthinking about food and what I looked like," she says. "I also wanted to learn how to move my body without obsessing about it." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Exercise Addiction)

In 2014, she decided to become a certified personal trainer, with a mission to help others repair their relationship with food and exercise. "There is so much shame, guilt, and stress around eating and working out," she says. "I want people to know that you can be healthy, eat well, and move your body without all the pressure, and I want to help people get to that point."

Today, Heenan says she doesn't feel any of the impulses she once did when she was struggling with anorexia. "I feel so blessed because I know a lot of people who experience eating disorders never really overcome it," she shares. "Of course I have days when I don't feel good because life is not perfect, but as far as eating disorder behaviors go, I truly feel like I'm past it."

Heenan hopes that her story inspires others struggling with eating disorders to realize that healing is possible. "I know a lot of people feel hopeless when they're battling this illness, but my advice would be to seek professional treatment as early as possible and find support systems you can really rely on," she says. "This isn't an illness that gets fixed overnight. [It] needs to be worked on to heal. But I promise you that recovery is possible." (Did you know that eating disorder recovery is more common than previously thought?)

What matters most to Heenan today is having a healthy body that she's proud of. "When I switched my focus from trying to be smaller, trying to be skinnier, and trying to be 'perfect,' to being stronger and being a healthier overall, everything changed," she says. "I feel so good about my body, but I've learned not to overthink it. I don't weigh myself and I don't focus so much on aesthetics. I love my shape and I love the body that I live in, but it's not a make-it-or-break-it thing for me."

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, NEDA's toll-free, confidential helpline (800-931-2237) is here to help.